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.

Where Are We Going?: Creating a class mission statement

The Flock is about to finish its fourth week of school.  Our classroom is up and running.  Our daily routines are mostly established. Beginning of the year assessments are nearly complete. Most importantly, our classroom community is continuing to grow and get stronger each day. Spending a great deal of time in the first weeks discussing “Lessons From The Geese” is proving to pay off. My students and I have discussed why we are called The Flock. We’ve discussed how we need to work together, learn from each other, and treat each other as partners on this learning adventure. We are on our way traveling as a community of learners. However, the MOST critical part of our journey can be explained by answer this one very simple question.

Where are we going?

My students and I had spoken a great deal about this learning journey, but it was time to establish a destination.  What is our purpose? What is our goal? I wanted to make sure that my students knew why we come to our classroom every day, other than, “My parents make me” or “because I’m legally obligated to be here.”

I have found that creating a mission statement plays a crucial role in building my classroom community. Bringing students into the creation process empowers them to take more ownership of their learning. A class mission statement can also:

  • Ensure a common language for all students
  • Provide students with a purpose for each lesson and assignment
  • Encourage goal-setting and growth mindset
  • Bring a sense of pride to the classroom

Before we wrote our mission statement, I felt it was important for us to know what a mission statement is, as well as look at examples of mission statements. After clarifying that a mission statement is not when the video game states your new mission on the next level of Call Of Duty, we determined that it is simply a statement of purpose and focus. I shared mission statements from well-known corporations like Apple, Facebook, Amazon and McDonalds. Together we noticed that most mission statements answer these questions: What do the company do? How is the company helping their customers? Why is our company important? I asked students to think at home about how we could answer these same questions for our classroom.

The following day, we gathered on the carpet and one student started our conversation by saying, “we are our own customers. We learn for ourselves.”  Students seemed very impressed with this insight, so I asked them to brainstorm a list of answers to these four questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • How are we going to accomplish it?
  • Why is it important to accomplish this?

Students returned after 10 minutes, and I recorded their answers to each question using Google Docs. After much debate, I asked students to vote for their top two answers for each question.  These top two answers for each question would be used to create our final mission statement.  You can see our brainstorming list and voting process here.

Once voting was complete, our final mission statement was written by simply combining what the students selected.  Here is what we came up with:

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Creating the mission statement was only the first step. Now, it is our job as a community to live by this and make sure that everything we do is an example of our shared mission. I have posted this in our classroom, as well as outside of our classroom door.  Students know that I’ve put a copy of this mission statement into my guest teacher folder, so when I am out of the classroom any substitute teacher will know what we stand for. I have challenged students to always ask themselves how every assignment and project fits with our mission statement. If they can’t see a connection, I encourage them to ask me.

One thing that my students have heard me say is “the nine months of fifth grade is a just one part of your learning journey.”  Our life as a learner is a long, gradual adventure with many stops along the way. Perhaps that’s why “The Flock” metaphor has become the cornerstone of my classroom community. We’re all going to be in the classroom together every day for nine months. So we might as well go on this learning journey together with a common destination. I hope that our mission statement inspires a community mindset and empowers students to support each other along the way.

Lessons From The Geese

I had a completely different post ready to go for today. However, I was inspired to write this new post because of a letter I received this morning from a former student. 

Today is day three of school, and I’m standing at my classroom door ready to greet my new fifth graders. I see one of them, Marta, turn the corner. She’s walking briskly down the hallway with an arm extended in front of her. Marta approaches me and says, “Good morning. Stick out your hand please.”  Uncertain of what’s about to happen, I do as she requests.  Into my hand falls a carefully folded piece of paper. Thankful that it’s just paper and not something worse, I open the paper and read.  It’s a letter from Marta’s brother, Diego, who was in my class two years ago. The letter reads:

Dear Mr. Jones,

Hi, It’s Diego.  I am in seventh grade now, but you probably already know that.  Or maybe you don’t. I like seventh grade. My teachers are nice. I’m really glad that my sister is in your class.  Now, she get’s (sic) to learn about The Flock.  I loved being in The Flock because I learned about thinking of other people.

Your friend,
Diego

This simple gesture made me realize that one of my former students appreciated being a member of our classroom community so much that he wanted his sister to have the same experience.

