I had a completely different post ready to go for today. However, I was inspired to write this new post because of a letter I received this morning from a former student.
Today is day three of school, and I’m standing at my classroom door ready to greet my new fifth graders. I see one of them, Marta, turn the corner. She’s walking briskly down the hallway with an arm extended in front of her. Marta approaches me and says, “Good morning. Stick out your hand please.” Uncertain of what’s about to happen, I do as she requests. Into my hand falls a carefully folded piece of paper. Thankful that it’s just paper and not something worse, I open the paper and read. It’s a letter from Marta’s brother, Diego, who was in my class two years ago. The letter reads:
Dear Mr. Jones,
Hi, It’s Diego. I am in seventh grade now, but you probably already know that. Or maybe you don’t. I like seventh grade. My teachers are nice. I’m really glad that my sister is in your class. Now, she get’s (sic) to learn about The Flock. I loved being in The Flock because I learned about thinking of other people.
This simple gesture made me realize that one of my former students appreciated being a member of our classroom community so much that he wanted his sister to have the same experience.
“The Flock” is an idea I was introduced to as a teenager when a coach used it during a pep talk. It originates from a piece of writing called Lessons From The Geese, which describes the science behind why a flock of geese flies in a V-formation. You can find this piece of writing here. I use these facts about the migratory patterns of geese to start off the year with a series of conversations about respect, collaboration, ownership and kindness. I guess I think of this piece of writing as a mentor text that becomes the framework for our classroom culture.
These lessons can be applied to any group, and I’ve found that they work perfectly for initiating the discussion about our classroom norms. We begin by reading Lessons From The Geese as a class. Students work in small groups to make comparisons of how geese work as a team and how students work together in a classroom. We revisit these lessons almost daily during the first weeks of school. My goal is to ensure that students have a strong understanding of this metaphor and how it relates to our work in the classroom.
Here is the list of facts, followed by how these facts can be used to build the culture in a classroom:
FACT: By flying in a V-formation, the whole flock adds around 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.
LESSON: If we are part of a learning community that has a common purpose or direction, then we will be more successful in meeting their learning goals and making improvements. Our behaviors will affect our classmates.
FACT: Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go through it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the power of the flock.
LESSON: It is important that we work together, collaborate, learn from each other and share ideas. If we do these things, each person will reach their goals easier than if they try to do it alone. We must trust the power of the team.
FACT: When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose takes over.
LESSON: The teacher will not always be the leader. We must share ownership of our classroom community. We all need to be responsible for our own learning. We should always stand up and own our behavior. Also, our community must remain strong even when there is a guest teacher in the classroom.
FACT: Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep their speed.
LESSON: Our communication with one another needs to be positive and supportive. We are all here for the same reason, and we need to be respectful to everyone. We need to give each other feedback that is constructive and helpful.
FACT: When a goose gets sick or is wounded and falls out of formation, two geese fall out of the formation and follow the injured one down to help and protect it.
LESSON: It is important for us to work together, but we also need to care about each other. We should look out for each other and support each other when someone is feeling down. Every single student should feel physically and emotionally safe in our classroom community.
Our series of discussions in the first weeks of school culminates with each Flock member, including me, writing a paragraph answering questions such as: “How will YOU contribute to the Flock this year?” or “Which lesson from the geese means the most to you?” In years past, students answered this question by writing their answer on a goose outline glued to construction paper. I then hung these paper geese from the ceiling in a V-formation after school, so the next morning students would come in surprised to see our Flock on display. Unfortunately, my local fire marshal has smothered that idea.
After a few weeks of daily conversations to start the year, it’s time for The Flock to take flight. Even though our discussions about this metaphor decrease, I try to weave it into our daily routine as much as I can. I don’t address the group by saying “Ok, boys and girls…” Instead, I say, “Listen up, Flock members!” We have daily Flock meetings where we sit in a circle (more conducive to discussions than a “V”) to reflect on our goals and evaluate the day. Our class Twitter, Instagram and website all are titled “The Flock.” I feel an important part of any strong community is a shared vision along with common language. For me, “The Flock” is what provides these things. My students grow to love the fact that we are the only class in the school with a name. They also learn that once you are in The Flock, you are always in The Flock.
Eight years ago, I will never forget when a student shared this idea about the flock at one of our daily meetings. She said that a flock of geese and a class of students are similar because they are both on a journey. Geese are in a v-formation on a journey for food and warmth and a flock of students is on a journey of learning. As teachers, we want to create an environment where their journey is a success. I hope that “The Flock” gives my students a sense of community that will make their learning journey easier. I hope “The Flock” motivates them to think of others before they think of themselves. I hope “The Flock” allows them to go on their journey through fifth grade with sense of purpose and a passion for growth. Diego’s letter gives me hope that it does.