Conference of Revolution

“Kids can change the world when they are given the chance.”

These are words from the keynote address of Olivia Van Ledtje, otherwise known as Livbits, that set my very first NCTE conference in motion. It was at this moment, that I knew I was in for something special.

The NCTE conference has always been an event I’ve wanted to attend. Thousands of educators from across the country come to this four-day conference to hear the best and the brightest authors and literacy experts. This year, I was finally one of those thousands. Ralph Fletcher, Donalyn Miller, Jennifer Serravallo, Kylene Beers & Bob Probst are just a few of the many “literacy gurus” that I was ecstatic to see and learn from.

However, I quickly learned that NCTE was much more than just literacy conference. For me, it was a call to arms. I arrived in Houston expecting to gain some strategies and best practices that I could take back to my classroom. Instead, I experienced, among the 7000+ attendees, a collective consciousness of equity, justice, and freedom. I entered NCTE ready for professional evolution. Now, I’m ready for revolution.

I find it virtually impossible to share all the lessons I learned and highlights from the weekend. Instead, I wanted to share some of the most profound moments that have changed my thoughts about my students and my classroom community.

Opening Keynotes
Friday morning began with a series of six youth speakers who shared their stories of how they started raising their voices. After Olivia Van Ledjte started us off with her message about “being for humanity,” we were introduced to Jordyn Zimmerman, a student at Ohio University who had previously been unable to express most of her thoughts verbally. Now, using an iPad, she described her schooling with this, “I was desperately tired of being silenced…Every student should be given a chance. Students should succeed by design, not chance.”

Next came, other youth such as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Marley Dias, and Zephyrus Todd shared their voices that inspired me in so many ways. Yet, when Sara Abou Rashed stepped on stage to perform her poem I Am America, I was profoundly moved. This multilingual poet and author (and student at my alma mater, Denison University), took command of that room and took us to the depths of her soul.

“I am America, oh dear, America, I love you. Even at times when you do not love me…I am not ashamed of you. I am ashamed of what they have made you. America, they do not know you like I do.”

As she walked off stage to thunderous applause, I stood there wiping tears from my eyes completely transported.

I implore you to experience this yourself. You can find a performance here.

Why is Reading Is Important?
This is the question that Kylene Beers asked her fellow panelists Kwame Alexander, Pam Allyn, and Ernest Morrell. What seemed like a simple question turned into a rallying cry to save our democracy. Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Kwamé Alexander – “Reading is a connection with the source. We can access a part of our brain that allows us to imagine what’s possible. TV imagines it for us.”

Pam Allyn – “As a reader, I am changing, but the text itself is permanent. Text is permanence and transience. I can read myself into the world. Reading is about reading yourself into being.”

Ernest Morrell – “Reading provides access to worlds that are beyond your front door. We are lucky to have the texts we have, and reading the master authors…are like Beethoven in words. Reading is an expert describing the human condition.”

Kylene Beers – “If you’re watching something, or listening to an audiobook, what you’re reading is filtered through someone else. Literacy in this country has always been about power and privilege. The person who wrote the words has typically been empowered. Literacy has always been related to power. We are handing that power over to pundits on 1-2 TV stations. Letting them tell us how to think. Our democracy is now about what 4-5 people tell us to think. Reading for information is about saving our democracy.”

How can you listen to this conversation and not be forever changed? How can I not return to my classroom with a new sense of urgency and determination?

Schooling vs. Education
Saturday started off with another general session by Christopher Emdin, New York Times bestseller For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. . . and the Rest of Y’all Too and creator of #HipHopEd. His keynote challenged the audience to rethink and remix our jobs as educators. Christopher Edmin took the entire NCTE audience to church. Every single person in the room was locked into him. As for me, I can honestly say that it was one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Throughout his talk, he floored me with statements such as:

“Our students need to know that the only person better than them is embedded in them.”

“A curriculum that is devoid of the recognition of the genius already in your kids forces kids to perform miracles and resurrect themselves to be present every day. If you don’t recognize that there is genius in me, you will feed me a curriculum that will make me invisible. I will need to perform miracles just be relevant.”

“Be a teacher, not a curriculum follower. Teaching is all about the remix.”

“Our job as educators is to create the conditions to allow for the genius that lies within them to be able to become present.”