“The Flock” is an idea I was introduced to as a teenager when a coach used it during a pep talk. It originates from a piece of writing called Lessons From The Geese, which describes the science behind why a flock of geese flies in a V-formation. You can find this piece of writing here. I use these facts about the migratory patterns of geese to start off the year with a series of conversations about respect, collaboration, ownership and kindness. I guess I think of this piece of writing as a mentor text that becomes the framework for our classroom culture.

These lessons can be applied to any group, and I’ve found that they work perfectly for initiating the discussion about our classroom norms. We begin by reading Lessons From The Geese as a class. Students work in small groups to make comparisons of how geese work as a team and how students work together in a classroom. We revisit these lessons almost daily during the first weeks of school. My goal is to ensure that students have a strong understanding of this metaphor and how it relates to our work in the classroom.

Here is the list of facts, followed by how these facts can be used to build the culture in a classroom:

FACT: By flying in a V-formation, the whole flock adds around 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.
LESSON: If we are part of a learning community that has a common purpose or direction, then we will be more successful in meeting their learning goals and making improvements.  Our behaviors will affect our classmates.

FACT: Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go through it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the power of the flock.
LESSON: It is important that we work together, collaborate, learn from each other and share ideas.  If we do these things, each person will reach their goals easier than if they try to do it alone.  We must trust the power of the team.

FACT: When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose takes over.
LESSON: The teacher will not always be the leader. We must share ownership of our classroom community. We all need to be responsible for our own learning.  We should always stand up and own our behavior.  Also, our community must remain strong even when there is a guest teacher in the classroom.

FACT: Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep their speed.
LESSON: Our communication with one another needs to be positive and supportive. We are all here for the same reason, and we need to be respectful to everyone. We need to give each other feedback that is constructive and helpful.

FACT: When a goose gets sick or is wounded and falls out of formation, two geese fall out of the formation and follow the injured one down to help and protect it.
LESSON: It is important for us to work together, but we also need to care about each other. We should look out for each other and support each other when someone is feeling down. Every single student should feel physically and emotionally safe in our classroom community.

Our series of discussions in the first weeks of school culminates with each Flock member, including me, writing a paragraph answering questions such as: “How will YOU contribute to the Flock this year?” or “Which lesson from the geese means the most to you?” In years past, students answered this question by writing their answer on a goose outline glued to construction paper. I then hung these paper geese from the ceiling in a V-formation after school, so the next morning students would come in surprised to see our Flock on display. Unfortunately, my local fire marshal has smothered that idea.

After a few weeks of daily conversations to start the year, it’s time for The Flock to take flight. Even though our discussions about this metaphor decrease, I try to weave it into our daily routine as much as I can. I don’t address the group by saying “Ok, boys and girls…” Instead, I say, “Listen up, Flock members!”  We have daily Flock meetings where we sit in a circle (more conducive to discussions than a “V”) to reflect on our goals and evaluate the day. Our class Twitter, Instagram and website all are titled “The Flock.” I feel an important part of any strong community is a shared vision along with common language.  For me, “The Flock” is what provides these things. My students grow to love the fact that we are the only class in the school with a name. They also learn that once you are in The Flock, you are always in The Flock.

Eight years ago, I will never forget when a student shared this idea about the flock at one of our daily meetings. She said that a flock of geese and a class of students are similar because they are both on a journey.  Geese are in a v-formation on a journey for food and warmth and a flock of students is on a journey of learning.  As teachers, we want to create an environment where their journey is a success. I hope that “The Flock” gives my students a sense of community that will make their learning journey easier. I hope “The Flock” motivates them to think of others before they think of themselves. I hope “The Flock” allows them to go on their journey through fifth grade with sense of purpose and a passion for growth. Diego’s letter gives me hope that it does.

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photo credit: pecooper98362 Where The Wild Geese Go via photopin (license)

Start At The Bottom

It’s not every day that you have an epiphany while sipping tea in a cafe in Seville, Spain.  Yet, that is what happened to me two years ago.  I sat there watching the world pass by over the rim of my mug and thought about how I was experiencing this rich, vibrant Spanish way of life — paella, flamenco dancing, beautiful cathedrals, incredible artwork and lively music.  The food, clothing, language, art and music were the first things I thought about when considering this different culture.  

