Can You Dab?


“Can you dab?”

A fourth grade boy sitting twenty-some rows back from the front of the auditorium asks. Eyes sparkling, face beaming, perched on the edge of his seat, he waits.

“Can I dab?!” grins award-winning author Jason Reynolds, wearing a knowing expression that humorously reads ‘how-old-do-you-think-I-am?’

“Yeah! Can you dab?!” the young boy repeats.

Jason walks up the aisle, dragging the microphone cord, as middle school heads whip around to follow his every move. He is dressed head to toe in black, his dreads tumbling over each other. Reaching the boy’s row, Jason looks over to him. This fourth grade boy, now standing, is

This fourth grade boy, who is black, gazes up at this adult black man who says:

“Yeah, I can dab.”

One heartbeat flutters. One breath exhales. One boy wonders…

He need not ask for proof. Jason bows his head into his elbow. He dabs. The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Smiling. Cheering. Dabbing back. It’s a response, a conversation, between 450 middle school students and a man who, through one seemingly simple question, let them know that they were

* * * * *

For several months, I had been co-organizing an author visit to our school district with Jason Reynolds. We were lucky beyond measure to get the opportunity to host him. If you’re not familiar with Jason, visit his website, read his poetry, hear his story. His literary accolades and honors are stickered across the covers of his books for young people:
Coretta Scott King
National Book Award
NAACP Image Award
Kirkus Prize
Schneider Family Award

Jason’s good fortune as an author of children’s literature was a long time coming before it was finally realized. Way before the awards, the book tours, and the bestselling novels, there was his childhood in Washington, D.C. A childhood that drives him to create authentic characters, stories, and voices for his books, putting the “real” in realistic fiction. He stood in front of our students and told them stories, his true stories about
eating ramen noodles and generic peanut butter
dying hair with kool-aid
popping cassette tapes into Walkmans
playing basketball

And then there were stories that made us gasp, laugh, sigh…think.

He told them that he didn’t read until he was 18 years old. Our reading workshop trained, book loving kids were horrified. This was unthinkable. Why, they asked. WHY didn’t you read?! Because the only books that were available to kids like me were “classics” like Moby Dick…and I couldn’t relate, because there weren’t any whales living in my neighborhood, he explained.

He told them that one of the first cassette tapes he ever bought was a rap album by Queen Latifah, and it changed his life. The more he listened to her, the closer he grew to realizing that her words, her raps, were poetry. This epiphany began a daily practice of writing poetry, as he told himself, “I’m going to be Queen Latifah when I grow up!”

He told them that he moved to New York to pursue his writing dreams.

He told them that he was living in his car a handful of years ago.

He told them that he was working in a clothing store a couple of years ago.

He told them that through all of this, he was writing. Two pages a day. Squeezing in time to write in the edges of his days.

He told them that he was on the verge of giving up his writerly dreams, but was prompted to start writing stories and characters who
looked like him
talked like him
acted like him
lived like him

He wrote through a lens of “everyday diversity”, showcasing characters with authentic
creating books to read about black people outside the oeuvre of “boycotts, bondage, and basketball”, because “black kids do more than play basketball”, Jason told them. He knew children of all kinds needed to be able to hold up a book as a mirror and see themselves in it. And he was determined to tell those stories.

* * * * *

“Curry or Jordan?” another black student asks Jason, challenging him to name the greatest basketball player of all time.

“Ooooh, you’re asking me difficult questions,” Jason plays along.

After a long pause…


And the crowd goes wild.

* * * * *

While Jason was presenting, I was kid watching. Scanning the faces of our very diverse district, I saw one face after another light up, engage, and connect. That was when I realized the profound impact this author visit was having on our children.

When our student raised his hand to ask if Jason could dab, he wasn’t really asking “Can you dab?” He was wondering
Do you see me?
Do you hear me?
Do you know that I have stories, too?

And Jason, a man who mirrors him in many ways, wordlessly responded, in one gesture
I see you.
I hear you.
I am writing my stories for you.
(Jason Reynolds is the author of When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in The Black Suit, All American Boys, As Brave As You, The Track Series (Ghost, Patina), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and forthcoming Long Way Down.)

Little Things Foster Communities

When I read our first post by Tony and Brian introducing our vision for this space I instantly got my writer’s notebook out and started writing a list.  They shared ‘little things’ that helped create meaningful relationships in the post, Looking at Teaching and Learning through a “Relationship” Lens.  I started my own list, wondering if I could think of five small things that might have an impact on our community.  I decided to let this list percolate and study them during the first month of school.  I was quite surprised last night at parent teacher conferences each of my five things were mentioned at some point by parents.

  1. Each morning during our morning meeting greet each other.  Each week I pick a different greeting for the students and I to do with each other as each child is welcomed.  We started with a formal greeting – Good morning, Sam.  Good morning, Mrs. Robek.  Parents shared last night their child was plotting out how they would “hit the floor” the next day during a greeting chant we did last week and were disappointed we were doing something different this week.  This week we did an ankle shake around our circle; they laughed and giggled as they tried to balance.
  2. Use student names for labels.  Names are special gifts from parents with meaning and thought.  Every time I write a label with a name I feel like I’m creating a special spot for that child this school year.  A notebook or folder or coat hook that will be a place to nurture.
  3. Send snail mail notes home to share good news.  Life is busy and technology can make communication easy but I miss getting meaningful, touching mail in my physical mailbox.  When I do, I get a little flutter of joy.  I had some postcards made to hopefully bring my students and their families a flutter of joy.  I find handwriting a note brings a little more intention to my observations.  Just today as we lined up for dismissal a student didn’t hear his name called and another student who rides the same bus got out of line and helped him find a place within the line that was growing to help him get home.  Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 9.56.18 PM
  4. Start the year with empty walls and curate them together with the class.
  5. End the school day in song.  One summer I worked at a day camp and they had a tradition to end their day.  They sang a song; staff and campers.  It had a message of closure, wishes for our time away, and a time frame for when we’d be together again.  Enjoy our sharing.  