Throughout his talk, as my mouth hung agape, I kept thinking returning to this idea that the current construct of “school” and a “classroom” is getting in the way of true education. Emdin states that “our job as educators is to create the conditions to allow for the genius that lies within (our students) to be able to become present.” Is my classroom community getting in the way of the learning? Does our classroom allow my students to feel that they only person better than them is embedded in them?

The theme of this year’s NCTE conference was Raising Student Voice. Having a classroom community is not about rules and structure. Classroom community is about having those difficult conversations. It is about innovation. It is about a disruption of the way it’s always been done to ensure that learning is not impeded by the schooling.

Classroom community is about asking the question to our students: “Am I serving you the way you need to be served?”

No Rules

The start to this school year has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding starts in recent memory. There could be many reasons for this, but I want to believe that a significant cause is that we have no rules in our classroom. That’s right. No. Rules.

A community is more than just a group of people living and working in a common area. It is a group of people who have shared interests, share a set of values and work towards the collective goal. In order for our classroom to be a true community this year, I feel it is necessary to engage students in a discussions about the clear and specific behaviors that would produce the kind of classroom they want. So far this year, our conversations have not been about how students comply and behave for me, but how we behave towards each other. Our behaviors can strengthen or demean our culture. “If you want the classroom to be a positive place, then you have to contribute positive behaviors.”

Over the past few years, my district has spent a great deal of time and professional development days establishing a clear cultural blueprint. Our district calls this the VBO. The VBO establishes a clear set of values, behaviors and outcomes that we want from each student and staff member. Our school district has three values: Stand Up & Own It, Power of the Team and Passion For Growth. These three statements have become a common language throughout our district and school. As students move through grade levels and switch schools, these remain the constant.

In my last blog post, I explained that on the first day of school I asked students to complete the following statement: Our classroom should be ________ every day. My students responded with “happy,” “clean” and “kind.” With that, it was time for students to recognize how Stand Up And Own It, Power Of The Team and Passion For Growth would create a happy, clean and kind classroom community. It is crucial for students to see the connection between the school’s values and our behaviors within our learning space. I wish I could tell you that I planned some fun, collaborative, inquiry-based activity to achieve this. I didn’t. We just talked. And we are still talking. And we will keep talking.

Almost every day for the past six weeks my class and I have shared time and ideas about our classroom community. We finish each day in a circle sharing our highs and lows and playing icebreaker games. My students will tell you some of my favorite questions to ask are:

  • “What worked in our classroom today?”
  • What went well for you?”
  • “How can you do better tomorrow?”

I am finding that making conversations like this part of the daily routine will only strengthen our classroom culture.

For the past few days, my students and I have created a display to summarize our conversations. Borrowing an idea I saw in the classroom of a colleague, Anita Norris, we created the following bulletin board. Each phrase on a sentence strip was suggested by a student. We feel that this clearly reflects what our classroom community holds dear.

IMG_4457

As I said, this has been one of the best starts to a school year I can remember for a long time. Even my principal, on a recent visit to my classroom, mentioned how she could feel a different energy from previous years. Yes, classes have different personalities from year to year. Yet, I firmly believe that taking the time to discuss how our values, behaviors and outcomes are all linked has made a large impact on the success of our learning community.

PS – I lied. We do have rules in my classroom. But only ONE rule.

Absolutely. No. Doritos!

(That’s the subject of another blog post).

My Classroom Is A Mess

There have been so many professional books that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person. Each summer, I try to read two or three professional books because I am always striving to become more knowledgeable and more efficient so I can set up my students to be better learners. These books always make me feel more organized and give me a better handle on what I’m doing.  However, this may sound crazy, but I read a professional book this summer that has made my classroom messy, confusing and cluttered.

Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children in School completely changed the way I view my school, my students and my classroom community. As I finished the last page, I just sat there for a good five minutes pondering what I had just read.  Upon completing this book three days before students arrived in the classroom, I felt compelled to delete my “First Week Of School” folder that was full of lesson plans and activities that I had used for the past few years. With my plans in the trashcan on my laptop, I envisioned a new first week of school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew it had to be different.



“Everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.”

As I sat there staring at a blank computer screen, I knew that the most important time spent in my classroom at the beginning of the year is establishing community norms. I have never been one to have classroom “rules” because I believe this sets students up to think about what they are NOT permitted to do. Shalaby states that schools are traditionally places where “everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.” I don’t want my classroom community to be a place where anybody has to anticipate getting caught.



