Building Relationships in the Wilderness

This is my view from work today.

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It’s incredible, awe-inspiring, and beautiful.  Hartley Outdoor Education Center sits on 300 acres of hardwood forest.  It includes a pond, wetlands, historic coal mine, several original log cabins, and the Fowler one-room school house.  It is an educational staple in the Great Lakes Bay area in Michigan.  The three day, two night trip our fourth graders take every year is one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.  I don’t remember much about my own time in elementary school, but 28 years later I still remember every detail about Hartley.  I am fortunate that I am able to return every year with our fourth graders.  Hartley is so much more than just a nature center. It is an experience. It is an opportunity to truly get to know the students in your building in a way only an overnight trip can provide.  Hartley is the trip that turns your class into your family.

It starts with teamwork and collaboration.  The Confidence Course is one of four sessions that the students complete during their time at Hartley.  The students have to work together to complete a maze while blindfolded, build a log cabin with timbers, cross a moat on a rope swing, and find a way over a ten foot wall.  Regardless of how athletic or smart you are, these tasks cannot be completed without teamwork.  It never fails.  The students always struggle at first.  They struggle to listen to each other.  They struggle to take turns.  They struggle to get past the first obstacle.  Just when they seem to be at their breaking point, they come together.  The listen to each other.  They divide the tasks and share responsibilities.  They complete obstacle after obstacle TOGETHER.  You can almost see them becoming more kind and more empathetic right before your eyes.  Although the tasks are hard, they make success even that much sweeter.

One of my favorite things to do at Hartley is watch the students during free time after the confidence course.  They are not in their “normal” friend groups.  Everyone is talking to everyone.  Everyone is playing with everyone.  The relationship between the students has changed.  They are not classmates anymore.  They are family.  They forget about who is a rock star in math and who is the best soccer player.  It doesn’t matter who has the coolest clothes or the biggest house.  These people are your friends because they helped you across the moat, they encouraged you to swing when you were too scared to let your tiptoes leave the plank, and they believed in you and supported you.  These new qualities are so much more important than any of the previous status symbols.

Another session at Hartley is the outdoor survival course.  This course is built around the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  Hatchet is one of my personal all time favorite books.  I read it when I did my student teaching in 4th grade, and it was the book that turned me into an avid reader.  The students, just like Brian in the book, have to learn to survive in the outdoors.  They build a shelter, start a fire, and devise strategies for finding food.  

Students spend almost the entire three days at Hartley outdoors.  They learn to appreciate nature and embrace its beauty.  Hartley is more than just an outdoor experience for students.  It is the first step towards independence for most students.  

For many students, Hartley is the first experience away from home without family. It’s the first time they are responsible for cleaning tables, serving food, and scrubbing the bathroom floor.  They gain a new appreciation for keeping the floor clean as they are responsible for vacuuming.  Hartley challenges students to be brave.  It challenges them to be problem-solvers, collaborators, and good teammates.  It scaffolds them toward independence.

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Hartley is an exhausting three day trip.  The fresh air tires you out and with 90 students in the dorms, you get very little sleep.  However, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  I am so thankful I am able to attend this educational experience every year with my students.  This year in particular is truly special for me.  As I look out the window one more time, I see my son’s group approaching.  They are back from their trip to the confidence course.  I get a little teary eyed typing this because I know his time in elementary school is rapidly coming to an end.  He is not the scared kindergartener that grabbed my hand walking to the door.  He’s the young man that helped his team navigate through a maze while blindfolded.   He’s having the time of his life. Thank you, Hartley Outdoor Education Center, for providing him and countless other students memories that will last a lifetime.

The Book Buzz: Promoting a Reading Culture by Letting Students Shine

Unintended consequences can be powerful.  They are probably the best thing about a new project.  You begin with an ending in mind, only to find that some of the best parts are those you never even dreamed of at the beginning of the project.  That’s exactly what happened with The Book Buzz.  

This year our entire school decided to participate in Jillian Heise’s #classroombookaday project.  Every classroom would dedicate time everyday to read a picture book aloud to students.  As a staff, we brainstormed books to share, built fun bulletin boards to track our reading, and educated parents about the benefits of this initiative.  I struggled to figure out how I could best participate as the principal of the building.  During the first two weeks of school, I took time to visit each classroom as a guest reader to help promote #classroombookaday.  I told students that I was excited that they were taking time each day to read a picture book and that I planned to read a picture book every day as well.  I even turned my office door into a giant grid where I would add the cover of the book I read each day so the students could see my progress.  Even after all these efforts, it felt like something was missing.  It felt more like I was participating alongside the students than with them.   That’s when the idea for The Book Buzz hatched.

