Building Relationships in the Wilderness

This is my view from work today.

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It’s incredible, awe-inspiring, and beautiful.  Hartley Outdoor Education Center sits on 300 acres of hardwood forest.  It includes a pond, wetlands, historic coal mine, several original log cabins, and the Fowler one-room school house.  It is an educational staple in the Great Lakes Bay area in Michigan.  The three day, two night trip our fourth graders take every year is one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.  I don’t remember much about my own time in elementary school, but 28 years later I still remember every detail about Hartley.  I am fortunate that I am able to return every year with our fourth graders.  Hartley is so much more than just a nature center. It is an experience. It is an opportunity to truly get to know the students in your building in a way only an overnight trip can provide.  Hartley is the trip that turns your class into your family.

It starts with teamwork and collaboration.  The Confidence Course is one of four sessions that the students complete during their time at Hartley.  The students have to work together to complete a maze while blindfolded, build a log cabin with timbers, cross a moat on a rope swing, and find a way over a ten foot wall.  Regardless of how athletic or smart you are, these tasks cannot be completed without teamwork.  It never fails.  The students always struggle at first.  They struggle to listen to each other.  They struggle to take turns.  They struggle to get past the first obstacle.  Just when they seem to be at their breaking point, they come together.  The listen to each other.  They divide the tasks and share responsibilities.  They complete obstacle after obstacle TOGETHER.  You can almost see them becoming more kind and more empathetic right before your eyes.  Although the tasks are hard, they make success even that much sweeter.

One of my favorite things to do at Hartley is watch the students during free time after the confidence course.  They are not in their “normal” friend groups.  Everyone is talking to everyone.  Everyone is playing with everyone.  The relationship between the students has changed.  They are not classmates anymore.  They are family.  They forget about who is a rock star in math and who is the best soccer player.  It doesn’t matter who has the coolest clothes or the biggest house.  These people are your friends because they helped you across the moat, they encouraged you to swing when you were too scared to let your tiptoes leave the plank, and they believed in you and supported you.  These new qualities are so much more important than any of the previous status symbols.

Another session at Hartley is the outdoor survival course.  This course is built around the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  Hatchet is one of my personal all time favorite books.  I read it when I did my student teaching in 4th grade, and it was the book that turned me into an avid reader.  The students, just like Brian in the book, have to learn to survive in the outdoors.  They build a shelter, start a fire, and devise strategies for finding food.  

Students spend almost the entire three days at Hartley outdoors.  They learn to appreciate nature and embrace its beauty.  Hartley is more than just an outdoor experience for students.  It is the first step towards independence for most students.  

For many students, Hartley is the first experience away from home without family. It’s the first time they are responsible for cleaning tables, serving food, and scrubbing the bathroom floor.  They gain a new appreciation for keeping the floor clean as they are responsible for vacuuming.  Hartley challenges students to be brave.  It challenges them to be problem-solvers, collaborators, and good teammates.  It scaffolds them toward independence.

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Hartley is an exhausting three day trip.  The fresh air tires you out and with 90 students in the dorms, you get very little sleep.  However, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  I am so thankful I am able to attend this educational experience every year with my students.  This year in particular is truly special for me.  As I look out the window one more time, I see my son’s group approaching.  They are back from their trip to the confidence course.  I get a little teary eyed typing this because I know his time in elementary school is rapidly coming to an end.  He is not the scared kindergartener that grabbed my hand walking to the door.  He’s the young man that helped his team navigate through a maze while blindfolded.   He’s having the time of his life. Thank you, Hartley Outdoor Education Center, for providing him and countless other students memories that will last a lifetime.

I Am Thankful For You

Halfway through November, the leftover Halloween candy in the school office still tempted the staff as the realization set in that the holidays were approaching. Thoughts of report cards and running records, defrosting turkeys and holiday shopping ran through our minds simultaneously. Was it really time to plan for the last days of school before Thanksgiving break? How could it be? Didn’t the school year just begin?

Every morning, teachers hit the “go” button, jumping into the usual rush to
write the morning message
run one more copy
check out a library book
track down the tech guy
grade writing pieces
plug in the iPads
drop off papers with teammates
grab the mail
rehearse the day’s minilessons…
But on that Monday morning, our rush came to a stop.

