Nurture the Dreams, Not the Explosions

The other day, I had a student in my office and she asked about the quote I had set as my desktop background: “It’s much easier to nurture a dream than to deal with an explosion,” a line from Ernest Morrell’s speech at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English’s Annual Convention. Over three years later, it remains a line that I quote often to colleagues and use to guide my work with young people every day.

Before I knew it, I was down a rabbit hole. I was talking about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”; I was talking about the English teachers I have learned so much from yet do not directly know; and I found myself endlessly talking about why I want to teach, the safe space I want to create as an administrator, and how I can always do a better job of helping my school become the place where kids’ dreams are nurtured.

If we aren’t nurturing our kids’ dreams and sense of hope, who else is?

For some, no one.

So when I recently read Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Jensen’s comments about hope, I started to think differently.

As Jensen points out, “learned helplessness” is not a “genetic condition.” Rather, it is “an adaptive response to life conditions…” in which “[students] believe that they have no control over their situations and that whatever they do is futile” (113).

I think we can all point to a student in our careers who has lost hope, who thinks that he or she can do absolutely nothing to change their life trajectory. I encourage you to pause right now, and picture them. Remember their name? Remember how they used to frustrate and challenge you? You may have even blamed them for a gray hair or two. They never seemed to respond to what you would say, and they would tell you again and again that they “don’t care or “will never care.”

That kid needs our help finding hope.

Jensen encourages teachers to talk to students about their dreams, their hopes, and their aspirations. But this talk also has to go beyond the mistake that Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, shared in this podcast. If we only do surface-level work of just asking kids about their dreams and not really listening and talking, we can get—and accept—responses like that of the student she worked with, whose negative response ultimately became his outcome.

As educators, we also have to be aware that “Students raised in poverty are especially subject to stressors that undermine school behavior and importance” (27). This doesn’t mean that all students who live in poverty are subject to poor behavior, nor does it mean that that these students will perform poorly. They are, however, at a greater risk. If we really want to tend to those dreams, we, as educators, must be aware of that and teach students to recognize and overcome some of these stressors.

We must nurture those dreams, make relevant connections in our curricula, and continue insisting that students can take small steps to accomplish their goals. If we don’t, then we can find ourselves managing more of the “explosions” that Morrell talked about in his speech. After all, it’s easier for a student to realize that yelling, screaming, stomping out of our classroom will earn him or her a “pass” at the day’s work. But if we are truly serious about nurturing those dreams, we have to think in terms of empowerment and persistence. Like Jensen also argues, “Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time to teach them how to act differently” (30). We won’t accomplish it in a day or a quick lesson about grit or mindset. Instead, we have to be as hopeful and relentless as we can be.

 

Social Media and Former Students

In the Classroom Communities post on Thursday, I wrote about a message I received from a former student about a moment we had shared in the classroom nearly 10 years earlier.

I greatly appreciated him reaching out and sharing that story with me, as it was not one I could quickly recall.

There’s another piece to that story, though. One that underlies the entire thing:

Charles was able to contact me, and felt comfortable doing so.

This is because we are connected on social media. In particular, on Twitter.

Social Media
Social Media, from Wikipedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socialmedia-pm.png

I have found social media an immense help to my professional life and my personal life. Twitter has not only connected me to educational thought leaders (such as my fellow Classroom Communities contributors), but also has provided me with new things to try in my classroom, or now in my role as ed tech specialist. I would not be the educator I am today without Twitter.

Facebook and Instagram have also helped me grow in these ways, and I’m dipping my toes into Snapchat. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I met my wife and many of my closest friends through social media.

I have also found it incredibly useful in connecting with former students.

This allows for stories like the one Charles shared with me. Another former student, on Wednesday night, tweeted to me that she was participating in a hashtag edchat. Another former student recently contacted me to discuss a webcomic we both love which has taken yet another surprising turn. I’ve had former students share some of their poetry with me. On one occasion, a former student from my first ever job (teaching summer school credit recovery geometry) contacted me to apologize for his behavior during our 6-week session.

These connections blow me away, and I am glad they can happen.

