Through Their Eyes: What Teachers Want Their Principals to Know

Psst!  Principals, over here.  We need to talk.  This blog post is for us.  More specifically, it’s about what we can do to support the most hard-working, amazing people I know: teachers.  It’s a rough time to be a teacher.  They are asked to do more and more with fewer resources and less support.  They likely have more students in their class each year and less dollars in their paycheck. Often times it’s easier for society to blame the teachers instead of looking in the mirror and facing the real problems that plague our country: poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, and opportunity inequalities.  These are big issues that we need to tackle, but they likely have long, slow solutions.  Fortunately, as principals, there are things we can do immediately to better support and appreciate our teachers.

I really want to be a good principal.  I care deeply about the students in the building and want them to have every opportunity to reach their full potential. I want my teachers to see themselves as I see them.  I want my teachers to feel valued, appreciated, and HAPPY.  I know I often come up short being the principal they need, but I am determined to do better.  If principals are going to better support teachers, we need to understand what they need and what they want us to know.  I can’t think of a better way to find this information other than asking.  So that is exactly what I did.  I sent the following email to several teacher friends from all different schools.

 

Hello,

I am working on a blog post for the new year.  I know the culture and climate surrounding teaching has been negative lately.  I know you probably feel like principals don’t always know the struggles, fears, obstacles, and vulnerabilities that you feel as a teacher.  If you have time and you’re comfortable, please respond to the following question:

What do you want your principal to know about your teaching, your classroom, or your students that they might not know?

All responses will be kept completely confidential.  The responses may be used in the blog post, but no names will be tied to any of it.  

Thank you in advance for your responses.

Jim

 

The responses were both incredible and eye-opening to me as a principal.  They were eerily similar to one another.  Regardless of the building, the grade level, or the experience level of the teacher, each and every response had a very similar message.  Here were the most frequent responses:

“I want my principal to know that I am doing my best and even though I make mistakes, I’m working to improve.”

“Don’t punish me for a job well done.  I can’t serve on every committee and serve on every team.  It is burning me out.”

“A little acknowledgement goes a long way.  A simple note, text, email, or passing word in the hallway makes my week.”

“Check in with me and be available.  I need a principal to listen.  I don’t need a solution to every problem but I want to know my voice is heard.”

“When you make a mistake, as we all do, own it.  Admit the mistake and try to correct it.”

“I want the principal to be a real person who is visible to teachers, students, and parents.  Be involved in the school activities and not just sitting in the office.”

“We believe in your (or the district’s) vision, but stick with it.  Give us time to implement new strategies and programs.  We can’t chase every shiny new idea.  Let’s pick good practices and perfect them before abandoning them or trying something new.”

However, this was the message that rang the loudest to me:

“Don’t forget what it’s like to be in the classroom.  The stresses, the demands, the pressures, and the many balls in the air.  Remember that lessons go wrong, especially when trying something new.  Teaching and learning is messy.”

I love the rawness and honesty of the responses I received from teachers.  They weren’t bitter, although you certainly couldn’t blame them if they were.  When they complained about lack of services, class size, or resources, it wasn’t because it was an inconvenience to them; it was because they cared deeply about helping their students.

We need to be better about acknowledging the tremendous work they do each day.  This can be a quick email, text, kind word in the hallway, or a sticky note on their computer.  We need to check in frequently and ask how we can better support them as teachers.  This can take many forms including covering classes for them so they can observe colleagues, providing more opportunities for collaboration and professional learning, and giving them time to implement new strategies.  We need to stop bouncing from new idea to new idea.  Instead, let’s focus on getting better at the strategies we are already using.  If we are going to preach for teachers to innovate and be risk takers, we need to understand that lessons will not always go as planned.  Teachers need to be praised for taking risks, not punished for a lesson not going perfectly.  I often tell my teachers, “I would rather have a lesson be a complete disaster while trying something new than have everything go according to plan with an outdated practice.”  

The message teachers want us to hear is loud and clear.  They are working as hard as they can.  They are doing everything in their power to help the students in their classroom.  The classroom is where the rubber meets the road.  Teachers are the ones working directly with students.  The responses to my email provide a roadmap on how we can better support them.  Principals, let’s make sure 2018 is the year every teacher in our building knows that we have their back and support their work.

Lessons from Star Wars

I write this post immediately upon coming home from seeing the newest movie in the Star Wars franchise: The Last Jedi. It likely comes as a shock to nobody who knows me even modestly well that I’m a giant nerd, especially when it comes to things like fantasy/sci-fi movies, books, religion, and technology. Star Wars encompasses essentially all of that.

But beyond all of that, I’m also an educator, and I’m nearly always thinking of students as they go through their lives as developing humans. And I’m a sucker for a good metaphor.