Vulnerable but Invincible

Way back on August 22, educator Steve Kukic spoke to our faculty during our August Professional Development. I have a few pages of notes from his day with us, but one particular set of information has guided my thinking about my work with students these last few weeks. (I’m basing this on my own incomplete notes, so any mistakes are mine.)

Quoting from the study Vulnerable But Invincible: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Kukic cited three factors for the resilient kids who succeeded despite the roadblocks in their way:

1. High expectations from home, school, or community,

2. Future orientation (not focused on past or now), and

3. “Unconditional positive regard” from an adult.

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Sophomore reading with kindergartner.

Reading conferences are often tough during the first few weeks of school, especially with students who are new-to-you. You feel like you’ve recommended the same book twenty times. A new English teacher lamented the number of times she’s asked “What’s your favorite movie or video game?” when students say “I don’t read” when she’s helping them find books.

When this has happened to me this year, especially with juniors and seniors, I’ve asked what they want to do after high school. A counselor I worked with used to mention how surprised she was that no one ever asked students what they want to do after high school. Many students have tough and even horrible pasts and presents, pasts and presents that are utterly beyond their control. The future, however, can be within their control, and we can help them with that.

This year, a student told me he might want to join the military, and when I asked him what he would want to do there, he said he didn’t know. He thought that flying sounded cool after I listed all the things that one could do in the military. Since my brother is a pilot, I then told him every possible thing that I know about learning to fly airplanes. Did my student run out and sign up for flying lessons? Of course not. Does he now realize that flying is actually something that ordinary people can do? That he can sign up and take lessons and learn to fly before he graduates from high school? He knows all that now. The more interest we show in our students’ futures, the more likely they are to turn their focus in that direction.

I’m still thinking about how high expectations play out in my classroom. I don’t think it means academic rigor, or strict expectations for classroom behavior, or inflexible grading policies. High expectations isn’t “We all must read William Faulkner together” when 40% of the class is still working on decoding and academic language.

I think that when it comes to high expectations, what we really need to communicate to students is a high level of belief. It is not that I expect you to read at this level; instead, I believe that you can read at this level. I believe that you can write this narrative. I believe that you can pass Algebra.

I believe in you.

In a meeting this year, someone said “But he can’t—” and one of our instructional leaders interrupted with “He can’t yet.” An English colleague repeated it later, and I remind myself to remember the power of yet. He can’t read that yet. She can’t do that yet. But I believe that my students will do it. It’s not that he can’t read single and double consonant words, it’s that he can’t read them yet. Even better: “He is working on single and double consonant words.” You can learn to do this, I say to my students, and I know that it is true.

And, of course, we work to practice unconditional positive regard every day. On this blog a few weeks ago, Angie Huesgen wrote “Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day.” This isn’t as obvious as you think. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” people say. “You’ve got to be tough, make them respect you,” others might add.

But I agree with Angie. Be nice, damn nice, every day. Even to the mean kids and the kids who ignore you. You might say hi twenty times before students respond, but they do notice when you say hi.

At my school the secondary teachers supervise buses loading while our elementary colleagues walk the little ones to their buses. A lot of the time this means walking around while students work hard to talk to anyone but a teacher. I know from personal experience that walking around saying “Get on your bus, get on you bus” does not work. So last year I started saying “See you tomorrow” if I didn’t know a student. If I knew their name, I said “Good-bye” and their name and that I would see them tomorrow. That works better.

We then stand by our stadium and wave at the buses as they pull out, all twenty-four of them. The little kids wave and shout good-bye, smiles huge. The high schoolers ignore us, and sometimes they even give us a school-inappropriate finger.

But they know we’re there.

And they know that we’ll be there tomorrow.

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(Yes, that is our view. When it isn’t raining.)



One morning in early September, my quiet student Alicia asked me an unexpected question as we wrapped up a reading conference.

“Why do you love teaching so much?” she asked.

Without thinking, I answered, “Because it reminds me so much of my family when I was growing up.”

“You should tell us more about that someday…” she said gazing around the room smiling at her classmates. “I think they would like to know too.”

For me, family and teaching share the power of connections.  At home and in the classroom, shared common bonds create dynamic and powerful forces.  I am a fortunate person because my childhood connections allowed me to thrive.  Whether it was for support, reflection, or celebration, those connections were a reassuring constancy in my life.  The world outside our home always seemed to be full of changing people and experiences, but the dependable connections of home and family guided me through childhood with confidence.  

