A Safety Net

It has been a rough week. I know that our readers come to this blog looking for passion, positivity and inspiration about their classroom community. But, for the past three days, I’ve left school feeling frustrated and discouraged. Rarely do I wake up and feel worried about going to work. But, this week is wearing me down.

First and foremost, it’s state testing season in Ohio. Enough said.

Secondly, there has been a drastic increase of behavior issues in the classroom, in the cafeteria, on the playground and on the bus. It seems like students are being more disrespectful to each other and to me. The quality of work is diminishing. The enthusiasm for reading and writing seems dormant. When I think about how much time and energy my students and I have put into building our a solid classroom culture, it frustrates me to think that I see it starting to crack. I’ve spent a great deal of time this week asking myself…why?

Maybe some of these fifth graders are starting to realize this is the end of elementary school.

Maybe they are frightened and intimidated by the unknown bigness of middle school, unsure of what awaits them.

Maybe they sense how close sixth grade is and can’t wait to get there.

Maybe some are getting a surge of hormones and they don’t know how to handle it.

Maybe they are apprehensive about the summer where there will be less structured days at home.

Maybe they are worried about not being guaranteed a breakfast and lunch every day like they get during the school year.

Maybe they’d rather be outside or exploring sound and light energy projects instead of sitting for two hours taking a state test.

Maybe they are worried about the lock down drills that seem just a little bit more real these days.

Maybe they’re worried about what their families’ future in this country will be like.

Maybe some feel “targeted” and treated unfairly by me or other teachers.

As teachers, we all have our rough days, rough weeks and maybe even a rough year. What this week is teaching me is the importance of having a strong classroom culture. With the increase of behavior problems and struggles, I am thankful that we have a solid culture that we can fall back on. We have our mission statement that we created together which reinforces our purpose for coming to school, even for the last two months. We have our five essential agreements, which act as our “bill of rights” and outline how we treat each other. We have our collaboration norms anchor chart that we created together in September.

While we are experiencing some challenges lately, nobody can deny the expectations and structure or the classroom. When we forget how to act towards one another, we must return to our community mindset that we’ve spent seven months establishing. I am starting each morning by reviewing our essential agreements and mission statement. These tools provide a common language–a safety net to catch us if we stumble. While we may fall or stumble, our classroom culture will prevent us from getting hurt further.

The power of this website Classroom Communities is that it reinforces just how necessary it is for teachers and students to work at strengthening their classroom culture on a daily basis. We must put the time in at the beginning of the year to set up our classroom norms. We must practice how to talk to each other. We must train ourselves how to collaborate. We must learn from each other. We must push through the tough times. We must work and fight for our classroom community so we have something to catch us when we fall.

The Feels

The * Feels /thə feelz/  n. shorthand for the word “feelings” that is used to describe an intense emotional response about something that has deeply affected the speaker.  (source: knowyourmeme.com)



The past week in my classroom has been hitting me right in the feels. I’m so blessed to have a job passion that allows me to get this intense emotional responses every so often. These past five days have been a roller coaster of emotion in Room 27. Here is why…

Feels #1 – March Book Madness

After months of build-up, Tony and I are launching the voting rounds for the March Book Madness book tournament. For the next four weeks, schools all over the US (and some in Asia) will be reading, discussing and voting for books in our brackets trying to determine the TOP book for “Compelling Characters.”

The response to this year’s MBM is unprecedented. Tony and I receive tweets daily from teachers and librarians showing us how much MBM is inspiring the love of books and reading in their schools. Nothing brings me more joy than to see photos of kids examining and pointing at the bulletin board in their classroom with the MBM bracket. I’ve seen Flipgrids, Padlets and iMovies with students sharing their love of a particular book and persuading their peers to pick it to advance to the next round.

Tony and I text regularly about how we can’t believe how this small idea we hatched during a twitter chat in 2014 could give thousands of young readers such excitement and joy about books.

Feels #2 – Refugee

Last Friday, we finished reading Refugee by Alan Gratz for our read aloud. (If you have not read this book, you must, after reading this post of course, go straight to your local independent bookstore or reserve this book from your library.) This particular read aloud with my fifth graders has been like no other. Not only did I have students begging to miss recess to keep reading another chapter, I had students getting copies from the library so they could start reading it again during their free time. But, the suspense and action-packed plot was only part of what made this book truly magical.

