The Chocolate Nibble Challenge

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When I was ten years old, Roald Dahl blew me away with his epic novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  This year I decided to do the same for my 5th grade students.  Indeed I had so much fun reading this book to them that I began to develop a new sense of gratitude for being an elementary school teacher.  But one little girl, 9 year-old Ada, helped me open my eyes to a new level of profound wisdom. Here’s how:

It was second day of school.  I stood in front of the class and held Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the air for all 14 children to see.  “Raise your hand if you ever read this book,” I said.  The class was silent.  “Ok, well, I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie, right?” Four hands went up.  But those four kids had only seen the new version of Willy Wanka with Johnny Depp (Which royally sucks compared to the original 1974 flick starring Gene Wilder).

“Wait.  Hang on,” I said in a drawl.  “You kids are telling me that absolutely positively one-hundred percently none of you ever read the book nor seen the original Willy Wanka movie?”  The children stared at me with expressions, as if to say, “Duh! That’s what we told you the first time you asked.”

Great! I had them just where I wanted them.  “Let the fun begin,” I thought to myself.  I jumped onto an empty chair and raised the book high in the air for all to observe. (You know your dramatic play is working when the children’s eyes tacitly implore you to keep going.) “Ladies and gentle-people,” I announced.  “Today we will embark on a long magical journey; a journey with secrets that can only be discovered through the exploration of this book I hold here before you.”  I waited to see what would happen next.  So far so good: a few hypnotized faces, several mouths open in awe, 14 beaming smiles. Sweet!

I dove into the book and read up to the part where Charlie would only receive a single chocolate bar once per year for his birthday because his family was too poor to afford more.  I read aloud with a somber voice how Charlie would take just a small nibble every day, how that  one chocolate bar lasted him for many months. I asked the children, “Do you think any of you could save one piece of chocolate for as long as Charlie did?”  The kids shook their heads in unison. “No way!” many declared with passionate conviction. “I could never!  I love chocolate too much!”  But Ada was not shaking her head.  She was looking straight at me, quizzically contemplating the question I’d just asked.

At that moment a cool idea popped into my head.  “Ok boys and girls. I will now make you an offer that you can refuse. I offer you an opportunity to receive a delicious bar of chocolate.  All you have to do is complete The Chocolate Nibble Challenge.  Prove that you can savor one chocolate bar for a whole month, and you will be generously compensated with a sweet, chocolaty reward.”

Though many kids announced they were up for the challenge, only Ada put it into action. Ada was exceptionally intelligent, amicably optimistic, and excitedly curious about the world. From day 1 she displayed her natural role as the seamstress for the social evolution of our class.  We became friends right away.

The day after I announced the challenge, Ada came to class with a chocolate bar and a home-made 30-day calendar that she had created on her free time. She took the first nibble in front of me.  We put the rest of the bar in a Ziplock bag and I placed it in my desk drawer.  Indeed, Ada didn’t miss a day.  She would wait until the end of school, until all children were gone.  Then she’d cheerfully skip to my desk, take a nibble and put it back.   Finally the last day had arrived.  Ada showed me her calendar. Each day was neatly check-marked with an X.

“You did it! Ada! You passed the test! You won!”  I exclaimed.  Just like Willy Wanka put Charlie through the test of sincerity, discipline, and perseverance, I wanted Ada to know that she had succeeded all the same.

The next day Ada was bursting with joy as I placed a Hershey Chocolate bar into her hand.  “Thank you Allen!” she squealed.  “Thank you so much! I never had a Hershey bar before.  Thank you Thank you Thank you!” She capered out of the room as her voice trailed into the hallway.  “Thank You!  Thank You! Thank You!”

As I sat in silence – inviting the precious opportunity to be in oneness with the present moment – It’d occurred to me that Ada and I concluded the Nibble Challenge in the most beautiful way:  I offered her a gift to express my deep appreciation for the sincerity in her heart. And in return she offered me a gift of profound gratitude.  This exchange was, and always will be, very special to me. Ada engraved a spirit of determination in my heart, inspiring me to be like her – to discover delight in the smallest nooks and crannies of everyday life; to find the joy in the here and now.

The next morning I found an envelope on my desk.  Inside was a letter from Ada:

Dear Allen,

Thank you so much for the Hershey Bar.  It was the most FANTASTIC chocolate bar I ever had.  I am so happy!  If it’s ok with you, I would like to take another Nibble Challenge for _________________ months (Allen: please write how many months).  You can put this letter in my desk and I will see it when I come to school.  Thank you!