In my world, family was the insurance plan reminding us that no matter what happened, we always had one another. Our lives were so interconnected.  Birthdays. New babies. Baptisms. Funerals. Report Cards. Graduations. Illness.  Anniversaries. Accomplishments.  Holidays.  Vivid memories are those of Sunday dinners. Sundays meant we were together because that was the only day nobody went to work.  From the energy of a colorful dinner table, to the interesting people, and the lively conversations,  my family and relatives would move together to quieter afternoons after our meal.  Sitting near my father and grandfather with the Yankees game playing on the television gave us time to talk while giving them time to rest after a busy week.  I remember waiting on the couch to have 1:1 time with my grandmother as she listened to each grandchild read a book aloud just for her; meanwhile the mothers cleaned up Sunday dinner and then took time to chat and laugh on the front stoop of the house.

Our lives were shaped, strengthened and made richer because we were together.  Those connections reassured each one of us that we mattered and we belonged.  

The constant reassurance of family was the priceless gift of my childhood;  my life out in the world from a young age also taught me that not  every child grew up with a supportive family network like mine.  Years later when I entered the world as a teacher, I wanted to show gratitude for my family by building a supportive and connected community for students.  

As a new teacher, I knew that regardless of their lives and experiences outside of school, my students deserved to be more than a roster of names. They deserved a caring and connected school community.  After 30 years, I still believe our first job as teachers is to provide consistent and persistent opportunities for students to know they matter and they belong.  I still believe that teachers can build relationships with simple, but powerful practices that are worthy of being repeated, noticed, and celebrated.  And just like my family, I found that classrooms can capitalize on quiet, yet powerful connections that provide long-lasting and far reaching benefits for students.  


Arrival Time:  A Chance for a Reflective Connections

My mother taught me to be practical, yet reflective.  She always told us, “How you start the day, determines the rest of the day.”  As a teacher, I know that getting to school isn’t always easy for kids.  The crazy bus ride, noisy hallway traffic, and breakfast line frustrations can be hard to leave at the door.  Just as my own mother created calm, reassuring starts to my childhood days, I have tried to pay her kindness forward to my students.  

Our first school connection of the day is Arrival.  My students are encouraged to enter the building, get their breakfasts if needed, and head to our classroom as quickly as possible so they can begin to leave the noise and the hurry of getting to school behind.  Once students enter our door, the mood shifts.   I play soft music and children find me in our quiet community area rather than standing in the doorway competing with hallway noise .  They find me waiting to greet each person entering the room.  Each child comes over to say good morning so I can look each one in the eyes to discover what kind of energy he or she is bringing to school that day. As we say our good mornings,  I check them in for attendance and lunch count.  

Good morning check-ins really mean that each child starts the day hearing his or her name with kind words.  Just like the family breakfast table where my mother started our day with a hug and a strong gaze into our eyes with some encouraging words, I know how much arrivals and beginnings matter.  The first connection of the day with students is one of reflection: the hugs, the smiles, the high-fives, the chatting, or the gift of a quiet.  How can we start this day in the best possible way? Arrival time may only last a few minutes, but this time presents a reflective connection each child needs every morning: a quiet time to know and understand that he or she matters and belongs in our classroom.


Independent Reading: A Time For Supportive Connections

The second ritual of the day in our classroom is Independent Reading.  This peaceful time in our classroom reminds me of the supportive flow my mother created for our evenings as a family. As we finished our busy day and a conversation-filled dinner, my siblings and I wrapped up kitchen chores and transitioned one by one to homework.  My mother was a believer in letting us do our own homework, but she felt we needed to be together in the kitchen with focused and purposeful intentions.  As we finished our work, we packed up and prepared our school bags for the next day. Then we drifted into the living room to read our own books while my father read the newspaper.  This same peaceful, predictable flow continued and we read until it was our turn to have a bath or shower.  Looking back, the easy predictability of our evenings and being together combined with the collective spirit of reading was a peaceful way to end our day.

I provide that same peaceful transition for students at the start of the day instead.  As children arrive, the transition from “getting here” to “being here,” is supported by the joy of books.  Morning arrivals are staggered with bus schedules, long breakfast lines, and the flow of 25 children arriving through a doorway.  Teaching right away would be impossible since school-wide announcements and the pledge will burst from the loudspeaker at 9:15.  If “being here” means getting ready for a day of learning, then the joy of books seems like a perfect bridge.  Children arrive and settle in around the room.  Some children read in our comfortable chairs.  Some readers find quiet spaces in our Book Nooks.  Breakfasts are eaten with books in hand at our tables.  Readers are sharing latest favorites.   With each passing minute, you can feel the calm descending, bodies relaxing and minds engaging with the joyful act of reading.  The supportive connection of books and reading and sharing makes all the difference to our mornings.

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Reading Conferences:  Another Time for Supportive Connections

When you are a member of a family with brothers and sisters, you treasure the time you get to spend all by yourself with a parent.  I can remember riding with my father in his truck, headed to the dump to get rid of construction debris just to have uninterrupted time with him.  We took turns talking or listening; we asked questions and shared opinions.  What mattered to me was that I did not need to compete with anyone else.   I always appreciated how my father made sure to have one-on-one time with us whenever he could, even if it was a simple truck-ride to complete an errand.  My father taught me to show someone you care, you start by being an active, attentive listener.  