That Monday morning, we arrived at school to learn that one of our middle school students had passed away over the weekend.

He had taken his own life.


Blank space. Because there are no words to adequately fill it.

We stopped. We listened to the news. We stood with our mouths agape, our eyes pooling with tears. He was a young man none of the elementary teachers knew, as he was new to the district this year. According to his mother, he had experienced bullying from a young age, but this loss was a shock to everyone.

As we absorbed the news and struggled to comprehend this horrific reality, there were only questions to fill the heavy silence.

How could this happen?
What will his teachers think?
How will his classmates handle the news?
What else could have been done?

That evening, on a group text with my third grade teammates, we asked each other those very questions. Desperately wanting to dissolve our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, we asked ourselves a new question:

What can we do now?

Like dry kindling to a newly lit fire, ideas began to spark, bouncing back and forth, until we had a plan. Our response. Our refusal to let this tragedy be unanswered.

Grand scale change always starts with a small act, a kind word, a good idea. “This is what kindness does…Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world,” the teacher in Jacqueline Woodson’s book Each Kindness tells her students. How many people have their day changed for the better by a smile, a compliment, a thoughtful word?

This got us thinking…how often our children are told to be grateful for things, yet how rare it is for them to hear that others, especially adults, are grateful for their existence.

Our big plan would be, in practice, a small gesture. A little kindness that we hoped would reverberate within each of our students, perhaps becoming infinitely meaningful to some. We wanted to let each of our children know that we are grateful for their existence.

The last day of school before Thanksgiving break, before the children arrived, my team printed out a template that read: “I am THANKFUL for you because…” and wrote a personal note to each of our students. We admired their talents, highlighted their unique personalities, and encouraged them to shine. Like secret kindness ninjas, we hung each note on their lockers and waited for the buses to arrive.

One by one, our 8 and 9 year olds strolled down the hallway, catching glimpses of the notes, and rushing down to their own lockers to see what treasure awaited them.

One by one, they discovered their notes, and stood reading, backpacks dangling from their arms. What followed were
smiles
blushed cheeks
curiosity
amazement
second and third reads
“Thank you Mrs. Werner!”
squeals
hugs
gratitude
ripples of kindness.

At the end of the day, each student carefully peeled his or her note off the locker and took it home with them. I figured some of the notes would be waved excitedly in parents’ faces at home, others silently cherished and saved, and others soon to be lost or forgotten. But what mattered most was that each child got to experience a moment reading words that let them know that we, their teachers, are grateful for each and every one of them.

*****

Back to work Monday morning after a restful break, I leapt into the usual rush once again. Checking my email, I noticed a parent had written one over our break. It read:

“Thank you for your kind words that you wrote on A’s locker. He showed me the note and we proudly displayed it on our fridge.”

In the rush of preparing for a full, busy week, I took a moment to stop and be grateful that my words had a ripple effect on this student. Thanksgiving may have passed, but it is never too late to tell your students directly and sincerely how thankful you are for them. You can never know how deeply that may affect them. It just might send ripples straight through their hearts.

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Stepping Back to Rebuild

The other day I tweeted about StoryCorps and how easy it is to capture relatives’ stories during the holidays. I still have the recording of my grandfather saved, where he recounts growing up in Fowlerville, Michigan, as an orphan.

And remembering this, made me remember the time that one of my Creative Writing classes was at war. Some students would frequently volunteer to share their writing after Sacred Writing Time, and a small faction of students began expressing their frustration at repeated topics. No matter how many times I assured that them it is okay to “write what we know,” the same small group of students would still mumble and disengage, subtracting from the safe environment that I had hoped to create. I knew that I had to repair the sense of community before we could move on, before we could share our StoryCorps recordings from the holiday season. If not, no student would be willing to take the risk necessary to put their families, their histories, their cultures and traditions on display.

I can’t remember what was said that day, but I remember the tears and shouting from students. Had I been observed, I am sure that from the outside my classroom management skills would have been considered incredibly weak. The classroom had reached a point so divided that I knew that what I had planned would never come to fruition if we did not address our sense of community.

