What Does it Mean to be a Community?

What does it mean to be a community?

A classroom community?

Is it the way we take care of each other? The way we anticipate the emotional moves of one another? How we can collectively see an issue and care about it? How we know each other and seek to learn more about each other?

With only 26 more school days left of this year I’m not sure I’m ready to answer these questions. What I do know is that this year I’ve gotten closer than I’ve ever been to being able to understand the power in the collective voice of a classroom community. Our classroom community has been ever-changing. Since the start of the school year we have had 13 students move in and 13 students move out. Building and maintaining community has been a priority since day one and has not stopped.

This past Monday my literacy coach and dear friend Heather Halli purchased a book a for the readers in room 215. She told me that when she read this story it reminded her of the students in my classroom and she wanted them to have the story. The book she purchased was Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. Heather knows how much we talk about our names and history behind our names. We are always talking names because of the flow of students coming and going.

On Monday I read the story to my class. Listening to their talk during the story helped me to realize how important it is to each one of them that they know about their own names and each other’s. Once we arrived to the author’s note my students couldn’t wait to hear what Juana had to say. Juana talked about the importance of her name and her story. She ended her note with two questions in which my students took as a call to action.

Her questions were:

What is the story of your name?

What story would you like to tell?

My students immediately said, “We already know the answer to the first question…lets answer her second question!” And then we stopped and we all went off to answer Juana’s question. There was no turn and talk to think about what we might say. There was no discussion about what the question meant. The only thing that was agreed on was that we wanted to put our whole name at the top.

As I read through their work I felt a sense of community that had been building all year. A sense of community that I can feel but not give words to yet. Today I dedicate this post to the classroom community of room 215. Here are their words…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What Changes

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 6.42.29 AM

Over the past few weeks, I have rediscovered reading and enjoying poetry. Most mornings before I get moving into the day, I read at least one poem. The act of opening my phone and searching online “poem about ______” or grabbing a favorite volume of poetry from my family room or classroom shelf has created a place and time for me to reflect.

This beginning of this practice started in a failed attempt to try to plan something for National Poetry Month for my seventh-grade students. A classroom study of poetry still hasn’t happened yet. And to be honest, it might not happen this year. However, I have been really enjoying these two to three-minute adventures into a form of communication I adore, but often ignore. Spending some time thinking about the words of Maya Angelou, Czesław Miłosz, Anna Akhmatova, Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, Kwame Alexander, Justin Runge, Jacqueline Woodson, Alan Dugan and others have given me the chance to slow down for a moment or two each day.

The time I spend reading a poem is short, but most days thinking lingers throughout the day. About ten days ago, I read “What Changes” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

 

What Changes

My father’s hopes travel with me

years after he died. Someday

we will learn how to live.  All of us

surviving without violence

never stop dreaming how to cure it.

What changes? Crossing a small street

in Doha Souk, nut shops shuttered,

a handkerchief lies crumpled in the street,

maroon and white, like one my father had,

from Jordan.  Perfectly placed

in his pocket under his smile, for years.

He would have given it to anyone.

How do we continue all these days?

 

“Someday we will learn how to live” was in my mind for the rest of the day and into the next several days. The line also inspired this post.

For me, there is a juxtaposition of hope and frustration in that line – like the coming end of the school year. The hope we have built learning communities that were worthwhile for our students combined with the frustration that we don’t have the time to accomplish everything we intended. The hope that our students will finish the year better than they started combined with the frustration of state testing windows. The hope of seeing students act kindly toward each other combined with the frustration of students ostracizing each other. Hope and frustration are typical partners in the last weeks of school.

During the end of your school year, take the time to look for the hopeful places. I know I will get stuck in the frustrations. I will need to consciously search for the evidence that the 180 days spent with my seventh graders were good. The moments like seeing two friends recommend books to each other, a student complimenting the writing of another, the class groaning a little when our independent reading time is over, the eager smiles when it is time to discuss a shared text.

If you have the time, try reading poetry daily or at least give yourself the opportunity to reflect. Find the hopefulness and good.

Student Teaching Lessons

In the late fall of 2006, I was elated to receive my placement for student teaching the following semester. I was a double-major in English and math, and my university required a diversity of classroom experiences–and there were some I had yet to successfully complete. I figured with those restrictions, I would be splitting time between classrooms (or schools or even districts), or have something that was far from my parents’ house, where I was hoping to live for the semester.

But that’s before I knew the teacher I would be placed with existed.

This teacher was a middle school math and English teacher in a school about 30 minutes from my parents’ house. His classroom satisfied the remaining requirements I needed to graduate from my university’s secondary education program.

It was, to put it lightly, one of the best experiences of my life.

I was able to practice various lessons out, get honest and constructive feedback regularly, try out some things, and basically run a classroom with all the scaffolds and supports I needed as a neophyte teacher.