Over the years, my father’s wisdom has guided my conference-life with students.  During those first days of school when I slowly introduce students to the components and expectations of workshop, they all nod their heads in shared understanding when I connect reading conferences to that 1:1 time with a parent.  Students thrive in groups, but they also crave special attention from a caring adult.  Family life teaches us that.  As much as I loved my family, I took advantage of those “only child”  opportunities to have my father’s complete attention.  Students understand my story.  As soon as students show me that they can manage on their own during independent reading, I launch our one-on-one reading conferences.  Students know that each one of them will have that coveted, uninterrupted alone time with me to talk about new books, funny characters, exciting plots, or what to read next. Conferences are a time to build those supportive connections that help each child feel valued and heard.  

Book Partners and Book Talks:  Taking Time for Group Celebrations  


My mother took my siblings and I to the library often.  Since I was the oldest, I was expected to help the younger ones find books that were fun, right for their age, and matched their interests.  I remember how easy it was to help my brother because he wanted to read everything he could about baseball; he was an easy customer.  I parked him by sports  in the library’s 700s section and he carefully explored, book by book, looking for new baseball titles. Then he would wander to the the biographies and search for books about his baseball heroes.  My sister was another story.  She wanted to read every book I was currently reading; being three years younger than me, I  knew she would lose interest in her copycat books as soon as we lugged them home.  Then I would be stuck listening to her fuss plus I would find myself explaining  to my mother why my sister was complaining about her bag full of books and nothing to read.  I had to be a great saleswoman to convince my sister to value my book recommendations that were just right for her.  In hindsight, my sister provided the best preservice PD on matching books to readers.

As a teacher, I learned to value Book Partners and Student-Lead Book Talks early in my career.  In the beginning, I tried to read every title that I believed my students might enjoy; with the ever-expanding reading lives of students, it was a challenge to be a child’s only source of book recommendations.  Just like my mother relied on me to help my siblings select books, I now rely on Book Partners to add variety to the sharing element of Reading Workshop.   After students learn how to have book conversations, I match pairs of readers to informally chat about books.  Reading Partners meet at least twice a week and talk about what they are reading.  I love listening to the excited book conversations at the end of workshop.  Why were certain books selected?  Why were certain titles obvious favorites?  Who was confident when talking about books?  Who might need some different supports in order to grow as a speaker and listener during Partner Book Talks?

Student-Lead Book Talks also give students a chance to share and celebrate their book recommendations just like sharing news and having conversations at the dinner table.  Students learn to take turns, listen without interrupting, and ask questions when their peer is finished talking about a book. It is important for students to slow down and watch their friends present a book.  They learn to be supportive of their shy friends.  They discover that people beyond their friendship circle could help them grow.  Just like conversations at the dinner table, connections between students grow stronger when they take time to see each individual’s perspective.  

The Power We Hold

Being a teacher allows me to provide so much more than instruction for my students.   Our classroom presents multiple opportunities to grow and enrich a community through connections, moments of support, joy, and celebrations.  Just like the rituals of family, it is possible for a classroom to provide many rituals that can nurture students social, emotional and cognitive growth wrapped in the joy of learning.  Each day as I gather with children in my classroom, I smile with gratitude for the opportunity to share my family’s gift:  the power of support, reflection, and celebration.  Many times I have gazed across my classroom and felt the support of my family like warm hands resting on my shoulders.  They helped me achieve this teaching life that I love.   How fortunate I am.

Where Are We Going?: Creating a class mission statement

The Flock is about to finish its fourth week of school.  Our classroom is up and running.  Our daily routines are mostly established. Beginning of the year assessments are nearly complete. Most importantly, our classroom community is continuing to grow and get stronger each day. Spending a great deal of time in the first weeks discussing “Lessons From The Geese” is proving to pay off. My students and I have discussed why we are called The Flock. We’ve discussed how we need to work together, learn from each other, and treat each other as partners on this learning adventure. We are on our way traveling as a community of learners. However, the MOST critical part of our journey can be explained by answer this one very simple question.

Where are we going?

My students and I had spoken a great deal about this learning journey, but it was time to establish a destination.  What is our purpose? What is our goal? I wanted to make sure that my students knew why we come to our classroom every day, other than, “My parents make me” or “because I’m legally obligated to be here.”

I have found that creating a mission statement plays a crucial role in building my classroom community. Bringing students into the creation process empowers them to take more ownership of their learning. A class mission statement can also:

  • Ensure a common language for all students
  • Provide students with a purpose for each lesson and assignment
  • Encourage goal-setting and growth mindset
  • Bring a sense of pride to the classroom

Before we wrote our mission statement, I felt it was important for us to know what a mission statement is, as well as look at examples of mission statements. After clarifying that a mission statement is not when the video game states your new mission on the next level of Call Of Duty, we determined that it is simply a statement of purpose and focus. I shared mission statements from well-known corporations like Apple, Facebook, Amazon and McDonalds. Together we noticed that most mission statements answer these questions: What do the company do? How is the company helping their customers? Why is our company important? I asked students to think at home about how we could answer these same questions for our classroom.

The following day, we gathered on the carpet and one student started our conversation by saying, “we are our own customers. We learn for ourselves.”  Students seemed very impressed with this insight, so I asked them to brainstorm a list of answers to these four questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • How are we going to accomplish it?
  • Why is it important to accomplish this?

Students returned after 10 minutes, and I recorded their answers to each question using Google Docs. After much debate, I asked students to vote for their top two answers for each question.  These top two answers for each question would be used to create our final mission statement.  You can see our brainstorming list and voting process here.