Love

Ada

 

A Harmonious rANT

They disembarked at my shores like a storm with no warning, escalating the possibility of war…

ImageAfter getting settled in my studio apartment in Thailand, and following weeks of mindless harvest of enjoyable (and totally unhealthy) street food, I was ready to prepare my first meal at home: tuna salad with chopped vegetables, spread on rye bread, topped with cheddar cheese, and warmed in the toaster oven.

Keeping my MacBook closed, I-phone in my pocket, book on the shelf, I resolved to eat my dinner in silence.  I placed my tuna sandwich on my newly purchased Japanese-style plate, and then tenderly positioned it in the center of my brand new IKEA table.  I sat down and wistfully gazed at my food, musing about the naked simplicity of this present moment: me, sandwich, silence.  No plans for the future or memories of the past.  No worries, gripes, or hang-ups. I took the first bite and felt my brain deliver sweet accolades of euphoria through my body.

However, my solitude was soon to be interrupted by the visitors.  I first noticed them when they marched past my plate.  They were 5 strong, filling the my the room with an air of menacing fidelity – a deep devotion to feed their master – The Queen.  One could only guess when the contingents landed on the shores of my apartment Room 8406; could have been days, months, even years before my settling there.

They were dressed in matching black armor and moved in unison. Indeed, they were born and raised as loyal clones, bred to follow all orders even in the face of the most perilous circumstance – the encounter with humans.

They’re here! I thought to myself unnervingly. The ants disembarked to claim their stake on their land…which I now occupied…Room 8406.  I knew right away that my waging war on the colony would not only be futile, but it would be inhumane – kind of like when in real life countries invade other countries with no resolution and regard for human life.  Yes.  There would have to be another way to face my fate: to offer diplomacy and request peaceful co-existence.

Meanwhile, the scouting division of five ants ceased its advance and froze to assess the viability of the situation.  I watched their antennae waving in the air like leaves in a storm.  They must have been using a cryptic ant language to discuss the situation before them.  They were probably saying, “Hmmm, what shall we report to her Majesty: deploy troops to R8406 or continue the search for other options?”  The ants continued the procession past my food to the other side of the table, down the table leg, and across the floor toward the nearest corner.  Then they disappeared out of site – for a while.

I imagined the ants reporting the epic news: “Your majesty! Your majesty! We have located a human occupier in your kingdom!  He cooks his own food every day.  And…and….and he leaves crumbs…EVERYWHERE!  Your highness, we have on our hands a pure-breed draggletail messy-eating – S-L-O-B!

The Queen would nod her head in stoic approval and order immediate construction of a Food-Gathering Formicidae Military Base in between the walls of my room.[1]

And they did just that.  Here’s a list of the ways that the Ant Colony of R8406 has workred for the sake of my well-being:

–       I am now extremely mindful of how well I clean up after myself

–       My apartment is free of dirty dishes

–       My floor and counters are free of crumbs

–       If I do leave any trace of food, the ants come out of the woodwork to help me with cleanup.  Once all the food is gone, they disappear.

–       The ants have challenged my ego in many ways.  If you really think about it, is it right to say that the ants are disturbing my peace and my space? Who was here first?  The ants!  In fact it is I who is disturbing the ants, if anything.

–       It’s actually pretty cool to share the apartment with the ants.  We’ve um, uh, kinda become friends.  I like their company.  And I’m pretty sure they like my food.

I can’t wait for an opportunity to share this story with my students at school; to share my opinion that Ants – just like people, just like anybody and everything – are good teachers for us.

And to the ants I dedicate this pithy poem:

Mad Gratitude for changing my mood

And deep apologies for my maybe being rude (before)

Thanks for helping me clean up my mess

You and your Queen are totally the best!


[1] Formicidae is the family that ants belong to.  And just in case you were wondering they also reside in the same insect family as wasps – the Hymenoptera.  Cooooooool!

Three Secrets to Success in Elementary

Three Secrets to Success in UE-I learned this trick from Randall, my mentor and co-teacher.  Throughout the years I’ve modified it to fit my teaching style.

On the first day of school (or any day that works well for you), write the following message on chart paper:

Three Secrets to Success in Elementary (and in life):

1. Make a Good Choice

2. Stay involved

3. Remember to Clean Up

Present this chart to the children and have a discussion about what these secrets mean.  Also discuss the meaning of “success.” Then display the chart paper somewhere in the classroom where it’s easily visible.  These guidelines are extremely versatile and can be applied to everything the children do.  Once the children internalize this mantra and can recall it at any given moment, you will be in a position to hold them accountable for every choice they make.  Call it a behavior management tool, call it a mantra for life, call it what you will.  It works!