What I didn’t realize until just recently is how strong his impact is on me when it comes to relationship-building. This teacher is a Milken Award-winning teacher, and I assumed that was because he knew both his content and how to deliver it masterfully (both of which are true).

What I realize now is that he is the teacher he is because he knows those things, but more so because he knows his students.

Here are some things I learned during the winter of 2007, complete with annotations of what I thought they meant and what they really mean.

EMP Awards

End of Marking Period Awards were his version of a paper plate award. Essentially, he would give out unique awards with names that match each students’ unique contributions to the classroom. He gives them out at the end of each marking period: 4 times a year. He maintained a spreadsheet of who received awards at each quarter, to ensure that everyone received at least one and nobody received more than 2.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to engage the students on a day that was otherwise a difficult one to manage.
I thought this was a way to celebrate each student for the unique person they are.
I thought this was a way to make sure everyone felt loved and celebrated.

What I Now Realize
It is all of those things. But to have it be those things…to have each student feel celebrated for who they are as an individual, it requires the teacher to see each student as an individual. It would be impossible to give out these awards without knowing the students on a level beyond their academic successes and failures. It forced him to see his students as individuals, and for the gifts and talents each of them had.

Speaking Spanish

This teacher had a decent grasp of Spanish, and would casually pepper his class with Spanish words and phrases.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to support the foreign language department as well as promote the use of Spanish. An easy cross-curricular support.

What I Now Realize
There were very few English Language Learners in his classes. However, there was a great diversity of culture, and many of the students spoke more than one language. Arabic, in particular, was quite popular. While this teacher didn’t know Arabic, by speaking another language, it showed the benefit of having more than one language to speak, thereby validating those who did speak multiple languages. It reinforced the idea that multiculturalism is important, making everyone likely more comfortable with the diversity of culture in their classroom and in their lives.

Playing the Accordion

 

Yes, you read that correctly. One of my most vivid memories of student teaching was when my brother was a guest speaker to talk about his role in the business world, for a jobs and careers unit we were doing. My brother quoted The Rolling Stones, saying, “You can’t always get what you want.” The principal, also in the room, starting singing the song, encouraging the students (none of whom knew the song) to join in. Then the teacher whipped out his accordion, and we had an awkward and awesome sing-along for about 10 seconds. It is, to this day, the most surreal teaching moment I’ve had.

That said, this was a relatively common enough practice that nobody (aside from perhaps my brother) was taken aback when the classroom teacher pulled out his accordion.

What I Thought
I thought this was a chance to relieve some pressure and intensity through music, and in an unexpected way that 7th and 8th graders seem to love.

What I Now Realize
The piece I didn’t mention above is that he also played the accordion for every student’s birthday. So every student had a day where they had this really interesting experience of being sung to with accordion accompaniment. It was a way to celebrate the community and the birthdays being celebrated, but it also provided stories for the students to connect with years later. I mean, how many students can say their 8th grade English teacher would play accordion during class?

Pennants on the Ceiling

On the ceiling of his classroom were university pennants. These were either purchased by him or given as gifts from former students and colleagues. I made sure to get a Central Michigan University pennant up there before my time was done.

What I Thought
I asked him about this, and he said he wanted his room to be so distracting that if everything was a distraction, nothing was. He had found this actually helped his students focus on the lesson at hand. I was surprised by this, but I found it to be be the case (the engaging lessons he had probably also played a massive role).

What I Now Realize
I didn’t think anything of the “gifts by former students” thing at the time. But this is a middle school. Grades 6, 7, and 8. If former students are coming by, it’s probably those still in the building, or picking up younger siblings. But these were college students coming back to his room. There was an ever-present facet of community built in to the classroom itself. If you were a part of that room, you could literally be a part of the room, if you came back and gave a pennant. People don’t do that with places they don’t feel are a part of them. They don’t do that if they didn’t feel like they were accepted and belonged. They don’t do that if they forget about that place after a few years.

His ceiling was covered with pennants.

All these lessons, tucked in the back of my mind for years, only now rising to the surface. Thank you for all the lessons you taught me, explicit and implicit. I can only hope I have created a fraction of the community in my classrooms that you have had in yours.

A Safety Net

It has been a rough week. I know that our readers come to this blog looking for passion, positivity and inspiration about their classroom community. But, for the past three days, I’ve left school feeling frustrated and discouraged. Rarely do I wake up and feel worried about going to work. But, this week is wearing me down.

First and foremost, it’s state testing season in Ohio. Enough said.

Secondly, there has been a drastic increase of behavior issues in the classroom, in the cafeteria, on the playground and on the bus. It seems like students are being more disrespectful to each other and to me. The quality of work is diminishing. The enthusiasm for reading and writing seems dormant. When I think about how much time and energy my students and I have put into building our a solid classroom culture, it frustrates me to think that I see it starting to crack. I’ve spent a great deal of time this week asking myself…why?