I am always looking for new ways to build relationships with students.  It’s the part that I miss most about being in the classroom.  As a classroom teacher, you spend 8 hours a day with your students.  You know their wishes, their dreams, their fears, and their stories.  As a principal, it’s just not possible to have this same relationship with every student in the school.  However, I have never stopped trying.  My original idea for The Book Buzz was pretty simple.  I would talk to a student each day about a book they enjoyed during #classroombookaday, we would film it, and post it to YouTube.  I didn’t know anything about having a YouTube channel, other than my two boys spent an unbelievable amount of time watching a British guy with cool hair play Minecraft for hours each week.  Although I didn’t totally get it, I knew YouTube was a big deal to kids.  

After reaching out to a couple of colleagues and watching several YouTube tutorials on how to create a YouTube channel (none done by any British guys with cool hair), I was ready to begin.  I knew I wanted a short musical opening with pictures to introduce the show each day.  This was really easy to create in imovie.  I snapped a couple pictures from around the school, uploaded them to imovie, added a preloaded theme song, and the intro was complete.  Although this took time initially, it became much easier with each new try as imovie allows you to easily save the intro and add it to another video with one simple click.  

For the first episode, I asked the fifth grade teachers to recommend a student that really loved one of the #classroombookaday books that had been shared so far this year.  I made sure I had a copy of the book the student wanted to share, asked them to bring their independent reading book as well, and had the parents sign a permission slip for filming and publishing.  Within 20 minutes, the first episode was up and live for the world to see.

Now, it’s important to understand what The Book Buzz is and what The Book Buzz is not.  

The Book Buzz is not:

  • It is not a professionally recorded show.  We don’t have an expensive camera (I use my ipad) and we don’t have high tech microphones (although we are trying to find a way to improve the volume).  
  • It is not rehearsed ahead of time.  I have the student reread the story right before filming so it is fresh in their mind, and I usually ask them their favorite part immediately before filming.  That’s it.  
  • It is not a show with a lot of editing.  We usually film one take and leave our stumbles and mistakes for the world to see.  The goal is not to be perfect, the goal is to be genuine.  

The Book Buzz is:

  • It is so much more than I ever imagined when I first had the idea to start the series.  Originally I intended it to be another way to build the reading culture in our building.  Kids talking about books and sharing recommendations.  
  • It is a way for me to be more involved in the #classroombookaday initiative.  
  • It is an opportunity for kids to have an authentic way to talk about books.  

I knew they would think filming a YouTube show was cool and fun.  However, it ended up being so much more.  One of my favorite parts of starting any new project are the unintended consequences, those things that happen by accident that you didn’t plan for or imagine.  Unintended consequences are the cream in the Oreo for me.

My favorite unintended consequence from The Book Buzz is how The Book Buzz became one of my best relationship building tools with students.  I love that I have 20 minutes carved out every day that I spend one-on-one with a different student. We always spend the first 5 minutes just talking, sometimes about books but most of the time just about what is going on in his or her life.  It’s been awesome.  I have also noticed that I am having more meaningful conversations in the hallways, at lunch, or on the playground with the students that film on The Book Buzz.  It has also been a great relationship building tool with parents.  Just about every parent that has had their child film an episode has emailed or called to say how excited their child was to film the episode and that they appreciated their child being given the opportunity.  

I knew The Book Buzz was going to have a positive effect on the reading culture in our building.  However, I completely underestimated the effect.  I never imagined that students would subscribe to the channel and watch the videos that didn’t feature themselves. I always ask the kids before filming if they have ever watched an episode of The Book Buzz and almost every student has responded, “Yes.  I watch them every day when I get home.”  I was amazed to hear how many teachers were showing the episodes in class as a book talk for a book they wanted to “bless” in their classroom. 

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The final unintended consequence from The Book Buzz and probably the most important was how it gave students a chance to shine simply by being themselves.  They were so excited to share their episode with family, friends, and other students.  I knew The Book Buzz was a success when I overheard a conversation in the hallway:  

“I loved your Book Buzz video.  It was so good.  I think it is going to go viral.”  

The featured student had the biggest smile on her face and replied,

“Aww. Thank you.  I feel like a YouTube star.”   