However, the world of social media is not all rainbows and unicorns, and there are some things to keep in mind:

Connect with FORMER Students
Notice that every time I talked of a connection in the preceding paragraphs, it is always a “former” student. I do not follow my current students on social media or communicate with them using anything but official school channels. That said:

Remember that, on the Internet, Private means Public, and Public means Everyone
If you have a public profile, your students, both current and former, might follow you — either officially or discreetly. If you have a private profile, you still don’t know who might share things out or who might gain access to your posts. Treat everything as if it’s public.
That means that you should act as if all your students, their parents, friends, coworkers, your principal, superintendent, EVERYONE follows you and sees what you post. If you aren’t okay with them seeing pictures and thoughts of yours after you’ve had a couple rounds at the bar with some friends, then don’t post those pictures and thoughts.

Keep It Public
While I have some direct messages with former students, I prefer and try to keep communication public, or keep their parents in the loop. This is essentially a requirement if the former student is still under the age of 18. While former students can sometimes grow into friends as they move into their adult lives, keep in mind the teacher-student relationship which serves as the underpinning for those connections. This is why I have for the most part stayed away from things such as Snapchat, Whisper, and Marco Polo.

Model Appropriate Behavior
For better or worse, being a teacher is a 24/7 hat we wear. Even if we take it off, our students and former students are going to treat us as if we have it on. We should be demonstrating the manners and positive approach to the world we’d hope our students have themselves. In the days before social media, this might have been a student seeing their teacher being rude to the cashier at the grocery store. In today’s world, it might be a former student (or current student) coming across your Twitter feed, and seeing a video mocking their generation for stereotypes they likely don’t actually exhibit, with your comment of “it’s so true!” [I’m not going to link to the video here, but this is an actual example that I have seen in 2018] If they’re a current student, do you think they’ll ever connect with you? If they’re a former student, do you think they’ll ever re-connect with you?
When it comes to political issues, I don’t shy away on my social media accounts. Donalyn Miller’s Nerd Talk last year really empowered me in this. However, being political doesn’t have to mean being rude. Being angry doesn’t have to mean being insulting. We are a built-in role model for our students. We can demonstrate how to be politically involved without slinging mud. How to be mad about various things without degrading everyone who disagrees with us. As always, consider your words before you post them.

This Is Us
Okay, maybe I just wanted to use that show’s name in this post (no spoilers, please!). But we are teachers. This is who we are. Again, we wear that hat 24/7. We signed up for this. If you’re a teacher and are reading this blog, presumably it’s because you care about the community you build in your classroom. That community necessarily extends beyond the walls of the room, or it’s not a real community at all. Walls don’t define the group; the people do. If your students think you’re putting on a teacher mask every day when you come to school, then they will put on their student masks and you’ll never help each other with who you all really are. In other words:

Be Who You Are
Be the same person in the classroom and on Twitter. Pretending, in the classroom, that you don’t have a life and interests outside of school is as disingenuous as pretending, outside the classroom, that you’re not a teacher who cares about your students. And if the person you are outside of the classroom isn’t one you’d bring into your classroom, then do the work on yourself that you need. Our students need us to be 100% with them. That doesn’t mean that we have to work 24/7 and use social media to continue the work we do with our students 8 hours a day. We would all burn out way too fast if we did that. But it does mean we have to be ourselves 24/7, because they will know if we’re not.

That’s really what it all boils down to. If you’re the real deal, a genuine article, your students will know. And they will know that you care for them in the classroom, but you also care about who they are outside the classroom. And they’ll respond to that. You’ll see wedding pictures and birth notices. You might grab a cup of coffee with a former student if you’ve both moved to the same town (in my case, it was a bacon cheeseburger). You might get messages like the one Charles shared with me.

And you will be assured that, despite the work, despite the 24/7 teacher hat, it has all been worth it.

Grace and Mercy

I was once told that grace is when we get what we don’t deserve and mercy is when we don’t get what we do deserve.

I needed some help unpacking that, so let me do so here. Grace would be the presence of love when perhaps what we’ve earned is coldness, and mercy is the absence of a punishment we deserve — the opposite of justice.