Refugee is not just a book. It’s an experience. An experience that allowed me to connect to my students’ lives unlike any other book has. I teach in a school that is almost 30% English language learners and 25-30 students have refugee status. One of them is in my class. He is old enough to remember his journey, yet comfortable enough to pull me aside and tell me that this book made him sad.

Throughout the book, I would show videos about refugees from Nazi Germany in 1940, Cuba in 1994 and Syria in 2015 to provide context to the characters. I will never forget hearing students say “That’s not fair!” or “Why are they doing that?” as they watched Hungarian border patrol aggressively deny entrance to a group of refugees. Forever etched in my mind is the image of three girls huddled together, arm in arm, as we read the author’s note. I’ll always remember watching Mason wipe away a single tear from his cheek as we listened to the final chapter. And perhaps he will always remember watching Mr. Jones wipe away a single tear at the same time.

This book is powerful. Students have talked about it every day since finishing it.

Feels #3 – Letters of Thanks

Each planning period, I walk to my staff mailbox and look to see what annoying professional development pamphlet I’m going to recycle that day. But, this week, I didn’t get any. Instead, I received three envelopes all addressed to me in “not-adult” handwriting. I opened each envelope to find handwritten thank you cards from former students. I took them back to my classroom and began to read. Here are a few samples of their words that are the epitome of right in the feels.

“Thank you for making school fun and making me glad to actually come to school.”
“In your class, school became a happier place that I used to think about it.”
“Thank you for teaching me things that I can pass on to other people to help them too.”
“Thank you for kickstarting my confidence. I’m taking high school math classes in 8th grade.”
“You have made me see what is worth seeing.”
“Thank you so much for boosting my confidence to keep going and never give up.”
“After your class, I feel like I see the value of education.”

 

IMG_0848My intention is sharing these is not to be self-congratulatory. Rather, it is to show how their thank-yous are not directed towards the assessments, daily lessons or academic standards we provide for our students. Instead, their appreciation is rooted in how our classroom community made them feel.

Most teachers get into this profession to make a difference in the lives of children. It is often a thankless job, and we don’t always get the recognition from our students or the community. Yet, our jobs as teachers is unlike any other job.

We get to see the excitement on our students’ faces first hand when they finally solve that math problem.

 

 

We get to experience a great book with our students every day.

We get to provide safe spaces for our students to ask, wonder and notice.

We get to kick start a child’s confidence.

We get to see learning take place first hand!

What makes our job so special is that we actually get to feel the feels.

Did you allow yourself to feel the feels this week? I invite you to share the source of your feels in the comments section.

In The DRIVEr Seat

Have you ever had a class that causes you to seriously reevaluate your beliefs about one aspect of your teaching practice? This year, my class has pushed me to spend a great deal of time thinking about classroom management. I have had many conversations with colleagues at my school and in my Twitter PLN about this topic over the years. Just when I think I have it, I have a group of learners who cause me to ask questions:

  • When is it okay to offer extrinsic motivators?
  • Is it ever okay to abandon voice and choice and tell a student, “You are doing it this way.”
  • When is it time to set up a behavior plan for a student?
  • Am I punishing the entire class for the actions of a few?
  • Is it okay to ask a student to finish work during recess if they don’t have the support at home?

To guide me in my quest, I recently reread one of the most informative and inspiring books. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink was the first, and probably most significant, factor in shifting my thinking when I first read it in 2010. In a nutshell, Pink states that the key to having high performance and productivity in today’s workplaces and schools is based on three factors that keep motivation high: 1) the need to direct our own lives (autonomy), 2) to learn and create new things (mastery), and 3) to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). He states, “enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on a project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver” of keeping people motivated. I want my students to develop the intrinsic motivation to do something because it is challenging or enjoyable, not because of any “if you do______, then you get______” motivators. These “if-then” situations tend to stifle creativity and critical thinking.

I’ve been making some simple shifts to allow for more autonomy, mastery and purpose in my classroom community. One example, I recently tried is to ask students how long they think it will take to complete their work. I’ve had students set time goals for when they will complete a task, and ask them what should happen if they don’t reach their goal. Some students have self-imposed the “no recess” consequence. Another little tweak I’ve made is by having a class discussion around the question, “What does it take to be successful in this classroom?” By asking students to define what success looks like and feels like in our learning community, they are able to gauge their own behavior based on a list of criteria and “look-fors.” Hopefully, they will get a better sense of mastering the feeling of success.

