Celebration of 100

On a quiet Monday last July, we embarked on a journey together.

[Okay, it wasn’t that quiet of a Monday; it was Day One of Nerd Camp]

But on that day, July 10, 2017, we started this blog and planted a flag in it with the banner of community waving for all to see.

Since that day, we have had 98 other posts celebrating the highs and lows of the school year and the communities we are a part of, have helped build, or hope to build. It has been a lot of fun and a lot of learning.

Today, we have another thing to celebrate. Today, the blog runs its 100th post.

So in the spirit of community, I ask you all to join us in a 100s Day Celebration!

In many elementary schools, this day is met with a dress-up day, where many will get in costume and pretend to be 100 years old. There’s lots of laughs and pictures and sharing.

Well, this community is a virtual community, so we’re going to have to get a little creative. And perhaps a little technological.

I ask you to join us in celebrating by uploading an old picture of yourself. Scratch that: a picture of your old self. No, that’s still not quite right.

A picture of old yourself.

(English is tricky)

There are some apps out there that will age your face for you; I’m going to use AgingBooth. But find an app, or dress up and snap a picture, but show us you at 100 years old as we celebrate the community we have here.

Add the picture in the comments to this post, or tag it with #ClassroomCommunities on social media.

A few of us will get you started. Enjoy!

Slime and Smiles

About a month ago, one of our other divisional specialists and I started to work with an after-school group. This group, comprised of immigrant students who are at varying stages of learning English, was to be working on incorporating technology to find creative ways to tell stories of important things in their lives. It made sense for myself (the Ed Tech Specialist) and my colleague (the EAL Specialist) to work with them.

It has been a blast. I don’t get to work one-on-one with students much this year, so I jumped at the chance. I get the added bonus of being surrounded by 10-15 students (depending on the day) who speak 5-6 different languages among them, and have a wealth of culture to share. It’s a very positive environment, and I count myself fortunate to be a part of it.

But there is one student–I’ll call her Jasmine for the sake of this post–whom I’ve had a hard time connecting with.

Jasmine speaks Spanish, but very little English. She is also quite shy, and those two things together sometimes become obstacles to engaging her in the activities.

I know some Spanish, but I’m often intimidated when attempting to speak it in front of those more fluent than I am. I realized, though, that Jasmine probably feels the same way about speaking English. So I put my pride aside, and started to do my job.

When she was working on identifying parts of her story, I asked her if I could see what she had. Her work was mostly in Spanish, but I did my best to read and ask her questions about what she had written. My questions were mostly in English, but then there was a question I needed to ask, and I knew the Spanish words. So I used them.

I had not seen Jasmine smile until that point, though the group had been together nearly a dozen times. Her face lit up, just for a second. She answered me, as best as she could, and we had a difficult but doable conversation about her story.

That’s when it really hit me. What her story was about.

It could have been her journey from her home country to Canada.
It could have been about family or foods she misses.
It could have been about how difficult it has been being in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

It wasn’t.

Her story was about slime. Glitter slime, specifically.

Photo Credit Wikipedia Commons

I couldn’t not ask! I didn’t know the Spanish, and she didn’t know the English, but we talked about slime for 5 minutes. At some point, we both smiled as we didn’t know the words we needed, but we could understand each other.

At that moment, I knew Jasmine felt different. Sometimes, she has a Spanish interpreter who is with her. Sometimes, her friends can act as translator. Translating apps help as well. But in that moment, it was just her and a teacher, having a conversation.

As we packed up to leave that day, Jasmine came up to me with something in her hands. She held it out to me–it was slime! I took it and played with it. It was slimy but clean. Liquid yet solid. It was fun! It’s no wonder kids love the stuff! I thanked her as I handed it back, and for the first time in the 6 weeks I’d been working with this group, she said goodbye as she left.

The next time we met, Jasmine didn’t sit off to the side, nor did she sit super close to one of her Spanish-speaking friends. She was just a member of the group, like any other. She finally felt the truth that we knew all along: she belonged.

Teachers Are Not Superstars

There are a few videos I have seen making the rounds the past couple months. Perhaps you’ve seen them, too:

https://www.facebook.com/attn/videos/1479756855393102/ (if Facebook is blocked for you, use this link: https://www.attn.com/stories/19281/what-if-we-treated-teachers-way-we-treat-professional-athletes)

They all center around the same idea: teachers are superstars, and wouldn’t it be interesting if they were treated the same way we treat our other “superstars” — in this case, professional athletes?

These are generally positive videos, perhaps making one think about how undervalued teachers are, or perhaps how overvalued professional athletes are. Typically, the response is one of support for teachers.

I have a less popular opinion: I don’t like them. Not at all.

It’s not because it’d be untenable, barring massive inflation, for our society to pay teachers multi-million dollar salaries. It’s not because I don’t find them humorous or thought-provoking.

