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Tuesday / September 19

School as Sanctuary

School as Sanctuary

I believe that schools can be places of sanctuary and that academic learning is a form of meditation.

From kindergarten to third grade, I attended a Catholic school with a grand campus full of ancient trees and historic buildings, including a convent. We wore uniforms—green plaid jumpers for girls and green pants and ties for the boys. We began the day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s prayer, and the rest of the day continued with quiet and orderly rituals. At recess, I often sat in the roots of a large oak tree with a book and maybe a friend or two. We were permitted to keep a rosary inside our desks, and, when I felt sad or anxious, I would roll a rosary bead between my fingers as a way to calm down.

I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. I have fond memories of reading a beautifully illustrated basal reader—A Flint Holds Fire—with Ms. McCarthy, my first grade teacher. When Ms. Theodosakis, our second grade teacher, read aloud Little House on the Prairie, I developed an obsession for all things Laura Ingalls Wilder. When falling asleep at night, I would imagine being bundled up inside a conestoga wagon, listening to a spring breeze blowing across the Midwestern plain.

In fourth grade, my family moved to a new house, and I began public school. The school was a brand new school, and the teachers and principal were asking for the students’ input in selecting a mascot. I remember my classmates shouting out the names of different animals at the teacher, and I wanted to crawl under my desk. I cried often, and I was a frequent visitor to the nurse’s office. Still, my love of reading ensured good marks in every class.

Towards the end of middle school and throughout my high school years, my family life became increasingly more tumultuous and eventually incredibly traumatic. This chaos involved alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, insomnia, and the constant din of fighting—my parents could be heard arguing from a block away. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff, perpetually in danger of falling.

Yet, my love of reading and writing persevered. I spent lunches in the school library and weekends at the public library. I stayed after school for clubs and activities that provided me with an acceptable excuse from being at home. I threw myself into the Speech and Debate Team, Literary Magazine, School Newspaper, and School Musical. After these activities, I would hole myself up in the basement, spending hours studying flashcards and completing my homework. I was sleeping little, losing weight, and began smoking cigarettes—but my schooling was a vestige of sanity. The good marks and recognition I received at school provided me with a sense of self-worth.

Today, I am proud to be a teacher in the Boston Public Schools. Teachers have the power to create classrooms and schools that are places of sanctuary for students. Working in a Title I school with students who are both learning English as a New Language and who have learning disabilities, I prioritize making my classroom a haven for fostering and nurturing students’ feelings of progress and self-worth. I fondly recall the rituals and routines of my Catholic education, and I bring this energy into the classroom.

My belief in order and tranquility as a best practice begins even with how I dress myself for the day. I wear solid color clothes—mostly black—and soft soled flats that make little to no noise as I walk around the hardwood floors of the classroom. I put my long hair into the same bun each day, and my only accessories are a watch, a fitbit, and an emerald-colored bracelet with the words comfort, hope, safety, and growth.

My co-teacher, Ms. A-P, and I have established rituals in the classroom that maximize student learning and ensure that students feel safe and secure when taking academic risks. Ms. A-P greets students in the hallway as they enter class, and I greet students as they enter the room.

The 4-step routine for entering the classroom is projected on the wall: Quietly take your seat. Remove your hoodie and backpack. Take out your notebook, folder, and pencil. Place your homework in the turn in bin. The Do Now is also projected, and students are used to beginning their work straight away. We have taken time to explicitly teach these routines, to hold students accountable for arriving on time, and to ensure that students understand the expectations of each assignment and know how to be successful and earn good grades.

This year, we have three students who are extremely triggered by social interactions at recess or in the hall. These students often enter the classroom angrily and noisily. However, as the year has gone on, they take less and less time to settle into their seats, and, on challenging days, we provide students with 1:1 coaching and lots of positive encouragement. We celebrate our students’ success with seasonal parties—playing bingo (or lotería) and eating our classroom favorite arroz con leche (prepared in my kitchen with a recipe from A Kids’ Guide to Latino History).

As students exit the classroom, I shake their hands, telling them “great work today” or “tomorrow is a new day”. In my mind, I am thinking “Peace Be With You.” I enjoy sending them off with gratitude for their engagement in learning.

My love for rituals, routines, and academic learning is not only a personal preference. My teaching practice results in tangible student growth. Each year, my students make gains in school-wide progress monitoring assessments as well as on standardized tests. On average, my students increased their scores by 2 levels (out of 5) on the state-mandated WIDA ACCESS exam. More importantly, I see students increase their stamina and skill with oral and written English, enabling them wield the power of language as a tool for full expression.

I am proud of being able to create stability and tranquility in the lives of my students. My wish is that all classrooms would be places of peace and stability, where chaos minimally intrudes upon the cultivation of ideas.

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Jennifer Dines is an educator of English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities in the Boston Public Schools. A proud graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lesley University, Northeastern University, and the MGH Institute of Health Professions as well as a National Board Certified Teacher, Jennifer is dedicated to arts-integrated and inclusive programming that supports all students in meeting their individual aspirations. Jennifer is a founding member and editor of WritingIsThinking.org and a frequent contributor to the National Board’s blog The Standard. Jennifer lives with her husband, David, and her three daughters in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood. Follow her on Twitter @literacychange.

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