I believe that children learn by impersonating, by making their parents’, teachers’, and friends’ actions and words their own. I believe, as a first year kindergarten special education teacher, that my young students, unintentionally, learned the most by copying me.
In December, Justin (names have been changed) is making Play-Doh ‘cookies.’ While he is placing the ‘cookies’ on a tray Karla starts rummaging in the Play-Doh bin. Justin stops and glares at Karla. “Stop it!” he says in a familiar tone of voice. “Stop it now. Follow directions. Follow directions!”
I watch, my eyebrows raised, but Justin’s not paying attention to me. He continues to bark at Karla, using words that I use all day, every day. Karla ignores him, rummaging in the bin until she finds what she wants, then moves back to her space.
It was only a matter of time before my animated five-year-old students turned my class into an ongoing impersonation of me. They love to imitate everyone from superheroes, to cartoon characters, to their parents, to each other.
My students’ mimicking is at once sweet and embarrassing. They pick out my best teaching qualities, using playful tones and kind words to interact with each other. Other times they throw my difficult days back at me, using my ‘mean’ tone and my ‘mean’ faces.
Eventually, my students start misbehaving to see my unintentionally reinforcing looks, which they, after six months together, find hilarious. Justin says a bad word. I turn and toss him my “Stop it!” glare. Justin gives me the stare right back, a smile twitching at his lips. At least, he corrects himself. “Don’t say that,” he tells me, grinning.
Sometimes, their copying is intended. My students have speech and language delays and part of my job is to get them to communicate by mimicking my words instead of pointing, whining, or screaming.
In February, Justin sets up snack. “Here Ms. Cleaver!” he says, in a voice that I use to call him for something fun, cajoling and conversational.
“How do you ask?” I reply.
“Here, Ms. Cleaver,” he says again, smiling, proud that he set up snack.
“You can have snack, but how do you ask?”
He walks to me, smiling, limping a little, the kind of walk kids get when they are about to whine.
I cross my arms and raise my eyebrows.
“Ms. Cleaver,” he says, whining now.
I shake my head, no.
He looks at me, as if he is dying of hunger.
“May I have,” I prompt.
“May I have.” He mimics the exaggerated calm in my tone and his face lights up.
I believe, after one year as a teacher, that modeling is my best teaching tool.
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