Start At The Bottom

It’s not every day that you have an epiphany while sipping tea in a cafe in Seville, Spain.  Yet, that is what happened to me two years ago.  I sat there watching the world pass by over the rim of my mug and thought about how I was experiencing this rich, vibrant Spanish way of life — paella, flamenco dancing, beautiful cathedrals, incredible artwork and lively music.  The food, clothing, language, art and music were the first things I thought about when considering this different culture.  

After a few more sips of tea, I thought about some other cultural differences I had experienced.  For example, it’s typical in Spain to eat lunch between 2-3pm followed by dinner around 9-10pm.  Also, siesta is no joke; many businesses close between 2-5pm for a post-lunch rest.  These were not things I could immediately observe; yet, they were just as much a part of Spanish culture.  Perhaps they were even more important.  At that moment, it occurred to me that I had only been thinking about the physical, observable traits of Spanish culture.  There is so much more to consider than just the art, dancing and food.  My a-ha moment: there are observable and unobservable aspects of any culture.

Can I consider my classroom a culture?

Do I need to spend more time focusing on the less visible aspects of my classroom community?

Do the daily routines and physical space of the classroom accurately reflect what I value about teaching and learning?  

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There is this idea that culture is like an iceberg. When you look at an iceberg, you are only looking at about 10% of the entire ice mass. When we say culture is evident by clothing, music, food and art–we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg.  We are only noticing a small piece of a much larger whole.  The other 90% is deep below the water line.  This other 90% of the iceberg is intangible—the parts that we don’t always see immediately, but lie below the surface.  The power of the bottom 90% comes from the fact that this hidden part informs and influences how people speak and behave.  Like an iceberg, there are parts of our classroom communities that we can see, touch and describe easily (our routines, desk arrangement, wall decorations, anchor charts, classroom library, etc.)  However, there are also many deeply rooted ideas in a classroom, and being mindful of these intangible values, attitudes and beliefs is what can elevate a community of learners.

At the beginning of each school year, I start at the bottom.  I contemplate the 90% below the surface.  I don’t cover the walls. I don’t arrange the desks. I don’t make name tags.  Before any of that, I have to take time and consider these questions:

  • What values, beliefs and norms do I want my classroom culture to revolve around?
  • How can I instill these into my students so they can be active learners and citizens in our classroom culture?
  • Do the classroom routines and daily practices we establish (i.e. the top 10%) demonstrate our core beliefs and values (i.e. the bottom 90%)?

I strive for a classroom to not be just a physical place, but a culture of its own.  I hope that anyone who steps into our physical classroom space–students, parents, administrators, and guests–can feel a classroom culture of learners who:

  • have a growth mindset,
  • own their learning,
  • critically think,
  • give feedback,
  • take academic risks,
  • have choice and voice in their learning, and
  • treat others kindly.

With this in mind, I have to think about how I can instill these into my students.  I know these are not just activities that we can do in the first few weeks of school.  These are year-long pursuits that become part of our daily routine.  Here are brief descriptions of 3 ways that I try to create a culture of active learning, all of which I will write about in future posts:

1) The Flock – For the past 12 years, I have used this piece of writing as the foundation for my classroom culture. My students think it is really cool that we are the only class with a name. Not a day goes by that I don’t refer to this metaphor. We have daily Flock meetings to share highs/lows of the day, create class goals, and resolve any issues that come up. Each student also has a paper bird that hangs from our ceiling with a statement of intent of how they will contribute to our Flock. I also tell students that once they are in The Flock, they are always in The Flock. My hope is that students know that they are part of a team, where the success of one student makes it easier for the others.

2) Essential Agreements – We start the year introducing five essential agreements. We talk at length about how these are more than just our classroom rules. They are our bill of rights.

  • We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe.
  • We have the right to be treated with respect.
  • We have the right to speak and be listened to.
  • We have the right to work and learn in a positive and supportive learning environment.
  • We have the right to do out best.

We spend a great deal of time discussing what each of these five agreements means and what they look like in the class. We act out skits and make long lists. This conversation doesn’t stop after the first week. It continues to be the main focus of our classroom culture.

3) Mission Statement – In the first week of school, the class and I spend time creating a 1-2 sentence mission statement that states our purpose for coming to class every day. It is posted in the classroom and referred to frequently. A few years back, I had a student say we should have a copy posted outside our classroom door, so our guests know what we stand for. Since then, our mission statement has been posted on our door every year.