Reunited with my Students

Teach = Play I often taught my elementary students: “Listen to your heart – be wise, be mindful, be silly, be smart.” After five years of service as a teacher at KMS, I decided it was time to respond to the callings of my own heart: I packed up my bags, said good-bye to the families, to my fellow educators, and to my beloved students. I boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket to Thailand and went on to explore a new life as a teacher.  But after a year of separation, my heart was speaking out again, imploring me to come back and say hi.  So I packed up my bags again and flew to America to do just that.

But I wanted my reunion with the KMS kids to be just like in the movies: a tear-jerking blockbuster, sheathed with emotion, tears, hugs and smiles.  For days I mused over a dozen scenarios of how beautifully it would all transpire.  Oh yes.  My surprise visit of March 14, 2013 would go down as one of the great moments of my life.

I snuck into the school early in the morning. Peyton and Liz, the upper elementary teachers, were waiting for me as planned.  We had a quick powwow to make sure we all knew our parts.  Then they went downstairs to bring the kids up to the upper elementary floor, and I dashed upstairs out of site.  The plan called for a quite simple execution: the children would gather for an all Upper Elementary Council meeting along with Po – my stuffed, super soft and fuzzy panda bear – who would play a critical role.  Po had been a relatively passive, though special, participant of in every classroom I taught from my first day as a teacher.  When I came to KMS, the children breathed life into Po, adopting him as one of their own.  As a symbolic gesture of friendship and trust, I left Po in the custody of the kids before I moved to Thailand.  But now I was back, and Po was ready to come alive in a way nobody would have ever imagined.  The stage was set for an epic surprise.

It was go-time.  Peyton called my phone with her phone and activated its loud speaker.  That way I would be able to hear the entire conversation from my hiding spot.  I kept my phone by my ear and quietly waited for the children to come upstairs.  Finally I heard their high-pitched voices fading in, rapidly permeating the air space of the second floor.  My heart revved up with excitement.  When the butterflies flew into my stomach, I knew there was no turning back.  I held my breath and listened. The children gathered on the floor and made a big circle.  I imagined Po sitting upright next to Cara-Rose (now 9 years old).  Cara had been told about the plan in advance and agreed to be our accomplice. After the children settled into their circle spots, Peyton announced that the talking piece of the council meeting would be her own cell phone.  Of course, nobody knew that the phone’s loudspeaker was on and that I was able to hear everything that was being said.

Peyton began: “This morning’s theme for our council meeting is: A special memory you had with a teacher.  When you receive the talking piece, please share your memory.”  Peyton handed the talking piece to Cara.  I listened to Cara reminiscing about a memory she had with me last year.  Then she placed the cell phone on the floor right beside Po, and said, “Po, what do you think?”

That was my queue.  I took a deep breath and spoke into my phone: “Ever since Allen left, I had a wish to see him reunite with all you kids at KMS.  I miss Allen telling us to listen to our hearts.  And I want him back. So I decided to listen to my own heart: I went back to school to learn how to make my wish come true.  I applied and was accepted to the PhD program at the most prestigious Panda College in the world, The University of Panda Magic.  After I got my Magic PhD, I went on to become licensed to practice “Mystical Transport Magic,” which would give me the qualifications to transport people from one place to another when I would really miss them.  Well, I suppose now is the time to share with you my exciting secrete: I have been working on a magic formula specifically designed to bring Allen back to KMS. 

I paused for a few moments and listened to any commotion from the kids.  The room below was dead silent.  Perfect!  I went on:

Now, I need all of you to pay very close attention because we only have one chance at this.  It’s currently the middle of the night in Thailand, so I am assuming that Allen is sleeping.  We’re going to wake him up and bring him right here to KMS.  I need everyone to quietly whisper a countdown from ten to zero.  If my calculations are correct, Allen will appear before us by the time we get to zero.”

I put my phone away and tip-toed to the bottom of the staircase. I heard the children whispering, “5…4…3…2…1.”  Clothed in pajamas and my hair in a mess, I walked into the open.  I was standing right in front of the children.  At first there was a strange silence, but then, “He’s here!” they whispered, as I inched closer to them.  And then all 35 children stood up and ran up to me. Within seconds the entire group embraced me.  We were back together again, hugging in perfect harmony, all at the same time, together as one.  An overwhelming feeling of unity rushed into the tear ducts of my eyes.  I caught the eyes of many children with looks of bewilderment, excitement, and joy.  All the while I was participating in the best hug of my life.  Then I noticed Pheona, now 8 years old, standing on a chair and staring deeply into my eyes.  Tears rolled down her cheeks as she softly repeated, “You came back to see us.  You came back!” I nodded and said, “Yes, Pheona! I came back to see you.”

