The Elephant in the Room

On Friday night, hundreds of American white supremacists had a rally in Charlottesville, VA. In the violent aftermath, dozens of people were injured, and three people died, at least one of whom was a victim of this racially-motivated domestic terrorism. On top of that, people around the world were reminded that racism is alive and well in the United States.

Every single person in that latter group looks just like those who put on the rally.

White people, such as myself, have the unique ability to forget that there are those who wish we didn’t exist. I have been reminded time and time again by people of color that they do not have that luxury.

But right now, it is on all of our minds.

Including the minds of our students.

What do we do? How do we help the next generation be better than our current generation? How do we help make sure the next generation lives long enough to actually become the next generation, and not the last generation?

What I know is that I don’t know.

I’m not going to claim to have the answers. But I have some ideas and some resources that I think can help.

But to begin with, we must shed the notion that our classrooms — our communities of learners — are not able to handle this sort of discussion. Again, for those of us who are white, we are at times able to ignore this, even when it is shoved in our faces. The same is true of our white students. But we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to all our students — regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity — if we make the choice to ignore this or pretend that it is not important to our students. They’re all thinking about it. Our silence on the matter would speak louder than anything else we could say.

This is their world. This is the world they are going to need to make better. It is our job to help them do so. So we need to do some work.

Be properly informed.

Students will be looking to their teachers as thought leaders and will often take their word as bond. So if you start spreading misinformation to your students, that will do one of two things: 1) cause them to lose faith in you, or, more likely, 2) cause them to believe and perpetuate the falsehoods you accidentally proclaimed. Do your research on the events before you share about them.

For this particular act of hate, I have found this resource to be fairly reliable. It appears to have a slight bias, but does not in any way alter the facts that are presented: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/state-of-emergency-in-va-after-white-nationalist-rally.html

Survey your own biases in the classroom.

Pay attention to the way you are teaching your students. Are you consistent in your demeanor to all students? Do you have different expectations for different students? Probably. Many of us do, and often times, it’s for a good reason: different students are at different levels, and may need different expectations.

But what about when it’s not a good reason? What if you have higher expectations of the boys in your room than you do of the girls? What if you are short-tempered more often with students who are of a different race than you are?

Obviously that’s a problem in terms of fostering a positive learning environment, but what about the unintended lessons that teaches our students? If you are a white teacher and you are quicker to discipline your black students, what is that really doing? The message to the black students is that they are more likely to be discipline problems, based on their race. The message to their white classmates is the same one.

Imagine you make that mistake often. Imagine it happens for our students year after year after year. Hopefully the students being taught they are less than have other sources in their life that remind them that no, they are just as worthy of respect and have the same level of dignity as anyone else.

But what about the majority students? If they receive the message from school that their minority classmates are less than they are simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc., what happens if they don’t receive a message that says the opposite? Who do they become?

“They sat in our classrooms. Let’s do better.”

The full quote to the above is from LaNehsa Tabb, @apron_education on Instagram. Here’s the full post:

apron_education.png

A lot of teachers like to talk about how teaching is the profession that trains all others. Well, if we’re going to take credit for doctors and artists and lawyers, we also need to take credit for our white supremacists. Many of us back down from these conversations, as we are not the parents of our students. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide a model that is perhaps drastically different than what they see at home. Yes, if you speak up against white nationalist viewpoints or Trump’s rhetoric, you might get some phone calls from parents angry about you bringing your politics into the classroom. You might cause some of your students to lose faith in you. You might lose your job.

You might also get a call 15 years down the road from a former student thanking you for showing them there was a different way to be an adult. You might have a student stick back at the end of the day to tell you they are glad someone said something. You might have a student choose to speak up against racism when they see it. You might cause a student to second-guess a rally they were going to attend. You might cause there to be one less white supremacist in the world. And, as many teachers know, if you know for sure that one person was impacted by your teaching, there are probably dozens you don’t know of.

Be mindful in your curriculum choices.

Keeping in mind what LaNesha Tabb mentioned in her post, we need to consider the future of our students when we decide what to teach them. We know that diversity breeds empathy (see here, here, and here). What are we doing to bring that to our students? What actions can we take? I reached out to Kathy Burnette (@thebrainlair on Twitter), and she had some wise words:

It is hard to put into words actions we should take because I’m sidetracked by my own alternating feelings of of rage, sadness, and despair. Trying to work my way back to hope. But it’s very difficult right now. As a book nerd, I believe that books, and the way we use them, can provide us some of this hope. But what we have to do is move the literature conversation forward. When we are posting our book lists, deciding what we are reading to our classes, picking books to share with other teachers – take a few minutes. Check that book. What kind of message does this book send? Have I sent that same message to this group before? Is this a book that’s written about people of color but not by people of color? Is this “social justice” book only looking at Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks?

