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Sammy and His Behavior Problems – a book review

May 6, 2010

This week’s blog falls loosely under the heading of “love of learning” as it pertains to the passion for learning most teachers possess. Specifically, I’ve been reading Caltha Crowe’s new book Sammy and his Behavior Problems, a book which chronicles a year in third grade punctuated by a teacher’s passion to know each child, her propensity to examine her own feelings and teaching, and her steadfast desire to give her children the best opportunities for learning.

For those of you familiar with the Responsive Classroom approach, many of the strategies will be obvious.  However, it’s in Crowe’s powerful storytelling and thoughtful reflections (in the form of journal entries) that strategies come to life. If you are new to the RC approach, this book will surely motivate you to read and do more.

Caltha Crowe’s is a skilled, master teacher who’s clearly in a place to teach  teachers by example and story.  She has generously shared her craft and  knowledge  in this touching tale that weaves her experiences and observations with the proven  Responsive Classroom approach. Her book offers readers so many gifts that honor children and our profession, but I’d like to highlight several which can be categorized under three broad headers: teaching strategies, the role of a teacher, and the commitment to life-long learning.

Teaching Strategies:

There are many strategies from the Responsive Classroom that Crowe describes with keen, succinct detail.  Her narrative style and ability to illustrate how her classroom community grows support such strategies as the first six weeks, rules and logical consequences, problem solving conferences, holding a successful class meeting, guided discovery and working with families.  The appendix lists resources by each of the strategies, all of which are available through the Responsive Classroom bookstore. by clicking here.   If you’re new to the RC approach, choose one area to focus on (language or child development would be my suggestion to get your feet wet). If you already know the RC approach, the resources here will let you refine what you know or revisit areas that may have gotten a bit rusty. As I read Sammy, I’ve listened to myself speak to children, re-phrased what I might have said, and generally just put the magnifying glass on my own interactions as I consider, “How might Caltha have done that?” or “What’s really going on here?”

Role of Teacher:
Crowe reminds us that even the most masterful teachers (she’s banked nearly forty years!), can always learn from children, from reflection and from colleagues.  Before the school year begins, Crowe does some recon to gather intelligence on her new students. The experiences and reflections colleagues share and school files to do not define these children in her mind, but rather help Crowe shape her plans for the class and the questions she seeks to answer as she gets to know each child.  While the book focuses primarily on her relationship and strategies with Sammy, she is clear that her role is to be a “teacher to everyone” and while she views each child as an individual learner, she is also cognizant of the interwoven relationships that shape the fabric of her class community.  We are reminded that teachers’ jobs are to facilitate, model, explore and learn along side, not simply to impart knowledge.  Her description of their “passion” study beautifully illustrate how she helps each child tap what s/he is passionate about and turn that topic into rich, authentic research.

Crowe also shares several of her  journal entries which pose questions, problems or reflections on how things went during the day.  These entries are followed by a narrative that reveal how Crowe gets to know  Sammy and others and then masterfully tries strategies that allow the class or grow into a community of learner, all while her goals for each individual child are defined and subsequently met. The intricate juggling of the many demands of teaching are written about with honesty and clarity. Without placing blame or succumbing to anger, Crowe identifies her feelings and finds constructive ways to resolve external and internal conflicts.  She raising questions about both the behavior she observes and her teaching and then illustrates what works and what requires more work.

It’s through her reflections on what she sees and what she knows as a Responsive Classroom educator that Crowe can draw on the strategies that help Sammy gain self-control, build relationships, maximize his learning and feel positive about himself.  Readers know how much she cares for all of her students, even Sammy and his behavior problems.

Commitment to Life-Long Learning:

Crowe reminds us that teaching is both an art and a science which requires ongoing work to both sustain us and to employ current best practices. At different points in the book, Crowe expresses her frustration matter-of-factly, “….On days like that, by the time the children leave for the day, I have a headache.” No blame, no shame. Just the hard truth that there are days that wear us out!  She acknowledges her short comings and failure, but also the victories she and her students experience.  Taking time to converse with trusted colleagues and to get some physical exercise at the end of long days illustrate how this re-energizes her work and often sheds new light on a persistent problem.  While the book doesn’t specifically address the practice of journal writing, the journal entries reveal how Crowe was propelled  to think and act more deeply and to refine her practice in order to help Sammy be successful.  This is life-long learning in action in the most practical and personal way – quiet solitude to be honest, reflective and proactive in ways that refine the craft of teaching and affirm the life-changing work teachers do each day.

This compelling narrative shows us that any teacher’s commitment to learning and that teaching is often a dance – give and take between participants, where one leads but also compliments and allows the other to shine.

Years ago, an administrator in my school suggested I adopt the practice of journal writing at the end each day. I stopped short of laughing at this challenge, citing the frenetic end-of-the day clean up/prep, the transition between busy teacher and busy parent, and the pressure of having to write every day.  But intellectually, it seemed like a good idea. Just not practical for me.  What I know now, after months of weekly writing and the inspiration gained from Sammy and Caltha, is that frequent writing strengths teaching practice – it’s in the quite reflection we can ask the hard questions, shamelessly document our pride in a job well done, and hash out thoughts on how to accomplish small and large goals. As the school year winds down, make a commitment to write in a journal several times a week. It just might become habit-forming once you see what a powerful tool for professional development it can be!

Sammy and his Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from Teacher’s Year is truly one of those must reads for all teachers. If you’re a teacher, put it on the top of your summer reading pile. If you’re a parent, this book (especially paired with a Starbucks gift card!) makes the ideal end of the year teacher gift.  It’s uplifting and inspiring in many, many ways.

To learn more about Caltha Crowe, click here to read an interview with her or here to see video of her in action.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Caltha Crowe permalink
    May 7, 2010 3:55 pm

    Dear Lisa,
    I laughed out loud when I read about your response to an administrator who suggested that you keep a journal. For many years, at my annual performance reviews, my assistant principal suggested (over and over) that I keep a journal of my teaching experiences. My immediate and viseral response was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Between teaching responsibilities, family responsibilities, ongoing efforts to stay fit and maintain friendships, journalling seemed quite extraneous. I’m so glad that I finally tried it. It turned out to be a practice that energized me and was well worth the time it took. It gave me time to reflect, rethink and strategize. It kept me from getting stuck in unproductive teaching behaviors.
    Thanks for your review of my book. Caltha


  1. Caltha Crowe: Why I Wrote Sammy
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