Reading the previous posts on this Classroom Communities website has already helped me look beyond the surface-level, top 10% of the iceberg, and focus on creating a culture that goes deep.  I have learned that without a strong classroom culture, learning may not always take place.  I hope the classroom community to which my students and I belong empowers students to sustain a culture where learning, collaboration, risk-taking and mutual respect is paramount.  That might not be something you can see or touch, but bottom 90% is powerful nonetheless.  Remember, the bottom 90% is what sunk the Titanic.

 

photo credit: jeffmikels deep cover graphic base via photopin (license)

 

Learn Their Names, Learn Their Story

In fifth grade, my teacher was firm, but loving. She played the harp, had emerald green eyes, and read aloud Tuck Everlasting to our class. We rapped about rainforests, memorized the Fifty Nifty United States, and kept chameleons in aquariums (except for the one that escaped, making for a frantic morning search around the classroom!). I loved being in her class, but every day, the whole grade switched to different teachers for reading. Despite being an enthusiastic reader at home, I dreaded my reading teacher’s class from the beginning, all because of one thing. She refused to learn my name.

My name is Aliza.
It is derived from Hebrew.
Depending on the etymology, it means “joyful” or “oath of God”.
There are not many of us. I have only met one other Aliza, in person, in my life.
My name is pronounced “ah-LEE-zah”.
It rhymes with (The Leaning Tower of) Pisa and (The Pyramids of) Giza. Caesar, if you’re from Boston.

My entire life, I have heard my name pronounced incorrectly. Alyssa, Alisa, Alizay, Elise, Azalea, Aliva, Liza, Allie, Eliza (thanks Hamilton!). I empathize with the harried baristas, well-meaning teachers, and hopeful telemarketers as they bite their lips and take a stab at my name out loud. If it’s wrong, not to worry. I say “Thank you. It’s ah-LEE-zah.” (Although the telemarketers get some version of “I’m sorry. Eliza isn’t here right now. She’s out with Angelica and Peggy at a revel with some rebels on this hot night.”)

So, imagine my experience as a shy, rule-following, teacher-pleasing 10 year old when my reading teacher looked at my name on her attendance sheet, wrinkled her nose, and tried…“Alisa”. Correcting her, “It’s Aliza, with a Z.” She tried again. Man, Zs are difficult! Giving up all too soon, she spoke words that have stuck with me to this day:

“Ack! That’s too hard. I love Charlotte’s Web, so I’m going to call you Charlotte.”

She nicknamed me after one of literature’s most beloved characters, and Charlotte is a lovely name, but there is one problem. It is not MY name. Embarrassed, I cried the whole bus ride home that afternoon. When I told my parents that night, they encouraged me to tell her I did not like that name. It took every fiber of bravery saved up over my entire life to walk up to her soon after, surrounded by her favorite students, to say: “I don’t like being called Charlotte. It’s not my name.” Her response? An eyebrow raise, a smirk, and

“Oh! You don’t like Charlotte? Then I’ll call you Wilbur.”

A pig. A boy.

I suffered in silence, afraid to speak up again, to correct or share my hurt feelings with this adult. Too introverted to take the risk. Too anonymous to overcome my fears of becoming an original human with a name again. So I faded into the background for the rest of the year to survive her class.

Names are more than just words. They are an intangible tattoo of a person’s identity. They represent tradition and heritage, originality and creativity, honor and hope. Our name is the first thing that ever belongs to us in this world. Receiving a name is a ceremony, a rite of passage, in many religions and cultures. Being Jewish, I had a baby naming, where my Hebrew name, Havalah Shira, was bestowed. My Catholic dad chose his confirmation name, Paul. Names are a clue to identity, an invitation to others to learn more. They help cultivate a sense of self and can embody who we are and what we want to become.

Names have stories. They honor family members, here and gone. They reference favorite characters in literature and films. They allude to memories, feelings, places, and inspirations. Years ago, I had a student whose parents named their five kids with anagrams of their father’s first name. If you are like me, your name was chosen because your parents liked it and thought it to be original. The story of your name might just start with you.

Names can change. Whether by force or by choice, they transform and adjust. Names have inherent power and meaning. Name-calling bullies, dehumanizes, and denigrates others. To show respect to others, learn their names.