The Book Buzz isn’t a fancy production.  It has low sound quality at times and we often stumble over our words.  But it’s perfect to me.  It gives me a chance everyday to spend time, one-on-one with a student.  It gives me a chance everyday to build a better relationship with a student.  It gives me a chance everyday to focus on the most important part of my school: the students.  Most of all, it gives those students a chance to shine, everyday by simply being themselves.

“BE U x 2” – Peter Reynolds

You can watch an episode of The Book Buzz by clicking on the picture below:

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If you would like to start a similar project in your building, please feel free to email jcbailey@stcs.org.  I am happy to answer any questions or share any materials I have created for the project.

Bringing School Home: Our Seesaw Story

Amazing things are happening every day in our classrooms. I realized early on, however, that parents rarely hear about these amazing things.  Parents see only what we send them.  In their minds, the classroom is often a reflection of what shows up in the take home folder each night.  This is often a poor representation of what happens during the day.  We knew we needed a better way.  We needed an easy, quick way to share what was happening in the classroom.  How could we do this?  That question led us to find Seesaw.  Seesaw has been one of our strongest relationship building tools with parents.   We knew parents would love seeing what was happening each day.  We are fortunate to have two Seesaw ambassadors in our school, Jennifer Moeller and Kelly Hendrick.  They have volunteered to collaborate on this post to share how Seesaw is used to build relationships with parents in their classrooms.

Jennifer Moeller, Kindergarten Teacher:

I first used Seesaw in my classroom two years ago, but last year I can honestly say that I used it almost every single day.  I asked myself daily, “what part of our school day can I show parents?”  I uploaded pictures of the children playing, eating, working, singing, exercising, and the list goes on.

It wasn’t until one father reached out to me that I really understood what an impact this app was having with families. When he and I met for fall conferences, he told me a very personal story of how his wife had passed away a couple years ago.  As a result, he was raising his two young children on his own while finishing his last year of medical school. He broke into tears as he told me how much he appreciated me sending pictures of what was happening in the classroom, as he was not able to volunteer and see for himself.  I had his oldest child in my class and this was the first of his two children to go off to kindergarten to be independent all day. This was his way of being connected to her at school and I could help him to be connected.  I could tell that he had viewed the pictures within minutes of me sending them because he would always “like” them by adding a heart.

To my surprise, he nominated me for a B.L.O.C.K. award that spring.  This award is given by my district each year to staff that portray Benevolent Leaders Of Creativity and Knowledge. His letter was heartfelt and it expressed how much he loved and appreciated the connection I gave him by seeing the inside of our classroom each day.  Although I did not win the award that spring, I did win in the end. I know that what I’m doing with Seesaw in my classroom has a powerful connection with my students and their families because of this one child and her dad.

Kelly Hendrick, Third Grade Teacher:

As a teacher, I am constantly asking myself, “What else…?”  

-What else can I do to help my students learn?  

-What else can I do to help include my parents in our classroom days?  

-What else can I do to better myself as a teacher?  

Well, a few years back, I found a FREE classroom app that answered many of those questions…that app was Seesaw.  

At first, I used Seesaw to post photos of our classroom and pictures of the students hard at work.  But again, I found myself asking, “What else can I do with this amazing resource I have at my fingertips?”   I started posting glimpses of student work and locker art.  The parents were loving it!  They really felt as though they were a part of our classroom day by seeing their children’s accomplishments.

As time went on, I realized that I wanted this experience to be as interactive as possible, so my Seesaw entries took a turn in that direction.  One day, I posted our “Problem of the Day” for the parents to solve and their participation was through the roof.  The students went home that night with the answers in their heads while the parents were able to also talk and share their own experience in solving the same problem.  What a fun way to bring the classroom to life for everyone!

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The other thing I realized was that our classroom anchor charts hold valuable trinkets of information to help parents feel connected to our current learning, so I started posting those for reference as well.  Students and parents could use them as a guide and resource at home or in the car – wherever it was convenient.  Technology can be a beautiful thing!
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The list could go on and on regarding the other opportunities I have found to interactively include parents into our school day, but a few of my personal favorites are video recorded “Book Talks,” links to Educreation “Book Trailers” made by students, and live recordings of students reading aloud.  These are just some of the “non-traditional” ways to communicate all of the awesome things we do in the classroom with parents who always want to know and see more.  