How are we using books to advance humanity? Are people of color shown as, well, people? Is it like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon where the main characters are two teenagers who are funny and passionate but happen to be Indian. Or The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon where Natasha and Daniel meet and Daniel is sure he can convince Nicole to fall in love with him and the main characters happen to be Korean and Jamaican? Is it about twin brothers who go to school and play basketball but aren’t in jail or do drugs? We need to make sure we are sharing stories where people of color are living everyday lives. That’s what should be “normalized”.

Consider that. As teachers, we can help prevent future racists from existing simply by making smart choices in the stories we share with our students.

“If our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.” — Chad Everett

I think that speaks for itself. See Chad’s full Nerd Talk text here.

Read Lynsey Burkins’ post on this blog.

Then go read it again.

Own your own racism.

Our students suffer from an epidemic of adults in their life being portrayed as perfect. Their teachers make no mistakes. What they say is always correct.

I will probably write an entire post just about the need to apologize to our students, but let me give you a preview here. And it has to do with owning your flaws.

I am not perfect, though my students sometimes see me as such (and other times, I leave them no doubt that I am not). But I am not and never am. This includes my views on race.

There are parts of me that are racist. Parts of me that act as a white supremacist.

It may seem that I am one of the “good guys” because if I were in Charlottesville this weekend, I would have been protesting the rally, not being a part of it. But do I racially profile? Per above, do I discipline my students differently based on race? Do I assume my good intentions are all I need?

Sometimes, yes. And more.

I have seen this image bouncing around social media for a few months now. I can’t find an original source, but it’s important for us to look at again:

Here’s the thing. If I pretend that I am perfect in terms of my views on race because I don’t do the top of the triangle, it does harm to the students in my care. It does harm because it means that the stuff I do in the bottom part of the triangle is acceptable.

And it’s not.

It’s important that I own my failings, and do so in front of my students when appropriate. If you are having conversations with your students about racism, it’s okay to talk about your own failings. In fact, it’s vital. Many of your students will have the same flaws and failings.

It’s not okay to be racist. But it’s also not okay to pretend that you’re not. The best thing to do is acknowledge your shortcomings, and publicly talk about how you’re working to be better on it. This gives the students in your classroom permission to do the same. To say that they are working on being a better human being, because they’re not perfect.

Check your feelings.

Your students’ feelings are important, because they are developing the capacity to understand them and act on them. Your feelings are much less important. You’re an adult and can find healthy outlets that don’t sacrifice what your students need.

If we wait until the next major hate crime to talk about it with our students, we are complicit in fostering the attitudes that led to that crime. If someone comes through our classroom and we made a choice to NOT talk about the obvious evil that is in our world, and they go on to continue that evil in the world, we deserve part of the blame for their actions.

The community at stake here is more than just your classroom.

That being said, it starts in your classroom. Yes, we’re talking about the world at large, but right now, you have the students in front of you. Be the teacher they need. Don’t brush aside tough conversations because they’re tough. Have them for precisely that reason.

Let’s build a future of empathetic, free-thinking leaders. Ones that recognize white supremacy and similar ideologies as the evil they are. And let’s start that work now.

Final thoughts

Jen Vincent, who tweets at @mentortexts and was a leading voice on this topic at Nerd Camp Michigan along with Kathy Burnette and Chad Everett, offers her closing remarks.

After the act of terrorism in Charlottesville this weekend, you might have seen the hashtag #thisisnotus on Twitter. I think the sentiment intended is that we, as a country, as people, as citizens, can do better. This should not be us. I wish it wasn’t us. But it is. As much as we need to move forward and do better. Better at being informed, at speaking up, at discussing social justice with our students, we also need to understand how we got here. I implore you, if you have not seen the documentary 13th from Ava DuVernay, go watch it before you do anything else.

Before watching 13th, I knew how deeply seated racism was in America but I didn’t realize how people and their specific actions have overtly contributed to the pervasiveness of racism across our country. Truly, across our country. Here is a map from Southern Poverty Law Center that shows hate groups currently in the United States.

It is important that we check our biases, that we are well informed, that we have discussions with our students. Yes to all of this. But we also need to take time to know how we got here so we can make connections between the past and now. If we don’t understand the scope of institutional racism, I fear we will continue to stay in denial and claim that this is not us, when clearly it is and it has been for a very long time.

Additional resources:

A Google Doc of teaching resources
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter
Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources
NPR has a compiled a list of resources
The Early Childhood Education Assembly of NCTE has two resources that may be helpful: here and here.

 

Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind

I didn’t know very much about trauma-informed practices until I started at my current school. While I’d taught in both public and private schools, I’d spent most of that time in a school filled with very fortunate children and their families. While trauma can (and does) exist in all communities, it’s far more prevalent in some than in others. Many of my current students, unfortunately, have experienced a great deal of trauma, and since I now teach in a tribal school, the intergenerational trauma is also in their very DNA.