So as I was watching The Last Jedi, I was thinking about teaching. I’ll keep this spoiler-free, but as is common in these sorts of movies, nearly the entire movie is based around battles. And those battles are often framed for us as good versus evil. Right versus wrong. Light versus dark.

I was getting inspired. I was getting pumped up and thinking of how important it is to be a part of the battle in education. That our students are worth fighting for. That we should be the resistance to oppressive practices and political moves that hurt our students. There was even a thought about battling against students who are tough to teach, but that we can reach them all. Etc., etc., etc.

Then it hit me. The thing that was so inherently wrong with my metaphor and therefore my whole line of thinking.

Teaching is not a battle.

Teaching is not about going toe-to-toe with our students who present us with the most difficulty. It’s not about fighting against those who use practices we believe are incorrect or even harmful. It’s not about fighting for our students. We’re not “on the front lines” or “in the trenches” when we enter into our classrooms.

If that is the case, if we are soldiers in a battle, then who are we fighting against? Are we fighting parents? Students? Administrators? An intangible, general ignorance and passivity?

I can’t reach a student if I view them as an adversary. In my first draft of this post, that was one sentence and then I went on to the next, but I want to pause here for a second to state that again. WE CANNOT REACH OUR STUDENTS IF WE VIEW THEM AS ADVERSARIES. I can name a few students who I have viewed that way, and guess what? I didn’t do a great job of teaching them. The students lost out because of my views.

I do a disservice to the home life of my students if I view their parents as the enemy. Maybe I think their parents are wrong. Maybe they’re overstepping their bounds as parents and telling me what to do as an educator. I have met plenty of parents who I felt were out of line when it came to the education of their child. Who I felt were making poor choices on behalf of their child. I have never met a single parent who makes decisions on behalf of their child that they believe will be detrimental to their child. That being said, I bet parents like that exist. And if you teach their child, then you have to know that that student of yours goes home to those parents. You are with them for a year, or maybe a couple years. They are likely with their parents for decades. We can’t lose sight of that perspective and start painting a picture of the parents as enemies, even if we just think that to ourselves. It’ll inform what we do and how we treat both the parents and the students, and the students will lose out because of our views.

I bring down the entire culture of my building if my administrators are my foes. And I will own that last one: I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I regret the toxicity I fed into. The adults in the building were fighting, and the students lost out because of our views.

We have to focus on ways to keep it positive. We have to make sure the students succeed and have gains because of our views, not lose out. The “battles” I mention in this post are not bad things to “fight” for. We should be looking for the best for our students. We should promote best practices and be up on the current research. We should be advocates for our students in the political sphere. If parents or administrators are coming to us with things that we think are wrong, we should find ways to address that and be better as a team. It’s not about the things that we might say are worth fighting for. The problem is we shouldn’t be fighting at all. We cannot lift up those in our care if we have to tear someone else down in order to make that happen. We must always be bridge-builders and connectors.

Teaching is about empowering every young person who comes through our doors to be the most well-informed and best person they can be. And there are plenty of metaphors that can help us with understanding the work we do.

Let’s leave the fights and the battles out of it.

The Shamash, The Helper

Shamash2

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the world
All the presents were opened, all the wonders unfurled;
The hugs were all given to those loved so dear,
In hopes that this light and this warmth lasts all year.

As many as two billion people around the world celebrated the Christmas holiday yesterday. Here in the Midwest, it was a beautifully sunny, snow-covered day, reminiscent of childhood holiday seasons. It stirred up the nostalgia in my Christian-raised husband, as he fired up Netflix, searching for “White Christmas”, while I washed out the hot cocoa mugs our family sipped from that evening.

It had already been over a week since my menorah was cleaned of melted wax and placed back in the china cabinet, and the air was cleared of the smell of latkes sizzling in hot oil.

“So, is Chanukah like Jewish Christmas?” asked my dental hygienist a few weeks ago as she scraped and prodded, while I could do nothing more than respond with garbled grunts. Finally sitting upright and all instruments of dental torture out of my mouth, I shared the Reader’s Digest version of the holiday’s history…

Over 2,000 years ago, King Antiochus ruled over the land of Judea, and decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship Greek gods. The Jews were not down with this plan, as they were a monotheistic people who prayed to one God.  One of those Jews, Judah Maccabee, possibly a Jedi, gathered his fellow resistance fighters, and fought back against Antiochus’s army, pushing them right out of Jerusalem. The Jewish people went right to work cleaning and spiffing up the Temple, restoring it to its original state. They decided to light an oil lamp, but seeing there was only enough oil to last one day, they expected their light to burn briefly…however, the oil continued to burn for eight days! Chanukah, “The Festival of Lights”, is now celebrated to recall this miracle and success over those who wished to oppress them.*
*So, no, Chanukah is not Jewish Christmas.

