Behind The Quiet

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Jamel looked like any typical 4th grader walking into my room on the first day of school, yet right away, he became a concern on my radar.  Guarded with quiet, he spent the first weeks in our 4th-grade classroom watchful and barely speaking.   Like a frightened bird perched always on the edge of the group, he listened but chose to only speak on the rarest of occasions.  Vocal and needy students were usually the focus of my teaching energies, so Jamel presented different worries.  Two whispers away from the label of selective mutism, there was something about this child that encouraged me to remain patiently watchful.  I looked forward to the moment when Jamel would finally feel safe enough to open up and initiate a conversation.

As the first weeks unfolded, Jamel settle into our community. His gentle head nods, quiet smiles, and rare giggles were easy to miss in a busy classroom.  Interestingly enough, his silence did not seem to bother his classmates.  They still chose him to be a reading or writing buddy even if his raspy whispers were difficult to understand.  Kids invited Jamel to play on the playground because he loved to shoot hoops and showed great effort on the Cherry Bomb court.  He always joined a group at the lunch table and he seemed to be content to watch and listen to his classmates, while he quietly devoured his lunch.

What kept Jamel from speaking?  Phone calls home unanswered and many emails never returned kept me second guessing the whys behind his silence.  Without the necessary background information, worries haunted my opinion of Jamel.  After weeks of thinking about the whys behind Jamel’s silence and only focusing on the ways he differed from his classmates,  it finally dawned on me that I needed a new perspective.  I needed to focus on the times he appeared to be quietly confident.  With an intentional shift, I realized Jamel was most comfortable during these portions of our day:

  • Arrival time:  Jamel was often the first child in the room and he seemed to enjoy the first 10 minutes of the day with me and just a few other children.  (Frequent smiles)
  • Independent Reading:  The quietness of independent reading time allowed Jamel to relax and I often observed him curled up on a beanbag chair or in one of our cozy book-nooks.  (Quiet Contentment)
  • Mini-Lessons:  The short, but calm gatherings of a mini-lesson brought Jamel into the group and after a few weeks, he moved from the periphery and would sit near me during lessons. (Progress!)
  • Writing Workshop:  During writing workshop, Jamel often sat with me in my Writers’ Circle, a place in the community area for conferences even if I was not meeting with him.  Sitting together gave me opportunities to ask questions or comment on his writing and this seemed to slowly build a comfortable connection between us. (Increased interactions)
  • Read Aloud:  Jamel was usually one of the first to arrive and joined the group for our shared books during read-aloud time.  (Connections)
  • Recess:  Jamel seemed happy in the wide-open spaces of the playground to be alone or to play games with others.  (Space and choices)

 

In a world of busy, it made sense that this child needed calm moments when he could relax and connect with peers as he settled into our classroom environment.  I capitalized on these quieter moments as opportunities to build safer and stronger connections with Jamel by initiating conversations with him.  I drew him into group conversations with other classmates. Each day seemed to hold more possibilities for Jamel.  Even though it was difficult not to be concerned, I believed that if I continued to be patient, something would and could happen and Jamel would start talking, asking questions, and sharing his thinking.  

Patience paid off.  

I will always vividly remember the 34th day of school when I learned the most revealing and powerful information about Jamel.  He arrived earlier than usual; rather than asking him to explain why he’d been dropped off 20 minutes before the first bell, I encouraged him to settle in and either read or explore the room as I prepared a few more things for our day.  Secretly watching him out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something that I must have missed during bustling school days. I noticed Jamel was drawn to the many plants growing in our room.  

With quiet steps, he circulated, checking on each of the plants.  He gently touched the soil in the pots.  Sometimes he softly traced the shape of a leaf.  His long fingers moved over the leaves as if receiving messages from the green life around our room.

“You have 25 plants….” he announced with a soft voice that was finally louder than a whisper.  

Jamel finally initiated a conversation with me.  I slowly drew in a careful breath trying not to erupt into joyous chatter.  So I nodded.  I watched him gently remove a brown leaf from one plant and walking toward me with outstretched hands,  he presented the leaf like an offering.  

“I like these plants,” he spoke.  His voice was raspy, but I could hear each word.  

“I do too,” I responded, taking the brown leaf from his smooth fingers.  Looking at him, I felt like this was a pivotal moment.  

“The plants need your help.  Can I show you how to care for our plants?  I asked.  “Would you like to be our gardener?”