At the start of last year, I handed out index cards so students could ask questions about me. It’s a pretty typical get-to-know-you sponge activity for the end of a class period (“What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” “Do you like the Seahawks?”). This time, though, I was asked a new question.

“How long are you staying?” many wrote.

“When are you leaving?” one student continued to ask as fall turned into winter.

“Are you coming back next year?” an advisee asked for the fifth or sixth time during the last week of school.

My students didn’t think that I would stay because a lot of teachers hadn’t stayed in the past. So I told them, every time they asked, that I would stay, at the very least, for the entire school year. When things got hard, and they did, I reminded myself that I would not be one more person who left these kids. Later, when they started asking if I was coming back the following year, I told them that I wasn’t looking anywhere else, and that I would come back if it was within my power. I told my 9th grade advisees that I wasn’t going anywhere until they graduated (“and everyone is graduating!” I added).

I did my best to miss as few days as possible. When I went to visit another school to see our then future curriculum in action, I told them where I was going, and yet some were still suspicious that I was visiting another school. “Where were you?” they asked accusingly when I had jury duty and later missed a day for a family gathering to honor my grandmother, even though I’d announced it weeks in advance. I took to posting my weekly schedule of meetings and other commitments on my door so that students would know why I was late opening the classroom or why I couldn’t meet with them after school.

To earn our students’ trust and build relationships with them, we have to be present. The most important thing that we can do is to show up every single day. Obviously this isn’t always possible; new teachers will be especially susceptible to every single germ that walks in the door. A few pieces of advice: Get your own stapler and keep it separate from student supplies. Invest in hand sanitizer. Wash your hands a lot.

One winter when I still lived in Chicago, the flu was so bad in my building that I sprayed down my classroom and all the lockers and door handles with Lysol almost every day. People complained about the smell, but eventually we had to close down the entire school for a day because so many teachers were out. I never got sick. Now, my recommendation is to get as much sleep as possible and take a double dose of Emergen-C daily, especially if you’re a new teacher. Super Orange mixed with Tropical is my favorite. (Seriously, every day.)

Some people call this self care, and it is. But students who have been exposed to trauma need consistent, caring adults in their classrooms, and we can’t be that if we’re sick and tired, and we definitely can’t do that if we aren’t there. Students might not understand why you hand them a new pencil instead of sharing yours, but they will notice when you come to school every day.

Thanks for staying
A sophomore wrote this in my yearbook last year.

In the introduction to Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, Kristin Souers writes that strategies are “a reminder that as the adults, we should, to use a quote from the Circle of Security project (Marvin, Cooper, Hoffman, & Powell, 2002), be “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.” (3). Even as I set the book aside for a few weeks, those four words continued to run through my mind.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

We’re asked to be a lot of things to our students. We’re teacher, coach, mentor, friend, taskmaster, fashion consultant, alarm clock. We provide lessons, books, supplies, lunches, snacks, band-aids (so many band-aids!), tissues, bathroom passes. We teach students to read, to write, to think, to calculate, to measure, to dance, to sing, to trust. It can be overwhelming, especially when you’re also trying to be the safe, trustworthy adult that Souers is writing about.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

Teaching students suffering from the effects of trauma isn’t easy work. Many students don’t enter the classroom ready to learn; my students don’t do compliant. It can be a struggle every day, and it’s discouraging when students push back at every opportunity.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

I’m excited for school to start in two weeks; I wouldn’t want to do any other job, and I wouldn’t want to be teaching anywhere else, but I don’t fool myself that the second year will be easy. My new 9th graders, especially, will surely want to test their new teacher.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

These are the words that I’ll use to guide my work this year. This is how I’ll build relationships with a new group of students. Every day, I’ll strive to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

My #pb10for10 list about Relationships

When I was asked to join this project I decided to do a little digging to help my thinking about our focus.  Our byline is – Building Relationships, Empowering Learners.  I am a word nerd sometimes and headed right to dictionary.com.  What do these four words mean?

Building – anything built or constructed

Relationships – an emotional or other connection between people

Empowering – to give power or authority to;to enable or permit

Learners – a person who is learning;the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill

I have my favorite books for launching reading workshop, writing workshop, math workshop and routines/behaviors.  I began to wonder if I had books to help support building relationships and this is what I discovered…in no particular order.  Instead of telling a summary of each book, I tried to highlight aspects of relationships in each.  It’s my intent to use these books in launching conversations that help build relationships for my new learners in an effort to empower them while spending our year together.  

The Sandwich Swap by Kelly DiPucchio begins with two friends who love many things the same except their lunch.  Their lunch differences cause quite a stir and divide between the girls.  They have the courage to try different lunches and realize autonomy is a positive thing.

