Sarah and the Name Game: How Teachers Learn from Social Emotional Learning Too
She sits on the big comfy chair, hands in her lap. Watching me. She doesn’t speak. Sometimes she looks at her hands for several minutes at a time. She doesn’t really move. There’s no visible emotion. What is she thinking? Does she know who I am, what I’m talking about, why her teacher brought her here?
Her teacher said, “She’s sweet. She has no idea what’s going on.”
That’s how I get them. I’m the Media Specialist at a Title 1 Dual Language K‑8 school. I get 30 minutes a week with 20 to 25 students at a time, always with multiple non-English speakers.
She came from Afghanistan in December. She’s 9, so she was enrolled in the 4th grade. No one in our school speaks her language. No one in her family speaks or reads English, Spanish, or Creole (all languages spoken and written in our school). She doesn’t speak Arabic, Mam, Kanjabal or any of the other languages spoken by our students. Our school district has no speakers of her language (one I’ve never heard of before) who were able to help enroll her. That’s all. We don’t know if she went to school in Afghanistan. We don’t know anything about her.
And so she sits on the big, comfy chair each week. My heart breaks trying to find the story or the book or something that will get any kind of reaction from her – a smile, a frown, a word, anything. Her teacher says she follows the other students and does whatever she can figure out to follow. She’s a “good girl.” Or is she? I mean, how would we know? She hasn’t misbehaved, but we really don’t know what’s going on in her mind or heart. The only thing I know for sure is that she doesn’t do anything to bring attention to herself.
I know this because I forgot about her. Not really, but really.
At the 25-minute mark in my thirty-five 30-minute classes each week, I pull the class into a circle to play. Everyone knows this.
In fact, some kids walk into the Media Center asking, “Ms. Poskanzer, can we play a game today?” To which I always reply, “We always play a game. First you return the books, we have a couple of minutes to chat, then I read to you. After that, you choose your new books, then we play. That’s what we do here, right?” And they all agree. That’s what we do in the Media Center.
Except for Sarah. Sarah doesn’t play. Sarah sits on the big, comfy chair with her hands in her lap waiting for her teacher to return to take her back to class. When I start the games, I forget to invite her to the circle. There’s so much pandemonium in the class I forget. When I look up and notice and see her there I motion for her to join us. She doesn’t. There’s another girl in that class who doesn’t like to play, she prefers to read her book. I let them sit. I’m not proud of how I am for Sarah. I don’t know what to do. I hate that.
I showed Sarah how to check out books. Each week she’d go to the section of the library to search for an I Can Read book. Then she’d return to the big, comfy chair, place the book on her lap, and wait for her teacher to return to pick them up.
I told myself that Sarah didn’t want to play — she’d join if she wanted to. But really, I didn’t know what she wanted. Being at a loss with her each week started to make me feel a certain way.
I was feeling bad about myself as a teacher. I noticed I was sort of ignoring her to avoid the fact that I just didn’t know what to do to get her to engage. Admittedly, 30 minutes a week with a class full of other needy students made it easier to focus on their important things and ignore Sarah. So I did. I really didn’t think about her. I didn’t plan for her. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing to change my practice.
Ignoring her for the 30 minutes a week I had her in my class was easy to accomplish and hard to live with. I’m a kindergarten teacher at heart. As a classroom teacher, I had the privilege of time to build relationships. I work myself into a frenzy trying to develop those kinds of relationships in 30 minutes a week. It’s not possible. I know it’s not possible.
Sarah is important. I know she is. I want to do more for her. In a class full of other needy kids, the neediest of all sometimes gets ignored because there is so much more that can be accomplished without including her.
I usually choose one game that I’m going to play all week with all of my classes. It’s less for me to think about in my busy schedule. Sarah’s class was my first class on Monday morning. A few months after she arrived, I started playing Name Game. I usually play this game early in the year, but I was reminded of it over the weekend, and so that’s what I chose to play one week in April.
Also that day, completely unplanned by me, I called the circle together near where Sarah was sitting, encouraging her with my proximity to join the game. She did!
She stood to my right. I didn’t think about it much, except that I would have to start the game playing to my left so Sarah could go last and so the person on my left would understand the directions and follow along.
Me: Okay, today we’re going to play a game called The Name Game. In a minute I’m going to say my name and do one move that’s very Ms. Poskanzer‑y. Then all of you are going to say my name and make my move just like I do.
Then I flap my hands out-and-up with bent elbows, while stepping out with my left foot — led by my energetic hip — and say, “MS. POSKANZER!”
And 16 fourth graders all flap their hands out-and-up with bent elbows, while stepping out with their left foot — led by their energetic hips and call out, “MS. POSKANZER!”
Me: Exactly! You’re awesome. Now, in a minute. I’m going to do that again, and you’re going to copy me. Then…THEN! Stephenson (to my left) is going to say his name and make one very Stephenson‑y move. And we’re all going to copy him. And then Winnie. And you get it…all the way around. Ready?