I will undoubtedly continue to ask the “What else?” question as the days and years go on, but I really feel like I’ve hit the classroom jackpot with this learning journal app.

 

Tell Your Story

During a conference four years ago, educational leader Colby Sharp said, “If we don’t tell our story, who will?”  I still think about this question all the time.  We live in a time where teachers get blamed for everything.  We are bombarded with a false narrative that public education is failing.  It’s not.  However, we do need to do a better job telling our story.  We need to do a better job telling it to community members.  We need to do a better job telling it to legislators.  And we need to do a better job telling it to parents.  Seesaw has been a powerful tool for telling our story.  Amazing things are happening every day in our classrooms.

 

This article was collaboratively written by Jennifer Moeller, Kelly Hendrick, and Jim Bailey

Kelly Hendrick is a 3rd grade teacher at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, MI.  She loves connecting with her students each year and learning about their favorite things.  She has a husband, Trace, and two of her own children, Liam (6) and Ellie (3).  She loves to golf with her family and browse Barnes and Noble with her kids who MAY have been known to put on an impromptu puppet show in the children’s section from time to time 🙂  You can follow her on Twitter @kel2orange

Jennifer Moeller is a kindergarten teacher at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, MI. She loves getting to know her students and building positive relationships with them and their families that last for years. She has a husband, Nate, and two children, Sadie (8) and Sam (7). As a family they love to spend time together watching movies, taking weekend trips up north, and just being outside. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @jenmoeller33

Building Relationships in Unexpected Ways: The Story of Recess Baseball Club

I love baseball.  The kind of love that includes things like subscribing to three different baseball podcasts, coaching two Little League teams, and having every Baseball Prospectus from the past ten years.  I own enough Detroit Tigers shirts that I could wear one every single day of the month without repeating.   I love baseball so much that the most surprising part of this story might be how long it took me to realize that sharing my passion with students would be one of my best relationship building tools.

Recess Baseball Club started simply enough.  Two years ago I found myself bored monitoring the playground during recess time.  My baseball glove, bat, and ball were in my car from Little League practice the night before.  I grabbed four frisbees for bases and headed out to the open grass area on the playground.  I yelled to the students, “Does anyone want to play baseball?”  A mob of students ran over and we spent the rest of the recess playing baseball.  Not a bad way to pass the time.  

I was surprised the next day when a dozen or so kids showed up to lunch with baseball gloves.  “We can’t wait to play baseball today,” one of them said to me.  I guess we are playing baseball again, I thought to myself.  At the end of recess while picking up the bases, one of the first grade students approached me.  As the principal of the building, I unfortunately knew him well after several trips to the office.  He thanked me for playing baseball with him during recess and told me he loves baseball too.  He told me that when he goes to his grandma’s house, he even gets to watch the Tigers.  He also told me he wishes he could watch them at his own house but his mom doesn’t own a TV.  During our conversation, I learned about his rough home life and the struggles he faces every day.  Baseball became a way for me to reach him.

Recess baseball club continued to grow and each day I had more students heading out to the field to play ball.  We eventually ended up with so many kids that wanted to play that I had to rotate which grades got to play each period.  A couple of local businesses heard about the program and asked if they could do anything to support the program.  They donated money to buy baseball gloves, balls, and real bases-no more frisbees.  I was surprised one day when the fire inspector called and asked if he could come play some day.  He was guest pitcher the next week and the reaction was priceless.  The kids were so excited to see Firefighter Brian on the ball field.  We plan to invite more community leaders out this year to join us as guest pitchers.  The possibilities for the program are endless.

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The Recess Baseball Club had unintended positive consequences that I never could have imagined when I first grabbed the bat and ball from my car.  First, the number of office referrals during recess had dramatically decreased and misbehavior had almost completely disappeared.  The students were too engaged and having too much fun to misbehave.  

Recess Baseball Club was great for building community in the school and allowing leadership opportunities for students that didn’t always have the opportunity to lead in the classroom.  Like most students, my students can be very competitive.  We set very clear expectations early on about expected behavior during Recess Baseball Club.  The #1 rule of Recess Baseball Club was to have fun by developing a love of baseball.  I intentionally pulled aside my travel baseball players at the beginning for a special role in Recess Baseball Club.  They were going to be the most enthusiastic supporters of kids that have never played before.  I loved the time I spent with them talking about how they could encourage others and how they could use their great skills at baseball to help me “coach” the kids playing for the first time.  One of my favorite moments of the year was watching one of most competitive students consoling a student after he made an error that cost his team the game.  In the past, this particular student would have been the first student to yell at a teammate for blowing the game.  Now, because he was trusted to be a leader, he showed the compassion we hope for our students.