“Yes,” he said with his full, raspy voice and his biggest smile yet.

And so I found my way into Jamel’s quiet world.  

We talked about watering and the different amounts of water required by each kind of plant.  He suggested that we put a code on the containers so he could remember which plants needed to be kept moist and which ones needed drier soil.

We talked about how brown or yellow leaves should be removed from plants so the plant would stop sending energy to fading leaves and direct energy to the living parts of the plant.  “The brown leaves are kinda like the hairs mammals shed…getting rid of old hair to make room for new hair,” he commented.

We talked about rotating pots and even locations so plants had changing relationships to the limited sunlight coming from our two small windows.  He asked if we could get some lights to make our own sunshine.

We talked about the plants that were growing too large for their current containers and would need to be repotted soon.  And I could not help but smile as I saw Jamel already outgrowing my first impressions of him.

This green connection started to influence Jamel’s reading and writing life.  He began a plant journal after I surprised him with 2 Amaryllis bulbs in November.  His independent writing choices revolved around watching and waiting for the Amaryllis to grow and bloom.  He started reading about all kinds of plants during reading workshop.  One day I showed him a page with different bulbs to force during the winter months and he asked for daffodils…so he could make a bouquet for the secretaries.  With grounded comfort and connections with plants, Jamel started to find his voice.

The miraculous thing was the other students noticed his interests and they reached out with comments, questions, and celebrations.  Was Jamel transforming into a loud extrovert?  No…and he probably never would be a talkative, outgoing person.  His classmates now had a better chance to know him and understand his gentle nature; through the quiet world of plants,  he was better understood and he drew more people into his quiet circle.  As he answered his peers’ questions about the plants, his confidence grew and Jamel started to initiate conversations.

Behind the quiet, I learned that Jamel just needed his own unique way to belong to our community.  In another time and place, Jamel would have been noticed by the town’s healer or shaman, a person also in tune with the quiet of nature.  Jamel’s stillness would have been recognized as an asset in finding healing and hope within the green world.  In our busy world that often forgets our need for quiet and connections to nature, Jamel reminded me that listening and observing are powerful tools.  I will always be grateful for that unexpected morning when our classroom plants helped us connect with Jamel’s quiet world. Behind the quiet, we cared enough to notice how Jamel was a valued member of our community on his own terms.  

Midyear Reflections

Enjoy your stay!

We have passed the halfway mark of the school year in my district. During this time of the year, I always reflect (actually overthink and overanalyze) about what we have accomplished to this point. My reflections usually involve two areas; the learning we have accomplished and the richness of the community. I have never had a formal list to help focus my reflection but this year I did jot down a handful of questions for both learning and community.

For the learning side of the reflection my questions were:

Are my students actually improving their craft as writers?

Are my students thinking deeper about the texts they read?

Are my students showing improvement in the ability to converse/reflect about their reading and writing?

Are my students showing more independence in their learning?

For each of these questions, I was able to flip through notebooks, look at assignments and check my anecdotal records for the first two quarters. For the most part, we are growing in our learning. Of course, individual students are growing at different rates. Some are flourishing, some are not moving as fast as I’d like to see. But, I can say that collectively we are learning and becoming more confident as readers and writers.

The tougher part of my mid-year reflections is thinking about how we are progressing as a community of learners. While I occasionally jot some notes, reflecting on the community is a truly gut-feel thing for me. I haven’t quite figured out how to take records on the soft-skills of social interaction and feelings like empathy toward each other.

That being said, this year I thought about these questions:

Are my students listening to each other in partner, small group, and whole class discussions?

Are my students doing the little things (like handing a book or computer to a partner) for each other?

Are my students using kind language toward each other?

Are my students excited about the books classmates are reading and the writing classmates are composing?

Are my students supporting each other without doing the work for each other?

For these questions, there was also a mixed bag of success. I think we are growing closer, but there are still many things to improve. For example, in each of my classes, there are small close-knit groups that are doing well, but we are not there yet as a class. It is a rarity to see a member of one group seeking out a member of another group.

Over the years when I start this time of reflection in January, I often remember Alfie Kohn’s work. Kohn is both inspiring and a reminder that I am not the teacher I want to be yet. His book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, is as relevant to me now as it was when I read it back in my early years of working with children.

As I balance the last learning question, “Are my students showing more independence with their learning?” With the reflective questions about community building, I have asked myself over the years, Kohn’s thinking about how interdependence versus independence is a strong reminder to ask a different question. “How do I balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community?” I lose sleep at times when I think about this.