While this was used in terms of Christianity and God, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply it to the classroom.

Let me tell you a story.

My second year teaching, I had a student. We’ll call him Charles, but that is not his name. Charles was a very respectful student, usually pretty quiet, did his work, and kind of stayed out of everyone’s way. I don’t mean to imply he was a loner, so let me be clear about that. He was well-liked, presumably because he was, as mentioned above, respectful to everyone.

Well, I was taking attendance one day, and Charles let out a not-too-loud but also not-too-quiet “Oh fuck!”

Now, the school I was teaching at at the time had some pretty clear rules on that sort of language. Detention was the punishment mandated by the student handbook.

So I turned around, and I looked at Charles, asking him “what did you say?” because I honestly could not believe he would have said that. It would be more likely to hear “Yes, sir” from his lips than the f-bomb.

Charles didn’t answer my question. Well, that’s not true. He apologized and said he didn’t mean to say that. I imagine a truthful answer of my question (thus repeating the word) was not something he wanted to do. His face, normally a fairly light shade, had turned nearly tomato-red. In the few seconds of eye contact that followed, we had a conversation, though it wasn’t out loud:

“Just to clarify: did you just say ‘Oh fuck’?”
“Yes, I did. And I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to. It just popped out.”
“Are you going to say it again?”
“No, sir.”
“Okay.”

The “Okay” was out loud. That was it, and we moved on.

I thought relatively little of this incident. A little mercy in the midst of an Algebra II class.

This was, as I said, my 2nd year teaching. 2008.

9 years later, this past November, I received a message from Charles. It started with this tweet:

“Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll share anyways. I think it was my junior year when I was sitting in your class (I was in the second column from the door and like 3-4 seats back). I was at my desk and said, ‘Oh, f***.’ It wasn’t loud, but it wasn’t quiet, so you did a 180, looked at me, and asked what I just said. I didn’t repeat it but said that I was so sorry and didn’t mean for that to come out. You looked at me for a couple more seconds, I assume because you could not believe that I had actually said that word aloud, and I became so fearful that I was going to get a detention. That would have been the only detention in my entire school career. I’m pretty straight-edged and hate knowing that I ever broke a rule or acted up. I know that many of my peers got more detentions than they could count and that detentions are minor infractions in the grand scheme of things, but I would have felt so much shame from my parents, friends, and teachers. Would a detention from that incident have positively shaped my future? It is impossible to know for certain, but I truly believe that it would not have. The way that I interpreted your reaction was that my words were bad, and that you knew that I knew they were bad, but you would trust me to adjust the behavior on my own since I otherwise 100% earned a detention. Because you did not write me up, I chose to always remember that experience and that I need to be mindful of the words I use at every place and time. It also taught me the power of relationships when it comes to making tough decisions. Thank you for practicing the above tweet. Your action was the most appropriate response for me and I have never lived it down.”

To be honest, my version of this story was completely reconstructed from his message. I don’t recall this incident, though I can imagine how it went. But it’s not about me; it’s about him. By not issuing the detention, Charles learned to be mindful of his words as well as the power of relationships.

Was this the right move on my part? At the time, I likely didn’t know. But to him, it made a huge difference.

But here’s the rub: was I being unfairly impartial with doling out this mercy, because Charles was a respectful student? What if it were a student who often was late to class, didn’t do their work, and wasn’t respectful? What if that student dropped an f-bomb, yet also turned red and apologized? Would I have shown them the same mercy? Would I have denied that student the same opportunity to learn as Charles had?

I don’t know. I wish I knew. What I do know is that teaching is full of these moments. These times when a quick decision must be made that might impact the student for years. And so often, it comes down to simple questions:
Justice, or mercy?
Coldness, or grace?
Relationship-building, or not?

It may give me a reputation as a pushover. It may get me in trouble with my administrators. It may let some students take advantage of me. I don’t know about my 2nd year teaching, but now? I will choose relationship-building nearly every time.

