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Where the purple bunnies came from

Teaching in high poverty designated schools allowed me to meet some unforgettable characters.


Chapter 1- First Graders


Here's a story of a young man named 'Bradley'.  Greatest toothless smile you ever did see. 

When he was happy. 

Highly energetic, Bradley had a short attention span and loved to wiggle. 

In fact, one winter day after putting his coat away he clomped to his desk in too-big boots.  He sat down, with one leg on the chair, the other on the floor, he noticed he still had his striped, stretchy gloves on.  He began to pull his left glove off by the fingertips.  This offered the tops of the fingers to have little flappy pieces at the ends.  Flapping his hands, suddenly he launched out of his chair as if he were chasing a butterfly of his own making around the room.  Such a happy kiddo.  

I was impressed that he was so properly clothed for the weather.  His boots were too big, but since he and his mom were having a hard time, I was pleased to see he was warm.  

I was certain that this young man would know that even if he did not know where he was going to sleep, he knew the procedures and classroom structures were always going to be here.  Consistency in the middle of chaos.


Like his smile, there were other areas that Bradley excelled.  But, math was not yet one of them.  When young people learn math, they need to 'pay attention' long enough to compare two quantities or count up from a number.  That whole part of a kiddos brain isn't always well-developed yet.

Easily overwhelmed, he would 'shut down' by placing his hand on his hands on this desk, or yelling or get red-faced angry.  Sometimes this was triggered by other students or experiencing frustration with schoolwork.


One day, we were walking down the hall on the way to lunch.  Another student bumped in front of him in line.  Bradley's face quickly grew red and he balled up his fist. 

"Bradley," I intervened.  "Just think of something silly,  I get cut off in line when I'm driving all the time.  Ya just gotta think of, of something silly, like, like.  . .Purple bunnies or something!"  I blurted.


Thankfully, that did the trick.  Bradley's faced changed into his bright smile.  He laughed and said, "Purple Bunnies?  There's no such thing."

"Phew," I thought as I gathered the class down the hallway.


The next day, in class, we were working through adding piles of blocks together to find the sum. With his face turning red and his head sinking, I could see Bradley had a few too many blocks for the sum to be easy to find.

I told him to take a little break and think of Purple Bunnies.  This brought a smile to his face and relieved some of his pressure.


Over the next days he had some success with finding sums and differences. 

One time, when things were going well, I knelt down by his first-grade sized desk and suggested, "You know, I think you get that Purple Bunny feeling every time you solve a problem."


So, it began.  I ended up teaching all of the first graders that the feeling you get when you solve a problem is Purple Bunnies.  Over the rest of the school year, we figured out, that the longer time it took for us to solve the problem, the more purple bunnies we felt.


Chapter Two- Fourth Graders


A couple of years later, I had the fortune in a similar, but different school to teach a diverse bunch of 4th graders.  These students were the same, in that their families had socio-economic struggles as well as the concerns that lurk alongside living in such a community.


¾ through the school year, in most 4th grade classrooms one finds national or state testing season at its onset.  This story takes place during a portion where they are evaluated on their math skills. They worked hard all year to problem solve, use their math computation skills, learn more about fractions and decimals and measurement and algebraic reasoning.   They were excited to ‘show what they know. They know that the assessments help us monitor their progress, and give us information about the effectiveness of our teaching and support. We use the information to make improvements and connect them with the right instruction for the students.


So, on this big exciting day, the students worked diligently, appreciated the breaks and snacks.  They ‘rocked; the test. They felt confident and energized. Until . . ;

Until the ‘4-point problem’  Most of the problems on the test were worth one or two points.  If it is computation, then its just one point. If students show their thinking, that’s two points.  One for process and one for the computation.


Well, a four-point problem takes a bit more thought.  It is a scenario that requires a person to try a few strategies and keep trying until the solution is evident.  In this case it was similar to this. A candy maker is shipping boxes of chocolates across the Pacific Ocean to sell in Japan.  Each box can not weigh more than 30 oz. It can have two layers. There can not be greater than 7 oz difference between the layers.  Then the students has pictures of common shapes that represented candies of different weights, like 3 oz. 5 oz. The nice thing about a problem like this is the computation is just addition and subtraction  and of easily understood numbers. These types of problems are designed to encourage students to persevere and the ease of computation allows the problem to be solved by students two grade-levels behind. A great opportunity to separate the impact of problem solving.


My students tackled this problem with fervor.  Then, after only 5 minutes, the first one wanted to quit.  Followed by a few more right after the 8 minute mark. At this point, I figured the class needed a brain break.  They were not allowed to discuss the problem, but definitely could secure the test booklets, then get up and walk around and re-energize their brain.

Well, after the break, and a  little pep talk about how amazing they are, they students went back at it.  Got another 5 minutes of diligence before the first kiddo began to show initial signs of defeat.


This is when I came to decide I needed to completely alter how I teach.  Everything.

Starting the next day, I added the arrows that showed attempts and failures.  Daily, I began to reward struggles more than fast responses. I changed the entire culture of my classroom.  I offered more thinking time before accepting responses. I stopped rewarding the fast thinkers by calling on them so quickly.  I had students acknowledge when they noticed other’s perseverance.


Chapter Three- Accepting differences.

(More to come)

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