How Students Care for Each Other

Busses drop our students off starting at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, and first period begins at 8:30 a.m. I try to be in my room after 8 for my early birds who want to drop off their bag before they eat. One day last week, a student who usually isn’t early came in well before anyone else, picked a seat, and put his head down. I’m sure I said good morning, but I probably didn’t say much else. Students who come in at 8 and put their heads down usually want that last 30 minutes of sleep.


Fast forward to midway through first period. Students are working independently on a series of research questions about an ecosystem; while I teach English, our current focus is informational reading and writing through the lens of a science topic. Since it’s first period, many students are slow getting started, but a few are asking me questions or are ready for me to check off what they’ve finished. The student who arrived first today isn’t yet working, but he’s only recently rejoined the class after being gone for a long period. He will need my help getting started since he hasn’t yet learned our strategies for reading informational text.

As I move around the room, I notice that someone’s music is extra loud, louder than the instrumental music that I have playing over the classroom speakers. Of course the students aren’t supposed to have their own music playing, but I pick my battles. I make a mental note to ask him to turn down his music after I check in with one more student.

It’s at this moment that another student, a young man at the opposite corner of the classroom, hears the music and looks around to see whose it is. He gets up and walks across the room to the student with the loud music, the same student who was the first to come into my room. He asks him a question then pulls over a chair. He leans over and wraps the student in his arms. It’s only then that I realize that the music was hiding the fact that the student was sobbing.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have said that the two boys were particular friends. And while I like them both a great deal, I wouldn’t have said that either was particularly sensitive or nurturing. I certainly didn’t expect one to cross the room and wrap his arms around the other.

I called a friend and colleague who is close to the student to make sure that she was in her office, and I wrote the two boys a pass. The second boy returned after a few minutes and put his head down. When I checked on the first boy in my colleague’s office, he was smiling, laughing, coloring a picture. When he asked for a restroom pass, my friend filled me in on what was going on. To say it’s a crappy situation is an understatement. It sucks.

I try to watch my students more closely. I ask them how they’re doing, and I make sure to listen to their answers. I tell them I’m glad they’re here. I tell they’re loved, they’re strong, they’re brave, they’re resilient. I tell them I’ll see them tomorrow.

And I hope, that just like the observant young man in first period, that they will continue to look out for each other.

Kindness, Respect, and Love

you deserve kindness

One of my students sometimes asks me why I’m so nice.

I don’t actually think of myself as particularly nice. I’m impatient. I’m judgemental. I’m an introvert who mostly wants to be left alone. Sometimes I want to scowl when students ask me for a Band-Aid. Again.

I try not to let that show with students. “Infinite patience” is my counsel when anyone asks how I do what I do. I can go almost the entire school day telling students where the pencils are, providing snacks, picking books up off the floor, before I snap.

Many of our students don’t get a lot of kindness. The world is filled with snark. Negativity is cool. Kids tease each other, but they’re often tone deaf about it. “I’m just joking,” they say, but their friend isn’t in on the joke.

My students in Chicago loved to play hide the lunch. A girl would get up to get a napkin or a milk, and the other girls would hide something from her lunch. They’d laugh. They thought they were hilarious. They didn’t think they were being mean, but no one should have to return to a table where everyone is laughing at them.

My current school is conducting a Kindness campaign. Students and staff track their kindness every day and turn in their tallies at the end of the day. “How do you count kindness?” the high schoolers ask. “You count it all,” we respond, “every greeting, every class arrived at on time, every door held.” You count it until it’s habit and you forget that you’re doing it.

you deserve respect

At a recent meeting about behavior, one of our leaders said that “Students should not refuse a reasonable request from an adult.” I think it’s a good way to put it, and it’s been pretty effective with my students when I remember to use it. If a school staff member makes a reasonable request of a student, the student should not refuse. That’s respect that most schools expect students to give to adults.

But what about the reverse? Do we always treat our students with respect? Do we respect their privacy and their boundaries? Do we ask them for hall passes with respect? Do we greet their return from an absence with respect? Do we treat their stories with respect when we talk about them with outsiders?

you deserve love

I don’t know how to write about this. Last week I learned that a little boy who I had known since he was a baby had died at age twenty-five. He was probably in elementary school the last time I saw him, but I was babysitting his older siblings when he was born. When I went away to college, he would wake from his nap and call “Hi Lea!” out the window of his bedroom to my parents’ house across the street. He’ll always be that little boy to me.