Once voting was complete, our final mission statement was written by simply combining what the students selected.  Here is what we came up with:


Creating the mission statement was only the first step. Now, it is our job as a community to live by this and make sure that everything we do is an example of our shared mission. I have posted this in our classroom, as well as outside of our classroom door.  Students know that I’ve put a copy of this mission statement into my guest teacher folder, so when I am out of the classroom any substitute teacher will know what we stand for. I have challenged students to always ask themselves how every assignment and project fits with our mission statement. If they can’t see a connection, I encourage them to ask me.

One thing that my students have heard me say is “the nine months of fifth grade is a just one part of your learning journey.”  Our life as a learner is a long, gradual adventure with many stops along the way. Perhaps that’s why “The Flock” metaphor has become the cornerstone of my classroom community. We’re all going to be in the classroom together every day for nine months. So we might as well go on this learning journey together with a common destination. I hope that our mission statement inspires a community mindset and empowers students to support each other along the way.

Chasing Mr. Tingley

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In the fall of 1985, I had no idea that I would ever be a teacher. Most likely, I wanted to be a professional golfer or comic book illustrator. As a junior in high school, I am sure the idea of being a teacher had not even crossed my mind. For much of my middle and high school years, school was not where I envisioned my life happening.  It took a very insightful college professor to suggest taking the introductory education class my junior year of my undergraduate studies to open my eyes a little. Thankfully I took that class and fell in love with the idea of helping kids learn. From that first experience until now, I have had wonderful mentors who have lifted me considerably.

However, when I really reflect, my first ‘mentor teacher’ was Mark Tingley. Now, 23 years into my teaching career I am still chasing the high bar he set. Classroom Communities is focused on how educators can build powerful relationships with their students. Even though I had lots of great teachers throughout my career as a student, Mark Tingley was a natural at building connections and inspiring learning in his classroom.

I was a pretty good student in high school. I wasn’t at valedictorian level, but I was smart enough to play school well and to get mostly As and Bs (AP Calculus not included). When I rolled into Mark Tingley’s physics class my junior year, I probably knew nothing about physics other than what I learned from Schoolhouse Rock’s A Victim of Gravity and Electricity, Electricity. Within days, I quickly learned that physics was my favorite period of the day.

Mark Tingley made a point to get to know who we were in order to connect us to physics, he wanted us to succeed, and he made physics phun. I had liked and probably learned in previous science classes (the burn and scar on my arm from molten hot glass in chemistry was a highlight of high school), but I had never loved going to a science class. To be honest I am not sure I loved going to any class until physics.

Mark Tingley was skillful in  finding connections between what we loved and the concepts o of the class. For me, he connected the principles of golf and swimming to physics concepts like linear motion and conservation of energy when he checked my progress in a lab setting. I would hear him try other ways for others to understand concepts a well. He set expectations for how we should learn from others in the class in meaningful ways. Mark Tingley was passionate about helping us understand a subject that most of us would never use post high school.

Mark Tingley pushed us to succeed. He loved physics and he wanted us to love it as well. He always had an open door if we wanted help. Even though I didn’t need to extra support often, I never once felt like I was doing the ‘wrong thing’ by stopping by his room to ask for it. There were teachers in the school that were not as welcoming when a student struggled, but he wasn’t one of them.

Mark Tingley also led us with an amazing sense of humor and joy. Which promoted the concept of fun in the classroom. He wrote tests and quizzes by hand before making dittos (if you are too young to know what a ditto copy is, you missed out on the simply pleasure of smelling a freshly made copy). These tests would be titled in ways that would make us laugh right before we had to show we learned. I will never, ever, forget the mid-October test, “The Smell in the air is Pumpkin, so it’s time for some Physics Phlunkin’!” Well, I have completely forgotten what the test was about, but the title burned into my memory. Friday quizzes were a lottery system. A student would spin a centrifuge labeled Regular Quiz, No Quiz, Everyone Gets and A, and Double Points. You were a hero or a goat depending on your luck, but we loved it. The labs we did in physics were wonderful hands-on activities that made the concepts stick. I even created some of my early career elementary science explorations based on labs from physics.

For an entire year, I was consistently engaged and wanting to learn more. I had a teacher who knew me as a student, but also as a person. I had a teacher who, for at least a little while, had me thinking that maybe I should study physics in college. I had a teacher who now is in the back of my mind when I think about how laughter and learning can go hand in hand. Whether it was a corny joke in a lab session, a ridiculous problem based scenario on a test or just a belly laugh when we shared how our day was going, Mark Tingley’s personality still resonates with how I want to establish a learning community in my classroom.

Mark Tingley has retired from the field of education, but his influence is felt by the students I have been fortunate enough to welcome each year. Principal Danny Steele from Alabama wrote, ““Kids aren’t inspired by lessons… but by teachers — teachers who bring joy to the room, passion for their subject, and love for the students.” Mark Tingley was a teacher who inspired me. There were many more in my life, but he is the one who I fondly remember when I think about how I should interact in positive and meaningful ways with my students to engage them in the act of learning. Which is why in many ways I feel like I am racing to keep up with the memories from that class.

Who were the teachers who profoundly inspired your thinking about our profession? Hopefully, you had one or two like Mark Tingley. If you did, thank them.

Building Relationships in Unexpected Ways: The Story of Recess Baseball Club

I love baseball.  The kind of love that includes things like subscribing to three different baseball podcasts, coaching two Little League teams, and having every Baseball Prospectus from the past ten years.  I own enough Detroit Tigers shirts that I could wear one every single day of the month without repeating.   I love baseball so much that the most surprising part of this story might be how long it took me to realize that sharing my passion with students would be one of my best relationship building tools.