Nevertheless, even Daniel Pink says that rewards are not always inherently bad. What Daniel Pink has made me think about is turning rewards into altruism. That means I do not give any tangible rewards for basic classroom responsibilities (e.g. quality work, good behavior). However, I try to make sure every student feels supported and valued. These “rewards” are not always tied to a particular task, but are meant to acknowledge hard work or show appreciation.

  • Giving a high-five or fist bump goes a long way
  • Giving students a simple positive comment such as, “Thanks for working hard today” or “I appreciate your positive contributions to our class.” or “I love how you showed passion for growth today when that math task was challenging.”
  • Let a student be the first to read a brand new book you bought for your classroom library. Let him/her know you thought of them when you bought it.
  • If you do not have open seating, perhaps surprise the students by letting them choose their seats. “You’ve been working so hard on your student-led conferences, let’s have a choice of seats today.”
  • Let students share their work first during writer’s workshop. I can tell you this is one reward I don’t mind students requesting again.

These are all “rewards” that I try to do on a regular basis, and I don’t believe they reinforce the idea of dangling a “carrot and stick.” Are they extrinsic rewards? Well, I assume they are because I am the one giving them. But, I believe the most important part of these is the conversation I have with the students about the purpose. While some may see them as “rewards,” I see them as a way to keep our classroom culture strong. As long as I don’t dangle these rewards as an “if-then” situation, then I see no harm in acknowledging students’ positive behavior. They are positive consequences to keep students excited and energized to learn, and they let the students know that I’m thinking about them and that their hard work is not going unnoticed.

The search for answers goes on. I will continue to refine my classroom management and provide a safe supportive learning environment or each group of learners. It boils down to this. I try my best to maintain a classroom culture where students experience respect, acceptance, fairness, consistency, joy and positivity. I am always searching for a way to connect with students, and show them that each of them is an important member of our classroom culture. Whenever I start to question my teaching practice, I always try to remind myself that every decision I make is to cultivate a love of learning and encourage my students to be active learners and productive global citizens. The best reward I can give my students is to show them they are cared-for and valued. I want every student to know, “You matter.”  With this in mind, I hope that being a part of my classroom community every day is reward enough.

A Panoramic View

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I always learn so much from former students when they come back to visit me. I listen to them talk about classes they are taking, teachers that inspire them (or bore them), boyfriends/girlfriends and funny stories from the high school cafeteria. As we reminisce about their time in fifth grade, I never hear a comment about the learning target I used to teach them about theme. They don’t recall the goal-setting sheet they completed after their fractions pre-assessment. While I spend a great deal of time planning these experiences, I realize that it’s okay that they don’t remember these things. These tools are important to their development as learners; yet, they are means to an end, with the end being that my students view themselves as important members that belong to a community of learners.

Back in October, my district asked teachers in grades 3-12 to administer a student survey that measures student perceptions about teaching and learning. This survey, created by Panorama Education, allowed me to see how my students perceived their experience in my classroom using five categories:

  • Compassion – How concerned do students get when others need help.
  • Grit – How well students are able to persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals.
  • Growth Mindset – Student perceptions of whether they have the potential to change those factors that are central to their performance in school.
  • Hope – How often do you expect your future to be exciting and
  • Sense of Belonging – How much students feel that they are valued members of the school and classroom community.

Upon looking at the results, I was a bit surprised to see the lowest score in my class was in the Sense of Belonging category. In this topic, students use a scale of 1-5 to answer questions such as: How well do people at your school understand you as a person?  How much support do the adults at your school give you? How much respect do students at your school show you? How much do you feel like you belong at your school? I know that when I feel like I belong to a group, I am able to be a better version of myself. I think for many of us, it’s important to be in a group where this is mutual respect and support. I hope to instill this same feeling into my students before they go off to middle school.

The other day, I was reading Tony’s post Long Term Investment, and this statement struck a chord with me. Tony states, “the work we do as teachers is more valuable in the long run if we invest in our student as humans first.” No truer words have ever been spoken. It’s time that I look past the reading level and math posttest data, and start to view my students as humans. So, for the past three months, I am constantly asking myself, How do my students feel about themselves in my classroom? Have I created a space today where my students can feel like they belong? In order to answer these questions, here is one change I’ve made to hopefully provide opportunities for students to feel a sense of connection to themselves and their peers.