When you know someone’s name, it is the entry point to knowing that person more deeply. When you learn your students’ names, you acknowledge their existence. You convey to them “I see you. You are important to me. I value your story.” Learning their names is the first step in growing trust, rapport, relationships, and equitable classroom communities.

It’s as easy as:

  1. On the first day of school, ask students how to pronounce their names. Ask them to teach you and insist on taking the time to get it right.
  2. Ask students what they prefer to be called. Do they have a nickname? Does Christopher prefer Chris? Does Jasmine feel comfortable with Jazz?
  3. Have multiples of the same name in your class? Allow Sophia and Sofia, and Jaxon and Jackson to steer a conversation with you about how to avoid confusion in using their names aloud. Will you use last initials? A nickname? And if Jaxon and Jackson prefer their name and nothing else, that is what you accept and honor.
  4. Start every morning (or class period) at the door outside of your classroom to greet your students by name: “Good morning, Dejah!”, “Love that new haircut, Henry!”, “Oooh, what are you reading, Ahmed?”, “Mia! How was swim practice last night?”
  5. Whether through a formal project or stolen moments, take time to ask students about their names: how they were named and what their name means to them.
  6. If it’s your own name that throws the curveball, remember to kindly correct, be assertive, and offer opportunities for others to practice and learn it. I put the pronunciation of my name in my Twitter profile.

Many years later, near the end of summer, I saw that teacher in a restaurant. In the fantasy scenario in my head, I would have walked up to her and said:

To my dad, I’m Leezie.
To my mom, I’m Ali (ah-LEE).
To my nieces and nephews, I’m Auntie Leez.
To my high school softball teammates, I’m Al.
To my coach, I’m Z.
To my Deaf Education professors in college, I’m the hand sign for the letter “A” with a twist on my cheek.
To my students, I’m Mrs. Werner.
To you, I’m Aliza. It rhymes with Giza. Please learn it.

Instead, I walked mindfully into my classroom that new school year ready to learn the names of 22 young people. Pronouncing our students’ names accurately and respectfully is a true welcome into our classrooms. They hear you speak their names and their hearts ignite. Their confidence grows. Their dignity is defended.

Learn their names, learn their story.

Building a Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environment

I struggled with how to introduce this list without telling stories that aren’t mine to tell. Last September I asked the new principal of a local high-needs school about her new job. She said it was “good work.” I used that phrase whenever someone would ask about my new job. “It’s good work,” I would answer. How to explain that in a blog post?

I finally realized that it doesn’t matter if your school is high-needs or not. As Kristin Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, “Because the statistics are so overwhelming, I encourage you to view every student as though he or she has experienced trauma or is exposed to chronic stress” (2). Here’s my incomplete list of how to begin to build what Souers calls a “trauma-sensitive learning environment.”

1. See students as more than their story.

In Fostering Resilient Learners, Souers writes that we should focus on the effect that events have on our students rather than on the details of the events themselves. This shift in focus encourages us to “see students as more than their story” (16).

What does it mean to see our students as more than their story? Aren’t we building relationships? Isn’t it important that every single student in a school be known?

Yes, we’re building relationships, and yes, it’s essential that every student in a school be known, but we don’t have to know every detail to teach the student. Nor does the student have to reveal all of her or his life story to every single teacher. While a student’s story is important, it can also be shorthand for a set of assumptions that might or might not be true for that student.

It is helpful, for example, to know that a student suffers from crippling anxiety, or needs kind words, or doesn’t get support outside of school. In some cases, I am the teacher who knows the story, the one the student confides in. Just as often I’m not, and that’s okay too, because the changes I make for the crippling anxiety or the need for kind words or the support someone isn’t getting at home? Those are changes that benefit all my students, whether I know their story or not.

As much as we believe otherwise, the more we tell the story, the less we see the student. My students are more than their ACEs.

2. If they can, they will.

Many of us, as Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners, “associate behavior with choice” (32). If you only read one more book between now and the start of your school year, it should be Ross Greene’s Lost at School. Greene writes that behavior is a matter of lagging skills and unsolved problems rather than a decision by a student to misbehave. For me, the key change is to think about challenging behaviors as a problem to be solved rather than a choice that a student has made. If they can, they will.