The day after I found out that he died, I started writing on the tables daily. I don’t know how else to convey to my students how wonderful they are, how impressive and challenging and creative and important, how much their lives matter, how devastated we all would be if they were gone. They deserve love. They are loved.

i'm glad you're here
I’m glad you’re here, even if you’re sitting on the table.

I usually write this on the announcements that I post on Monday mornings. For the past two Mondays, I’ve written it on their tables.

Mondays are rough. Our students have terrible weekend sleep habits. Some report that they haven’t slept at all before arriving at school; others have maybe only slept on the bus.

Sometimes I’m annoyed that students have been absent. I wish their cell phones and headphones were already put away. I don’t like that they respond to my greeting with a snarl. But I’m still glad that they’re there, in class, every Monday, even if they won’t smile at me until the end of the day.

Be kind to yourself.

I’m going to write this on their tables this morning. I saw it in a magazine this weekend, though I can’t find the reference now.

You deserve kindness. Be kind to yourself.

Reconnecting for 2018

It’s the first of January and I’ve just sent my students a Remind message that I’m excited to see them at school tomorrow (and that they should try to get some sleep tonight). So far I’ve received reaction icons ranging from hands clapping to faces frowning.

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The transition back to school after the long break is a tough one. Everyone has forgotten the routines. Days have been spent playing video games and watching Netflix. No one has been going to sleep at their normal time. The first day back will begin much too early.

Here is my plan to get us through this first week:

1. Greet everyone. Greet them by name. Say hi in the hallways and in class. When you walk around the room to see who’s sleeping, check in with each student. At the end of the period or the day, look over your roster. Did you talk to every student? Did you listen to their response? Do this every day for the entire week.

2. Be kinder than necessary. Instead of just “Good morning,” say “I’m glad you’re here.” If the student is receptive (awake), ask about their break. If they’re not, allow them to be silent. Follow up the next day, or the day after. Make it your goal to sit next to every student at some point and ask “How’s it going?” and get an answer in reply.

3. Bring snacks. Share them liberally. The day will be long enough without a growling stomach at 10 am.

4. Ask how much sleep they’ve been getting. Share your own struggles if you stayed up too late and messed up your sleep cycle. Tell your students what you’re going to do to get back on schedule. Remind them every day of the importance of sleep.

5. Practice grace and forgiveness. There are times to be tough and to hold students accountable, and there are times to practice grace. We don’t know what has happened in our students’ lives during the weeks that we’ve been apart. Sure, they might have been eating candy canes and playing video games all night, but we can’t know that, and we shouldn’t assume. It’s our responsibility to be safe and kind and predictable even when our students aren’t.

We must respond to their crankiness with grace and forgiveness. Only after we’ve reconnected will we be able to get back to learning.

Not-So-Happy Holidays

Last year I had Christmas dinner alone. I had planned to eat Christmas dinner with my mom, but she woke up with the flu that morning.

I’m a teacher. I definitely didn’t want the flu over winter vacation. I took her some meds and got out of there as quickly as possible.

I briefly felt sorry for myself. Everyone else already had plans or was out of town. I didn’t even know what to feed myself for dinner.

After about a minute, I remembered a recipe that I’d seen online that I wanted to make. I remembered that the Safeway near my mom’s house was open on Christmas Day. I remembered that I’m an introvert. Christmas dinner alone was not a big deal.

I think that sometimes when we think about the holidays, we think that the worst that can happen is that someone won’t have many family and friends around. We warn children to remember that their classmates might not get as many presents as they do. We get caught up in “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and which songs are okay for the winter concert.

For many of our students, the holidays aren’t the happiest time of the year. For some, they’re the worst.

It’s not just about being sensitive because someone else might have less money. It’s not just about keeping church and state separate.

We have students who don’t live with their parents for good reason, but might have to see them at a holiday gathering. We have students whose families will drink far too much at their celebrations. We have students with parents incarcerated, or serving overseas, or lost to addiction, or just gone. Our LGBT students might have to hide their true selves around their families. Our student might be giving their meals to a younger sibling because there isn’t enough to eat, or sleeping on the floor in that sibling’s bedroom to keep them safe during a holiday party. They might be hiding bruises from extended family to protect their abusers.

I’ve written before that we don’t actually have to know our students’ stories to help them. They don’t have to reveal their secrets to us.