So I stopped. The writing for that day? Moved. The mini lesson I had planned? Postponed. We needed to get to know each other even more. We needed to understand our similarities and our differences. We needed to focus on interacting as people before we could fully interact as writers.

So I used a tool that was shared with me by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. This “Cultural Sharing Sheet” became the foundation of our next few days, including an exploration of “Life’s Lessons,” the verbal and non-verbal lessons that were imparted to us about nationalities, genders, races, socio-economic status, and education levels.

It was awkwardly slow at first. I had to begin by sharing the messages that were shared with me growing up: Hard work is the solution for everything. You will go to college and be the first person in our family to graduate from a university. No one is better than anyone else.

As we went around the group, first sharing safer categories and then others not so safe, students began to see each other in a different light. While we are not inherently the beliefs that raised us, we are influenced by them. Sometimes we want to embrace them, and other times we need to actively work to distance ourselves from them.

I wish I could say that everyone got along from then on out, but that would be a lie. The tension dissipated, sure. There were still disagreements and misunderstandings. But when they did happen, everyone was a lot more willing to pause and think, recognizing that we aren’t necessarily the beliefs and actions of our families, but we are definitely shaped by them.

Build Your Community

Building a thriving learning community for your students is the fundamental core of this website. The work you are doing to create safe and engaging learning spaces is one of the most important things you do. But, do you take care of yourself and build your community? Finding a community probably saved my teaching career. Adding to my community over the last 18 years helped me to continually develop my practice.

Early in my career and before the age of social media, I felt like I was drowning. The people in the school where I worked were kind and honestly good people, but there were only a few that actually supported my learning. With their help I made it through, but I struggled. Thankfully, I found community within a group of literacy coaches a few years into my career. If it weren’t for these mentors, I might have walked away from teaching before I really got started. Besides being a strong support network this group encouraged me to get involved with the nationwide organizations ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Design and ILA (International Literacy Association). These nationwide groups connected me with people outside my local community of adult learners by attending conferences by sponsored by these groups.

In this age of social media, it is easier than ever to get connected with other educators. If you are reading this post it is most likely due to seeing a link on Twitter or Facebook. However, this post about building your community is not about widening your online network. While I still use Twitter and Facebook and keep up with educational websites, I work hard to not be ‘plugged in’ every single day. I worry about how social media affects my attitude and how too much time online impacts my day-to-day life. I know that I can quickly lose hours of time I could be doing something more productive very quickly. Working on building my real-life community is becoming more and more important to me. This is why I am a member of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and regularly attend events it sponsors.

Over the past six years, some online connections have turned into real-life connections. When I attend events where these people are, my relationships (and learning) grow stronger. During the recent NCTE Annual Convention in St. Louis, I listened to Brian Wyzlic deliver a passionate speech about ensuring every child you teach feels valued every single day. We also had numerous conversations during various times at the conference. While speech affirmed my thinking, I learned more eating dinner with him and walking through the halls. I have known Brian for about 5 years. We have been around each other for maybe 25 days in those 5 years, but learning with and from Brian in real life has been more profoundly helpful than on Twitter.

I had an incredibly thought-provoking conversation with Kristin McIlhagga on Saturday night. After a long day of learning from some of the best educators on the planet, Kristin pushed my thinking was pushed more than anyone else that day. Like Brian, I have only been around Kristen at events like conferences. And while I do learn from her and am supported by her during online interactions, the face-to-face conversations are what really shift my thinking.

I was honored to present with Justin Stygles, Kara DiBarotolo, Cheryl Mizreny, Michelle Best and Laurie Halse Anderson on Sunday Morning. While I knew what was going to be said when they talked, The subtle nuances of body language and tone of voice made the learning more powerful. Plus, the time we spent together outside the session cemented the fact I am proud to know them. I met Michelle or Laurie at NCTE look forward to connecting with them again in the future. They are both smart and very passionate about their work. Justin, Kara and Cheryl have been go to resources for a while, but we wouldn’t have the relationship we have if it was completely online.

Throughout the entire NCTE convention my actual conversations with other attendees that I have known for years and ones that I just met over the weekend made the cost and the effort to attend worthwhile. I know the VISA bill will suck next month, but I cannot imagine not going next year.  