Halfway Here: The Just Ten Challenge

Halfway there.
We are halfway there.
Near equidistant from the first day of school to the last…
I still have beginning of the year “to dos” and aspirations hanging in limbo, waiting for a minute of my attention.
The pile of manila folders I placed on my cabinet in September still sits there.
I’ve been running on the binder creating, Google Drive organizing, classroom library reshuffling gerbil wheel all year.
And I think I forgot to tear off yesterday’s page on my daily desk calendar.

Today was a rainy day. In Wisconsin. In January.
Thunder and lightning, puddles and humidity.
Cloudy and gloomy.
Gray.
And it felt like it.

It was one of those days where the air and the energy was heavy. District math testing. Indoor recess. Winding down reading and writing units. A student meltdown. It was a slow motion, going-through-the-motions sort of day for the kids and me, and I came home defeated and frustrated. Today lacked luster. Today was mundane. Today was mediocre. But it wasn’t without its joyful moments. To shake off the dust for tomorrow, I was determined to consciously remember and recognize those highlights. Closing my eyes and thinking back on my day, I realized it wasn’t too difficult to name the good in our day.

Andrew brought in his Spirograph tracers to share with his friends during our morning “Spark & Shine” soft start choice time. Kaylah wrote a heartfelt dedication to her dog in the informational book she is writing on how to raise a puppy. Amir jumped into a new favorite series to push himself as a reader. Akilah finished the third book in her series, the most of a series she’s ever read before. Elijah said, “Have a great lunch Mrs. Werner!” on the way out the door. We all laughed during our end of day read aloud. And that’s just what came to mind right away.

This got me thinking…we all have our highs and lows during the school year, but as educators, we often sell ourselves short considering all that we have taught and facilitated with our students. We get stuck on what we have yet to accomplish, the unmemorable days, and the unsuccessful teaching moments we have experienced, that we leave little time to reflect on all that is good and joyful and celebratory in our classrooms. In the mood to make lists and at an appropriate point in the year to be more deeply reflective, I challenged myself to jot down the first ten moments that came to mind that were unforgettable, heartwarming, profound, and positive. Just ten! I was hoping I would prove to myself that even on this gray day, there is, and has been, so much to celebrate.

  1. Getting emails from parents elated that their children are for the first time excited about reading and choosing to read on their own for pleasure in their spare time.
  2. “Hey, he looks just like me!” said Marius, an African American student upon seeing a childhood photo of Jason Reynolds in People magazine, after the author did a visit to our school. The power of mirrors.
  3. Twitter. Students tweeting at their favorite authors and receiving tweets back.
  4. Making Claymates inspired by Dev Petty’s and Lauren Eldridge’s book of the same name. Watching them come alive through student-created stop motion videos was awe-inspiring. Especially Dominic, who channeled his creative energy and ever moving body into unique and clever claymated narratives.
  5. Hiking in the fall with our kindergarten pals in the woods where we discovered the beauty of the natural world readying itself for winter…and a skull. An animal skull we brought back with us that turned into a spontaneous science lesson to identify it the next day. Armed with magnifying glasses, iPads, books, sketching tools, they wondered and sought to learn more.
  6. We are fresh off of Skype visits with authors Shelley Johannes and Debbi Michiko Florence, we are inspired by their advice and experience as writers. Connecting to authors in real time is magical.
  7. “I used to not like math, but this is fun!” And in related news, “Do we have to stop writing to go to recess?”
  8. Field trip to the Milwaukee Film Festival to see the children’s shorts program. Watching the kids’ reactions as much as the films themselves, I witnessed laughter, tears, wonder, and surprise across their faces.
  9. The day we finished reading Stone Fox together. You know the part. Pass the tissues. And a hug.
  10. Kalani found her heritage in Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen, which turned her into a book lover and frequent snail mailer and Twitter pen pal with the author.

Wait! That’s ten already?! But I have eleven and more! It may still be dreary outside, but the gray cloud is lifting from my day. Now, I challenge you to do the same. Pause during your day. In your mind, on paper, in a doc, wherever, what ten moments come to mind that showcases the awesome in your school year? Instead of thinking about counting down the days, let’s look back at how far we’ve come. We’ve built communities, class families, and made an impact on our children.

We are not halfway there.
We are halfway here.
Halfway here.

