A Class Act

The fine art of creating a good classroom experience.

Education Week, February 18, 2004

When my son’s kindergarten teacher asked me last fall to come in and do a little holiday lesson for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I agreed right away. Easy. Just show up and talk about the holiday, then eat a special snack. No problem.

I arrived with my bag of holiday food, homemade candlesticks and candles, during afternoon circle time. The class made room for me on a tiny chair at the head of the group. I looked at the teacher, Mrs. DiPace, watching me, waiting. I saw 21 little faces fixed on me in such expectation that suddenly I was nervous. What, exactly, was I supposed to say to them?

I had no idea. OK, I would get them to talk instead. I asked if they knew anything about the holiday. Hands flew up, and I called on someone, who promptly asked to go to the bathroom. I called on a little girl, and she started talking about her birthday. I tried to tie that in to the holiday, when another child started talking about her birthday. And another. Then someone else raised his hand—another birthday?—and asked to go to the bathroom. I began to perspire a little. Suddenly my son stood up. Ah. I figured he was going to tell people about our special holiday dinners. No, he started making robot noises. I tried to get him to sit down. Someone else asked about the bathroom. I sat there red- faced, wanting to leave.

At this point Mrs. DiPace stepped in.

Her face was grim and serious as she swiftly directed all the kids to the tables, where little paper plates with dollops of honey and slices of apple were set out in dollhouse perfection. The kids sat down obediently and turned eagerly toward me again. By now I had that funny feeling in my stomach that comes with knowing you botched something. I would not make eye contact with the teacher. Well, at least it was almost over.

I lit the candles and passed out the juice. I rushed around, wiping hands, drying spills, replenishing honey. I listened to the children exclaim over the strange combination of tastes, the stickiness. They relaxed around me in this more familiar role of a mom giving them food, and it all started to feel better to me. Mrs. DiPace caught my eye and smiled. I figured she was relieved that it was almost over, too.

I watched as they gathered their backpacks and jackets. Mrs. DiPace reminded them to thank me, and a chorus of soprano thank-you’s followed.

Then she came over to me. I figured we would laugh about how hard it had been—how spectacularly bad a job I’d done. I had lost control of the class; I had not known what to say to them. Basically, all I had done was serve them a novel snack.

“That was really great,” she said warmly.

I raised a doubtful eyebrow at her.

But she looked me straight in the eye, that same earnest look that had quieted the kids, and continued. “The children really enjoyed it, and I think they learned a little something about another culture and the different food. Thank you so much!” She touched my shoulder and gathered some things together. Class dismissed.

So I hadn’t done such a bad job … perhaps. I guess I hadn’t realized until just then what, precisely, made up a good classroom experience. Because it’s more than just getting up there and saying all the right things: It’s about sticking with it when it’s not going well. And ultimately, it’s being able to regain control of the class, and sometimes it’s even about taking a hapless parent volunteer and helping her feel like a star. Mrs. DiPace did it all with a shrug and smile.

I wonder if she’ll let me come back for Passover.