When I was a classroom teacher I had my fair share of challenging students. Through the years I taught had quite a few students with social-emotional issues, learning disabilities, and discipline problems. I’ve had students hide underneath desks, crawl on the floor of the classroom, and who’ve screamed at classmates when things haven’t gone their way. If only I had Caltha Crowe’s Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher’s Year when I was teaching some of these kids. I think I would’ve been better able to handle some of the tough situations that I had to refer to my principal or the school social worker.
Crowe’s book chronicles a year in her third grade classroom through short stories, anecdotes, and thoughtful reflections about the ways in which she worked with Sammy to help him deal with control his behavioral issues so that he, and all of the students in her classroom, could learn. What makes Sammy and His Behavior Problems intriguing to me is that Crowe spends a lot of time talking about the ways in which she worked with Sammy to overcome his struggles with writing (both the physical act of writing, as well as expressing his ideas in written form). Here’s a peek at something that happened on the day students were decorating writer’s notebooks early in the school year.
Today, week three of school, students are decorating their writers’ notebooks, special journals in which they will write about their interests and passions.
We’ve been getting ready for these writers’ notebooks since school started. The students have learned we all have stories to tell. They’ve practiced storytelling by relaying family stories to each other. I’ve shared my writer’s notebook and invited colleagues into our room to share their noteboks.
Now, the children are interested in personalizing their notebooks. Some are putting stickers on the covers and are sharing these treasures with their tablemates. Others are drawing pictures of things they love and taping those to their covers.
Sammy has drawn a picture of George Washington, awkward and less evenly proportioned than classmates’ drawings but recognizable by the wooden false teeth. Sammy struggles to use the scissors to cut out this portrait and then puts great globs of glue on the back of it. I’m reminded of his big wobbly letters. I make a mental note to work with him on small motor skills.
The next day, the children begin to list topics on the first page of their notebook. Titled “Things Close to My Heart” and written inside an outline of a heart, these are topics they might write about throughout the year.
I’m surprised to discover that Sammy is struggling to get an idea down on the paper. He has so many passions. What’s this about.
“How about history, Sammy?” I ask.
“I hate to write,” he declares. “I don’t want to have to write about history.”
I wonder if this is related to his difficulty with small motor skills. Ill watch and see what I can learn.
I offer Sammy the computer. “Do you want to create your heart-list on the computer?” I ask.
“Well, OK,” he agrees. Five minutes later he’s changing fonts, playing with the space bar and doesn’t have a word on the screen yet. At my insistence he writes “History.” He has a one-word list. I can see that there’s a puzzle for me to persue here.
(Crowe, 2010, pgs. 45-46)
Sound familiar? I can think of a handful of children who I’ve taught that got stuck on a similar activity in the beginning of the school year. It’s frustrating, to say the least. Like Crowe, none of us can give up when we’re faced with a child who declares that s/he hates to write.
Crowe also includes entries from her reflective practice journal throughout the book. Here’s what she wrote about about two and a half months into the school year.
From my journal, November 14:
Sammy never did finish his letter today. “Dear Nick” was his maximum output, and when I printed that out, he balled it up and threw it away. He was able to do math problems with absorption when sitting at the computer with earphones on. But, under the same conditions, picking a topic from the class-brainstormed list and writing a few sentences was unsurmountable.
I’m guessing Sammy’s difficulty today with his letter home relates to his difficulty with writing about his math thinking. In both cases, there is understanding and even an assigned topic, but composition is daunting. Writing is tough for many children. It involves using so many skills simultaneously: calling up your ideas, putting them in logical order, turning them into sentences, writing those sentences on paper, all the while remembering letter formation, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. I don’t know what’s making writing so hard for Sammy in particular. It could be any variety of causes or combination of causes, from a power struggling stemming from deep lack of confidence in this area to true language processing difficulties, with many other possibilities in between, For now, I’m gathering information, trying strategies, hoping to build on strengths and successes.
(Crowe, 2010, pgs. 70-71)
Thoughtful reflections, like the one I included above, are what probably led to Crowe’s ultimate success with Sammy. While he may not have become a voracious writer by the end of third grade, he made marked progress. Here’s one final excerpt that Crowe wrote about with regard to Sammy in the last six weeks of school:
Later, when I meet with Sammy to go over his portfolio, we talk about his academic work this year. “You have become a writer, Sammy,” I say. “Your Bubbles the Fish piece was funny and lively. Your writing makes sense, and you add plenty of details.”
“It’s still not my favorite subject,” Sammy, in his ever-honest way, replies, “But I know that I’ve gotten to be a better writer,” he concedes.
(Crowe, 2010, pg. 156)
Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher’s Year is one of the most readable and engaging professional texts I’ve read in recent months. I read the book, all the while taking notes, in two days. Crowe is a master teacher who takes you alongside her for the journey with Sammy. You can feel her frustration as well as her elation when she reaches a turning point with Sammy. The epilogue of Sammy made me feel hopeful that it’s possible for all teachers to work with all kinds of challenging students if they’re willing to be patient while waiting for change.
Are you feeling strained with the way your interactions are panning out with one particular child in your class? If so, pick up Sammy over the winter recess and read it cover to cover. I think you’ll find it will re-energize your teaching and will help you to aid a challenging student whose academic success lies with you this year.
- The Northeast Foundation for Children is giving away one paperback copy and one audio book of Sammy and His Behavior Problems.
- To win a copy of the book please leave a comment about this post, in the comments section of this post by Saturday, December 12th by 11:59 p.m. EST A random drawing will take place on Sunday, December 12th and the winner’s name will be announced in a blog post later that day.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address. I will pass your mailing address on to my contact at NEFC who will ship the paperback and audio book out to the giveaway recipients. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.