“Classrooms must be places in which we practice freedom. They must be microcosms of the kind of authentic democracy we have yet to enact outside those walls—spaces for young people, by young people—engaging our youth to practice their power and to master the skills required by freedom.”

Instead of classroom rules, I have always employed “essential agreements” so students have a chance to think about what positive behaviors are essential to our classroom community. Within the first few days, I have always presented these five essential agreements to the students as our classroom bill of rights:

  • We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe.
  • We have the right to be treated with respect.
  • We have the right to speak and be listened to.
  • We have the right to work and learn in a positive supportive learning environment.
  • We have the right to do out best.

“These are the things that your peers may not take away from you,” I always say. We would then have multiple conversations over the first weeks about what these essential agreements do and don’t look and feel like. However, it is now day 6, and I have not introduced these essential agreements because I have decided to start the conversation differently this year.

On the first day of school, I asked the students to think about the following question: Our classroom should be _________ every day. Most students responded with the words like “happy,” “clean,” and “kind.” It seems so simple. Students want a place that makes them feel welcome.

The following day, I continued the conversation by asking a question that left many students perplexed.
What do human beings need in order for us to do our best? After a few minutes of partner talk, we came together to record our thinking. I was delighted at their answers for many reasons. First, every answer was student-centered and did not mention the teacher. Second, their responses exhibit a growth mindset. Persevering, learning from mistakes and being patient all demonstrate the importance of the learning process over the final results or products.

IMG_4199.jpgThe next part of our discussion puts a spotlight on rules. What is a rule? Similar to the previous day, many students had difficulty clearly defining what a rule is. However, students provided some interesting insights into what they understand about rules. At

this point in the conversation, I asked students to ponder if we should have “rules” in our classroom. Most of them agreed that there need to be some boundaries or limits would help them monitor their behavior and make sure the classroom stayed happy and clean.



“He loved the freedom of learning just enough to hate the constraints of schooling.”

This book has forced me to reflect upon the aspects of my classroom culture that are rooted in student compliance. I have always considered our classroom as a place where students have a sense of freedom and choice in their learning. Yet, as I think about daily routines and classroom expectations, I am constantly asking myself, Is this procedure motivated by compliance and teaching students to “do school”? Or does this promote the freedom for students to learn and do their best? Often times, the answer is I don’t know.

I can honestly say that I have no idea where this conversation will lead us. These discussions have left me with more questions than answers.  I guess establishing a free and just society is messy with no clear answers. Yet, what I do know is that our classroom culture is going to be much stronger because of this reflection. I know that our conversation will continue. I hope that all of us will have a better vision of freedom and democracy. I hope that my students will work together to create a learning space that is happy, clean and kind.

Shalaby has made my job much harder! I have not gotten as far with organizing materials and setting routines as I usually have done in previous years. We have not labeled our spiral notebooks yet. Our classroom library is not completely organized. We haven’t finished setting up our iPads. Of course, we will eventually get everything organized and begin with our subject area content. But, for right now, my classroom is a mess.  And that’s just the way I want it.

Was It Enough?

Was it enough?

Do they
Feel
Prepared for middle school?

Do they
Feel
Prepared for life?

Do they
Feel
Physically and emotionally safe?

Do they
Know
Their own potential?

Do they
Know
How much they’ve taught me this year?

Do they
Know
How much I care?

Was it enough?

Will they
Fail?

Will they
Fail
forward?

Will they
Act
With purpose and drive?

Will they
Do
The right thing, even when it’s hard?

Will they
Read
With the same excitement and passion as they do now?

Will they
Write
With the same tenacity and courage as they do now?

Will they
Respect
Everyone’s differences?

Will they
Embrace
Productive discomfort?

Will they
Return
To visit and share their successes?

Was it enough?

Please continue to
Collaborate well.

Please continue to
Use your voice.

Please continue to
See the power of the word “yet”.

Please continue to
Stay curious.

Please continue to
Notice and wonder.

Please continue to
Find your passion.

Was it enough?

Did I
Provide
Books that mirrored their life experience?

Did I
Listen
To them sufficiently?

Did I
Push
Them beyond their comfort zones?

Did I
Empower
Them to own their learning?

Did I
Give
Enough high fives?

Did I
Treat
Them all fairly?

Did I
Tell
Them how proud I am?

Was it enough?

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.