I know Jeremy needs more intensive support than Charlie, but if I consistently don’t make time for Charlie how does that impact the fabric of the community I want to see in my room? I know Elle is a fabulous reader, but if don’t spend the time challenging her level of thinking, then how will she be able to nudge conversations with her classmates to a higher level?

For the rest of this year, I have decided to focus on community interdependence more than continuing to foster independence. Due to the constant bombardment of news that seems to show a distinct lack of empathy and community building, I feel the need to be a counterweight to those negative messages.

So, the first thing we are doing this morning after the long weekend is to talk to each other and hopefully find more connections. Discover or remember commonalities we have. Looking for these will help us build empathy and become a better community. I want my students to remember that we are far more responsive to the greater good when we go beyond just our personal responsibility.

 

The Opportunity of Re-Entry

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we welcome students back into our classrooms after they—or we, at times—have made mistakes or have had something serious happen in their lives.

Maybe a student lashed out at you. Maybe they fought another student at the end of your class period. Or maybe they recently lost an immediate relative.

We all know what happened yesterday, or last week, or five minutes ago. Or we hear and see posts on social media, or we overhear students who talk about events that have happened around the building and outside of school. The witnessing of the fight downstairs a few minutes ago has now made its way onto the third floor and, despite not having seen it, it’s all kids are talking about, and then somehow that conversation is resurrected when that student finally returns to school and class.

We don’t just forget.

And we have to acknowledge that. If we simply forgot, then we miss out on opportunities to improve relationships, to signal to students and colleagues that we care, that we are people, and that we are a part of a community working to support each other. And it’s our experiences with each other that contribute to who we are and how people perceive us, and it’s our response after a negative experience that enables the rebuilding or refining of relationships.

So I write more without answers but more of a topic that I have been thinking about lately, the idea of re-entry, of return, of welcoming students back into our rooms and our lives after we all know that something happened. Because our goals as teachers and administrators are to teach, to adjust, to refocus, to redirect, to support and, I think, very rarely ever to ignore or to give up.

I think we first have to acknowledge that it is going to be awkward. People will look. They will talk. They will whisper. They will point. They will have thoughts that we will never know about the incident before.

And we have to communicate to students that we will recognize their discomfort, the awkwardness, and everything else that showing up again after a difficult event entails.

It might be a pat on the back and saying, “I know how difficult this is for you, but I am here to talk it out / be a support / prevent it from happening again.”

It might mean addressing it as a class (I seek permission from parents and the student when doing this), which I think can be incredibly powerful. When you acknowledge that something happened, others were affected, and we are now moving on, it can send a message to students that we make mistakes but our classroom culture is important to us—so important that it had to be addressed—and now we can move on.

It might mean that a simple “I’m sorry” is necessary. And sometimes brevity is okay. More can be said with less, and it is so important for kids to hear that from their peers and adults. We must model the behavior we expect from our students.

We must acknowledge the sinking-of-the-gut feeling that happens when we all do something difficult and then acknowledge when students take this important next step. This might mean a quick, “I am proud of you,” or a thumbs up, or a pat on the back. But we must reaffirm the power of taking that step to rebuild and move forward.

Returning is never easy, but with our help, the burden is lessened and we begin our journey toward restoring or reaffirming the sense of community we want to achieve.

A Panoramic View

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I always learn so much from former students when they come back to visit me. I listen to them talk about classes they are taking, teachers that inspire them (or bore them), boyfriends/girlfriends and funny stories from the high school cafeteria. As we reminisce about their time in fifth grade, I never hear a comment about the learning target I used to teach them about theme. They don’t recall the goal-setting sheet they completed after their fractions pre-assessment. While I spend a great deal of time planning these experiences, I realize that it’s okay that they don’t remember these things. These tools are important to their development as learners; yet, they are means to an end, with the end being that my students view themselves as important members that belong to a community of learners.

Back in October, my district asked teachers in grades 3-12 to administer a student survey that measures student perceptions about teaching and learning. This survey, created by Panorama Education, allowed me to see how my students perceived their experience in my classroom using five categories:

  • Compassion – How concerned do students get when others need help.
  • Grit – How well students are able to persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals.
  • Growth Mindset – Student perceptions of whether they have the potential to change those factors that are central to their performance in school.
  • Hope – How often do you expect your future to be exciting and
  • Sense of Belonging – How much students feel that they are valued members of the school and classroom community.