Share your #JustTen moments in the comments below or on social media with #ClassroomCommunities!
*All names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.

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Behind The Quiet

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Jamel looked like any typical 4th grader walking into my room on the first day of school, yet right away, he became a concern on my radar.  Guarded with quiet, he spent the first weeks in our 4th-grade classroom watchful and barely speaking.   Like a frightened bird perched always on the edge of the group, he listened but chose to only speak on the rarest of occasions.  Vocal and needy students were usually the focus of my teaching energies, so Jamel presented different worries.  Two whispers away from the label of selective mutism, there was something about this child that encouraged me to remain patiently watchful.  I looked forward to the moment when Jamel would finally feel safe enough to open up and initiate a conversation.

As the first weeks unfolded, Jamel settle into our community. His gentle head nods, quiet smiles, and rare giggles were easy to miss in a busy classroom.  Interestingly enough, his silence did not seem to bother his classmates.  They still chose him to be a reading or writing buddy even if his raspy whispers were difficult to understand.  Kids invited Jamel to play on the playground because he loved to shoot hoops and showed great effort on the Cherry Bomb court.  He always joined a group at the lunch table and he seemed to be content to watch and listen to his classmates, while he quietly devoured his lunch.

What kept Jamel from speaking?  Phone calls home unanswered and many emails never returned kept me second guessing the whys behind his silence.  Without the necessary background information, worries haunted my opinion of Jamel.  After weeks of thinking about the whys behind Jamel’s silence and only focusing on the ways he differed from his classmates,  it finally dawned on me that I needed a new perspective.  I needed to focus on the times he appeared to be quietly confident.  With an intentional shift, I realized Jamel was most comfortable during these portions of our day:

  • Arrival time:  Jamel was often the first child in the room and he seemed to enjoy the first 10 minutes of the day with me and just a few other children.  (Frequent smiles)
  • Independent Reading:  The quietness of independent reading time allowed Jamel to relax and I often observed him curled up on a beanbag chair or in one of our cozy book-nooks.  (Quiet Contentment)
  • Mini-Lessons:  The short, but calm gatherings of a mini-lesson brought Jamel into the group and after a few weeks, he moved from the periphery and would sit near me during lessons. (Progress!)
  • Writing Workshop:  During writing workshop, Jamel often sat with me in my Writers’ Circle, a place in the community area for conferences even if I was not meeting with him.  Sitting together gave me opportunities to ask questions or comment on his writing and this seemed to slowly build a comfortable connection between us. (Increased interactions)
  • Read Aloud:  Jamel was usually one of the first to arrive and joined the group for our shared books during read-aloud time.  (Connections)
  • Recess:  Jamel seemed happy in the wide-open spaces of the playground to be alone or to play games with others.  (Space and choices)

 

In a world of busy, it made sense that this child needed calm moments when he could relax and connect with peers as he settled into our classroom environment.  I capitalized on these quieter moments as opportunities to build safer and stronger connections with Jamel by initiating conversations with him.  I drew him into group conversations with other classmates. Each day seemed to hold more possibilities for Jamel.  Even though it was difficult not to be concerned, I believed that if I continued to be patient, something would and could happen and Jamel would start talking, asking questions, and sharing his thinking.  

Patience paid off.  

I will always vividly remember the 34th day of school when I learned the most revealing and powerful information about Jamel.  He arrived earlier than usual; rather than asking him to explain why he’d been dropped off 20 minutes before the first bell, I encouraged him to settle in and either read or explore the room as I prepared a few more things for our day.  Secretly watching him out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something that I must have missed during bustling school days. I noticed Jamel was drawn to the many plants growing in our room.  

With quiet steps, he circulated, checking on each of the plants.  He gently touched the soil in the pots.  Sometimes he softly traced the shape of a leaf.  His long fingers moved over the leaves as if receiving messages from the green life around our room.

“You have 25 plants….” he announced with a soft voice that was finally louder than a whisper.  

Jamel finally initiated a conversation with me.  I slowly drew in a careful breath trying not to erupt into joyous chatter.  So I nodded.  I watched him gently remove a brown leaf from one plant and walking toward me with outstretched hands,  he presented the leaf like an offering.  