Ruby in Her Own Time by Jonathan Emmett is a story about a duck family with ducklings on the way.  Four strong and able ducklings are born with one, Ruby taking her time to join the world.  Once Ruby joins the world she takes that same pace to grow and learn and succeeds.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson takes a look at physical and emotional barriers  and how a simple question can open doors.  The girls find a way to spend time with each other and respect those barriers.

Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard has a very grumpy character who doesn’t really want  to interact with others.  However, his friends think differently and decide to join him on his walk; it’s a way to spend time with him.  The walk turns into a little simon says in a way and changes one grump to happy.

The Monster Next Door by David Soman begins with two characters copying each other by doing and saying silly things.  However, those silly things get a bit carried away and feelings are hurt.  You’ll want to read this one to see how things get mended between a boy and a monster.

Matthew and Tilly by Rebecca C Jones is another story that starts out with friends doing everything together but then they get tired of each other.  I think it’s important we model this as a part of relationships.  Matthew and Tilly play independently but realize it isn’t as joyful.  

Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler creates a story where a king and queen each take over the school playground.  The playground gets divided and there are things to be conquered which leads to an empty playground.  The king and queen step down returning the playground to a happy ever after place to be.

Boy Plus Bot by Ame Dyckman begins with an injured character and the care provided by another based on what he would want done to him.  These things don’t necessarily work until some guidance is offered for what is best for someone who is different.  Readers will enjoy how the two characters find common ground.

Boo Hoo Bird by Jeremy Tankard is a story about support and efforts to help.  It’s a story that builds upon itself with each new character and idea of support.  The characters are full of cooperation and willingness.

The Girl Who Made Mistakes by Mark Pett is about a girl who is focused and successful until one day she makes her first mistake.  With care and support and acceptance she and her community are able to be healthier.

A Classroom Designed For Community

As the 2017/18 school year approaches, I have worked many hours setting up my new classroom. A classroom that will welcome students that are older than any other group I have seen. After 22 years of learning in elementary schools, I will be learning with 7th graders this fall. I cannot wait for these kids to walk through my door. New challenges excite me.

Besides the daunting task of curating the classroom library I brought from my previous classroom, the most fascinating task was to think about how my new learning space will meet the needs of a diverse range of learners with the resources that were available to me. I probably spent a good day or two just ‘mapping out possible room designs on my computer. Then another day or two moving furniture around my room. While doing all this work, I thought about how during the last ten years an enormous amount of reading, research and practical application shifted my thinking about room design.

I am still learning about the impacts of classroom design, but I do have two guiding principles that helped my work over the last few weeks.

Spaces for Community, Collaboration and Individual Work.

As learners we thrive in multiple settings. We learn both individually and by collaborating with others. We also can learn from large group settings in which we build a shared knowledge. However, as adults who are responsible for our own learning we adapt our learning spaces to suit our preferred needs at the time. For me, effectively learning happens in multiple ways. I can close my door during my planning time, work in the dining room of my house, or find a completely different space. If collaboration is important to me I can meet with colleagues in my school, meet with colleagues not at my school at another site or use a tool like Google hangouts and collaborate from my couch. Our students don’t have as much freedom as we have in school. They are in our classrooms for specific lengths of time and for the most part we expect them to learn in the space we have.

This is why over time I have intentionally designed spaces that allow kids in the confines of my classroom to have community, collaborative and individual spaces. The classroom designed with all learners in mind needs to have these zones in play. Just like us, our students need the flexibility in learning spaces to best suit their needs. The book, The Third Teacher  has influenced most of my thinking about community, collaborative and individual learning spacesthough I will admit that I’ve never had the budget to create some of the spaces shared in it.

Options for Student Seating

In the book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen, there are numerous ideas and rationales for different types of student seating. One idea that resonated with me is his call to “allow students to sit in different ways.” For the first 10 years I taught, there were basically two different ways, at a desk or on the floor. After reading Teaching with the Brain in Mind, I started to explore different possibilities on a limited budget. Items like cushions, smaller tables and standing tables were gradually introduced into my room. Over the years, students have appreciated the different options. Some students will be at a standing table for nearly the entire time they are with me. Others will work at a table or desk consistently. While others will stand for a while, move to the floor then maybe end up in a desk or table. Different seating options work because sitting still in a desk for an entire class period or school day is not an easy task.

Writing this post reminded me about how I effectively learn and work. During the last 30 minutes I have stood to walk around to marinate my thinking. I have had the laptop on my lap in a chair and now I sit on a stool with the laptop on my kitchen counter. In some classrooms, I would be reprimanded for being off task and disruptive. In classrooms that appreciate a learner like me, I would probably be excelling instead of being demoralized.