WONDERBALL
This activity involves a ball and a list of questions. Typically, our end of the day meetings are where we sit in a circle and share our highs and lows of the day. Now, a few days a week, we play “Wonder Ball.” I took a permanent marker and wrote numbers from 1-8 on a Nerf basketball. Students sit in a circle and take turns throwing the ball to each other and responding to questions. When a student catches The Wonderball, the number their right thumbs is touching (or is closest to) corresponds with a question on a list that they will be asked. Students may “pass” or request another question if they are uncomfortable for any reason. There are three levels of questions.  Once everyone in the class has had a chance to answer level 1 questions, we move on to level 2, and so on. Here are a few examples of questions:

  • Level 1 – What is your favorite color and why? Where is your “happy place?”
  • Level 2 – Who is the most important person in your life and why? Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
  • Level 3 – Has there ever been a time when you were with people but you felt alone? Who is a person in this class that has made you feel special or important, and what did they do?

As I sit here and write this blog, I realized that the word “panorama” is a perfect name for this survey. While it is only one piece of data from one day in October, it allowed me to see a sweeping, wide view of my students–they mindset, their hopes, their sense of belonging. Wonderball has become a very popular activity, and I often have students begging to play. They seem to really enjoy the time getting to know one another. I actually think that many of them crave the opportunity to relate to one another. To feel like they belong.

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.

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.

 

The 7-Minute Debrief

With eight weeks complete in this school year, I can officially declare writing workshop as the favorite time of the day for most of the students. Lately, it seems like this chunk of time is when our class bonds the most. I’m blessed to have a class of passionate and creative writers this year.

For many of us, the best moment of writing workshop is when it ends.  In other words, the last few minutes of workshop time when my students and I gather on the carpet for what we call “workshop debriefing.” This 5-10 minute conversation between writers is a quick way to build relationships as a writing community. I try to keep this debriefing focused on the writing product as well as the writing process. I usually facilitate our debriefing with three questions:

  • What went well today?
  • What are you heading as a writer next?
  • What did you work on today that we can learn from?

I view this as an opportunity to teach and to assess. I always look forward to this discussion because it provides me with teaching points for the coming days. Plus, the students and I get to hear what everyone is working on. I am noticing that my students are starting to become very helpful to one another as they are always willing to offer feedback.

This past Wednesday was like any other day. It was the end of writing workshop, and my stomach was growling as lunchtime was just a few moments away. I started out the debriefing session by asking each writer to share where they are in their writing process. As they made their way around the circle, I noticed that I had stopped writing down teaching points and “next steps” on my Status Of The Class page.  Instead, I was amazed at how these 10 and 11-year old students were speaking to one another.  They were talking like…writers.

I quickly started jotting down what these young authors were saying.  Here is a sample of what I observed:

  • Josh shared that he was planning out a story with lots of suspense. He had a basic idea for a plot, but he needed to fill in some plot holes.  Nathaniel, who is Josh’s peer editor, suggested looking at Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read: Thriller anthology.  Another boy ran over to his desk and pulled out Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs To Know and gave it to Josh.
  • Abby shared that she was working on some poetry as she held up a few mentor texts I had suggested including poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
  • Chris announced that he had started writing the third episode of “Monkey Attack.”  This announcement was met with a few fist pumps and shouts of “Finally!” from about half of the class. “Looks like you have some fans, Chris,” I said as he shyly chuckled.
  • Hannah shared that she started writing workshop with nothing to write about, so she used Rory’s Story Cubes for some inspiration.  Three other students asked if they could borrow those tomorrow.
  • Ella mentioned how she was mulling over the idea of starting a graphic novel about ferrets.  I steered her towards a book in our classroom library that was about how to design comics, paying particular attention to the pages about when to use wide-angles and close ups.
  • Ahmed, a very reluctant writer, explained how he was writing a script for a book trailer he was going to make for a story he was creating.  A few students offered him help for writing the draft, as they had just finished creating a book trailer themselves.
  • Donya announced that she had finished typing up her biography of Margaret Peterson Haddix, and was starting a poem inspired by the book RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.

All this occurred in about seven minutes. What I had just witnessed was a community of writers helping each other, offering feedback, giving advice, sharing their failures, planning out their writing and asking questions.  For a few moments in the day, these young writers were cherishing this time to share, comment and connect.  Even some of my most reluctant writers had found a topic, audience or genre to pursue.  These seven minutes were special to me because I saw the power of our writing culture.  The writing customs, routines and behaviors we’d worked so hard to develop were on full display.  This group of writers had connected around an appreciation for the writing process.  Yet, none of these young writers had noticed recess had started 4 minutes ago.