Upon looking at the results, I was a bit surprised to see the lowest score in my class was in the Sense of Belonging category. In this topic, students use a scale of 1-5 to answer questions such as: How well do people at your school understand you as a person?  How much support do the adults at your school give you? How much respect do students at your school show you? How much do you feel like you belong at your school? I know that when I feel like I belong to a group, I am able to be a better version of myself. I think for many of us, it’s important to be in a group where this is mutual respect and support. I hope to instill this same feeling into my students before they go off to middle school.

The other day, I was reading Tony’s post Long Term Investment, and this statement struck a chord with me. Tony states, “the work we do as teachers is more valuable in the long run if we invest in our student as humans first.” No truer words have ever been spoken. It’s time that I look past the reading level and math posttest data, and start to view my students as humans. So, for the past three months, I am constantly asking myself, How do my students feel about themselves in my classroom? Have I created a space today where my students can feel like they belong? In order to answer these questions, here is one change I’ve made to hopefully provide opportunities for students to feel a sense of connection to themselves and their peers.

WONDERBALL
This activity involves a ball and a list of questions. Typically, our end of the day meetings are where we sit in a circle and share our highs and lows of the day. Now, a few days a week, we play “Wonder Ball.” I took a permanent marker and wrote numbers from 1-8 on a Nerf basketball. Students sit in a circle and take turns throwing the ball to each other and responding to questions. When a student catches The Wonderball, the number their right thumbs is touching (or is closest to) corresponds with a question on a list that they will be asked. Students may “pass” or request another question if they are uncomfortable for any reason. There are three levels of questions.  Once everyone in the class has had a chance to answer level 1 questions, we move on to level 2, and so on. Here are a few examples of questions:

  • Level 1 – What is your favorite color and why? Where is your “happy place?”
  • Level 2 – Who is the most important person in your life and why? Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
  • Level 3 – Has there ever been a time when you were with people but you felt alone? Who is a person in this class that has made you feel special or important, and what did they do?

As I sit here and write this blog, I realized that the word “panorama” is a perfect name for this survey. While it is only one piece of data from one day in October, it allowed me to see a sweeping, wide view of my students–they mindset, their hopes, their sense of belonging. Wonderball has become a very popular activity, and I often have students begging to play. They seem to really enjoy the time getting to know one another. I actually think that many of them crave the opportunity to relate to one another. To feel like they belong.

Fostering Talk

It had been years since I saw my college roommate!  I pulled into her driveway and there she was waiting for me.  She had pulled a lawn chair onto the blacktop just watching the road.  It reminded me of myself as a little girl waiting for my grandparents to come over for my birthday.  We both hurried to hug and squeeze and we couldn’t stop talking.  My high school daughter was with me and slowly walked around the mini-van and shut my door.  It was so good to see her.  All those years melted away and didn’t matter.  We picked right up where we left off.   Our whole time together was filled with talk; we had so much to catch up on and discuss.  This experience reminded me about the entrance to my classroom after a long break and how could I create, foster, or embrace this same experience for a classroom community.  Everyone should feel such joy to see others.

When I began teaching, one of my mentors shared with me an activity to help students get to know each other.  It’s a Find Someone Who (people scavenger hunt)…read a book, went to the zoo, played outside, ate cookies, or saw their grandma.  It gives new friends an invitation for talk.  They can’t use themselves and they can’t repeat a friend.  It’s hard to meet new friends and I love how this provides some direction and language to foster talk.  The students have really enjoyed this activity over the years and I soon created other versions for after long breaks from each other.

After many years, I added to a previous version with more talk support.  I added a question to help foster more conversation; find someone who read a book followed with what book did you read?  It changed the pace of this activity.  They lingered more.  They shared more information with each other and sometimes extended their talk beyond the prompt.  They were focused on finding out a bit more information and not just “fill” a spot with a name.  It felt natural.  It reminded me about those first few moments in the driveway.   Reconnecting with my college roommate felt good.  It was easy and comfortable.  How can we expect students to jump right back to learning if they don’t reconnect socially and share what they’ve been doing?  Talk fosters a community and a community can make things easy and comfortable.

 

Thinking About Safely

“Community is so important.  Who can we walk through the world safely with?” Jacqueline Woodson – NCTE convention in St. Louis.