Real-life professional connections, both local and not-so local, support me and challenge me. The online world is a great place to start, but do whatever it takes to get to places where your online connections meet in real life. The echo-chamber of social media is not necessarily bad, but I think you can only find true support to push your thinking in the real world. Think about your classroom. Would you let your students do a completely computerized curriculum with only random comments of a few sentences provided by you? Probably not. So why would you do it to yourself?

I encourage you to consider building your community by joining an association, either local or national and attending their conferences or other conferences near you. I guarantee it will be worth your time. Below are links to various professional organizations that support educators. They are all designed to help you. They want you to engage in a bigger community.
ACEI, Association for Childhood Education International (www.acei.org)

ACTFL, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (www.actfl.org)

AECT, Association for Educational Communications and Technology (www.aect.org)

AERA, American Educational Research Association (www.aera.org)

ALAS, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (www.alasedu.net)

AMLE, Association for Middle Level Education (www.amle.org)

ASCD, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Design (www.ascd.org)

ASCA, American School Counselor Association (www.schoolcounselor.org)

CEC, Council for Exceptional Children (www.cec.sped.org)

ILA, International Reading Association (https://www.literacyworldwide.org/)

ISTE, International Society for Technology in Education (www.iste.org)

NAEA, National Art Education Association (www.arteducators.org)

NAESP, National Association of Elementary School Principals (www.naesp.org)

NAEYC, National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org)

NAfME, National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)

NAGC, National Association for Gifted Children (www.nagc.org)

NASSP, National Association of Secondary School Principals (www.nassp.org)

NBEA, National Business Education Association (www.nbea.org)

NCSS, National Council for the Social Studies (www.ncss.org)

NCTE, National Council of Teachers of English (www.ncte.org)

NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (www.nctm.org)

NSTA, National Science Teachers Association (www.nsta.org)        

 

When You Know…

Dismissal time comes and goes every day and every day I start to worry a little bit.  Our school procedure is involved.  It requires me to walk with my students through the hallways to various drop of points and then taking my bus riders outside to their individual buses.

I worry about this time of day.  I have a clipboard with daily sheets for our “going home” plans.  Changes happen and I note them with post it notes.  I “lost” a kindergartener once and quickly found her in a different drop off location but I’ll never forget that worry and shutting my classroom door to burst into tears.  I am blessed to spend each day with my students and I think my biggest job is to get each student back home safely to their families.

It was about a month or two into this school year and we were getting organized for dismissal.  The students had their backpacks.  They were sitting at the carpet and I had started to line them up according to the order of their drop off location.  Everything seemed to be in order when I heard, “George come here, she already called your name.  Right here is where bus 51 goes.”

I watched and thought, Bingo; we have a classroom community!  It was such a small moment and one that could be easily over looked.  A student was looking out for a classmate and wanted to make sure he was on the bus with him to go home.  I wish you could have heard his voice; the helping student had a kind and caring inflection.  A nurturing voice with a sense of urgency.

When do you know…what small things can we look for to confirm there is a community in our classroom?  These two boys don’t necessarily share common characteristics or interests besides attending our classroom together but I would add to the dictionary’s definition of community to include – individuals who spend a lot of time together and care about each other; showing acts of kindness.

Big Payoff through Small Moves

One of the things that I am still adjusting to as a new assistant principal is managing my time and being able to build positive relationships with students. When I first assumed my position, I had big plans of regularly scheduled blocks of time to meet with students, especially the ones that I had grown quite close to over the years. And then I quickly realized that there are days that I have much less control over my schedule and sometimes more fires to put out than I imagined. Despite that, I still actively work to develop stronger relationships with students because spending time up front building a relationship will pay dividends later. Although small, I’ve tried to be intentional about:

Reading a book that I know a kid will like and then give it to them. Just the other day I read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, and I knew right away that I had to get it into a student’s hands. The internal conflict that the main character faces is similar to this student’s very decision he is making in regards to his own life. I was so excited to get this book into this young man’s hands, and I could tell from his reaction that he was surprised. And he soon indicated to me that he’d never before had an adult read a book and think of him.