One of the enduring symbols of Chanukah is the menorah, the nine-branched candelabra which is used to recreate the burning of the oil in the Temple. Chanukah lasts eight days. Each night, a new candle is lit on the menorah, until the 8th night, when the entire thing is ablaze. But, WAIT!!…say my mathematically-minded readers. There are eight nights, but nine branches. That does not add up! Ah, there is, however, a ninth candle, which takes a humble, yet significant role in lighting up the menorah each night.

The Shamash, the ninth candle, is Hebrew for “servant” or “attendant”. It is also informally known as the “helper candle”. On a traditional menorah, the shamash is usually in the middle of the menorah, either taller or shorter than, or set off to the side of, the other 8 branches. The job of the shamash is to kindle the light of the other candles, which then provide a full menorah’s worth of light. The menorah’s light is not meant to serve us, to read or do work by, but to illuminate the darkness, to chase the shadows away.

There is a beautiful sentiment to consider in that the menorah’s light is not created selfishly for us, just as the world was not created for any single one of us. The Earth does not belong to us. We are here to be stewards of this place we call home, maintaining it for everyone else we share it with and for those who have yet to exist. Just as we are caretakers of the Earth, the shamash attends to the lighting of each Chanukah candle. If a candle accidentally flames out, the shamash takes up the task to light it again. One unglorified, plain candle has the ability to bring light to the darkness.

This Chanukah season, after a year of heightened anti-Semitism in the United States, lighting the candles left me pondering the metaphor of the shamash as the candles burned each night in my home.

How can we be a shamash in our teaching lives? How can we kindle the light in others?

With our coworkers, we can be patient, supportive, collaborative, reflective.

With our school’s families, we can be kind, helpful, thoughtful, communicative.

And most importantly, with our students we
Smile
Give them a pencil when they need one
Offer hugs, fist bumps, and high fives
Share a snack when they don’t have one
Talk about their lives and the ever-changing world around them
Show them how to be a good friend
Listen to their stories
Validate their stories
Teach them how to amplify their stories
Introduce them to diverse, life-changing books
Make time for them to read those books
Allow them to wonder, explore, be curious
Tell them they are important and unique
Let them teach
Learn from them

We find it is in the simple acts, the quiet moments, the ordinary interactions that we have the opportunity to be a shamash, a helper, with our children. As teachers, we serve our students best by raising them to be stewards of not only this Earth, but of the people who populate it. When we light that fire in our students, they learn how to become a shamash of their own someday, attending to others for the greater good. It is never too late to kindle a flame, or to rekindle a flame that has extinguished. Once ignited, it may last a day, or eight. Or a lifetime.

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You don’t have a pencil, but you have…

The day before break, there is joy in the air for most teachers that is nearly tangible. A much deserved break is upon us. For many of us, it’s two weeks to rejuvenate. Two weeks to catch up with our friends and families. Two weeks to relax and to focus on us—which is perfectly okay—rather than on everyone else.

When we come back from break, our interactions with kids will reflect this “down time.” We will be more patient and more lenient. We will be friendlier and, perhaps, our truer selves. Having had time away from the stress and the constant push to do more for those who need it most, we will be fresh again.

But it won’t take long for some of us—and I will admit that I have defaulted to this before—to show a side of us that isn’t the positive person that we once wrote about in our undergraduate teaching philosophies.

So with this post, I want to address the elephant in the room after winter break: How can a kid have that new __________ (insert object, item here) but can’t seem to ever bring a pencil to class?

Admit it. You will wonder it. You might think it. You might even really, really want to ask.

But what will it accomplish to ask the student, particularly in front of their peers or the class? How does it improve your relationship, which actually does matter for teaching and learning to occur, by snarkily asking about their lack of supplies?

Quick answer: It doesn’t.

Long answer: It can do irreparable harm. You’ve made the student feel inferior and stupid. You have implied that they don’t value your class, or that they value it less than another material object, like a cellphone.

But if you talk to the student, you might just find out that during the holidays, they had a parent re-enter their life temporarily. For some students, it is all too common to have a parent come back in their life during the Christmas season and then to disappear again. As one student shared with me, every year his dad buys him a new cellphone, computer, or something that’s expensive because his father thinks that the amount he spends on him will demonstrate how much he cares.

The student shared with me that he knows better. The visit will be temporary instead of permanent. It will last long enough to resurrect pain from so many years of absence. And then he will disappear again. But that doesn’t mean he throws away what he was given. But while he might still use the gift, it does not have to become a reminder from us when we see that he doesn’t have a pencil the next time he’s in our class.

I even could go on and on about the desires of humans to fit in, even though some of us don’t. For some students, getting that one item is the only thing they want and keep asking for because it feels like everyone else around them has it. (And let’s be real: We all have bought things that we didn’t need because others had them. Raise your hand if you ever purchased a Beanie Baby.)