When we see challenging behavior as a problem to be solved rather than a choice made by a student, it completely changes our relationship as teacher and student. Imagine that a student walks out of my class without permission every day. If I view this exit as a choice that the student is making, then the solution is obvious: the student needs to stay in class. On the other hand, if I view this exit as the demonstration of a lagging skill, a sign that my student is facing a problem that he or she lacks the skill to solve, then the situation is very different. I still want my student to stay in class, but if I remember, as Greene repeats, that “Kids do well if they can,” then I’m more likely to work with my student to identify the problem and master the lagging skill. (I’m only touching briefly on the content of Greene’s book. You can learn more about his work with Collaborative and Proactive Solutions here.)

3. Every student, every day.

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Sometimes, simple is better. When we returned to school after break in January, I set a simple focus for myself each day. Greet every student by name. Look and see their faces. Ask questions. A few weeks later, I wrote Connect in my planner on a Monday and Connect again on a Tuesday. At the very end of the school year, one of our instructional leaders tasked us to meet with every single reader before the year ended. It seemed an impossible task, but I met with as many students as I could. Tell me about the book you’re reading. What are your plans for next year? What do you want to do after high school?

I know we can’t confer with every student every day, but how many students do we stop and talk to each day? Do we take a minute to really see every student in front of us, or do we simply launch into our lesson after a cursory glance so that we can take attendance? I know that I can look without seeing, especially after I’ve taught a few periods in a row. I know that I need to stop, breathe, observe, connect. I might not get to everyone, but the goal remains the same.

Every student, every day.

Talk Matters

“Thanks for talking to me like I’m normal.”

At the beginning of the summer, I began to scan documents into Evernote. I knew that reducing my entire classroom’s contents wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t anticipate how emotional I would get when stumbling across letters from students.

It’s this line from a former student and mentee that lingers in the back of my head. And it’s this line that is on my mind as I shift into a new role as an assistant principal for the following school year.

The way we talk matters. Whether it’s to our students or to the other adults in the room, our words do things. They have incredible power. Like the student I briefly mentioned above, our words can make someone feel “normal,” or they can make them feel infinitesimal. During this time in public education when we feel as if so much is beyond our control, how we talk to colleagues and kids is completely up to us. And as Peter Johnston wrote in Choice Words, “A teacher’s choice of words, phrases, metaphors, and interaction sequences invokes and assumes these and other ways of being a self and of being together in the classroom” (9).

Now that many of us are at the midway point of our summer vacations, I invite you to think about these questions that are guiding my own work this fall about language and community.

How do you want to position the person in front of you?

Johnston also says in Choice Words that “Language works to position people in relation to one another” (9). What is the power structure you want to create? Will everyone feel valued and welcomed? Are some people’s ideas more valuable than others’ ideas?

It’s not too early to start to think about how you can be intentional with your language, especially when the positioning occurs in conjunction with your position. Will you share the locus of control, or will you allow an existing hierarchy to continue in your classroom or building? Will you be the “sage on the stage” or will you take a more student-centered, constructivist approach?

In Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction, Lesley A. Rex and Laura Schiller also encourage teachers to think about how they position students. They note that “Becoming aware of our assumptions about students and how those assumptions lead us to position students has much to do with student engagement and motivation” (13). They continue by explaining it isn’t simple work to reflect on the ways in which we engage and position students. They note that “we think we know our assumptions about our students… yet our words can give us away” (9).

What identities will be created, and what stories will be told?

Johnston also gets at the idea that language is “constitutive.” In other words, “It actually creates realities and invites identities” (9). We all know the student who has been embarrassed so many times because he said the wrong thing and is now entirely reluctant to participate. We most certainly know the colleague who feels as if her opinion is never valued in important conversations. I wonder about the language that has been shared with both of these people that has shaped their identities of feeling unable or helpless.

Johnston continues later by adding that “To understand children’s development of a sense of agency, then, we need to look at the kinds of stories we arrange for children to tell themselves” (30). I would even go further and say that we need to look at the arranger. Who is shaping and contributing to the vignettes of students’ identities?

How will you work to ensure that the existing identities are challenged, and create spaces where new identities can form or be arranged? Whether you start back in August or September, it’s a new opportunity to create spaces where new identities can develop or existing ones can be refined. I’m not saying this will be easy, but we have more power than we often think about when it comes to the very people forming in front of us. Our identities are always malleable and works in progress, but our language has to be open enough that it can allow this identity work to happen on individual and group levels, or our language can reinforce the very identities that exist in front of us.