Recess Baseball Club started simply enough.  Two years ago I found myself bored monitoring the playground during recess time.  My baseball glove, bat, and ball were in my car from Little League practice the night before.  I grabbed four frisbees for bases and headed out to the open grass area on the playground.  I yelled to the students, “Does anyone want to play baseball?”  A mob of students ran over and we spent the rest of the recess playing baseball.  Not a bad way to pass the time.  

I was surprised the next day when a dozen or so kids showed up to lunch with baseball gloves.  “We can’t wait to play baseball today,” one of them said to me.  I guess we are playing baseball again, I thought to myself.  At the end of recess while picking up the bases, one of the first grade students approached me.  As the principal of the building, I unfortunately knew him well after several trips to the office.  He thanked me for playing baseball with him during recess and told me he loves baseball too.  He told me that when he goes to his grandma’s house, he even gets to watch the Tigers.  He also told me he wishes he could watch them at his own house but his mom doesn’t own a TV.  During our conversation, I learned about his rough home life and the struggles he faces every day.  Baseball became a way for me to reach him.

Recess baseball club continued to grow and each day I had more students heading out to the field to play ball.  We eventually ended up with so many kids that wanted to play that I had to rotate which grades got to play each period.  A couple of local businesses heard about the program and asked if they could do anything to support the program.  They donated money to buy baseball gloves, balls, and real bases-no more frisbees.  I was surprised one day when the fire inspector called and asked if he could come play some day.  He was guest pitcher the next week and the reaction was priceless.  The kids were so excited to see Firefighter Brian on the ball field.  We plan to invite more community leaders out this year to join us as guest pitchers.  The possibilities for the program are endless.


The Recess Baseball Club had unintended positive consequences that I never could have imagined when I first grabbed the bat and ball from my car.  First, the number of office referrals during recess had dramatically decreased and misbehavior had almost completely disappeared.  The students were too engaged and having too much fun to misbehave.  

Recess Baseball Club was great for building community in the school and allowing leadership opportunities for students that didn’t always have the opportunity to lead in the classroom.  Like most students, my students can be very competitive.  We set very clear expectations early on about expected behavior during Recess Baseball Club.  The #1 rule of Recess Baseball Club was to have fun by developing a love of baseball.  I intentionally pulled aside my travel baseball players at the beginning for a special role in Recess Baseball Club.  They were going to be the most enthusiastic supporters of kids that have never played before.  I loved the time I spent with them talking about how they could encourage others and how they could use their great skills at baseball to help me “coach” the kids playing for the first time.  One of my favorite moments of the year was watching one of most competitive students consoling a student after he made an error that cost his team the game.  In the past, this particular student would have been the first student to yell at a teammate for blowing the game.  Now, because he was trusted to be a leader, he showed the compassion we hope for our students.

Another thing I noticed was that baseball was starting to spread to the classroom.  Nicol Howald, one of my amazing teachers, asked if I had any favorite baseball books that she could add to her library because the kids were suddenly interested in reading about baseball.  The students passed around copies of The Boy Who Saved Baseball by John Ritter, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane, and Baseballogy by Kevin Sylvester.  The fifth grade teachers invited me in to teach a sabermetrics lesson during math class.  We proved that sacrifice bunting was dumb and learned how to calculate run expectancy.  I was able to connect with kids about baseball.


Make no mistake though, this is not a story about a baseball program.  This is a story about opening up and sharing our personal passions with our students to help relationships flourish.  Be real.  Allow your students to see the real you.  Share the things you are passionate about with them and learn about the things they are passionate about.  Strong relationships begin to form when we take the time to really get to know each other.

From the Top Down

As some who find themselves reading this may know, my family recently moved halfway across the country. Personally, this meant a move closer to family and to a community we knew, even as it did bring me farther from where I grew up and my family in that area. Professionally, this meant a new position in a new school division.

(Note: “School Division” is a largely Canadian term used the same way “School District” is in the US)

With this new position came meeting new people, attending new employee workshops, etc. Things most of us have been through once or twice in our careers — at the very least, at the start of our careers.

I’ve been at new schools and/or new school district/divisions 5 times in my career. 4 of them had largely the same new teacher orientation information:

  • How to get paid
  • How to request time off
  • Expectations of teachers
  • How to file grievances
  • Welcome to our team! excitement (either genuine excitement or not, this always exists)

This one was different. And I have to share why.

When the superintendent spoke at the beginning of the orientation, there was a bit of the “here’s what we’re doing as a division this year; here’s our new strategic plan for the next 3 years; etc.” That’s pretty standard.

But before he even got to that, he started with talking about trust. He started by talking about how all the teachers in the room (there were about 40 of us) were going to build relationships with our students and with each other, and how that was the most important thing that we do. RTI, PLCs, curriculum, best practices: these are all important supports. But the most important thing is the relationships we have with our students and the community of support that we build.

I was blown away.

I’ve never had the leader of entire school division say that, much less kick off the year by saying that. But maybe it was an anomaly. He might have the most powerful voice, but maybe other senior administrators didn’t buy in to that same philosophy.

Then it was an assistant superintendent’s turn.