I recently saw this Facebook post that went viral about parents pretending that gifts came from Santa.

santa

I don’t share it to advocate the message about Santa, but I do share it to emphasize the point about the disparity in Christmases that exist with so many of our families. I will be the first to say that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but I also know that we can forget that we sometimes live much more comfortable lives than most in the communities we serve.

The easy way out is to judge and assume. The more difficult route, the route where we seek to understand with our students instead of shaming them, will help us establish a safe and supportive environment that is necessary for learning.

Bruce R. Taylor and Glenn Kummery (1996) wrote about the different types of shaming in their article about family conferencing. They discuss stigmatizing shame and re-integrative shaming, and I think this can have profound effects in our classroom. The first is meant to label offenders, like the time that my then-seven-year-old niece continued to refer to herself as a “bad kid,” and the other is meant to “reject the deed and not the doer.” Our actions with kids need to reflect this.

So with the new year quickly upon us, remember to listen more than you talk when it comes to kids. What are they saying but, perhaps, without words? What are you communicating when you point out that the new iPhone 8 could have been 8,000 pencils? Compare that to what you want to communicate. For me, it is that my classroom and school will support any student in his or her learning, and I will work really hard not to make them feel ashamed along the way. I can’t control who comes into their lives outside of my classroom, but I can welcome them every day and not make them feel embarrassed when they enter my room.

 

 

Hey! Let’s Try This.

That’s the sentence where the insanity is usually born. Don’t we all start with a crazy idea? It’s what we do with it that counts. Do we keep it buried in our pocket? Or do we take the plunge and dive in?

I took the plunge.

When I began to think about how to spend our time for an upcoming afternoon of professional development, I knew I wanted to keep the focus on teachers. Based on recent observations and teacher feedback, I knew this to be true:

  • Our staff felt we were in a rut.
  • The health and well-being of teachers was being overlooked.
  • Professional development was almost always structured for curriculum purposes.

Most often this time is driven by “data” and does not offer teachers the opportunity to personalize their learning. How many times do we attend PD sessions that are one-size-fits-all? Teachers need choice too. I began to wonder what an afternoon of professional development could look like if teachers had the ability to learn from each other. We are our best resource collectively.

This time of year we are all feeling a bit “frayed” as Tony Keefer talked about in his most recent blog post. He somehow took the juxtaposition of unraveling and gratitude and morphed it into a love letter for teachers. 

On December 8th, just 12 days shy of our winter break, we had our first afternoon of professional learning chosen entirely by, and for, teachers. This day, and all the magic that happened, was a love letter to teaching….and to each other.

Too often in education we get in a rut. Sometimes you have to take an idea and run with it. Don’t be scared to fail. Community is what saves us when things get off track.

Frayed

Fayed

Frayed … I feel a little unraveled this time of the year. The crunch of getting things done before the last day of school. The never-ending list of must do items before we smash several get-togethers with family and friends. The packing before leaving for a vacation. The lack of sleep. The … well, the everything.

Our students are frayed. Teachers demanding their assignments. Parents rushing them around. Realizing they might not see good friends for two weeks. Having the pressure to be perfect at family get-togethers. Knowing the safety of school will not be there for the next two weeks.

Our families and colleagues are frayed. Most likely everyone we have recently seen or will see in the next few weeks are feeling the stress we impose upon ourselves this time of year. Holiday stress is so real that the Mayo-Clinic has a page on its website dedicated to coping with stress and depression.   

We cannot expect to be perfect during this time of the year, but many of us expend a great deal of energy trying to be or pretending to be. This includes the time we should be relaxing, away from the day-to-day time spent with our students. We don’t always need to feel like we are doing everything we possibly can. I need to remind myself frequently during the Holiday Season to take the time to refresh myself. I want to return to school excited to be back with my community of learners. I don’t want to return to classes of 25-29 students feeling like I need a vacation to recover from a vacation.

Over the last few years I have, rather secretly, only had three goals over the Holiday Break.

  1. Read a book that has nothing to do with school. This year I am planning to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (which I received last for Christmas. ugh).
  2. Sleep at least eight hours each night. This may not happen, but it needs to happen. I think I’ve had one night in the last month that I slept more than seven hours. Most nights it is less than six hours. The lack of sleep is a constant for me during the school year, but it doesn’t need to happen during a break.
  3. Practice gratitude. I think I do practice gratitude regularly, but I am forgetful during the busyness of this season. Since I know I am happier when I share my thankfulness toward others, I will do something to show my thankfulness each day.

I know I have to do so much more than these three things before I return to school in January, but most everything else can wait. If I don’t read the numerous books I hope to read, then I don’t. If I don’t finish pre-planning the next writing unit, then I don’t. If I don’t go to every event I want to attend then I don’t. None of those things will make me feel renewed at 8:18 am on January 3, 2018. However, I know reading a book just for me is a gift to myself. I know catching up on my sleep is a necessity for me and a gift to my family. And I know being thankful will make me a better person and remind the people I love the most that I am thankful they are in my life.