Maybe some of these fifth graders are starting to realize this is the end of elementary school.

Maybe they are frightened and intimidated by the unknown bigness of middle school, unsure of what awaits them.

Maybe they sense how close sixth grade is and can’t wait to get there.

Maybe some are getting a surge of hormones and they don’t know how to handle it.

Maybe they are apprehensive about the summer where there will be less structured days at home.

Maybe they are worried about not being guaranteed a breakfast and lunch every day like they get during the school year.

Maybe they’d rather be outside or exploring sound and light energy projects instead of sitting for two hours taking a state test.

Maybe they are worried about the lock down drills that seem just a little bit more real these days.

Maybe they’re worried about what their families’ future in this country will be like.

Maybe some feel “targeted” and treated unfairly by me or other teachers.

As teachers, we all have our rough days, rough weeks and maybe even a rough year. What this week is teaching me is the importance of having a strong classroom culture. With the increase of behavior problems and struggles, I am thankful that we have a solid culture that we can fall back on. We have our mission statement that we created together which reinforces our purpose for coming to school, even for the last two months. We have our five essential agreements, which act as our “bill of rights” and outline how we treat each other. We have our collaboration norms anchor chart that we created together in September.

While we are experiencing some challenges lately, nobody can deny the expectations and structure or the classroom. When we forget how to act towards one another, we must return to our community mindset that we’ve spent seven months establishing. I am starting each morning by reviewing our essential agreements and mission statement. These tools provide a common language–a safety net to catch us if we stumble. While we may fall or stumble, our classroom culture will prevent us from getting hurt further.

The power of this website Classroom Communities is that it reinforces just how necessary it is for teachers and students to work at strengthening their classroom culture on a daily basis. We must put the time in at the beginning of the year to set up our classroom norms. We must practice how to talk to each other. We must train ourselves how to collaborate. We must learn from each other. We must push through the tough times. We must work and fight for our classroom community so we have something to catch us when we fall.

The Power of a Smile – Published

Last month I shared the beginning of a project that was an idea just being tossed around from my students, The Power of a Smile.  This project started as a seed idea and developed as it grew into a powerful piece of work.  The final product is beautiful but the journey is what always captures the learning and my heart.

Ten Things That Came From Creating a Collaborative Project

  1. My students were highly motivated and wanted to create.
  2. My students were active with the work they were doing.
  3. My students were engaged with their own thinking.
  4. My students were thinking about word choice.
  5. My students were thinking about images to show their word choice.
  6. My students were thinking about their audience.
  7. My students were a bit messy.
  8. My students were custodians.
  9. My students were passionate.
  10. My students felt pride.

What’s the Matter, Child?

I had the privilege of presenting at the annual Michigan Reading Association (MRA) conference last week with two amazing colleagues: Kelly Hendrick and Nicol Howald. MRA is always a fantastic conference, but this year I was even more excited because one of my favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, was presenting.  I had my copy of Ghost, When I was the Greatest,  All American Boys, and A Long Way Down packed in my suitcase.  When I arrived at the event, I picked up the program and scanned for sessions that Jason was leading.  I was both surprised and disappointed to see that Jason’s only event was guest speaker at the luncheon on day two.  I was even more disappointed when I discovered that luncheon was sold out. I brushed off the disappointment and was ready to make the best of the rest of the conference.  The first day ended up being great. Our group decided to meet up in the hotel restaurant that night to share our learning and reflect on the conference. As we were getting up to leave, a gentleman walked past me.  It took me a second to react, “Nicol, that’s him! That’s Jason Reynolds leaving the restaurant.”

Like two crazy groupies, we took off speed-walking after him through the hotel.  We were still about 50 feet away when he got to the elevator. I was ready to give up. I had resigned that I just wasn’t destined to meet Jason at this conference.  Luckily, Nicol was not willing to accept that fate. She took off sprinting and reached her arm in the elevator just as it was about to close. “You’re Jason Reynolds, right?” she asked.  I am sure he was a bit shocked, but he didn’t immediately sound the alarm on the elevator which was a good sign. Instead he graciously stepped out of the elevator and shook our hands. We spent the next couple of minutes talking about how much we loved his books (No, he would not tell us what happens after A Long Way Down).  We assured him we don’t usually run people down in the hotel lobby, but told him this was probably going to be our only chance to tell him how much we loved his books.  We explained our confusion about him not having any sessions other than the lunch engagement and how we didn’t sign up for it in time. He ended by telling us to just come to the luncheon.  There is always standing room in the back.