The ‘For Now’ Design

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In my classroom there are 22 “traditional seating” options. The 16 clustered desks into tables serve the joint purpose of a more individualized space and an easy way to promote collaboration. The large table will have 6 chairs around it. At times this table will serve the same dual purpose role of the 16 desks. At other times this I will use this table as a place for small group teaching. Students who chose to ‘land’ at this table during the beginning of class, will know they might have to find a different spot if I pull a small group for focused lessons or conversations.

The two standing tables and the low table are ‘less traditional’ seating options. When fully utilized these areas can accommodate eight to 12 students easily. Like the more traditional seating options, these areas are for independent and collaborative work.

The mix of the traditional and less traditional options described so far can easily accommodate 34 students, which is larger than the maximum class size I will see. I intentionally chose have more than enough seats. I could have easily removed four of the desks to create more floor space, but I wanted to make sure that students had a variety of choices and there would always be enough table or desk areas for students.

I know students will use the floor space and areas against the walls. I envision students using the ‘nook’ in the lower right if they are comfortable on the floor and need a much more defined personal space. The areas along the wall at the top of the design will serve the same purpose.

Finally, the ‘low table’ is easily moved creating a large floor space in which we can all meet in a circle. I know having a ‘meeting area’ is definitely more of an elementary mindset, but there will be at least one moment daily where we are all together in this area. I think it is vitally important when you have a classroom centered on community, that you have a clearly defined space and time for the discussions that will enhance the community.

A Tour of Room 229 

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Walking into my room. Those windows! Yes, I hit the jackpot for natural lighting, and I plan on taking full advantage of it. The blinds will rarely be closed in this new space I will be sharing with my students. You can also imagine if I quickly move the low table we will have an ample community meeting area.

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The left and right sides of the room viewed from the front of the room. There will be six chairs around the table in the top picture.

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The left and right of the front of the room viewed from the back of the room. I envision students seated on the floor leaning against the wall space in the bottom picture if they feel the need to have a quieter space or if they prefer sitting on the floor.

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This is wall is opposite of the windows. The soccer ball bean bags are in the ‘nook’ I mentioned earlier. I can also see students using leaning against the wall of cabinets.

The one item you didn’t see in this room was a desk for me. I ditched my ‘teacher desk’ years ago because I never used it. When students are in the room, I go to them or we are together in a large or small group. When students are not in the room, I use the standing tables or the larger table as my work space. If you can see yourself being able to inhabit a classroom without a clearly designated teacher space, I encourage you to get rid of your desk as well. The lack of a clearly designated space for me was an indirect message to the students that I was a full-fledged member of their learning community.

Student Participation in the Design

As of the date of this post, students are still not in our school yet. My last guiding principle for classroom design is student input. Initially things will look like they do, but after a few weeks of adjusting, I will actively seek their ideas. There will be a few non-negotiable items. For example, the bookcases are actually two giant units that will be very difficult to move and I definitely want to include some sort of whole class meeting area. However, I want students stakeholders in this room. If we discover the desks by the windows would be better in a different location, we will shift furniture around. In my experience, there is better student ownership of a space if the students actually have some say in the space. 

Another piece to student participation is the relatively blank walls in the space now. Students will design and manage these display spaces. Kids will develop spaces for anchor charts, books suggestions, and reminders of upcoming events.

Of course, student participation in designing the space for our community could present some challenges, but if I am leading an authentic classroom community, then I can’t dictate all design elements in the room. It could be messy to establish plans across different classes, but it will be worth the mess.

Concluding Thoughts

Over the past few years countless tweets, posts and images flooded my social media accounts in which teachers have created ‘Pinterest’ worthy classrooms. I hold no ill will toward these posts and I often think, “Wow, that is adorable.” However, I don’t think you need to have an unlimited expense account to design a classroom that is intentionally and mindfully designed with community in mind. Take a chance and think about the use of space, choice in seating options and letting go of some of the space to your students. You and your kids will be happier and more ready to build a learning community.


In addition to The Third Teacher and Teaching with the Brain in Mind, the following resources influenced my thinking about classroom design over the past few years:

http://www.hermanmiller.com/research/solution-essays/rethinking-the-classroom.html

http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jls/article/view/578

http://www.salford.ac.uk/built-environment/about-us/news-and-events/news/study-proves-classroom-design-really-does-matter

How to build community the first days of school

“How has your first day been?”

“Pretty good,” replied my student shrugging. “Pretty boring.”

I watched as she tucked my class syllabus into her binder along with those for the three other classes she had attended so far that day.

“Do we need to keep this?” another student asked, holding up the Get to Know You bingo sheet he had just half-heartedly completed. I replied that he didn’t, and he crumpled it up to throw into the trash on his way out of class.

In that moment, I wished I had a do-over for my first day of school plan. I thought about the fact that these students had to attend seven class periods where they had done some variation of the same monotonous tasks: go over the syllabus, play superficial games, fill out information cards, and survive navigating the first day of school for another year. I decided then and there that I wanted the first days in my classroom to be meaningful and engaging for the students in my classes. I wanted them to leave the first day looking forward to returning the next, and the next, and the next. I wanted to spend those first days building relationships with and among my students.