Our classroom communities need us to be the best version of ourselves when we return from a long break. We should return to school feeling put back together, not coming apart at the seams.
To start my practicing gratitude phase, I am publicly thanking Brian, Sarah, Jim, Lysey, Kevn, Jennifer, Angie, Scott, Lea, Mandy, Andrea and Aliza. You said yes to collaborating on this site and I am incredibly thankful you did. I have learned a great deal from all of you in just five months. I cannot wait to see what you do to challenge and affirm my thinking in the future. I am truly blessed to call you all mentors and friends. I wish sometime in the future we can all be at the same place at the same time. Let’s figure out a way to make that happen.

photo credit: greg.simenoff Knot- via photopin (license)

Our Reading Lives

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

~Jim Henson

As a teacher it’s always been my hope that my students leave my classroom as readers. They may not remember everything we learn about Romeo and Juliet or Twelve Angry Men, but I hope they remember the books they chose to read in class, my excitement about reading, and our classroom reading community. I hope they remember that I care about them.

FullSizeRenderFor six or more years now I’ve been posting covers of the books I read on my classroom door for students and staff to see. It encourages others to read, promotes conversation, and also helps me keep track of what I’m reading (and where I need to fill in genre holes). My students see me reading during SSR and I think it’s beneficial for them to see my reading life as a whole via the covers on my door. They also notice how quickly I’m reading (or not reading).

In the past I’ve saved a bulletin board for my seniors to post recommendations for the classes following them. Unfortunately none of my seniors last year participated, so I was left with an empty board this year. After some careful consideration, I decided to dedicate my two bulletin boards to my freshmen and my seniors’ reading lives. It’s fun to create Pinterest-worthy bulletin boards, but 1. I’m not that artsy and 2. I want my students to have ownership in my classroom. So these bulletin boards aren’t “artsy” by any means, but they are effective, which is the whole reason for bulletin boards in the first place.

My classroom now has a space for me, my freshmen classes, and my senior classes to post covers of the books we’ve read. I wasn’t sure what my students would really think of the idea, but they jumped right on board. It’s also prompted some healthy peer pressure between the grade levels. In fact, I just updated my senior board and I heard one of my seniors whisper “Bring it, freshmen!” to another student. Little did he know that I have yet to update my freshmen board! My last group of freshmen walked into class and noticed the updated senior board as well. “I thought we’ve read more than that! They’re ahead by a whole line!” They’re paying attention and the bulletin boards haven’t become “wallpaper” like so many pieces of classroom decor can become.

Since beginning this process, I’ve noticed students looking to the boards to see what everyone has been reading and then asking about specific books they see. It’s also been a great way for me to see the trends in their reading. When a student reads a book that has already been posted, I place a star sticker on the cover. Some books–my book club books in particular–are going to end up swamped with stars! I’ve also been playing around with the idea of including student reviews with the covers as well, but for the sake of space, I’m not sure if that will work. At this point, we may end up posting book covers around the outside of the boards!

The organization has been tricky. I try to carve out time each week to ask my students which books they’ve finished and add it to the list I have for each class. I also have to make time during my planning to insert book cover images onto Google Slides and then ask our media center assistant to print the covers in color. That also means making time to cut out each cover and staple it to the board. It’s an ongoing and somewhat time consuming project, but it’s worthy of my time. I plan on surveying my students at the end of the school year to find out what they think of it and if they think it’s a project I should continue.

I was disappointed when my seniors last year didn’t participate in my former bulletin board practice, but I’m ultimately thankful for it now. This new idea has been much more interactive and successful than any other bulletin board I’ve created. I hope my students continue to enjoy it.

Pushing The Reset Button

A few years ago, it was pretty common to find me pecking at my iPhone playing the game Angry Birds. For some reason, this game had me hooked. As you probably know, Angry Birds is a mobile game where you launch a set of birds from a slingshot and destroy pigs and structures made of rocks. At the end of each level, you can earn up to three stars based on the number of points. Always wanting to improve my Angry Birds proficiency, if I knew that I wasn’t going to earn all three stars at the end of the level, I would quickly stop the level and try again. Essentially, I was pushing the reset button, all the while saving my progress and points I’ve earned so far.
counter-949233_640Each year, I find that winter break is the time when I start to get a bit restless. It’s the half-way point of the school year and a wonderful opportunity for our classroom communities to get together and reflect on all we’ve accomplished.  It’s also a time when we can push that reset button and strategize how we want to move forward.