And this work takes time! As Rex and Schiller also note, “It takes repeated displays for others to recognize someone’s identity” (20). They continue by adding that the same is true for students’ thoughts about teachers. Identity work doesn’t happen over night; it takes weeks to occur. But we do need to be intentional early on about the “repeated displays” that will take place in order to allow those identities to form, especially if we are rewriting old identities.

What are your iconic phrases?

“Make good choices.”

“You are better than that.”

“What are you reading?”

I polled a few students during the summer and asked about my own language. These are the top three responses that students sent back to me when asked about what I say most often.

What I like about the third one in particular is that it assumes that the student has developed an identity as a reader. I don’t anticipate that they aren’t reading; I, instead, assume the opposite.

Think about the unwritten messages that your most common language implies. Are you assuming the best of all the people around you, or are you letting other things get in the way? What’s even more important is to think about how some of the phrases you say too often negatively position others or create identities that are not as conducive to learning as you’d like.

How will you repair moments when another “loses face”?

Rex and Schiller also introduce the idea of “saving face,” when someone works to protect their views about themselves so they are not embarrassed or diminished (45). Sometimes this happens. It is inevitable. In fact, I still remember the time my fourth grade teacher told me—in front of the entire class—that I did a project “entirely wrong.” Our words can linger and the damage can last if we don’t intentionally work to repair hurt identities.

One of the best ways to notice if we need to repair and help “save face” is by reading students’ body language. As Rex and Schiller also point out, “In order to determine if we have threatened our listener’s face, we should focus not only on what we meant, but even more on the listener’s reaction” (45). So if we see a student slouched over, turning away, or ask immediately to leave the room after contributing, we know that we have done something wrong. So it is our responsibility to intervene. In my own experience, students have appreciated my intervention when things go awry. And they most certainly will! We’re working with humans here. One move that I make regularly during discussions is to act as the clarifier. I’ll use a prompt (often it’s some form of “So, what I heard you say is…) and help the student enter a position of explaining their point in different words so that everyone can better understand.

How will you name and celebrate what they have done?  

Johnston also writes that “Children, and adults, often accomplish things without any awareness of what they have done” (15). As teachers, especially within the content areas, we have the ability to name and label the specific things students do that are quite complex. They might do them automatically, but we can invite them into disciplinary specific ways of thinking by sharing the language and helping them name their moves.

 

The old saying goes that “talk is cheap.” In education, I would argue that it’s our currency. It’s where we get the “most bang for our buck.” Spend your words wisely and intentionally, and don’t be afraid to have open, honest conversations about language.

Strengthening A Community Through Student-Led Book Talks

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Book Talks are a powerful ritual for creating a strong classroom connections.  Whether stories, informational texts, or websites are shared, each Book Talk presents opportunities for richer reading lives and a more connected community.  The process and elements for Book Talks are very simple.  

Time:  

Set time aside time each day for a Book Talk.  You only need 2-10 minutes for the presentation, questions, and comments.  Be flexible and use the time you have and remember…you have the entire school year to build and maintain this routine and ritual.  

Materials:  

Book Talks rely on a simple routine and accessible texts.  You select and present any reading resources that you think will enhance the reading lives of the community.  You can present and show the physical text in hand.  You can tap into Internet resources by showing book cover images, authors’ websites, book trailers, or informational websites on a Smart Board.  Visuals of any form make an impact on your audience.

Purpose:

Take time to explain why this book or resource was selected and worthy of the Book Talk ritual.  Why are you really excited about this resource for fellow readers?

Audience Connections:

Let readers know who might enjoy this story or resource.

  • This is a book for readers who enjoy…
  • If you are interested in _______________ this might be the website for you.
  • Are you looking for a new genre in your reading life?  This might get you excited about…

Conversations:

The conversational nature of this ritual provides time to ask questions or make comments.  These inclusive and positive interactions strengthen the connections between readers while building a supportive community.  

Whether I am sharing new titles after a trip to my favorite book store, the next installment in a book series, or introducing an author new to the publishing scene, I want students to realize that I value Book Talks because our independent reading lives matter.  Our talks allow me to share my own enthusiasm for old favorites or new discoveries while adding possibilities to students’ To Be Read lists.   