Sending a positive post card. Working with teenagers truly is wonderful. There are so many small things that can go unnoticed throughout the day, but I can assure you that I am surrounded by so many young people who will make truly great adults. From volunteering to help a student carry her backpack as she heals physically to helping another student out who has collapsed, young people amaze me. I really enjoy sending out these small notes to parents and guardians who don’t get the pleasure of seeing such great behavior on a nearly daily basis.

Calling a student down to celebrate positive news and achievement. I don’t like to call students to my office during class, but I have quickly realized that for some students, it has been a really—and I mean really—long time since they have heard something positive about themselves. Every now and then when I “drop in” to check on students’ grades and I notice something positive, I have to let them know. Small reminders of hard work and progress matter, and it’s even a bigger deal for a principal to recognize that hard work.

Just saying, “Hi.” I truly believe that every young person who walks in our doors should be spoken to at least once each day, but I know that there are some students who probably are not spoken to at all. When I pass students in the hallway, I intentionally try to model good behavior and friendliness, saying “Hi” to many students, even the ones I don’t know. I may not know a student that well, but I can show that I care about their success and well-being by just saying something so simple.

Noticing small changes in behavior and mannerisms. This is similar to the move directly before, but a little more complicated. When we see young people every day, even if it’s only in passing, we can begin to notice patterns of behavior and mannerisms. If a student is usually smiling every day when you pass them in the hall and today they are not, then I have found it makes a huge difference to talk to them about this. By acknowledging that you have noticed a change, it signals to the student that you see them every day, even if you don’t talk to them. And when you notice a change, you care.

Following up, even when it’s easier not to. Even if it might not seem a big deal to us, students appreciate when we follow up on what seems like a big deal to them. If they’re sick, we can ask them if they’re feeling better. If they’re having a rough time, we can ask if things have improved. If they mention an upcoming test, we can ask how they did. I’ve found that when I follow up with a student, it shows that I really listened to the small details they’ve shared with me and that I’ve really “heard” them.

What are some small things that you do that you think really signal to students you care?

I Burped In Class Today

The following is a written account of an actual event that occurred in Scott Jones’s fifth grade classroom in October 2016.  Mr. Jones acknowledges that this was not his finest teaching moment. He will also not be making any further comments about this event. Yet, he believes it’s important to share his experience so others can learn from his mistakes…

October 2016

I burped in class today. For real.

Our minilesson got underway as twenty-five eager faces stared at me from the carpet after a very active lunch and recess. Today’s writing learning target was “ Writers learn how to add dialogue to their narrative to move the story forward and to reveal character.”  We were revising our personal narratives, and many students needed help on how to use dialogue properly. I had the perfect mentor text ready to go. I had a nice, organized anchor chart to capture the highlights of this minilesson. I was on a roll.

It was one of those moments that classroom communities have when the stars are aligned and everything is working.  Everyone was focused and alert.  There was an energy in the class that was palpable.  There was no doodling on journal covers, no picking at eraser tops, no playing with shoelaces. I had their full attention. They looked at me. I looked back at them. Our eyes locked with anticipation of the next insightful statement that would float from my mouth and land onto the pages of their writing journals.

As I opened my mouth to share my next pearl of wisdom, it happened. What my students heard next was no pearl of wisdom. More like a nugget of smelly air. It crept up my throat like a foghorn in the dense, morning fog. I was not prepared for this. This had never, ever happened to me before. This burp was supposed to be a private little moment, but it had now been exposed to the world.  Writing coach and author, Ruth Ayres, uses the phrase “going public” when describing how writers publish their work. Surely, she did not mean this.

The five seconds of silence that followed felt like an eternity. They were all looking at me with their heads cocked to the side like a dogs. The expressions on their face asked, Did that just happen?  It did happen. All I could do was own it and share that this had never happened before. The laughter that followed spread around the classroom until it eventually hit me. There was nothing I could do but laugh. I had literally just burped, and burped loudly, in front of my class.

The next day’s learning target: Sometimes writing is like a giant burp. You never know when you’ll be inspired to do it.  Ideas, like a burp, can creep into your mind when you least expect it.