This week, I asked my students to reflect on the school year and what we have accomplished together so far. I asked them to think of our school year as a video game with winter break being a sign that we’ve made it to a certain checkpoint. We can’t go back to the beginning of the game, but we can start a new level with new strategies and mindset. To start our conversation, I asked students to take a few moments to consider these three questions: What have been the most positive parts of our classroom community that are working well? What parts would you like to change? How do you want to change them?

One idea that has always stuck with me is “how we look back affects how we look forward.” The manner in which we reflect and give feedback will influence how we utilize that feedback and take our next steps. With this idea in mind, I introduced an evaluation tool called a Plus/Delta Chart to help facilitate our discussion.  It’s a simple tool that helps provide continuous improvement for a group or team. I explained that the pluses are working well and what we want to maintain and build upon.  The deltas are opportunities for improvement. These are the things that can be changed so that our classroom culture can become stronger and more effective. The third column is for our prescriptions. This column is where we collectively come up with action steps to change, or cure, our deltas.

After about 10 moments of quiet reflection, we gathered on the carpet to share our thinking. I was anxious to hear what feedback they would offer. I hoped that this would be productive and not a place to complain and criticize.  As the kids talked, I recorded their thoughts. You can see our pluses and deltas below. ** I intended to complete the chart in one day; however due to time constraints, I saved the prescription column for the next day. I feel the prescription column is a vital part of this process, and should not be cut short. I chose to postpone the discussion until the next day since we were running short on time.

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When I zoom out and look at our pluses and deltas, there are a few things that caught my eye.  Many of the pluses come from parts of the day when students have choice–soft starts, writing workshop, book clubs and flexible seating options.  Also, I was intrigued to see that they liked when I stand at the classroom door in the morning. Further evidence that small gestures and simple acts of kindness can be crucial to a strong classroom culture.

When scanning the deltas, it seems like students are very interested in holding each other accountable particularly when it comes to their behavior. I’m thankful for those students who were brave enough to point out these concerns. My hope is that together, we can work through these concerns and strengthen our culture where everyone feels physically and emotionally safe. Without this feedback, this problem could have grown into a larger issue. I am excited to continue this discussion and collectively develop some prescriptions to help cure our deltas.

The first half of the school year can often feel like we are one of those Angry Birds being hurdled through the air at a breakneck pace. Using this winter break as an opportunity to regroup, reorganize and reset has been a healthy step in making sure everyone in our classroom community is heard. This “pushing reset” conversation, aided by the Plus/Delta chart, helped us learn from past mistakes, yet carry optimism into the future.

Acts of Grace and Confidence

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On the first day of school, I met my student Hiba.  As she stood in our classroom doorway, her first contact with me was a warm, firm hug with the words:

I am Hiba.  Good morning.

Gazing at her, I observed a happy girl wearing a colorful sundress, a beautiful hair bow and the cutest of sandals.  Behind this student’s  big smile and sparkling eyes, was a story, one of grace and confidence. 

“Welcome to our classroom. We are so happy that you are here. ” I replied

I only knew bits and pieces of her story.  Hiba arrived at our school the year before as a  9 year old.  Chronologically, she was old enough for fourth grade, but due to circumstances beyond her control, she was assigned to third grade.  Her placement was not based on language; our school often enrolls children speaking limited or no English.  Hiba’s situation was different; her family fled their home country of Syria when Hiba was a very young child and had lived as refugees for years in Turkey.  Interrupted schooling was an understatement.  Hiba had never been to a formal school and spent her early years folding clothing in a garment factory next to her seamstress mother.   

Regardless of past challenges, Hiba now had a chance to write a new chapter in her story.  She spent her third grade year in our school community  thriving and growing with the support of a loving classroom and caring adults. Hiba was like a very young plant her first year in the United States.  Like a seed, she was absorbing important elements like the culture of school and life in the United States.  As a seedling, she was building the basic language skills that connected her to a new community.  She empowered herself with an understanding school culture.  She made friends, while building her knowledge of life in the United States.  During her third grade year, a team of teachers collaborated with time and care,  helping Hiba build her identity as a reader, writer, and speaker of English. Hiba may have arrived in 4th grade with the label of “pre-functional,” a language learner with a limited English vocabulary, but she came with the confidence and optimistic energy of a student who was ready to work and ready to grow.

 

My Mission?  Better Yet…Our Mission:

I quickly understood that I could not best serve this child on my own.  I do not speak, read, or write Arabic.  How could I provide experiences for this motivated child and make up for time lost to war, relocation and interrupted schooling?  The task felt daunting and I knew I needed to find a way to move from worry to ease.  Foundational questions helped me discover our collective strengths so both Hiba and I could begin our work together from a place of ease and confidence.  I launched our year together asking:

  • How can my language arts classroom help this child grow?
  • What skills and strengths does this child bring to the classroom?  
  • Who is available to help support this child?