After a few more sips of tea, I thought about some other cultural differences I had experienced.  For example, it’s typical in Spain to eat lunch between 2-3pm followed by dinner around 9-10pm.  Also, siesta is no joke; many businesses close between 2-5pm for a post-lunch rest.  These were not things I could immediately observe; yet, they were just as much a part of Spanish culture.  Perhaps they were even more important.  At that moment, it occurred to me that I had only been thinking about the physical, observable traits of Spanish culture.  There is so much more to consider than just the art, dancing and food.  My a-ha moment: there are observable and unobservable aspects of any culture.

Can I consider my classroom a culture?

Do I need to spend more time focusing on the less visible aspects of my classroom community?

Do the daily routines and physical space of the classroom accurately reflect what I value about teaching and learning?  

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There is this idea that culture is like an iceberg. When you look at an iceberg, you are only looking at about 10% of the entire ice mass. When we say culture is evident by clothing, music, food and art–we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg.  We are only noticing a small piece of a much larger whole.  The other 90% is deep below the water line.  This other 90% of the iceberg is intangible—the parts that we don’t always see immediately, but lie below the surface.  The power of the bottom 90% comes from the fact that this hidden part informs and influences how people speak and behave.  Like an iceberg, there are parts of our classroom communities that we can see, touch and describe easily (our routines, desk arrangement, wall decorations, anchor charts, classroom library, etc.)  However, there are also many deeply rooted ideas in a classroom, and being mindful of these intangible values, attitudes and beliefs is what can elevate a community of learners.

At the beginning of each school year, I start at the bottom.  I contemplate the 90% below the surface.  I don’t cover the walls. I don’t arrange the desks. I don’t make name tags.  Before any of that, I have to take time and consider these questions:

  • What values, beliefs and norms do I want my classroom culture to revolve around?
  • How can I instill these into my students so they can be active learners and citizens in our classroom culture?
  • Do the classroom routines and daily practices we establish (i.e. the top 10%) demonstrate our core beliefs and values (i.e. the bottom 90%)?

I strive for a classroom to not be just a physical place, but a culture of its own.  I hope that anyone who steps into our physical classroom space–students, parents, administrators, and guests–can feel a classroom culture of learners who:

  • have a growth mindset,
  • own their learning,
  • critically think,
  • give feedback,
  • take academic risks,
  • have choice and voice in their learning, and
  • treat others kindly.

With this in mind, I have to think about how I can instill these into my students.  I know these are not just activities that we can do in the first few weeks of school.  These are year-long pursuits that become part of our daily routine.  Here are brief descriptions of 3 ways that I try to create a culture of active learning, all of which I will write about in future posts:

1) The Flock – For the past 12 years, I have used this piece of writing as the foundation for my classroom culture. My students think it is really cool that we are the only class with a name. Not a day goes by that I don’t refer to this metaphor. We have daily Flock meetings to share highs/lows of the day, create class goals, and resolve any issues that come up. Each student also has a paper bird that hangs from our ceiling with a statement of intent of how they will contribute to our Flock. I also tell students that once they are in The Flock, they are always in The Flock. My hope is that students know that they are part of a team, where the success of one student makes it easier for the others.

2) Essential Agreements – We start the year introducing five essential agreements. We talk at length about how these are more than just our classroom rules. They are our 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 and supportive learning environment.
  • We have the right to do out best.

We spend a great deal of time discussing what each of these five agreements means and what they look like in the class. We act out skits and make long lists. This conversation doesn’t stop after the first week. It continues to be the main focus of our classroom culture.

3) Mission Statement – In the first week of school, the class and I spend time creating a 1-2 sentence mission statement that states our purpose for coming to class every day. It is posted in the classroom and referred to frequently. A few years back, I had a student say we should have a copy posted outside our classroom door, so our guests know what we stand for. Since then, our mission statement has been posted on our door every year.

Reading the previous posts on this Classroom Communities website has already helped me look beyond the surface-level, top 10% of the iceberg, and focus on creating a culture that goes deep.  I have learned that without a strong classroom culture, learning may not always take place.  I hope the classroom community to which my students and I belong empowers students to sustain a culture where learning, collaboration, risk-taking and mutual respect is paramount.  That might not be something you can see or touch, but bottom 90% is powerful nonetheless.  Remember, the bottom 90% is what sunk the Titanic.

 

photo credit: jeffmikels deep cover graphic base via photopin (license)