Another thing I noticed was that baseball was starting to spread to the classroom.  Nicol Howald, one of my amazing teachers, asked if I had any favorite baseball books that she could add to her library because the kids were suddenly interested in reading about baseball.  The students passed around copies of The Boy Who Saved Baseball by John Ritter, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane, and Baseballogy by Kevin Sylvester.  The fifth grade teachers invited me in to teach a sabermetrics lesson during math class.  We proved that sacrifice bunting was dumb and learned how to calculate run expectancy.  I was able to connect with kids about baseball.

 

Make no mistake though, this is not a story about a baseball program.  This is a story about opening up and sharing our personal passions with our students to help relationships flourish.  Be real.  Allow your students to see the real you.  Share the things you are passionate about with them and learn about the things they are passionate about.  Strong relationships begin to form when we take the time to really get to know each other.

Five Easy Ways to Positively Engage Parents

Some days feel harder than others.  When I have a rough day at school, I make time to walk around and observe random acts of kindness in my school.  I see a student pick up a pencil after it rolls off a classmate’s desk, another student ask a classmate sitting on the Buddy Bench to come play, and another student recommend a book to a friend.  It warms my heart to see this kindness.  I make notes of my observations in my little notebook and head back to my office.  My rough day immediately feels smoother and my negativity melts away after I call parents and share stories of their child’s kindness.  It is one quick and easy way to be intentional about building relationships between parents and the school.  

Developing positive relationships with parents is essential to helping students reach their full potential.  Here are five simple ways I am intentional about building and nurturing positive relationships with parents.

Call Home with Positive News

Making positive phone calls is one of the easiest and most effective strategies for building positive relationships with parents.  I use this strategy in two main ways in my school.  

The first way is to call the families of new transfer students after two weeks of enrollment.  My goals are twofold here.  I want to check in and see how our school is working for them.  Students that transfer during the school year are often leaving a bad experience at another school.  Not only does this phone call help me get a read on how their school experience is going so far, but it also helps me build rapport.  I want them to feel comfortable reaching out to me if they have questions or concerns.  Those that know me well know that I enjoy making others happy.  This carries over to my ‘day job.’  I read hundreds of positive comments on our school survey yet still obsess over the one negative comment.  My goal is that every member of our school community be happy and proud of our school.  A positive first interaction with parents helps in reaching this goal.

Positive phone calls home that are specific to one child, similar to the type I described earlier, are those that I especially enjoy.  I try to use this strategy as often as possible.  I have used this approach often as both a classroom teacher and principal.  I will never forget the parent reaction the first time I called with positive news.  I have sadly seen similar reactions time and time again.  I can hear the nervousness in the parent’s voice the second they say hello.  I say, “Hello.  This is Mr. Bailey from Hemmeter Elementary.  I wanted to give you a call to tell you about something that happened with Brian today on the playground.  Brian befriended a student who was lonely by talking to her and spending the rest of his recess playing catch with her.  I was so impressed by his compassion.  Brian is such a positive role model, and I am so happy to have him in my class this year.”  Based on the long pause, I could clearly tell the parent was confused.  

She said, “OK.  Is there anything else?”

A little disappointed I said, “Nope.  I just wanted to let you know how proud I was of Brian and what he did today.”

Suddenly I heard a gasp for breath, a shaky voice, and heavy sobs.  “No one has ever told me anything good about my child.  The only time a teacher or the school has ever called was when he was in trouble.  Thank you, Mr. Bailey.  Your phone call made my day.  I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.  Good bye and thank you.”

It makes me sad to think that parents don’t hear positive news about their children.  How can we expect to have strong relationships with parents if we only call when there is a problem?  This one interaction completely changed my relationship with that parent.  She knew I took the time to see good in her son.  She knew I was on her side.  She knew I cared about her child.  We were now partners.

