Teachers must be creative to keep kids focused over 'Santa'

South Side Elementary teachers Lacie Pumphrey (left) and Erica Pate check the lights and ornaments on the student-decorated Christmas tree in Pate's classroom.
 Teachers must be creative to keep kids focused over 'Santa'
Staff Writer

Just about any parent of an elementary-school-aged child knows that keeping them focused on anything besides Santa Claus at this time of year is almost impossible. Try getting 27 of them to stay focused seven hours a day, five days a week.

That's the job teachers face. And the challenge comes at one of the most critical times in terms of academics and learning.

"At this time of year, you can't get away from Santa and elves," surmised Michelle Armstrong, a 28-year classroom veteran who teaches first grade at Church Hill Elementary.

"Thanksgiving really is the start," echoed Lacie Pumphrey, a third-grade teacher at South Side Elementary in West Point. "Everyone is in the holiday mode. You have to be structured right away or it can lose control pretty quickly and turn into chaos."

"The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a tough time for every teacher. It really can be a challenge," Armstrong added just before she launched her students into a project using Play-Doh to build the highest shelves they can for elves.

It's one of dozens of tricks teachers use daily at this time of year to incorporate learning into fun activities.

"While they are building, we are learning about words like horizontal and vertical and doing math," Armstrong explained.

No matter how long they've been at it, teachers agree on two operative things, especially at this time of year -- "embrace the chaos" and "fun."

"Let them get glitter on the floor, let them sing Christmas carols. Just work in the things they are supposed to be learning," Armstrong stated.

"Fun has to be a part of it. And we as teachers are involved. We let them know we are all in it together," explained Erica Pate, who is in her third year teaching 8- and 9-year-olds at Church Hill.

"Fun is the key to learning all year around but at this time of year, it's critical. We wrap in all kinds of Christmas activities because that's where their minds are. But the  things we are doing re-enforce learning," added Pumphrey, who has been teaching for eight years and says she picked up on the need for fun and organization while student teaching.

The list of classroom activities is as varied as the teachers. But they are innovative.

Pate and Pumphrey had their third-graders read "The Best Christmas Story Ever" and did comprehension, spelling and writing lessons from it.

They use Christmas passages to work on comprehension and the students don't even realize it.

They make cookies while the real goal is fractions. The same for making Christmas ornaments. Writing letters to Santa focuses on spelling and writing.

Dice games and coloring and Santas and elves and Christmas trees all have their roots in addition, multiplication, comparison and more.

"They are truly listening and thinking because it's what's on their mind. That's the challenge and at this time of year, it's every day. But we find it actually gets them to be more analytical," said Pate, who notes she only has to look back on her own "terrible" experience as a third-grader to stay motivated.

"They actually are getting a deeper understanding of the subjects. It's more application-based learning and that's the goal," Pumphrey added.

But it's not just all academics.

Pate's students decorated a Christmas tree in their classroom. Other decorations also fill the room. Every day, different students are in charge of making sure the Christmas lights are on and ornaments are in place.

Likewise, Armstrong turns her students lose sometimes to make ornaments for their tree or to put together bulletin boards.

"They learn responsibility and accountability and don't even realize it," Pate said.

"The cooperation and teamwork they learn is so amazing. And those are skills that will last them a lifetime. To me, that's one of the most important things to try to start early, the life skills," Armstrong said.

If Santa and the holiday aren't enough of a load at this time of year, teachers also must prepare their students for end-of-semester tests. Those tests correlate with ones given at the beginning of the year and gauge students' progress. Teachers try not to show their stress to students, but they admit the pressure is there.

"You can't ignore it," Armstrong said simply.

"We let the students know if they work hard and get all their work out of the ay, we'll spend some days before break doing even more fun stuff. Yes, it borders on bribery sometimes, but the kids actually get it," Pumphrey explained.

Pate says a South Side student who has been in the hospital also is an inspiration.

"She's in the hospital and keeps telling everyone she can't wait to get back to school. Anytime a student complains a little bit about work, we only have to remind them about her," Pate says.

Giving their students freedom -- within boundaries -- helps teachers pry out a little extra time during their days to prepare activities and lessons. That's key at every grade level but even more so at third grade and beyond. That's the grade where the standardized test scores start counting toward school and district performance grades.

'When you think about it, there's a lot going on right now. A lot of people don't realize it. It's a challenge for teachers, a real challenge," said Ann Turnage, who retired from teaching five years ago after 31 years.

"It's that way in a lot of work places. But these are our kids, our future. If it's tough at home, think about it in the classroom," added Jennifer Edwards, who spent 35 years in the classroom.