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Student-Led Book Talks

The power of Book Talks increases exponentially as soon as students take on the responsibilities and leadership of this ritual.  Book Talks actively show students that individuals add important and powerful elements to our learning community.  As I launch the year modeling the process of Book Talks, my students and I create a chart showing the elements of a an effective book chat, connecting students to the community ritual.

Book Talk Elements

  • Title or Web Address
  • Positive Purpose:  Why is this worthy of a Book Talk?
  • Audience:  Who might like this book or resource?
  • Awareness:  Here are some things you should know about this book/resource/website….

 

By the third week of school, I present the class calendar and invite students to consider scheduling a 2-5 minute Book Talk.  Just like the boundaries of Haiku or an Ignite presentation, time limits require students to be thoughtful and intentional about their selections and messages to the community.

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Students present books and resources in a variety of ways.  Here are few examples of how students present their ideas:

Casual Chat

A student sits before the group and talks about the book or resource.

Slides

A student picks 3-5 images that help structure the presentation around important elements worthy of the preview.  The visual presentations are not only interesting, but they offer support for students less comfortable speaking in front of the group.  Slides offer dignified support to ELL students that may need text or vocabulary reminders.

iMovie

Using this versatile and creative tool, students develop their own book trailer and share important elements of the book or resource.  I then upload these trailers to our class website via Youtube.

Posters

Traditional or digital posters add a supportive visual to a student’s book talk and then serve as a reminder to other interested readers.

 

Considering Book Talks

Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that humans survive and thrive because we live in a rich ecosystem of knowledge. Thinking is more than just an individual’s pursuit, but it is a social effort as well.  I believe that classroom communities grow stronger with shared rituals.  A person’s intellectual and social growth is supported, enriched, and expanded by experiences with the people of a valued community. Supported experiences like Book Talks build powerful connections between learners, empowered by a community where ideas, resources, enthusiasm and questions can always be shared.

 

Book Talks are more than just an opportunity to practice public speaking skills.  The simple act of exchanging book recommendations and listening to one another’s opinions provides each student with a glimpse into the reading lives of peers.  Friendships can bloom when two people are fans of the same author.  Respect for the diverse range of interests and expertise within a class take center stage as informational texts and websites are shared.  Experiencing what it feels like to have supportive listeners in one’s life is refreshing.  A caring community based on a love of reading is time well spent.

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Planning For A New Community

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I saw an aspen tree for the first time about seven years ago. Within an instant the aspen’s white bark, simple leaves, and movement in the wind tugged at my gaze. The aspen is a gorgeous tree. I later discovered the aspen tree is so much more than itself. There is really no such thing as a lone aspen. One aspen is actually part of a bigger organism, the root system of the aspen extends over a large area and produces multiple aspen that connect to each other. I just oversimplified this amazing organism, but it is fascinating that aspen are not independent trees, but a community that thrives together. We should be so lucky to be connected like the aspen are.

I have many goals as an educator, but when I begin a new school year the primary goal is building a community of learners. I want the classes I learn with to feel like a stand of aspens. My hope is that all of us will be better learners because we connect with each other. And hopefully these connections will move us toward a common goal of being empowered learners and more active citizens in our school and community. The work I expect to do the first month of the school year will be difficult, but I know it is vitally important if we are to progress as learners.

The Commitments I Make During the Beginning of a School Year.

Listen, listen and then listen some more: Years ago I was fortunate enough to learn from Max Brand when I did my year of training to become a literacy coordinator. The learning was intense, but incredibly rewarding. One of the major concepts that was repeatedly reinforced that year was to watch the students and listen to the students. Over time I have become better at using the idea of “kidwatching” to refine my practice. While you should always be willing to listen to your students, there is no more important time than the beginning of the year to commit to listening to your students. Let them have some voice in the room, it will pay off later in the year.

Find ways to learn more about my students: I work hard at the beginning of the year to help establish some norms for classroom discussions and independent work time. During the time I work to help establish the norms, I often chose activities that allow the students to share about themselves. Specifically their lives outside of school. I used to use a lot of surveys and checklists. You probably know the ones I am picturing now; a sheet of paper with 10-15 questions like “what is your favorite movie” or “how many people are in your family.” I still sometimes will pull together something like that if I want to know very specific things about my students, but now I do most of this information gathering in different ways. Informal questions like, “What is the best movie ever?” turn into prompts for when we are working on building norms for classroom discussions. Or they turn into quick-write prompts for when we are working on building norms for independent work time.