Using Social Media to Build Parent Relationships

Twitter and Snapchat may be the preferred platform for our students, but Facebook is still king with parents.  Most parents have a Facebook account and will engage with school if you use it to your advantage.  From a marketing perspective, a public Facebook page can be great for your school. However, for purposes of building relationships with parents, I prefer a private group.  We have a very active private Facebook page for our school.  The Facebook page is not only a place for parents to ask questions about the school but also a place I can give parents an inside look into the school and promote the awesome things that are taking place.  With a private page, I can share videos and pictures from the school without having to worry too much about individual privacy.  Parents love this!  I have received more positive feedback about pictures and videos on Facebook than anything else.  The other thing I love about the Facebook page is it allows me to interact with parents in an informal way.  While still being professional, I can be a little more myself on Facebook.  I post funny memes or amusing stories.  I post my Christmas card to the parents.  This helps remind them that I am just a normal person.  I am not the big, bad, scary principal.  Parents tell me all the time that they are scared to come talk to the principal because it brings up bad memories from their childhood.  However, they feel comfortable coming to me because I seem more like a ‘normal person.’  I’m not sure my close friends and family would consider me ‘normal’ by any stretch, but I think what parents have the opportunity to see is something most principals hide: their personality.  I am always professional in my posts, but I am also fun.  Yes.  Principals can be fun.

Coffee Talks

The idea behind a coffee talk is simple.  I want to give parents an informal, comfortable setting to ask questions and talk about the school.  The coffee talks are held 2-3 times per year and last for approximately 45 minutes.  I provide coffee and donuts and start by sharing a couple of events currently happening in the school.  However, a majority of the time is spent just having a discussion that is driven by the parents.  Although I keep a few topics ready in my back pocket, it doesn’t take long for parents to see this is a safe, honest environment.  A number of new initiatives in the school have come out of conversations that started in this coffee talk setting.  We have added a salad bar to our lunch offering and changed several modes of communication based on the feedback I received from these meetings.  Coffee talks are a great way for parents to have a voice in the school.  Plus, who doesn’t love free coffee and donuts.

Parent Book Clubs

I started this idea a few years ago and it has led to some great conversations and strong bonds formed with the parents that participated.  I have used a variety of books but usually try to find something that connects to an initiative at school but also has some educational application.  The first book we used was The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.  This book worked perfectly for the parent book club.  It was interesting and aligned with our core mission of building a reading culture. We had great discussions about the importance of read alouds and the research that supports this practice.  We were able to correct common misconceptions, such as ‘once your child is old enough to read, you should stop reading aloud’ and ‘graphic novels aren’t real reading.’  The conversations spread outside of our book club as well.  A number of parents said they were unable to attend the book club meetings but were still reading the book.  It was a positive, powerful experience.   We have also read Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley, and Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.   

Family Nights

Family nights are not new in education.  Most schools have curriculum nights and open houses.  We have those things as well, but we have also made a conscious effort to have more than just informational nights for parents.  We want opportunities for families to come together and just have fun.  My favorite family event of the year was our “One Book Reading and Art Show.”  We invited all families to read Pink is for Blobfish by Jess Keating.  Then families created an art piece together based on the book or their favorite animal.  In an attempt to encourage creativity, we gave very little guidance or direction in creating the art.  We had over 150 families participate in the art show and the artwork was incredible!  We had paintings of blobfish, photographs of wild animals, and clay turtles.  Families told me how much fun they had working together to build the art piece for the show and reading the book.  Skyping with Jess Keating was the perfect ending to the event.  

Another new family event we added this year was family board game night.  Board games are a great way for families to spend quality time together.  Although we contracted with a local company that brought in the board games, you could easily have families bring their own games.  Families spent the next two hours playing games.  The feedback was tremendous.  At Hemmeter, we often talk about our school as one big family.  This event helped reinforce that goal.  It was another great opportunity to connect and bond with parents.

I have heard several principals and teachers joke, “The kids are great, it’s the parents who ruin the job.”  I am thankful to be in a school where this is not the case.  This doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes work to build relationships.  In order for a school to be successful, we have to be intentional about nurturing relationships with all of our stakeholders. I can honestly say parents, students, and educators are all working together at Hemmeter.