“I like these plants,” he spoke.  His voice was raspy, but I could hear each word.  

“I do too,” I responded, taking the brown leaf from his smooth fingers.  Looking at him, I felt like this was a pivotal moment.  

“The plants need your help.  Can I show you how to care for our plants?  I asked.  “Would you like to be our gardener?”

“Yes,” he said with his full, raspy voice and his biggest smile yet.

And so I found my way into Jamel’s quiet world.  

We talked about watering and the different amounts of water required by each kind of plant.  He suggested that we put a code on the containers so he could remember which plants needed to be kept moist and which ones needed drier soil.

We talked about how brown or yellow leaves should be removed from plants so the plant would stop sending energy to fading leaves and direct energy to the living parts of the plant.  “The brown leaves are kinda like the hairs mammals shed…getting rid of old hair to make room for new hair,” he commented.

We talked about rotating pots and even locations so plants had changing relationships to the limited sunlight coming from our two small windows.  He asked if we could get some lights to make our own sunshine.

We talked about the plants that were growing too large for their current containers and would need to be repotted soon.  And I could not help but smile as I saw Jamel already outgrowing my first impressions of him.

This green connection started to influence Jamel’s reading and writing life.  He began a plant journal after I surprised him with 2 Amaryllis bulbs in November.  His independent writing choices revolved around watching and waiting for the Amaryllis to grow and bloom.  He started reading about all kinds of plants during reading workshop.  One day I showed him a page with different bulbs to force during the winter months and he asked for daffodils…so he could make a bouquet for the secretaries.  With grounded comfort and connections with plants, Jamel started to find his voice.

The miraculous thing was the other students noticed his interests and they reached out with comments, questions, and celebrations.  Was Jamel transforming into a loud extrovert?  No…and he probably never would be a talkative, outgoing person.  His classmates now had a better chance to know him and understand his gentle nature; through the quiet world of plants,  he was better understood and he drew more people into his quiet circle.  As he answered his peers’ questions about the plants, his confidence grew and Jamel started to initiate conversations.

Behind the quiet, I learned that Jamel just needed his own unique way to belong to our community.  In another time and place, Jamel would have been noticed by the town’s healer or shaman, a person also in tune with the quiet of nature.  Jamel’s stillness would have been recognized as an asset in finding healing and hope within the green world.  In our busy world that often forgets our need for quiet and connections to nature, Jamel reminded me that listening and observing are powerful tools.  I will always be grateful for that unexpected morning when our classroom plants helped us connect with Jamel’s quiet world. Behind the quiet, we cared enough to notice how Jamel was a valued member of our community on his own terms.  

Midyear Reflections

Enjoy your stay!

We have passed the halfway mark of the school year in my district. During this time of the year, I always reflect (actually overthink and overanalyze) about what we have accomplished to this point. My reflections usually involve two areas; the learning we have accomplished and the richness of the community. I have never had a formal list to help focus my reflection but this year I did jot down a handful of questions for both learning and community.

For the learning side of the reflection my questions were:

Are my students actually improving their craft as writers?

Are my students thinking deeper about the texts they read?

Are my students showing improvement in the ability to converse/reflect about their reading and writing?

Are my students showing more independence in their learning?

For each of these questions, I was able to flip through notebooks, look at assignments and check my anecdotal records for the first two quarters. For the most part, we are growing in our learning. Of course, individual students are growing at different rates. Some are flourishing, some are not moving as fast as I’d like to see. But, I can say that collectively we are learning and becoming more confident as readers and writers.

The tougher part of my mid-year reflections is thinking about how we are progressing as a community of learners. While I occasionally jot some notes, reflecting on the community is a truly gut-feel thing for me. I haven’t quite figured out how to take records on the soft-skills of social interaction and feelings like empathy toward each other.

That being said, this year I thought about these questions:

Are my students listening to each other in partner, small group, and whole class discussions?

Are my students doing the little things (like handing a book or computer to a partner) for each other?

Are my students using kind language toward each other?

