Teachers learn from Social Emotional Learning Too

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. 

Enter Sarah. 

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. 

Lisa Poskanzer

Lisa Poskanzer

Lisa Poskanzer is the Director of Joy & Co-creator of Improv 2 Improve. Lisa finds joy walking on the beach and gardening.