Building Relationships as a Principal Through Reading

Six years ago I decided to leave my 5th grade classroom that had been my home for eleven years to become principal of the building.  I was excited for this new learning journey and challenge.  I couldn’t wait!  Then the job started, and I was miserable.  I was overwhelmed with paperwork and found myself stuck in my office more and more.  I would go days without having a meaningful conversation with a student.  The first question people would always ask me was, “Do you miss the classroom?”  I would reply, “Yes.  It is quite a bit different but I really am enjoying the new challenge.”  It wouldn’t have been appropriate to share my real thoughts. Yes, I miss it.  This new job sucks!  I spend the whole day filling out paperwork, listening to boring webinars, and attending three-hour meetings that could have been four line emails.  I spend the whole day on the phone listening to vendors pitch their stupid, test prep software or parents complain because they had to wait three minutes in the drop off line because someone got out of their car.  I spend the whole day managing the building instead of leading it.  I spend the whole day away from kids.  This new job sucks!  I had made up my mind, I was one and done as principal.  However, I had to find a way to survive the year.  I thought back to what I loved about being a classroom teacher.  It was the students and the relationships we developed over the course of the year.  The relationships I formed with my students always started with books.  It was time to apply that principle to being principal.  

Reading with Students

One of my favorite parts of the day as a classroom teacher was free choice independent reading.  I would spend the majority of the time conferring with students, but always set aside time at the end to read with my class.  I wanted them to see me as a reader and this provided a great model.  Also, I knew I needed to read a lot of books if I was going to make recommendations for them.  I decided I was going to start doing this as principal.  I blocked out 20 minutes on my calendar every day to read independently during the school day.  We added two big, comfy chairs in front of the office and some days I would use these to read.  Other days I would find out when a class was doing independent reading and ask if I could join them.  The practice immediately paid dividends.  The first day a student came up to me and said, “I saw you were reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.  That is my favorite book.  Did you know there is another Joey Pigza book?”  We spent the next 5 minutes talking about our love for Joey Pigza.  At that point, it was my favorite five minutes as principal.  

Classroom Book Talks

I noticed right away when I was reading in the chairs in front of the office that every class that went by was always checking out the book I was reading.  It didn’t take long for students to come up to me during lunch or recess and ask if they could have the book next.  They wanted to read the book I was reading.  I wanted to expand on this so I started asking teachers if I could visit their class to book talk a recent book I read.  The teachers were thrilled and the students ate it up.  My blessing on a book was golden.  The students were fighting over who got to read it first.  I always left my copy of the book and told them to return it after they were finished.  I was surprised when a student returned Amulet only one week after I gave a book talk.  I expected this to be a very popular book that would be shared by a lot of students.  I didn’t expect it back for a month or two.  I asked the student, “Oh, you guys are done already?  The class didn’t like it?”  

“Are you kidding?” he replied, “we loved it.  We checked out two copies from the library and a couple students bought it from Barnes and Noble.  Everyone has read it already.  Oh yeah, we need Mrs. Bugbee (our librarian) to order more copies of the rest of the series.”  I took my lunch to the cafeteria that day and ate with their class and talked Amulet during their entire lunch.  At that point, it was my favorite lunch period of the year.

Principal’s Bookshelf

This is an idea I first heard from the amazing Sue Haney (principal at Parma Elementary).  Sue has a principal’s bookshelf in her office that students can use to check out books.  Based on the conversation about Amulet, I knew it was time to try this idea.  I scheduled time in each classroom to explain my principal’s bookshelf.  I didn’t want it to be over-complicated or time-consuming (remember I still had a lot of three-hour meetings to attend).  The idea was pretty simple.  I put a bookshelf stocked with my favorite books outside of my office.  The check-out system was a simple black marble composition notebook and a pencil.  I told students I trusted them to check out books and return them.  All they had to do was write the title of the book and sign their name in the composition book.  They should return the book when they finished it and cross off their name.  Also, I told them when they finished a book on my bookshelf I expected them to find me sometime during the day and tell me how they liked the book.  The bookshelf was as much for me as it was for them.  I was craving book conversations and time with students.  No single practice has helped me form meaningful relationships with my students more than my principal’s bookshelf.  My bookshelf grows every year.  I have been lucky to receive grants to help fill it.  Last year, students filled three composition notebooks with books they checked out.  I talk to students every day about books they have read off the shelf.  Each year some books get lost or go unreturned but that’s fine with me.  As Donalyn Miller says, “I would rather lose a book than lose a reader.”  

These practices started the turnaround for me.  It doesn’t matter what position you hold in education, it all starts with relationships.  Once I started looking at principalship through that lens everything changed.  Education is about the students and you can’t make a difference in a student’s life without having a meaningful relationship with them.  I still get overburdened with paperwork and get lost in my office from time to time.  However, those days are few and far between now.  I simply changed my lens.  Now I can honestly answer when someone asks, “Don’t you miss the classroom?”  “Yes. I do, but I love being a principal.”