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.
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.