He shared with us 8 Standards of Excellence in Teaching. But he highlighted one in particular that was the necessary starting point: Interpersonal Relationships. He went on to say, “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” Essentially, if you don’t have that one, the others aren’t really going to matter nearly enough.

Think about those words. “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” If I had asked you before this post who said that, what would you say? A classroom teacher? A former teacher turned speaker? Perhaps a principal? The impact of a superintendent saying these words is significant.

I felt it in myself, and I saw it in my colleagues as we understood. It was clear what is important to this school division. It’s not just the academic outcomes that we lead our students toward. It’s an adult caring about every student. It’s every student having an adult who cares about them. It’s about helping each student feel a sense of belonging. It’s about community. It’s about relationships.

I thought this was as amazing as it was novel to me to hear it from the highest administrators in the division.

Then I really started to think about it.

When the primary directive to teachers is to build trust, community, and relationships among themselves and among their students, that’s going to look different than what I’m used to. I’m used to raising test scores. I’m used to graduation rates. I’m used to proficiency targets and goals.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is student scores, that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about raising student scores. Good teachers know that relationship-building is part of this.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is building relationships, then that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about building a community with their students. Good teachers know that this will raise student scores.

What is the message you send, when you get to talk to others? Whether you’re a teacher, administrator, parent, or student: what is your focal point? If it’s student scores, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is ultimately a number. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a number and they leave as hopefully a higher number. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

If the message is trust, community, and relationships, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is a person. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a person and they leave as a hopefully more enriched person. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

I would dissent if I had to. I’m fortunate that I don’t. Others are not so fortunate.

I will leave you with this thought. I believe that most people in senior administration in school districts believe in the importance and power of relationships and community in education. I’m not sure how many think it’s the most important thing, but they know it’s quite important. For those in those roles: are you communicating that to your staff? Do they know that you believe that? How? What are you doing to show that every day?

What will you do today to show those around you that you believe in the power of trust, relationships, and community?

Immersed in a Reading Community

“Talk is the sea upon which all else floats.James Britton, Language and Learning, 1970.


Most of the time, the act of reading is solitary and quiet. I crave days in which I can carve uninterrupted chunks of time with a book. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. My reading life, especially during the school year is short bursts of intensely focused time mixed in with longer stretches of time with multiple things getting in the way.

However, I have come to understand that even if every day of my life had a few hours built in for me to read the way I want to read, I might not be involved in a community of readers. So, my typical 20-30 minutes of quiet reading time before school each day is enough for me, because several times each day I live within a community of readers. As Britton suggests, my life as a reader is enriched because of the sea of talk that opens and closes my reading workshop time, the sea of ‘talk’ that invades my social media feeds and the sea of talk about books that occurs in my home several times a week.

Over the past 20 years, I have dedicated most of my professional development time to learning how to help my students become better readers and writers. My mentors from afar and near include some of the smartest literacy people on the planet. My professional bookshelf looks like the who’s who of NCTE and the ILA. I have learned how to assess, plan, instruct, design classroom libraries, give book talks, be an advocate for choice, and so much more.

But, about 5 years ago I shifted from an over-planned reading instructor to one who decided the biggest impact I might be able to make is commit to using the power of talk to build a reading community. My over-planning was getting in the way of kids becoming a vibrant member of a community that reads for itself, not what others think we should read. By the end of the year, my goal is to help my readers not only feel confident in their personal reading identity, but have a sense for how to help each other become more confident.

This shift to a more authentic reading community happened about the time I was catching myself bending the truth about my own reading. I would share things like, “I read for 40 minutes last night,” when maybe I only read for 30. I would say, “I loved _______________,” when maybe I only tolerated it. I would say, “I haven’t got to book three in the _______________ series because I have too many other books to read,” when it was probably because after book two I thought there was no way I could live with these characters in my brain for any more time.

The most valuable part of our readers’ workshop may be the time the students get to read. Each day, the only sounds you hear in my room for 20-30 minutes is the turning of a page, a pencil scraping against a notebook, and the very hushed whispers of a reading conference. However, I know the most valuable part of our reading community is the 5 minutes of talk on either side of the independent reading block.

During the five minutes prior to independent reading, we share our reading lives in the past 24 hours, we honestly talk about the books we read and we set goals for reading in the next 24 hours. When this talk is happening a much more honest version of my reading life has emerged. My students know a great deal about me as a reader. My modeling helps them learn about a readerly life and it gives them permission to be honest.

If had a terrible night/week of reading they know it. They know I am frustrated about lack of time or I am stuck finding a book that speaks to me. When I have an excellent night of reading with a book that I can’t put down, they know that as well. They know I am partial to lots of books, but still have difficulty with historical fiction. They know I have friends outside of my school that inspire me to read more and try books I wouldn’t normally try. They also know I recommend books to adults as well as them. I work hard to make sure I am fully transparent during this ‘status of the reading community’ talk.

It may take some time for the kids to become fully transparent. Some will ‘stalk’ for a while and say what they think I want to hear. Some will choose to pass if I ask them to share. But almost inevitably they all end up joining, because they learn that a reading community, like any community accepts and wants to take care of each of its members.

Once everyone is fully invested, our communal knowledge of each other makes it nearly impossible to feel like an outsider. I am only 13 days into helping new reading communities develop, but I have already seen signs with this year’s group of students that are so promising. During our ‘status of the reading community’ meetings I have heard personal book recommendations because a student has already learned that another might like the book she is reading. I have seen kids give each other tips like, “read in study hall if you don’t have time to read at home tonight’ and ‘I read in the morning while I eat breakfast because it helps me want to read more once I get to reading workshop.’