Intentionally plan community building time: Even though I know time is precious in a middle school, I know I need to plan specific activities that on the surface may seem like they have nothing to do with language arts. Every year I look for new community building or team building activities that help students connect and work together. Sometimes these activities look like something that you would expect to find in a science lab (paper airplanes and egg drops) or an art class (heart maps and personal logo design), but the point of these activities are to help the kids work together and learn more about each other when we begin the school year. I know based on the research and work of Neil Mercer, Brian Cambourne and others that creating classroom conditions where students can help each other learn from each other as much or more than they can learn from me is a key to success. It is hard to get to a place where we are a learning community if we don’t know each other well.

Actively seek the thoughts and opinions of my students: It took me a long time as an educator to seek out the opinions of my students about how the learning was happening in the room we shared. I am not sure of the root cause for not asking for student advice, but for the better part of 10-15 years it never occurred to me to genuinely ask for feedback from my students. Now it happens many times a year. During the beginning of the year I ask for feedback about the room enironment. I ask questions like, “Are the desks and tables arranged well?”, “Are the norms for learning helping you learn?”, and “Does the classroom library need any updates?” When I ask for feedback it can hurt a little, but then I remember that student learning is really not about me, it is about them. And if there are little things that I can do to help make the environment for learning better, then I should do them.

Remember that to get to depth in learning we need to be ready to learn together: During the first weeks of the year, it is hard to dig deep into content for many reasons. Yet, I will still find myself getting nervous when I hear colleagues sharing stories about being on their second writing project or they have already had three formative assessments completed. Whenever I make the mistake of pushing curricular goals ahead of community goals, the learning later in the year suffers. It is not like the students are just sitting around doing nothing, but I need to remind myself that focus is on the kids and the community those first few weeks.

Choose kind: The beginning of the school year is difficult. As teachers, we can be overly tired and stressed. Our students may be having difficulty adjusting to new schedules and expectations. This is why I commit to choosing kind in the classroom. It is easy when you are not at your best to lash out at someone for something you don’t appreciate. I know I have barked at students in the first few weeks, days or maybe even minutes of school. I am sure it will happen again because I make mistakes, but I do commit to choosing kind and when I make a mistake I will work to correct it and make amends with the student. It is difficult to establish a learning community in a classroom when the lead learner acts in ways that are detrimental to the concept of community.


“The smartest person in the room is the room itself” is a quote from author/technologist David Weinberger that I have heard many times. I truly believe that Weinberger is correct. However, in his book, Too Big to Know, Weinberger also wrote, “Even if the smartest person in the room is the room itself, the room does not magically make all those who enter smart.” In his book, Weinberger focuses on the role of rapidly evolving role information and technology in our society, but I think the notion that the “room doesn’t magically make all those who enter smarter” is a good thing to grasp when thinking about the beginning of a school year. We can’t expect a community of learners to magically appear. We need to help cultivate our communities, by taking time and doing some work.

Remember the aspen I shared at the beginning of this post? Another interesting thing about the aspen is its extensive root system can lie dormant for decades before producing trees. It will only produce trees under the right environmental conditions. We all start the school year with dormant communities in our rooms. Whether they blossom or stay dormant will depend on the right environmental conditions emerging.

photo credit: JusDaFax Summer Aspens via photopin (license)

5 Ways to Share About the Importance of Relationships

Most teachers I am connected with on social media know the value of relationships and community in education. That’s part of why they’re on social media in the first place: they know the benefits of finding ways to connect with others. Every time I would say something about relationships and community, I would get hundreds of likes on Facebook and Twitter. Rarely would there be any negative reaction or pushback.

It makes me wonder if this is just a strawman argument. Do we really need to talk up the value of relationships and community in education, or does everyone pretty much get it already?

Then I would sit down and have some in-person conversations. You remember the type. The ones that go beyond 140 characters? And sometimes happen over shared food and beverage consumption experiences? In these conversations, I would hear stories of teachers who don’t think they should get to know their students. I would hear of principals who don’t allow their teachers to take a day off the scripted curriculum to do community-building activities. I would hear from parents who are pretty sure none of their child’s teachers know their child’s name. I would hear from students who feel so lost at school because they feel there’s nobody there who cares about them.

