I hope that you, like us, have been enjoying a relaxing summer with your family and friends. In this profession, it’s important to recharge and recenter yourself.
Many teachers also use summer as a chance for self-directed professional development. Reading new books and brainstorming new ideas, bouncing thoughts off other educators. It was great to see so many of you at Nerd Camp doing exactly that.
A lot of you are already back at school, or will be soon. I, for one, look forward to seeing your tweets about the things you’re doing as you start the school year.
We’d also like to invite you to share your work here on the Classroom Communities blog. If you’d like to write here about what you’re doing in the classroom, especially in terms of developing community and relationships, we’d love to have you!
October is National Principals Month. I can proudly say that I am a principal and absolutely love my job.
I love that I get to have breakfast every morning with a couple of students to talk about how their year is going.
I love that I get to work with the most AMAZING teachers in the world.
I love that students leave me their artwork to decorate my office walls.
I love that I can change a teacher’s whole day just by bringing them a cup of Starbucks coffee or a Bayne’s cider donut.
I love that I can sneak into a classroom unnoticed and spend 20 minutes reading silently with a class of 5th graders.
I love that I get to see my kids every single day in school.
I love that I can justify buying as many books as I want from our local bookstore because I know I am going to give them all away to students that will love them as much as I do.
I love that I have a network of principals that push me to be better each day.
I love that I can spend my lunch throwing 16 touchdown passes in one game of recess football.
I love that I have the power to discontinue Accelerated Reader and instead use the money to support classroom libraries.
I love that I get more compliments when I wear my Elephant and Piggie shirt than a suit and tie.
I love that I get to call my teachers parents and tell them how amazing their son/daughter is at teaching.
I love that I get to push teachers outside their comfort zone by nudging them to present with me at national conferences or write blog posts read by educators all over the world.
I love that I can turn around a crying student’s day by asking them to help draw a book raffle ticket.
I love that I can call a parent at the end of the day to tell them something amazing their child did at school. I even love the part when they cry because it’s the first time anyone has ever called home with something positive to say about their child.
I love that students slip me little bucket filler notes in the hallway.
I love that we don’t have staff cliques and everyone connected to the school genuinely cares about each other.
I love that my first principal still comes back to visit and see if he can do anything to help.
I love that I can be sitting at my desk and I can hear my secretary tell a telemarketer, “I am sorry, Mr. Bailey is out of the building right now.”
I love that students come down to my office to read me their stories they write during writer’s workshop.
I love the screams I hear up and down the hallways when the March Book Madness winners are announced each week during the tournament.
I love that I can watch teachers try new things, even if they fail spectacularly.
I love that students aren’t scared to go to the principal’s office. Instead they rush in with smiling faces to borrow a book from my principal’s bookshelf.
I love that I get to be an elementary school principal.
We teach the girls with braids in their hair curls down their backs and perfect pigtails
Purple hair shaved skulls and frizzy ponytails.
We teach the girls who wear flouncy skirts glittery tees and fuzzy big boots
Basketball jerseys hand-me-down shirts and baggy blue jeans
We teach the girls who love double-dutch dancing ponies and princesses
Football skateboarding dinosaurs and superheroes
We teach the girls who color with pink purple and sky blue
Black orange and royal blue
We teach the girls who dream to be ballerinas actresses and fashion designers
Firefighters engineers and monster truck drivers
We teach the girls who feel shy introverted and unseen
Confident bold and strong
We teach the girls with scrapes on their knees paper cuts on their fingers and sore texting thumbs
Wounds on their wrists bruises on their back and pain in their bellies
We teach the girls who have been told what it means to be a girl as if sugar and spice and everything nice could define it
We teach the girls who have been told they need pink Legos to build castles they throw like a girl they must greet relatives with a kiss that dressed up means wearing a dress that cute is more important than curious that sentences should always be qualified with “I’m sorry…” be nice be polite wait your turn stop being bossy you’re emotional you’re sensitive you’re inferior you’re less than you’re not worthy
That people exist only in binary systems female, male rich, poor straight, gay black, white missing the millions of shades of gray, and brown, in between
To wear shirts that read “Allergic to Algebra” “Future Trophy Wife” “I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework” (Can a girl get an empowering message or stegosaurus shirt, please?!)