 

If you are a reader of this blog, I bet you agree with Jacqueline’s first sentence; Community is so important.  I think each of our posts here at Classroom Communities reinforces this idea but my thinking was stretched this day when it followed with the question; Who can we walk through the world safely with?

A community may be where you live geographically and the places you share physically for day to day living.  A community may be a gathering of people with the same beliefs; social, religious, or work related.  A community might be a group of people you do the same activity with on a regular basis.  I hadn’t really thought about walking through the world with my different communities.  I had to stop and ponder Jacqueline’s words, “Who can we walk through the world safely with?”

In looking up the word safely, dictionary.com of course states it’s an adverb and leads the reader to the word safe.  I started pulling out words I felt I wanted within the four walls of my classroom; secure, free from hurt, dependable, trustworthy, careful, and avoid danger.  Our world does bring uncertainty in many forms.  Our world brings hills, valleys, and plateaus even within a classroom.  I now have goals to provide a net of safety so our walk can be easier in second grade.   I’m so glad Jacqueline Woods made me stop and reflect on communities and how they help us navigate our world safely.

 

Long Term Investment

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In the last four school years I have taught three different grade levels. I jumped from fourth grade to fifth grade. During that first year with fifth graders, I learned with  35 of the 57 students I spent time with in fourth grade. After spending one more year in fifth grade I jumped to a seventh grade position this past fall. My new school is the middle school that welcomes students from the elementary I left last spring. This rather unusual path led me to be a 7th grade Language Arts teacher for a group of students I also worked with when they were in fourth and fifth grade. We know each other extremely well. I have invested an enormous amount of time in building relationships with this group of frequent fliers.

One of these frequent fliers is a child who I worry about excessively. For the purposes of this post, I will call him Jonathan. Jonathan is a very unique child. He in incredibly intelligent, has an amazing sense of humor and devours information at alarming rates. That being said he struggles with impulsive behaviors that make social interactions difficult for him. Jonathan’s behaviors toward other students often leave him ostracized. I have witnessed how his quick wit is not perceived well and/or his quick temper drives peers away from him.  

Besides challenging peer relationships, Jonathan is also one of those kids that aggravate some teachers. The quality of his work doesn’t always match his intellect. He can rush through projects making careless errors and sometimes he won’t work hard because he thinks the work is pointless (which for a student with his background knowledge, the work might actually be pointless).

Jonathan is one of those kids that you love because he will make you laugh and want to talk about the latest Rick Riordan book that he read in one day, but will break your heart when you hear that he impulsively hit another student in the hall and has to spend a day in the office.

When I found out that Jonathan was going to spend another year with me I shifted my thinking about what my role for him should be this year. I knew no matter what I did as his Language Arts teacher Jonathan would continue to devour books and most likely rush through writing projects. Helping Jonathan develop the more affective domain skills of communicating and connecting effectively and more empathetically with classmates became my goal for the year.

I’d love to tell you my plan to help Jonathan has been a resounding success. It would be great if I could say that after a few weeks of one-on-one talks and sharing books and articles with my students that highlighted ideas like kindness and empathy that Jonathan is now a beloved student. I wish I could say his classmates have suddenly started appreciating Jonathan’s differences and welcomed him into their social circles. Jonathan is not an Auggie Pullman feel-good story yet.

I do think the subtle, but consistent work I have done has helped him this year. Jonathan does not interrupt other students in the class discussions as much as he did previously. Jonathan is not as quick to fire off a snide comment when someone says something he perceives as being completely incorrect. He was also unbelievably patient and kind to his group in recent book club conversations. The Jonathan from earlier this year would have not uttered a statement like “Oh, I wouldn’t have called Castle (the main character in Jason Reynold’s novel Ghost) a troublemaker, but I respect your opinion.” He probably would have ripped that idea apart because he didn’t agree with it.

I cherish these small victories because I want Jonathan to thrive, not just survive. I want Jonathan to learn how to be a better version of himself. I think if he can hold tight to all of the good in him and continue to work on improving some of his negatively perceived traits he will be in a much better place.

I share this story to remind myself and hopefully others the work we do as teachers is more valuable in the long run if we invest in our student as humans first. Jonathan will most likely graduate from high school with above a 4.0 and get something like a 34 on his ACT, but he will be in a better place if he can do those things and feel valued as a human. So I am determined to plug away and invest my time with him as a person as much in not more as I invest in pushing him as a student.