As the new school year approaches, I am again beginning to plan what those first few days in my class will look like. As teachers across the country do the same, here are some activities that I have used in the past to begin building my classroom community from day one.

Bookstack Bookswap

As soon as my students enter my room, I want them to know that we are a community of readers. I have a decently sized classroom library, and one of the first things that students notice when they enter my room is that they are surrounded by books. By doing this activity during the first few days, I ensure that every student in my class has a book in hand, ready for independent reading. However, it also gives me a chance to informally talk with students about their reading habits, what genres they like, and whether or not they see themselves as a reader. As Jim Bailey pointed out in his excellent post, talking books with students is a gateway to building relationships with students.

How it works: Before each class period, I place a random stack of five books on each student desk. As students enter the room, I tell them to browse the stacks and have a seat at whichever desk they would like. Once everyone is present, I introduce myself and explain to students that before they leave, every student will choose any book in my classroom to keep and begin reading for their independent reading book. I explain the rules of the Bookstack Bookswap: (1) They can exchange a book with any student if they want a book another student has, (2) They can exchange a book with any book on the shelf, (3) Once they have their book, they record their name and book title in my checkout notebook. At first students are hesitant to get up and moving, but once they do, the room becomes a hub of activity. Students are browsing my bookshelves and talking to one another as they exchange books. I use the time to check-in with students, recommend books, meet each student, learn how to pronounce their name, and take attendance.

M&M Venn Diagram

During the first few days, I want students talking and learning more about their classmates. A couple years ago, I came across the M&M activity on Pinterest. This is a fun way for students to get to know a little bit about one another, and it often sparks longer conversations as students discuss their interests. At the end of the year, students STILL talk about doing the M&M activity at the beginning of the year, and I have even adapted it during the middle of the year to be a close reading exercise.

How it works: Before school starts, I buy a couple bags of the fun size M&M packages. I create a handout that assigns a task to each color — red means share what movies/TV shows you like to watch, blue means share a hobby, etc. (There are many examples already created that can be tweaked to fit your classroom.) When students enter the classroom, they each get a fun-sized bag of M&Ms and each table pair receives a blank piece of paper. Each pair takes turn drawing an M&M color and sharing that piece of information with their partner. Together, they create a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts their likes, dislikes, and interests. These Venn diagrams are the first pieces of classwork that are hung on my wall, and they provide talking points for students during the first weeks they are up. Students always walk around, checking out what other people’s information and finding people who have similar interests as themselves.

One Little Word

I love Ali Edwards’ philosophy of choosing One Little Word to guide her as she begins each new year. This was an activity that I once did with my students in January to celebrate the new year and new semester. However, for students and teachers, the “new year” really begins at the start of each school year. I moved my One Little Word activity to the beginning of the school year, and it has been a wonderful experience for students.

How it works: Before class, I go through Ali Edwards’ list of past words (here are words from 2016 and 2017) and create a master list that students can pull from if needed. As students come into class, they each receive an index card that is blank on one side and lined on the other. I explain the idea behind One Little Word and how these words will guide our focus throughout the year. I display the master list of words on the projector. Students decorate the blank side with the word they choose, and on the lined side they write a short explanation of why they chose that work and what it means to them. I collect the words so that I can read the reasoning on the back, then I hand them all on the wall so that they create a patchwork quilt of words on our wall. Again, bonds are created among students as they read one another’s words. They encourage each other throughout the year, and these words help our community thrive as a positive climate of like-minded people.

I Wish My Teacher Knew…

After I have built community and trust during the first few days, I end my week with Kyle Schwartz’s “I wish my teacher knew…” activity. I save this for the end of the first week so that students can have a sense of trust with me, trust that they can share with me and I will not judge them.

How it works: Each student receives a lined index card. They write their name on the top of the card and simply complete the sentence, “I wish my teacher knew…” I tell them to complete it with something that they feel I need to know about them. I am the only person who sees these cards. They provide insight into students lives and personalities, their past experiences and future hopes. It is the perfect way to end the first week with my students.

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As you begin your new year, I encourage you to examine the focus of your first day activities. Building your classroom community in an invaluable use of time that pays dividend throughout the year.

The Girl with the Green Face: Creating a classroom community for all students

In third grade, I authored a story called, The Girl with the Green Face. I remember being so proud of the story I wrote. It took so much time to think of an idea, write the first draft, and we were even fortunate enough to be able to use the word processor to type our story out. I also remember how careful I was with the illustrations. I felt like a real artist and could add the details the way I wanted them. I remember paying attention to all the little details too, like words on labels and doors, adding speech and thought bubbles. That was 27 years ago and I still remember the emotional and physical experience of writing that story.