We teach the girls who have been told love is conditional affection is earned it’s probably their fault “No” is a fluid term their body is not their own not to tell…
We teach the girls. All of the girls. We have the opportunity to teach the girls to demand apologies like Serena reclaim their time like Maxine speak out like Malala sit down like Rosa stand up like Gloria play like Billie Jean organize like Fannie Lou face challenges like Helen influence like Oprah write like Maya speak like Emma create like Coco express like Beyonce lead like Indira tell their truth like Christine
We teach the girls and we teach the boys, too
They all need to know that girls are complex capable powerful and more than worthy
Because someday soon, even now, the girls will teach us.
Last week I had the pleasure to listen to author Cleo Wade speak. She wrote Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life and is an activist. This year I’m doing some thinking around creating and was surprised to hear her start talking about creating. My notes included these thoughts; creating is in our DNA, individuals have the capacity to create, and “creators create community”. My ears perked up even more because I knew I wanted to find some moments to reflect on community and share in this space.
She gave us a question to ponder, “Where have the ambitions of building community gone?” She urged us to think about the act of this question a sacred task. Other notes I jotted included
communities give us opportunities to choose to unite
communities bonds of spirit
communities help us rise above our concerns
My students don’t get to choose to share a classroom with each other. Their class placements is done for them. I realized reflecting on the first thought, they do get to choose to unite with each other. I believe one of our roles as a teacher is to help our students make that choice in hopes of creating a spirit of cohesiveness. If we have a feeling of cohesiveness perhaps we can rise above our own concerns and make a difference for each other and beyond.
I would respond to Cleo’s question and ask her to look within classrooms for ambitions building communities. May our work help carry to spaces outside our schools and help people connect in person with others.
The start to this school year has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding starts in recent memory. There could be many reasons for this, but I want to believe that a significant cause is that we have no rules in our classroom. That’s right. No. Rules.
A community is more than just a group of people living and working in a common area. It is a group of people who have shared interests, share a set of values and work towards the collective goal. In order for our classroom to be a true community this year, I feel it is necessary to engage students in a discussions about the clear and specific behaviors that would produce the kind of classroom they want. So far this year, our conversations have not been about how students comply and behave for me, but how we behave towards each other. Our behaviors can strengthen or demean our culture. “If you want the classroom to be a positive place, then you have to contribute positive behaviors.”
Over the past few years, my district has spent a great deal of time and professional development days establishing a clear cultural blueprint. Our district calls this the VBO. The VBO establishes a clear set of values, behaviors and outcomes that we want from each student and staff member. Our school district has three values: Stand Up & Own It, Power of the Team and Passion For Growth. These three statements have become a common language throughout our district and school. As students move through grade levels and switch schools, these remain the constant.
In my last blog post, I explained that on the first day of school I asked students to complete the following statement: Our classroom should be ________ every day. My students responded with “happy,” “clean” and “kind.” With that, it was time for students to recognize how Stand Up And Own It, Power Of The Team and Passion For Growth would create a happy, clean and kind classroom community. It is crucial for students to see the connection between the school’s values and our behaviors within our learning space. I wish I could tell you that I planned some fun, collaborative, inquiry-based activity to achieve this. I didn’t. We just talked. And we are still talking. And we will keep talking.
Almost every day for the past six weeks my class and I have shared time and ideas about our classroom community. We finish each day in a circle sharing our highs and lows and playing icebreaker games. My students will tell you some of my favorite questions to ask are:
“What worked in our classroom today?”
What went well for you?”
“How can you do better tomorrow?”
I am finding that making conversations like this part of the daily routine will only strengthen our classroom culture.
For the past few days, my students and I have created a display to summarize our conversations. Borrowing an idea I saw in the classroom of a colleague, Anita Norris, we created the following bulletin board. Each phrase on a sentence strip was suggested by a student. We feel that this clearly reflects what our classroom community holds dear.
As I said, this has been one of the best starts to a school year I can remember for a long time. Even my principal, on a recent visit to my classroom, mentioned how she could feel a different energy from previous years. Yes, classes have different personalities from year to year. Yet, I firmly believe that taking the time to discuss how our values, behaviors and outcomes are all linked has made a large impact on the success of our learning community.
PS – I lied. We do have rules in my classroom. But only ONE rule.
A 2-day PD I was part of last week and some Twitter conversations over the weekend got me thinking about some of the ways we label our students, especially those who require different supports than we might prepare for on a regular basis. Specifically, I was thinking about the word “struggle” as used in education.
When we talk about the struggles encountered with various students of differing abilities, we often use the adjective “struggling” to describe a person, or the verb “struggles” to describe their work. And that person is almost always the student.
“I have a struggling student.”
“One of my students is struggling with their behavior.”
“Several students struggled with this concept.”