Instead, we need to remember that all of our students have stories, and treat them as such. Assume that holidays are hard and make your classroom a place of safety and predictability. Don’t add more stress to their lives.

It’s a busy time of year. As teachers, we’re trying to cram a unit in between two holidays. We don’t want to leave something unfinished over a two-week vacation. High school teachers know that the end of the semester is coming.

Stop. Slow down. Connect. Take the extra ten seconds to ask a student how it’s going. Take another ten seconds to ask the next student how it’s going.

I set three goals for December this year: relationships, engaged reading, and strategies for rigorous texts. Will it be better if we finish the whole book before vacation? Sure, but there’s a reason that I put relationships first on that list. The needs of the student are more important than my need to finish the chapter.

Our students won’t come and tell us that the holidays are hard. Some won’t even know it themselves. But we know, and so we must be extra kind and safe and predictable and wise.

Take a deep breath.

Take another one.

You got this.

Rebuilding Communities

I have, for the first time in 19 years of teaching, sold my planning period. I took over a class of sophomores and juniors with a little more than a week left in first quarter.

We talk about building relationships, but what about rebuilding relationships? What about repairing classroom communities after a teacher leaves before the end of the year? And how do we balance the needs of teachers with the needs of our students?

Two weeks ago I stood in our hallway discussing the situation with my next door neighbor. We knew that one of us would need to take over the class. It’s an elective that’s part of a program that we’re building at our school, and we couldn’t leave a guest teacher in charge long-term.

My neighbor and I were the logical choices. We had the necessary planning period and were part of the program’s site team; she already taught the elective to another grade level, and I knew that I was on deck for future sections.

But not in the last week of October with no warning.

It wasn’t an opportunity that either of us wanted. Our English department has a new curriculum this year, and we still haven’t even previewed the materials for second semester. We’re a department heavy in young teachers; all of their experience, my neighbor’s included, adds up to fewer years that I’ve been teaching, and that’s including our middle school colleagues. The high school teachers finally had a planning period together and were meeting weekly in our PLC. We’d already scheduled as many after school meetings as we could with our middle school colleagues; one of us losing our planning period would definitely leave us scrambling for enough time to meet.

But somebody had to do it.

I explained all of this when I sat down with the program’s director. We talked about what the class needed in a teacher and why it had to be me. My schedule is the one that’s easiest to adjust at the semester, though getting back the same planning period as my colleagues is a long shot. Even though the work that we do as an ELA PLC impacts every single student in our building, common planning time is about the teachers.

The needs of the students outweigh the needs of the teachers. Always.

And so, on the 39th day of the school year, the class became mine.

What are the needs of the students when a new teacher takes over a class, be it a planned takeover like a student teacher or a long-term sub in an emergency? How do we rebuild relationships with students who had finally started to trust the previous teacher? And how do we do this is a hurry, fast, without the leisure of the first slow weeks of school? Second quarter is upon us, we’re a quarter of the way through the year, there’s no time to stop and bond, we have curriculum to cover.

But is that the right call? Do we start on day 39 without the building blocks of all those early learning experiences? Or do we stop to take the time to rebuild, to establish community, to begin again?

What’s best for our students?

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Matchmaking with Books

When I first started building my classroom library, I only had one copy of each title. My classes didn’t do any independent reading during actual class time way back then, so there was rarely a need for multiples of any one book. At most, I would have to replace The Perks of Being a Wallflower when it inevitably disappeared again.

Even as independent reading and choice became a bigger part of what we did in our reading classroom, it was still only by accident that I would end up with multiple copies of a single title.

Later, I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and she mentioned something about having multiple copies of a single title so that students could recommend books to each other. “I want to read that book,” a student could say, pointing to a classmate’s book, and you could pull out your extra copy of The Hunger Games or Everything, Everything.

Several years ago, I ended up with several copies of Thirteen Reasons Why in my 8th grade classroom. This was long before the book became a Netflix series. One 8th grader read it, then another, until it seemed like an entire section’s worth of 8th grade girls had either just finished or just started reading it. And so each class would begin and end with my students discussing and debating Hannah and her choices.

Aaa photo

My current school’s ELA curriculum explicitly recommends matching up readers in pairs and small groups. This is a lot about comprehension—students can help each other clarify confusing parts as they read the same novel—but I think it’s okay to do a little book and student matchmaking here as well.

I’ve done this two different ways recently.