Fast forward 5 years ago cleaning out my parents’ basement and I came across the story. I was so excited to open it up and read it again because again I remembered the emotional and physical experience of writing my first “real” book. As I began to open the cover and read each page with laser sharp eyes, as a way to somehow transport myself into the experience once more. I didn’t feel excitement but rather extreme sadness.

My family lived in a small town at the time in Illinois. We were one of two African-American families in the town and the only non-white children in our school. In fact, this was mostly true for me until my junior year of high school.

The story I wrote was about a girl named Kelly who was a cheerleader with brown hair, brown eyes, and peach colored skin. She believed that all the other cheerleaders were beautiful because the got to put this “green mud” on their face but Kelly’s mom wouldn’t let her. Ultimately Kelly decides to use it anyway when she gets to school. Unfortunately for Kelly the “green mud” won’t come off and her face is green. She begins to try everything to get it off and makes up excuses and devises plans to explain why her face is green. In her last effort to get the “green mud” off she tries her mom’s most special cream. But this cream was worse in her mind…”It didn’t make her beautiful at all. It just made her face dark brown.” In the end Kelly went to her mom and she took her to get a facial and she was back to “normal”.

As I stood there in complete silence and utter sadness, I recognized what I hadn’t allowed myself to process. That I, at a very young age, recognized myself as “other” and measured myself against the majority without even having words or the understanding to articulate what I was feeling. The characters in my story were White and I am African-American. In fact, I fully expected to open my book and see African American characters.

In the story Kelly was searching for something to make her “beautiful” like the other girls. Kelly was a cheerleader…just like I was in third grade. Kelly did things she wasn’t supposed to even after her mom told her not too…just like my younger self.  Kelly’s mom’s actions and phrases resembled my mother exactly but she didn’t look like my mom. Her dad in the story traveled like my dad did but he didn’t look like my dad.

This story was my story. As I relived this experience recently by sharing it with a friend I began to question. What was it that stood in my way of telling my story? A story where the characters looked like me and felt like me. Did I feel connected to the classroom community? Could I see myself on the walls, in the talk, and the stories that were told day-to-day in the classroom community? Was there someone in the classroom community to affirm that beauty isn’t prepackaged or look one way? And ultimately, in the story Kelly concluded that the worst possible thing to happen was her skin turning dark brown, which as the author of the story was the color that mirrors my own.

How do we as educators work each day towards a classroom community where students feel free and safe to not only write their story but be their story? How do we work towards my story not repeating itself in classrooms across our world?

First it starts with us. We as educators must take inventory on our own lives and our own experiences in order to step back and view the community in front of us. This happens even before the students step foot into the classroom.

Mariana Souto-Manning in her book, Reading Writing, and Talk: Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners K-2, offers this, “The inventory must start with yourself and with your own practices…teaching is not culture-free. Nor are curricula. Teaching practices should be (re)centered to both honor children’s cultures, languages, and identities and to foster academic success.”

In order to create and maintain a healthy classroom community where students are free and safe to be themselves and love themselves, I offer that it first starts with us. We must take inventory of who we are and recognize the power these identities have in the classroom community.

Secondly, building classroom communities is about allowing students to see themselves on the walls of our room, the conversations that happen, and as a valuable participant in the learning community. What if at 8 years old I looked around the room in my third grade classroom and saw brown faces like myself? Or books that had stories of many kinds of people that weren’t just about struggle?

Allowing students to fill the walls with their stories, their thinking, their learning process, their faces encourages them to use their voice in conversations, problem solving, and day-to-day happenings in the classroom community. Which in turn hopefully gives a sense to each child that they are a valuable piece of the learning community.

Lastly, it’s committing ourselves to understanding a culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant teaching is a mindset that puts the classroom community as the most powerful agent in learning. Where students use their experiences to connect with the content in order to learn with each other, from one another, and the community as a whole. How do we commit ourselves to this kind of pedagogy each day so that our classroom communities are thriving with students who know and understand that they are valued and their experiences are legitimate?

I often wonder what I would say to “me”  in a writing conference as the teacher after reading the book that I had written? I’m not sure what words I would say. One thing I know is that I would be reflecting on what I missed. I would be asking, what space in my classroom did I not allow for this child to feel free to write their true story? What kind of community do we have where students are not seeing themselves? I would be questioning and reflecting a lot.

My life experiences have taught me that as educators we have to pursue our profession with reckless abandon to do what’s right for children. Classroom communities start before students walk in the door. They are cultivated the moment the first child enters, and are fostered all year-long. What we do matters. How we listen to children matters. Honoring all community members matters. How will you create a classroom community for all students this year?