Go ahead and Google “struggling students.” You will find page after page of sites that look, at first glance, to be good and useful sites for teachers and parents to find ways to help students.
And on the surface, the use of this language is both accurate and appropriate. But underneath the surface, I would argue it is neither of those things.
Because yes, a student who had a hard time paying attention in class might be struggling with that. They are struggling because they’re trying to improve.
But also, they then become a “Struggling Student,” which is a stone’s throw from “Difficult Student,” which very quickly becomes something that is a problem with the student, and not a problem for us to tackle.
In this profession, however, the problems are ours to navigate, not to be placed on the shoulders of children.
Notice the difference:
“Olivia is struggling with decoding” vs. “I’m struggling with finding ways to help Olivia with her decoding.”
“Mark is struggling with paying attention” vs. “I’m struggling with how to help Mark stay attentive.”
“Brian is struggling” or “Brian is a problem student” or “Brian is a problem” or “Oh, you have Brian? Good luck” vs. “I’m struggling with Brian. I need help with Brian. I don’t know what to do for Brian.”
Imagine one of your students who is not understanding a concept. Needs help with a skill. Is constantly displaying behaviors not appropriate for a classroom.
Where are they going to get help with those concepts/skills/behaviors if not from you? That’s our job. It’s the first 5 letters of our job title. It’s our job to teach them.
If we take it upon ourselves to recognize that it is our job to do these things, then we will be working to help our students with these things.
The reality: we all know this. We’re teachers because this is what we’re called to do. But the other reality: it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to disassociate with some of those tasks. It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming the student for their deficiencies rather than helping them navigate their way to success. Our words play an important part in that.
Ultimately, the struggle lies with us. It’s our professional job to struggle with the challenges presented by some of our students to find what works for the student. It’s also our professional job to struggle with how to help the student accept what they need to do and put in their work. As I heard Mike Mattos say at a conference a year ago yesterday (thank you, TimeHop), “We have the degrees. We are the professionals.”
It is not our students’ job to struggle. They’re children.
Of course, this is part of the larger picture of the community of a school. If all the students are the students of all the teachers — all “our” students, not “my” students and “your” students — then it’s okay for teachers to struggle. It’s okay because we have each other. We can brainstorm solutions. We can work together for the betterment of our students: all of them together as well as individuals.
So please, join me in the struggle. Let’s struggle together so that our students — our children — don’t have to.
Earlier last school year, a parent shared a grant opportunity with me from Delta Dental to add filtered water bottling drinking fountains to our school. I loved this idea. My school is located 36 miles from Flint, Michigan so we are well aware of the importance of having access to clean drinking water. The students had also been very interested in this topic. I knew my fifth grade teachers had talked about the Flint water crisis quite a bit in their classrooms so I thought this could be a great opportunity to engage students in an authentic learning opportunity. I knew this grant writing opportunity would align well with the informational writing standards the students were studying during writing workshop.
The teachers were on board and excited to have the students participate in this learning opportunity. They started by looking at the questions on the grant application. These would be guiding questions for the research. The students decided that they were going to divide up the questions using Google Docs to help focus their research. It was inspiring to see the groups work on different parts of the project. They were passionate about the topic and applying everything they were learning during writing workshop to make a difference in the real world. One group was researching the benefits of drinking water compared to pop and sugary juices. Another group was learning about the negative effects that contaminated water has on health and development. They were drafting responses and editing and revising them together. They learned about how to find quality sources, cite research, use clear, concise word choice, and the importance of considering their audience. I saw the students engaged in informational writing in ways I hadn’t seen been before. They were excited and had a clear sense of purpose.
After several more rewrites, we were finally ready to submit our application. We clicked send and waited. The students asked several times over the next couple of weeks if I had heard anything from Delta Dental about the grant. I explained that it takes time to read all of the applications and it would probably be awhile before we heard anything. Right around the time students stopped asking about the grant, I received an email from Delta Dental. I was so excited to open the email. The students worked hard on the grant and completed each question on their own for the grant. I was confident Delta Dental would be impressed that the entire grant was completed by the students in the school. I knew this was exactly the kind of authentic learning opportunity that would separate our grant from the rest. I was so excited to share the email with the students. I opened the email and had to read it twice. Delta Dental thanked us for applying but they regretted to inform us that we did not receive the grant.