Just like most schools, our ELL teachers and aides have schedules that are stretched in mind-boggling directions.  With great care, the team and I collaborated and  secured a schedule, developing an intentional plan to maximize the talents of our support staff.  Our ELL teacher would provide daily intensive reading support, focusing on reading strategies and vocabulary instruction based on Hiba’s identified strengths and needs. Our bilingual aide would support Hiba’s knowledge of sight words and English vocabulary during writing workshop 3 times a week. With their support steps in place, I planned my role.

 

My Role:

As Hiba’s classroom teacher, I knew I was responsible for her mainline instruction in language arts, so I prepared my own action plan.  Using Marie Clay’s Observation Survey to gather literacy information about Hiba, I came to know her as a reader and writer during the first weeks of school.  I determined the kinds of sight words, functional words, and cultural vocabulary that would support her literacy development.  

  • During our Reading Workshop, I scheduled a guided reading lesson four days a week with one day to assess her progress, listen to Hiba read a self-selected book, and help her continue to build her own book collection with titles.  
  • I planned daily guided writing lessons for Hiba and other striving writers during Writing Workshop.  I could work closely and support Hiba and a small group of writers showing Hiba that she was not the only one working to become a better writer.  My striving writers learned that they could be teachers and help one another grow in the smaller circle of our guided writing group.  
  • For Word Study, I wanted her to experience our Word Study lessons, but I knew she needed more.  I secured a Rosetta-Stone online account for Hiba to use as an independent study tool to support her English and to enrich her Word Study experiences.

During the first weeks of school, I got to know Hiba just like any other student through “kid-watching” and anecdotal notes.  I watched her handle books and noticed she eagerly asked others to read aloud to her.  I noticed she loved to write and draw elaborate pictures to support her work in her Writer’s Notebook.  She absolutely adored her circle of friends, sweet girls that rallied around Hiba and helped her in any way possible.  Just like a pride of mamma lionesses, each girl took turns making sure that Hiba was happy, included, and successful.  I watched them patiently take time to understand her attempts to be part of conversations at lunch, lessons and workshop experiences.

Hiba demonstrated from Day 1 that she was always observing her classmates, listening to the conversations, and following their actions so she could be an active part of the community. I needed students to authentically enrich Hiba’s learning in a respectful and efficient way by harnessing the social power of our community.

Environment:  I began building supports into the learning environment so that Hiba was guided toward independence.  

  • Seating:  A caring team of friends agreed to sit with Hiba at a table so they could provide support as needed.  I met with the girls and modeled ways to support rather than just “doing” for Hiba.  Their job was to let her be independent and only offer help as requested by Hiba, offering assistance in a kind and respectful manner.
  • Quick Communication Board:  Hiba had access to a clipboard with icons and survival phrases that were presented and explained to her by our Arabic-speaking bilingual aide.  The Quick Communication Board helped Hiba to have dignity and independence when asking for help.  As she felt comfortable with phrases like, “I need to sharpen my pencil”  or “I need to visit the restroom,” new phrases replaced mastered life skills.
  • A Visual Schedule:  Consistency and predictability help children gain control over their lives as they navigate a sea of new language and culture.  Knowing what was going to happen throughout her day helped Hiba to feel secure so her energy was focused on learning.  A buddy or the bilingual aide reviewed our schedule at the start of each day so she knew what was happening at all times.

 

Workshop Supports:

I looked for intentional ways to capitalize on dignified peer support to help Hiba move towards independence during our literacy workshops.  Thinking about our 3 literacy blocks, I targeted ways that students could enrich Hiba’s membership in our literacy community.

Reading Workshop:  

During Reading Workshop, the freedom to make choices are important to all children, including ELL students.  By adjusting workshop experiences to match Hiba’s growing confidence and skill-set, we launched the year with Book Buddies supporting Hiba in various ways during independent reading time.

  • A Book Buddy listened to Hiba read books from her leveled book tub.
  • Another Book Buddy read a picture book selected by Hiba. The reader not only practiced reading aloud for meaning and fluency, but Hiba grew her reading life and English knowledge with picture books.
  • Audio Books on sources like Epic gave Hiba other independent reading options.
  • Wordless Books were always available for Hiba to read by herself or with others during independent reading time.  The powerful illustrations of these books were later used for vocabulary development during Word Study or 1:1 sessions with an adult.  

Writing Workshop

Hiba met each day for a focused guided writing lesson with me. During Independent Writing Time, Writing Buddies helped Hiba capitalize on labeled visuals.