They were. I went and they went.
Stephenson dabbed. Ihaan did a thumbs up thing. Winnie shook her head, rolled her eyes, and smiled. Dewey did a I‑don’t‑know sort of thing with his hands.
My favorite part of this game is when a kid who isn’t really a talker or isn’t really into the game has their turn. They’ll stand there with their hands crunched together looking at their shoes and they’ll say their name, “Yoselin.” Then the whole class will crunch their hands together, look at their shoes and say, “Yoselin.” Because the Yoselin‑y move isn’t big and loud. That’s not who Yoselin is. And the whole class knows Yoselin, and sees her move and honors it. Best part of the game.
I digress to make the point that if I thought at all about what Sarah would do, I thought she’d be very Yoselin‑y. I wasn’t really paying attention to Sarah. I sort of knew she got up in the circle, but I didn’t really think about her as a player. She was behind my peripheral vision for the first half of the circle, so I didn’t have her on my radar. I didn’t know what would happen because I didn’t know what would happen. That’s sort of how that works.
I wasn’t thinking about her until the kid right before her went. I think it was Daphne. I’m not sure, but I am sure that Sarah said the name and did the move, and I was surprised to see her smiling. I’d never seen her smile before. It was awesome. She has a glowing smile.
In that awesome moment, I was getting ready to stop and do my KKIT coaching, “So fun! Everyone knows who everyone is, so we all know how to follow them the same way. Next time, instead of following, let’s try to remember the move and say the name all together.” That’s what I was getting ready to say. My mouth was opening…“Sarah!” and she spun around on one foot and landed with a clap, glowing smile and all. I almost cried. Typing it now, I get shivers.
She learned the game even though she had no idea what the words I said were. The subtle rule of making the move to match the person wasn’t lost on her. Ihaan is totally a laid back, thumbs up sort of a kid. Winnie is perpetually rolling her eyes. I flap my hands out and push out my hip energetically. And Sarah has the soul of a Rockette!
I am no Hallmark movie, so no, Sarah still doesn’t speak or read English (or any other language while she’s in my class). However, that was the day I saw her for the first time.
The weeks after that day were testing and book fair and a lot of not-typical Media Centering. I still got the game in at the end. Sometimes she’d play, sometimes she’d sit with her book. Not much changed on the surface, but I felt different. I hope Sarah did too.
I always plan the games I play with intent. Sarah’s story reminds me that they work even for those students I don’t see right away. Sarah had to learn so much about so many different things before she could join the circle and share her Rockette self with us.
Sarah’s emergence as her own true self in the Media Center has helped me remember that building the challenging bridge is going to take a long time. A lot of the bridge is built by the students in their own way. Challenging bridges, well-built, will cultivate a strong connection, which is the ultimate instructional technique.
I’ve done all of this thinking about Sarah since the day she showed me who she really is.
I think about all of this now in the relaxation of summer when I can reflect on my practice and the growth of my students.
In the hustle and bustle of thirty-five 30 minute classes, Book Fair, Morning Announcements, Collection Management, the Copy Center, etc., I must remember that those 3‑minute games once a week, every week, are important, too.
It’s not just a brain break and off you go.
Play. Fun. Joy. It’s Serious Business.
P.S. The last week of School is May 23 — 26.
“My” shipment of books FINALLY arrived and the plan was to have a “Book Tasting” with each class. 30 minutes of unfettered enjoyment of BRAND NEW BOOKS! with a game at the end, and a final hug for the school year.
On the Monday of the last week of school, Sarah’s classroom A/C was out. I live in South Florida. We don’t do “No A/C” here in South Florida. “No A/C” is akin to the feeling of “No Caffeine.” Only stiflingly hot in a bad, sticky way. Feel me?
Sarah’s teacher is my friend, so I offered to let her class come back to the very cold Media Center. They had end of the year stuff to do first, so we agreed they’d come back during the kindergarten block.
During my kindergarten class that Monday, the 4th graders each sat and waited for a kindergartner to bring them a BRAND NEW BOOK to read together. (Visit our Member’s Only Area for photos of these sweet moments!).
On Monday, May 23, I learned that Stephenson has the soul of a storyteller and patience of a teacher. He kept the attention of two of the most distractible kindergartners I’d ever seen. All around the room, 4th graders and kindergartners were reading together. Sarah’s kindergartner was reading to her, pointing to the pictures and telling the story as she knew it.
Sarah’s teacher and I steered specific books to them. When Sarah read, “DUDE!” (written by Aaron Reynolds; illustrated by Dan Santat), there was pure joy. It’s a (mostly) one word book. Dude. She read the book with feeling (thank you, Dan Santat and the artistic team at MacMillan).
Thankfully, the A/C was fixed shortly after that.
Play. Fun. Joy. It’s Serious Business.