Building Relationships as a Principal Through Reading

Six years ago I decided to leave my 5th grade classroom that had been my home for eleven years to become principal of the building.  I was excited for this new learning journey and challenge.  I couldn’t wait!  Then the job started, and I was miserable.  I was overwhelmed with paperwork and found myself stuck in my office more and more.  I would go days without having a meaningful conversation with a student.  The first question people would always ask me was, “Do you miss the classroom?”  I would reply, “Yes.  It is quite a bit different but I really am enjoying the new challenge.”  It wouldn’t have been appropriate to share my real thoughts. Yes, I miss it.  This new job sucks!  I spend the whole day filling out paperwork, listening to boring webinars, and attending three-hour meetings that could have been four line emails.  I spend the whole day on the phone listening to vendors pitch their stupid, test prep software or parents complain because they had to wait three minutes in the drop off line because someone got out of their car.  I spend the whole day managing the building instead of leading it.  I spend the whole day away from kids.  This new job sucks!  I had made up my mind, I was one and done as principal.  However, I had to find a way to survive the year.  I thought back to what I loved about being a classroom teacher.  It was the students and the relationships we developed over the course of the year.  The relationships I formed with my students always started with books.  It was time to apply that principle to being principal.  

Reading with Students

One of my favorite parts of the day as a classroom teacher was free choice independent reading.  I would spend the majority of the time conferring with students, but always set aside time at the end to read with my class.  I wanted them to see me as a reader and this provided a great model.  Also, I knew I needed to read a lot of books if I was going to make recommendations for them.  I decided I was going to start doing this as principal.  I blocked out 20 minutes on my calendar every day to read independently during the school day.  We added two big, comfy chairs in front of the office and some days I would use these to read.  Other days I would find out when a class was doing independent reading and ask if I could join them.  The practice immediately paid dividends.  The first day a student came up to me and said, “I saw you were reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.  That is my favorite book.  Did you know there is another Joey Pigza book?”  We spent the next 5 minutes talking about our love for Joey Pigza.  At that point, it was my favorite five minutes as principal.  

Classroom Book Talks

I noticed right away when I was reading in the chairs in front of the office that every class that went by was always checking out the book I was reading.  It didn’t take long for students to come up to me during lunch or recess and ask if they could have the book next.  They wanted to read the book I was reading.  I wanted to expand on this so I started asking teachers if I could visit their class to book talk a recent book I read.  The teachers were thrilled and the students ate it up.  My blessing on a book was golden.  The students were fighting over who got to read it first.  I always left my copy of the book and told them to return it after they were finished.  I was surprised when a student returned Amulet only one week after I gave a book talk.  I expected this to be a very popular book that would be shared by a lot of students.  I didn’t expect it back for a month or two.  I asked the student, “Oh, you guys are done already?  The class didn’t like it?”  

“Are you kidding?” he replied, “we loved it.  We checked out two copies from the library and a couple students bought it from Barnes and Noble.  Everyone has read it already.  Oh yeah, we need Mrs. Bugbee (our librarian) to order more copies of the rest of the series.”  I took my lunch to the cafeteria that day and ate with their class and talked Amulet during their entire lunch.  At that point, it was my favorite lunch period of the year.

Principal’s Bookshelf

This is an idea I first heard from the amazing Sue Haney (principal at Parma Elementary).  Sue has a principal’s bookshelf in her office that students can use to check out books.  Based on the conversation about Amulet, I knew it was time to try this idea.  I scheduled time in each classroom to explain my principal’s bookshelf.  I didn’t want it to be over-complicated or time-consuming (remember I still had a lot of three-hour meetings to attend).  The idea was pretty simple.  I put a bookshelf stocked with my favorite books outside of my office.  The check-out system was a simple black marble composition notebook and a pencil.  I told students I trusted them to check out books and return them.  All they had to do was write the title of the book and sign their name in the composition book.  They should return the book when they finished it and cross off their name.  Also, I told them when they finished a book on my bookshelf I expected them to find me sometime during the day and tell me how they liked the book.  The bookshelf was as much for me as it was for them.  I was craving book conversations and time with students.  No single practice has helped me form meaningful relationships with my students more than my principal’s bookshelf.  My bookshelf grows every year.  I have been lucky to receive grants to help fill it.  Last year, students filled three composition notebooks with books they checked out.  I talk to students every day about books they have read off the shelf.  Each year some books get lost or go unreturned but that’s fine with me.  As Donalyn Miller says, “I would rather lose a book than lose a reader.”  

These practices started the turnaround for me.  It doesn’t matter what position you hold in education, it all starts with relationships.  Once I started looking at principalship through that lens everything changed.  Education is about the students and you can’t make a difference in a student’s life without having a meaningful relationship with them.  I still get overburdened with paperwork and get lost in my office from time to time.  However, those days are few and far between now.  I simply changed my lens.  Now I can honestly answer when someone asks, “Don’t you miss the classroom?”  “Yes. I do, but I love being a principal.”