Peyton called the kids back to rejoin the circle to resume the council meeting.  As the talking piece made its way from one child to the next, I heard some of the most touching words from the kids about how much they appreciated me as their teacher, how thankful they were to me for caring about them and never giving up on them.  Listening to such sincere and loving expressions of gratitude, I felt cradled in a state of oneness.  It was as if I was enraptured by the accolades of the universe, which gave me the gift of sharing so much joy with the people who I really cared about.

Indeed, that day was one of the happiest of my life.  I got to experience the mighty capacity of love.  But it wasn’t just the love that did it. It was that togetherness aspect of love – the mutual sharing of feelings that I always place in such high regard.  In my opinion, it’s damn important and completely worth striving for.  It’s what makes my world go round and round and round. How can I be so sure?  Cause my heart told me so.  And I’m pretty sure that hearts have a pretty solid record of telling the truth.

The Best Reflection Question E-V-E-R

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Image“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 

― Søren Kierkegaard

This quote screams TRUTH louder than a Blue Whale’s lustful invitation during the mating season (200 decibels!).  Children are constantly searching for ways to understand their own world.  And as educators, it is our responsibility to facilitate this process.  When I was working toward my master’s degree in education at Columbia University, my professors loved to tout the importance of encouraging children to verbally reflect on their experiences in the classroom.  But that’s just part of the whole enchilada (or pizza if you’re more into the American/Italian clichés).  What about the other part of the reflection equation?  Like, um, me?  I mean, it’s all-good that we need to help kids learn how to reflect on their learning.  But don’t I, the teacher, need some reflection time as well?    YES! Because Teacher reflection + Children’s…

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What Does it Mean To Be a Teacher?

Allen Platter NEW-

“I hate this stupid job!”  I cursed after my elementary students left the classroom. It was the end of another agonizing day at work.  The children had brutally taken advantage of me – just like they had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that.  I’d been a schoolteacher for a little over a year.  I was a fledgling neophyte: fresh out of college, timid in demeanor, lacking in confidence to project an imperious “teacher-voice,” and devoid of experience to implement effective behavior management.  I wanted out of this Godforsaken career. A year as a teacher was one year too much.  But alas, it was only the end of the first month of school. I leaned back against the chalkboard wall.  My legs buckled with fatigue, and I solemnly slid to the floor.   Burying my face in my hands, I let myself go completely, and cried.  I chose my fate to be a teacher.  And now I would reap the punishing harvest I’d sown.

Then I heard a knock on the door.  Randall, the school director and kindergarten teacher, was standing over me.  He watched me in silence for a few moments, then pulled up a chair to commiserate.  “You want to talk about it?” he asked softly.

I could have expressed so many raging feelings of stress, pain, resentment, and fear.  But instead all that came out was a peculiar question. “What does it mean to be a teacher?” I muttered between sobs.  And immediately I felt stupid for asking it.  I wished I could take it back and exchange it for a verbal onslaught of woeful complaints to illustrate to Randall just how shitty my day was.  After all I wasn’t in the mood to have a philosophical debate about education.  But it was too late.

I didn’t know that this question – “What does it mean to be a teacher?” – would alter my life forever.  I didn’t realize that by asking it, I would activate the first turning of the wheels that would carry me through a prosperous and rewarding teaching career. Randall began: “Deciding to become a teacher to educate school children is like deciding to become a doctor to cure sick people.  You would have to be utterly insane to endure the pain and heartache that come parceled with both professions.”

I felt even more hopelessly defeated, completely let down by Randall’s response.  How could he say such a thing?  Was it really true that teachers’ lives always suck?  Were teachers really destined to forever endure the punishing stress of their career?  I felt a wave of anger surge across my face.  My head trembled with frustration.  I wanted to cry out, “Then why the hell am I here?!  I want to go home!  I’m tired of this shit!  I’m a failure! I can’t do this anymore! I made a mistake!  It was all just a big mistake!”

But Randall just smiled at me with sterling affection.  “You would be crazy to be a teacher,” he repeated.  “Unless…” He paused again to let it sink in.  “Unless what?”  I wanted to whine, but I kept my mouth shut.  “Unless you truly do it out of love, compassion, and care for the children.”  His empathic smile turned into a victorious grin, as if he was already convinced that that was all he needed to say to change my mind.

He was right. Five years later, I am still a teacher.  I love my job.  And I already know that I will love it more and more as I continue to innovate my craft.  Since the episode with Randall, I’ve done a lot of personal reflection, tackling all kinds of self-inflicted inquiries such as: Why did I react to the students in that way? What did or didn’t I do well today, and why? How did students respond to the lesson today? What evidence do I have that my students are learning?

The point I am making here is simple: reflect on your actions and…oh the places you’ll go!  I’ll let Dr. Suess finish it for me: “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting,  so get on your way!”