[Sometimes, those students are my own students, and it makes me pause and reflect quite intensely]

I am reminded that this is not just a battle worth fighting, but it is, in fact, a battle that exists.

So: how do we fight it? What are our defenses? What are our weapons?

[Note: I’m going to stop the battle metaphor here; I don’t think it’s appropriate for a post about education]

Here are some things I’ve found that we as teachers can do to support ourselves, our colleagues, and — most importantly — our students, in the conversation about relationships and community.

1. Have Conversations

It really is a conversation, not a battle (sorry, those of you who really wanted that battle metaphor to continue). If you want to effect change, you need to begin with a relationship. It’s really just putting into practice the very idea! If relationships help students learn, then they will also help others learn.

Let’s say the goal is for your colleagues to be more open-minded about and maybe even agree with you about the role of relationships and community in education. You could:

  1. give them a pile of research that they will probably not read
  2. tell them they’re wrong and have them shut down every idea you ever give them
  3. drop subtle hints about how your students enjoy that you get to know them and seem to perform better because of it and have that colleague feel awkwardly passive-aggressively attacked, or
  4. have a conversation with that colleague.

Which sounds more likely to help you achieve your goals?

The benefit here is that the conversation doesn’t even have to be about the topic at hand! What’s important is that you have a staff that feels comfortable talking with each other. If you can’t even talk about last night’s game or political trends or how excited you are for the weekend, how would you ever be able to talk about topics of disagreement in the education world?

2. Read the Research

Of course, at some point, you are going to go beyond water-cooler talk and get to the important issues of the profession. But it’s tough to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you if you don’t have support for what you’re talking about. Imagine: you have a colleague who is open to talking with you and wants to hear what you have to say — but then you have nothing to back up your arguments! We wouldn’t accept that from our students, and we shouldn’t accept that from each other.

I should start this section by saying I’m not an expert. My master’s degree is in educational technology, and most of my pedagogical research has been in mathematics and literacy. But there are a couple pieces of research on relationships I have found important:

It’s more than just the research on relationships, though. If relationships are so important, information should be everywhere, right? Well, it turns out that is. So it’s also important that we…

3. Read Other Research with a Relationship Lens

Most things we will be reading for our professional lives will not be directly about relationships. Between reading books our students will be reading, content area pedagogical texts, and other things that are just for us, it’s hard to get a lot in. I know.

But when you’re reading those other pieces of research and pedagogy, look for the relationship piece. I have been, and I’ve been shocked how much it comes up (well, shocked and not shocked — it IS important, after all!).

I have found lots of good sound bytes and anecdotal evidence about the importance of relationships while reading Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Dave Burgess, and George Couros, to name a few. In fact, it seems like more often than not, I’m finding intelligent human beings noting the importance of relationships, whether or not this is the explicit focus of their writing. I read a brain-based learning book last year, and even it had plenty to say about relationships! It’s all around us if we are looking for it.

So look for it.

4. Formally Share Your Findings with Your Colleagues

This, to me, is the big one. If we want to help others realize what we are discovering about the role of relationships and community, we need to put it out there. The informal conversations are vital. There’s a reason I listed them first. But formal presentations probably pack the most punch.

So where to begin? Start with those around you. Does the person in charge of PD for your building have teachers lead internal PD? Sign up. If not: ask if you can do one anyway. It might be a welcome change to the PD culture at the school.

State-level conferences are also great for this. I have been fortunate enough to present on this twice in Michigan at state-level literacy conferences. It was very easy to submit a proposal and they were low-pressure presentations. That said, the first time I presented, there were only 4 people in the room, including me! But the 4 of us got a lot out of it.

You could also start a blog. Or, if you don’t think you have enough for a full blog, but have maybe an idea or two that you’d like to share, get a hold of us here at Classroom Communities to see if we would be open to hosting you. [Spoiler alert: we totally would be]

Which brings me to…

5. Follow, Read, and Share this Blog

We are going to be updating this blog with stories, research, strategies, and questions all focused on the role relationships and community play in education. Keep an eye out for particular posts that will be helpful to you in your own classroom, but also might be good to share to a colleague. Just remember: build that relationship with your colleague first, and then share the link. Because as James Comer said: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”