Although they didn’t have food for us, the MRA organizers were gracious enough to let us attend after telling them our Jason Reynolds’ elevator story.  Jason’s speech was as humorous and inspiring as I imagined. One part really stuck with me though. He was telling a story about his mother, a teacher. She taught him to always make decisions based on love.  He shared that she modeled this in her classroom by asking students a simple question when they were misbehaving or  not engaged. She would simply ask the student, “What’s the matter, child?” Mrs. Reynolds knows what all of us know deep down: a misbehaving child is often facing another underlying problem.   Sometimes the most compassionate, most effective, and most obvious thing we can do as educators is simply ask, “What’s the matter, child?”

MRA is always an amazing weekend of learning.  Weekend conferences are great because they don’t require you to be gone from school, but they can also be difficult because you don’t get much downtime before you are right back at it the next week.  The travel and lack of sleep can make for a rough first day back, especially when you start the day by putting out a couple of fires from the previous week. So when a teacher called down to the office for a second time about a student that was being disrespectful, I had run out of patience.  I went down to the classroom and asked the student to come out into the hall. We talked privately and I told him to grab his stuff and we would continue this conversation in the office. I fully intended to suspend this student, send him home and let his parents deal with his attitude for the day.  I had my mind made up as I walked down the hallway. He slouched down in the chair in my office, arms crossed, eyes defiant. I stared at him for a couple of seconds choosing my next words carefully. Although frustration and tiredness were on the tip of my tongue, Jason Reynolds’ mom was whispering in my ear as I asked the boy, “What’s the matter, son?”

We spent the next two hours talking in my office.  Without giving too many personal details, he shared why he was so angry.  He had every right to be. It’s easy to forget the hardships our students are facing each day.  Just like the students in Mrs. Reynolds’ class, he was misbehaving for a reason. He was trying to get attention, any attention he could.  As the conversation continued, I could see the defiance melt away from his eyes. Instead of suspending, I decided to mentor. We now meet every day.  We talk about what is going on in his life, how to better deal with stress and anger, and I try to support his passions. I recognized right away that he loved to draw based on the Dogman comics he had created in his notebook.  I told him it was the best Dogman drawing I had seen. We spent a lot of time talking about the behavior expectations of the school. Being respectful to the teacher was non-negotiable. We brainstormed some ways to better deal with his anger.  He sat down with the teacher and apologized. He explained what he was going to do to better handle the situation in the future. He accepted responsibility for his actions and was back in class.

I could have easily suspended the student.  It may have even led to a change in behavior for a couple of days.  I don’t want to change behavior for a couple of days. I want to change behavior long term.  I want to build a relationship with the student so they want to change their behavior. I believe when we put the child first that we can change the entire trajectory of their life.  I really felt like I had gotten through to the student. I knew I could mentor him and make a difference. I wasn’t naive enough to think that change would be easy or immediate. I knew we would hit bumps in the road.  However, I didn’t expect to see the student and teacher in my office again just two hours later.

“Mr. Bailey, Kevin* has something he wants to tell you.”

“I made this for you,” he said and handed me a brand new Dogman picture he had drawn.

art

“This is the picture drawn by the amazing artist and Hemmeter student that now sits framed in my office.”

*Not the actual name of the student to protect his privacy.

Slowing Down

“Remind teachers to slow down now so they can move fast later” were the wise words of a mentor of mine Jill Reinhart as she spoke to a group of us literacy coaches during a summer retreat. Although I heard this a few years back these words are ever ringing in my mind especially as I prepared to come back after spring break.

My mind was busy with the number of weeks and days we had left, curriculum demands, grade level team initiatives, field trips, learning goals and outcomes…you name it I was thinking it. I began to get my mind and body in the busy state of hurry now and hurry later. The place where no one wins. What I had forgotten for just a moment was that very phrase that saved me in the beginning of the year, “slow down”.  See slowing down meant that I could trust my knowledge and understanding of curriculum, student learning, and assessment to listen to what students need. Slowing down also meant that I could watch, document, and plan more efficiently to meet my students where they are at.

I could also help facilitate the type of classroom environment that my students would want to come to each and every day.

So, on Monday evening, the night before coming back to school after spring break I took time to plan to slow down. I spent time thinking and wondering:

What are my students thinking about, hoping about, and wondering about tonight?

What are they most looking forward to? What are they not looking forward to?

Have I met their expectations? Have they met their own expectation’s?

As I tried to think about possible answers to these questions I realized even more that going slow at the end of the year is just as important as going slow in the beginning. The moving fast part happens as we launch our students into the summer with their own high expectations of what their learning journey will look like as they take ownership of it during the summer. Our classroom community has been carefully shaped and woven by the 24 personalities that show up each day and feed and nurture it. They deserve for me to slow down and listen, slow down and watch, slow down and trust.