Suddenly, I realized I needed to prepare for a completely different conversation with the students. While completing the project, I had never considered not getting the grant. I had spent a lot of time thinking about how awesome it was going to be to tell the students about the grant we received. I had envisioned the pride the students would have looking at the new filtered drinking fountain. I shared the news with the students and they were disappointed, but not nearly how I had expected. The next question I heard from a student was, “So what’s our new idea?” I hadn’t considered that thought before approaching the class. In my mind, the rejection letter from Delta Dental was the end of the journey. However, they didn’t see it that way at all. They viewed it as just another roadblock in the journey of getting a new drinking fountain. I admitted to them that I didn’t have a plan for a next step. It took two students exactly two days to come up with a next step.
Owen and Nathan, two fifth grade students from Nicol Howald’s class, emailed me and said they wanted to meet to discuss the next idea for getting the drinking fountain installed at Hemmeter. I was impressed with their perseverance and commitment to making this idea a reality. They told me they were working on a presentation during their genius hour time and wanted to share it with me. The boys were organized and professional during the meeting and convinced me to allow them to organize a class pop can collection fundraiser to buy the new drinking fountain. They were going to create the flyers, make the posters, collect the cans, and handle all the returns (including washing them out). The one part of the meeting with Owen and Nathan that really swelled my heart with pride was when they mentioned that this was their last year at Hemmeter and they really wanted the drinking fountain to be something they could do for future students. That was when I realized we had to make this happen. It wasn’t just about getting a new drinking fountain, this was about students understanding in a very real way what it means to give back to your school. I approved the project and wished them good luck.
The boys worked hard and collected over 1500 pop cans. A significant chunk of money that when combined with some additional building funds I had available was enough to purchase the new drinking fountain! I am working to get a plaque made for the drinking fountain to recognize the hard work and determination the boys displayed seeing this project through. Amazing things happen when we engage students with authentic work. The application and learning goes well beyond academics. It’s about building pride in school and community and having a generous, kind heart.
When I was a first-year English teacher 17 years ago, I thought my job was to teach the literature I loved. I believed that if I shared my love for The Call of the Wild, my students would love it as much as I do, and many did. Some, however, didn’t. There were heads down on desks, and failing grades showed up on report cards. Looking back on that year, I cringe. I put the book before my students. Now, my priorities have shifted.
Now, I observe.
His eyes are up more than down. Her eyes look to her lap where her phone is hidden. When I ask students to mark their spots, I note who shuts their book without a marked page. Two boys don’t lift their pencils during the first quickwrite. Another doesn’t even open her notebook when asked to. I watch this all without saying a word, and store it away for conferences.
Now, I comfort.
Frustration and anxiety appear on faces. I smile. I take out my pencil and write too. I share my mistakes. When I see a boy’s head in his hands, I kneel down to quietly share some suggestions to get started. This notebook is for mistakes. It’s where we can take risks, I say. I’m an awful speller, he replies. I reassure him that spelling doesn’t count here. This is where he has the freedom to explore. No need to worry about perfection.
Now, I listen.
Miss? I came to get that book, remember? The boy’s hands shake as he sits down and looks up at me as I get the book he requested. Can I tell you something? he asks me nervously. I immediately sit next to him to confirm. I’m not a good reader. My last school told me I read like a 4th grader, and my Lexile is too low for an 8th grader. My teachers and classmates mocked me. They told me I improved, but not enough. I can’t go through that again. I want to get better.
Now, I reassure.
You are not a level or Lexile, I reply. Don’t let those people define who you are. You are a reader, and I’ll help you realize that this year. He shares his frustration with staying focused and his concern that he’ll forget to read at home, and I share my recently-discovered love for audiobooks and the value in having reading partners. He states that his father would be a great reading partner. By the time he heads home, he has The Hate U Give and a reading plan.
Now, I create safe spaces.
Miss? Can you look this over for me and tell me what you think? She opens her Chromebook and I read about the night she told her parents she’s gay. Her father and uncle did not handle it well, and it hurt her deeply. She shared her pain and disbelief that they could feel this way about their flesh and blood. I admire you, I said. Thank you for sharing this piece with me. I can only hope that someday your family sees the incredible person that I do.
Now, I show my true self.
She enters my room after school, and immediately checks to make sure she’s the only one here. When her hope is confirmed, she walks over and sits down. Over the next hour, we share stories about the girl we both lost in an accident. A best friend and a mentee. A confidant and a budding artist. Tears are shed more than once as we watch a butterfly appear outside the window.
As the second week of school ends, more pencils are moving along the paper. Conversations revolve around writing topics, and more students openly share favorite lines. When I see these buds begin to emerge, I am reminded that this comes first. I don’t teach texts. I teach the amazing human beings that enter my classroom each day.
Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 11th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York. She is currently in her 17th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at https://skrajewski.wordpress.com.