  • Labeled Pictures:  Hiba would select an image with vocabulary labels to support her writing.  As she crafted a sentence, a writing buddy could read or listen to Hiba and offer support as needed.
  • Visual Dictionary: Peers could target a page in a Visual Dictionary so that Hiba was comfortable using this writing tool to find the words she needed for writing. Students were encouraged to add synonyms to useful pictures.  For example:  on a page with art supplies, a peer added the word “markers” to a caption that read “felt tip markers.”
  • Tech Support:  As Hiba learned to use Google writing tools, spellcheck became an empowering way for her to move closer to conventional spelling.  Those “red squiggles” on misspelled words allowed her to control how she asked for help or corrected words by herself.

Word Study

  • A Word Buddy helped Hiba review vocabulary in her picture dictionary.
  • A Word Buddy listened to her complete Rosetta-Stone lessons so she had an audience for the speaking components.
  • A Word Buddy also served as a vocabulary tour guide around the classroom, checking her understanding of functional life vocabulary cards taped around the classroom.

Lessons Learned

It is natural for classroom teachers to scramble, searching for ways to support and enrich the learning lives of ELL students.  By nature, teachers are experts at designing and controlling experiences for students that lead to positive outcomes.  The lesson I learned from Hiba was one of grace and confidence.  I discovered it was not necessary for me to be the sole provider of her learning experiences.  Rather than looking at a pre-functional student as a daunting challenge for a classroom teacher working alone, support is available when a teacher looks to the strengths of a child and accepts the help of the community.  

With intentional planning, the people in Hiba’s learning community coordinate and maximize learning opportunities.  Teachers and students help Hiba navigate a new language and culture each day in our own way.  As teachers, we cannot control a child’s past experiences or a child’s present level of English language skills.  What we can control is how we respond to this learner.   When we respond with dignity, optimism and the strengths of our community, we find unlimited unlimited powers and opportunities.

Listen, Intentionally

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A few days after our Thanksgiving break during writing workshop I noticed the frustration on the face of one of my seventh grade writers as she stared intently at her computer screen. As I walked over to her, I began to plan what I was going to say to her as we began what I hoped would be a very quick conference.

My list of “Must Check-in With” kids was large and the deadline for the project was looming and this student is one of the strongest writers in my room. I did not think I had the time to sit with her. To be honest, I didn’t even want to sit with her. I just want to say as I walked by her table, “How is going?” followed by a “I am sure you will figure it out, let’s meet later in the week, but I need to check in with Josh right now.” The quick fly-by conference did not happen.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked as I was already moving past her table.

“I hate this narrative, there is no plot, it is pointless. It is crap and I don’t know what to do!!”

Stopping immediately, I looked at her, really looked at her, and when I saw the vulnerability of her expression, I knew Josh could wait. Her frustration was way beyond what I expected. She was well past the stage of “productive struggle”, “growth mindset”, “grit”,  “perseverance” or whatever phrase we might use to push kids to the ‘next level.’ This girl probably didn’t need any writing instruction. At this moment she needed someone to listen and someone to remind her that writing, like life isn’t always perfect.

I grabbed a nearby stool and sat down next to her.

“OK, do you want me to look at the part that is frustrating you?”

“It is all frustrating!! I can’t figure out what how to fix it, it is due in three days.”

“Well, I know that sometimes having someone else give you feedback is helpful to me. I often think my writing is bad, but usually somebody else can see the good in it. Can I look for some good?”

“Sure, but there really isn’t any good, my partner (feedback partners are an integral part of our writing workshop) keeps telling me my description is great but, there is no plot. How can fix ‘no plot’ when my short story is already six pages long?”

I let that comment linger for a few seconds. There were many paths I could have taken, but I went with the idea of reading a little bit of the story with her and hopefully finding a way to nudge her off the idea that her writing is awful.

“So, maybe we can’t find a way for you to revise this story, but I think it is worth shot. You have put too much effort into this piece of writing to dismiss it completely. Do you want me to read it over? Would you like me to suggest some things that might help you?

“Sure, I guess.”

Over the next seven to eight minutes I read over about a page and a half of her writing and we talked a great deal about the story. I really did not give her any writing tips, I affirmed her writing skill and shared some of my thinking about why her ‘bad’ writing had a tremendous amount of very strong writing. There were parts to her narrative that were almost lyrical.

At that moment in time, she didn’t need her writing fixed, she needed someone to listen to frustration. She needed someone to appreciate she was frustrated. She needed someone to remind her realize that it is ok to not have a ‘perfect’ product.

The students we work with come from a variety of lives. Their worlds outside of school are vastly different. The kids in my school may have different struggles than the kids in your school. But, they all have some struggle in their story. I also think our kids have many things in common. One thing that I believe they have in common is the need to have someone actually listen to them. Authentically and empathetically listen to them. We all need someone to be willing to see us for who we are and to accept that what we have to offer is enough.

There are times in our classrooms that we are pushing so hard because we have so many things to accomplish in such little time. I get wrapped up in this as well, but I work hard to create time and space to just listen to my students when they need someone to just be there for them.