When a student said she wanted to take a break from her long read, I asked her neighbor, who had read two different graphic novel trilogies recently, to show her where those books were hidden. (I’ve replaced titles within one of the trilogies multiple times, so now they’re in the reserve section.) He gestured vaguely in the direction of my desk. “Tell her about the books,” I coaxed. “Help her choose.”

The two girls above were stuck between books, reading and discarding several titles. “Want to read a book together?” I asked. I showed them some titles that I had multiple copies of, and they picked one and decided how many chapters to read by the following week. And for a few days they read side-by-side. While they both ultimately decided the book was a little boring (and I agree), a few days later a different pair of students decided to read The Fault In Our Stars together.

I’m glad that I picked up two copies at the used bookstore instead of just one.

Vulnerable but Invincible

Way back on August 22, educator Steve Kukic spoke to our faculty during our August Professional Development. I have a few pages of notes from his day with us, but one particular set of information has guided my thinking about my work with students these last few weeks. (I’m basing this on my own incomplete notes, so any mistakes are mine.)

Quoting from the study Vulnerable But Invincible: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Kukic cited three factors for the resilient kids who succeeded despite the roadblocks in their way:

1. High expectations from home, school, or community,

2. Future orientation (not focused on past or now), and

3. “Unconditional positive regard” from an adult.

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Sophomore reading with kindergartner.

Reading conferences are often tough during the first few weeks of school, especially with students who are new-to-you. You feel like you’ve recommended the same book twenty times. A new English teacher lamented the number of times she’s asked “What’s your favorite movie or video game?” when students say “I don’t read” when she’s helping them find books.

When this has happened to me this year, especially with juniors and seniors, I’ve asked what they want to do after high school. A counselor I worked with used to mention how surprised she was that no one ever asked students what they want to do after high school. Many students have tough and even horrible pasts and presents, pasts and presents that are utterly beyond their control. The future, however, can be within their control, and we can help them with that.

This year, a student told me he might want to join the military, and when I asked him what he would want to do there, he said he didn’t know. He thought that flying sounded cool after I listed all the things that one could do in the military. Since my brother is a pilot, I then told him every possible thing that I know about learning to fly airplanes. Did my student run out and sign up for flying lessons? Of course not. Does he now realize that flying is actually something that ordinary people can do? That he can sign up and take lessons and learn to fly before he graduates from high school? He knows all that now. The more interest we show in our students’ futures, the more likely they are to turn their focus in that direction.

I’m still thinking about how high expectations play out in my classroom. I don’t think it means academic rigor, or strict expectations for classroom behavior, or inflexible grading policies. High expectations isn’t “We all must read William Faulkner together” when 40% of the class is still working on decoding and academic language.

I think that when it comes to high expectations, what we really need to communicate to students is a high level of belief. It is not that I expect you to read at this level; instead, I believe that you can read at this level. I believe that you can write this narrative. I believe that you can pass Algebra.

I believe in you.

In a meeting this year, someone said “But he can’t—” and one of our instructional leaders interrupted with “He can’t yet.” An English colleague repeated it later, and I remind myself to remember the power of yet. He can’t read that yet. She can’t do that yet. But I believe that my students will do it. It’s not that he can’t read single and double consonant words, it’s that he can’t read them yet. Even better: “He is working on single and double consonant words.” You can learn to do this, I say to my students, and I know that it is true.

And, of course, we work to practice unconditional positive regard every day. On this blog a few weeks ago, Angie Huesgen wrote “Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day.” This isn’t as obvious as you think. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” people say. “You’ve got to be tough, make them respect you,” others might add.

But I agree with Angie. Be nice, damn nice, every day. Even to the mean kids and the kids who ignore you. You might say hi twenty times before students respond, but they do notice when you say hi.

At my school the secondary teachers supervise buses loading while our elementary colleagues walk the little ones to their buses. A lot of the time this means walking around while students work hard to talk to anyone but a teacher. I know from personal experience that walking around saying “Get on your bus, get on you bus” does not work. So last year I started saying “See you tomorrow” if I didn’t know a student. If I knew their name, I said “Good-bye” and their name and that I would see them tomorrow. That works better.

We then stand by our stadium and wave at the buses as they pull out, all twenty-four of them. The little kids wave and shout good-bye, smiles huge. The high schoolers ignore us, and sometimes they even give us a school-inappropriate finger.

But they know we’re there.

And they know that we’ll be there tomorrow.

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(Yes, that is our view. When it isn’t raining.)