Are my students excited about the books classmates are reading and the writing classmates are composing?

Are my students supporting each other without doing the work for each other?

For these questions, there was also a mixed bag of success. I think we are growing closer, but there are still many things to improve. For example, in each of my classes, there are small close-knit groups that are doing well, but we are not there yet as a class. It is a rarity to see a member of one group seeking out a member of another group.

Over the years when I start this time of reflection in January, I often remember Alfie Kohn’s work. Kohn is both inspiring and a reminder that I am not the teacher I want to be yet. His book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, is as relevant to me now as it was when I read it back in my early years of working with children.

As I balance the last learning question, “Are my students showing more independence with their learning?” With the reflective questions about community building, I have asked myself over the years, Kohn’s thinking about how interdependence versus independence is a strong reminder to ask a different question. “How do I balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community?” I lose sleep at times when I think about this.

I know Jeremy needs more intensive support than Charlie, but if I consistently don’t make time for Charlie how does that impact the fabric of the community I want to see in my room? I know Elle is a fabulous reader, but if don’t spend the time challenging her level of thinking, then how will she be able to nudge conversations with her classmates to a higher level?

For the rest of this year, I have decided to focus on community interdependence more than continuing to foster independence. Due to the constant bombardment of news that seems to show a distinct lack of empathy and community building, I feel the need to be a counterweight to those negative messages.

So, the first thing we are doing this morning after the long weekend is to talk to each other and hopefully find more connections. Discover or remember commonalities we have. Looking for these will help us build empathy and become a better community. I want my students to remember that we are far more responsive to the greater good when we go beyond just our personal responsibility.

 

The Opportunity of Re-Entry

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we welcome students back into our classrooms after they—or we, at times—have made mistakes or have had something serious happen in their lives.

Maybe a student lashed out at you. Maybe they fought another student at the end of your class period. Or maybe they recently lost an immediate relative.

We all know what happened yesterday, or last week, or five minutes ago. Or we hear and see posts on social media, or we overhear students who talk about events that have happened around the building and outside of school. The witnessing of the fight downstairs a few minutes ago has now made its way onto the third floor and, despite not having seen it, it’s all kids are talking about, and then somehow that conversation is resurrected when that student finally returns to school and class.

We don’t just forget.

And we have to acknowledge that. If we simply forgot, then we miss out on opportunities to improve relationships, to signal to students and colleagues that we care, that we are people, and that we are a part of a community working to support each other. And it’s our experiences with each other that contribute to who we are and how people perceive us, and it’s our response after a negative experience that enables the rebuilding or refining of relationships.

So I write more without answers but more of a topic that I have been thinking about lately, the idea of re-entry, of return, of welcoming students back into our rooms and our lives after we all know that something happened. Because our goals as teachers and administrators are to teach, to adjust, to refocus, to redirect, to support and, I think, very rarely ever to ignore or to give up.

I think we first have to acknowledge that it is going to be awkward. People will look. They will talk. They will whisper. They will point. They will have thoughts that we will never know about the incident before.

And we have to communicate to students that we will recognize their discomfort, the awkwardness, and everything else that showing up again after a difficult event entails.

It might be a pat on the back and saying, “I know how difficult this is for you, but I am here to talk it out / be a support / prevent it from happening again.”

It might mean addressing it as a class (I seek permission from parents and the student when doing this), which I think can be incredibly powerful. When you acknowledge that something happened, others were affected, and we are now moving on, it can send a message to students that we make mistakes but our classroom culture is important to us—so important that it had to be addressed—and now we can move on.

It might mean that a simple “I’m sorry” is necessary. And sometimes brevity is okay. More can be said with less, and it is so important for kids to hear that from their peers and adults. We must model the behavior we expect from our students.

We must acknowledge the sinking-of-the-gut feeling that happens when we all do something difficult and then acknowledge when students take this important next step. This might mean a quick, “I am proud of you,” or a thumbs up, or a pat on the back. But we must reaffirm the power of taking that step to rebuild and move forward.

Returning is never easy, but with our help, the burden is lessened and we begin our journey toward restoring or reaffirming the sense of community we want to achieve.