During our conversation at the end of our independent reading time, the kids in pairs or small groups check in on each others’ goals, try to persuade others to read a book, ask each other questions, and share joyfully about what they read in class. During this time I join a group and model some more. I wholeheartedly take book recommendations and jot down a note or log the book into my Goodreads account. I share what I thought when I read a book being discussed. I share my plans for reading later in the day.

Without all of the low-stress conversations centered on reading, I know my goal to help build a community of readers would be much more difficult. The kids would be missing something that is really great. And selfishly I have learned I would be missing out on being a member, not director of a reading community. So while I know that giving my students time to read books of their choice in school is vital, I have learned that without the sea of talk that ebbs and flows in our room, our community would suffer and our reading lives would be less connected and joyful.

Building Relationships in the “Edges”

I have a confession. I VOLUNTEER for recess duty every school year. Cue the bulging eyes and shaking heads, but I must admit it is one of my favorite parts of the day. In this fifteen minute window, I can be outside building rapport with kids and connecting with them in ways that have nothing to do (directly) with curriculum. Recently, while supervising the blacktop area of our playground, I started thinking of all the things I truly feel lucky to witness during this short span of time. Picture one kickball game, 2 basketball games and 3 tetherball courts and you’ll have a pretty good snapshot of fifth grade recess in all its glory. I get to watch how kids play, problem solve, use social skills, handle friendship nuances/social status and develop or hone talents not cultivated in the classroom. If I didn’t have this time in the “edges,” outside the confines of the classroom in those small moments, I wonder what opportunities I would miss?

A bevy of research exists on the importance of building trust and rapport with students and the vital role this plays in developing relationships that lead to increased engagement, creativity, thinking and academic performance. Author and former English teacher, Zaretta Hammond, talks extensively about these topics in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. She describes the trust-building process as one that cannot be expedited because “feeling connected grows slowly and requires time for people to get to know each other” (77). Hammond goes on to explain that developing rapport is this slow burn process that helps “dependent learners avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with feeling lost and unsupported in school” (81). Time spent in classrooms is one place to do this kind of work but it is not enough to build the foundation for lasting, meaningful relationships. Where can this extra time be found? The “edges.” Those small day-to-day interactions in the hallways, at recess, in the cafeteria, walking to the bus lanes after school, waiting with kids in the parent pick up line and the list goes on. Kids deserve a chance. A chance for teachers to see them through a different set of eyes than the single story of their classroom.   

Teachers are busy. I get it. But that’s not a free pass to quit students when they display behaviors that are less than desirable. How dare we give up when we are asking students to continue to show up day after day? Let’s face it. Every improper response from a student is one that you should be teaching. Where this teaching occurs is entirely up to you. Sometimes to find a way in… have to look out. Here are a few tips to build those relationships in the “edges.”

Do what you say you are going to do. For most kids, this is a deal breaker and a quick way to diminish trust and rapport. Keep your promises. Be true to your word. Follow through. Eat lunch with that student you promised you would eat lunch with even if you need a break. Go outside and shoot hoops with the kid you promised you would play basketball with even if it’s freezing. If you said you were going to do something…find a way to make it happen. Bottom line.    

Be vulnerable. Let your guard down a bit. Give yourself permission to be seen as human. Admit when you make mistakes. Share your fears. By now, most of the kids (and teachers) at my school know I have a paralyzing fear of dogs. True story. This tiny bit of truth has spawned more authentic conversations than I can count on both hands.

Commit to authentic listening. Sounds simple, but it isn’t always what happens in classrooms on the regular. Set aside time for attentive listening across all parts of your day. It shows you care and respect students and their contributions. Don’t just listen to respond. Listen to become better for your students.

Become a “kid watcher.” Allow yourself time to breathe. Step out of the role of constant monitor and into the role of watcher. This takes practice and ongoing commitment. If it seems daunting with a class of 26 students, start small. Choose 2-4 students and a system of taking notes that works for you. Use sticky notes, index cards or Google Keep. Keep it simple. It doesn’t need to be fancy; it just needs to happen.

Embed social and emotional skills. At every opportunity, make an effort to weave in meet and greet skills, turn taking, problem solving, empathetic listening, and communicating nonverbally. An easy and fun way to do this is to make time to play as a class. Get outside. Join your students during PE class. Play some board games. Never underestimate the power of a heated game of SORRY! as a catalyst in strengthening social-emotional skills.

Tell your story. For better or worse, everyone has a story. Find a way to work yours into interactions with kids. Share your interests. Talk about what you were like as a student. Discuss your favorite subjects. Confess your struggles. An impromptu conversation about writer’s notebooks with a group of fifth grade students as they were lining up for lunch had me sharing how I craft ideas. It gave me the opportunity to show them my writer’s notebook and the less-than-perfect way that I record my thoughts. This three minute chat generated an open invitation to their classroom during notebook sharing time.

Read aloud to a class other than your own. Make it strategic. Do you want to connect with or learn more about siblings? Read to their class. Do you want to meet kids that are moving up to your grade level next year? Read to their class. Do you want to develop a vertical relationship with another teacher? Yep, you guessed it. Read to their class. I could go for days extolling the virtues about the power of connecting through stories.

Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day. This is important.

Find YOUR edge.