Actually, I don’t like them because I have, perhaps, an even less popular opinion: teachers are not superstars.

*dives under his desk to avoid the stones being thrown*

Still here? Haven’t set your device on fire in rage? Okay, cool. Thanks.

Let’s think about “superstars” for a second. Who comes to mind? For me, I think of a few groups:

  • Musicians
  • Athletes
  • Movie/TV stars
  • Authors

If we limit it to those who receive incomes in the millions, that group becomes a select few musicians, a select few authors, and a decent group of athletes and movie/TV stars. Picture someone who fits that bill of a multi-million dollar-earning superstar. Have one? Here’s mine:


Serena Williams


Let’s think about what Serena Williams does, as a superstar:

  • Performs regularly, on the court, in front of thousands
  • Is an icon for a community to look to for hope
  • Is a role model for youth around the world

You know what? Those last two? I can totally get down with using those for teachers. But let’s think about what she doesn’t do, as a superstar:

  • Connect with each of her fans individually and helps them find value in themselves
  • Tirelessly work to support a community that tends to criticize her every move
  • Spend hours each day working to improve the lives of others
  • Do some of the most important work in the world regardless of pay, treatment, or status

However, each of those things are integral aspects of teaching. We know that relationships and community are crucial to teaching that is going to reach all students. For that to happen, our students have to be our partners in learning, not our fans.

We know that teachers work until they are drop-dead tired to make their communities better, safer places. And yet they are still yelled at by the masses, told what they need instead of asked what they need (check out #ArmMeWith when you get a chance). But teachers do this work anyway.

We know that teachers, every single day, work to make things better for their students. And sometimes, these students are thankful. Often, these students display no emotional response to this work. Sometimes, in the worst cases, these students kill them. But teachers do this work anyway.

Show me a superstar who does this. Show me a superstar who would give up the fans, the fame, glory, money, and accolades to become someone constantly questioned and blamed, but would continue to do the work day in and day out for the better part of their lives. All while knowing they could die just by showing up to work that day. In fact, on some level, that they are expected to die if it comes down to them or those in their care.

I’ll wait.

So when I see suggestions that we fawn over teachers as if they are superstars, I totally understand. They do some of the most important work in the world. They are worth fawning over. But not just one or two teachers who are promoted to “rockstar” status. Not just a few whom we can shower with millions of dollars. Not just the ones that some outside group decides are worthy of the title “superstar.”

Every single teacher. Every one. Every teacher does amazing work and should be celebrated. That’s not fan culture. That’s not rockstar culture. That’s not superstar culture.

Because teachers are not superstars. They’re something more.

The Importance of an Apology

Here at Classroom Communities, we didn’t have a post prepared for today. We dropped the ball in our scheduling, and left a gap that was unfilled for far too long. We’re sorry. We’ll be sure to double-check the schedule well in advance in the future to avoid this happening again.

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

That could have been today’s entire post. The truth is, we had a gap, and we didn’t fill it. We try to run a post every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. We’ve been pretty good at this since our start in July of last year, though we have left a couple unfilled gaps in the schedule. We have missed some days.

But let me ask you this, if you’re a regular reader of the blog. When we missed a day in the past, did you notice? Maybe you did. Maybe you didn’t. If you did, did you wonder what had happened? Perhaps you thought someone was sick? Or that we abandoned the blog? Perhaps you thought something was wrong on your end, or that the internet had somehow conspired against you to keep you from reading our post that day. [Perhaps I think we have a readership far more concerned about us than it actually is]

My point here is that, in the past, we have made a mistake, and yet you may have been the ones left with unanswered questions. That’s not really a good burden to bear for those who did no wrong.

What if we ran a post that was rude, intentionally or otherwise? What if we claimed something as fact, and it turned out that we didn’t do our due diligence, and we were wrong? What if we sent you away from our post, fuming mad? Not exactly the sort of reaction we hope to inspire as we discuss the importance of community.

If we had done that, though (and perhaps we unknowingly have–please leave a comment here if this is the case so we can address that), then an apology would be in order. Because again, we would have made a mistake, and you would have been left with unanswered questions or a justified anger. We could have issued a simple, “Hey. We screwed up. Here’s what we did that was wrong. Here’s what we’re going to do to fix it. Here’s what we’re going to do to try to avoid that in the future. We’re sorry.”

A simple action, and one that we’ve all probably had to do before.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Do we take this path with our students? Surely we’ve helped them apologize to us, or to each other. But do we apologize to them?

Raise your hand if you’ve made a mistake as an educator. Okay, hands down, I can’t see anything but palms and fingers. Some of you had 6 hands up; not sure how you managed that.

I bet if I asked for the same show of hands for who has apologized for those mistakes, it would be fewer. I hope not by much. But I know I’ve made mistakes as a teacher I haven’t apologized for.

We need to apologize to our students when we make mistakes. Here’s why:

1. It models appropriate behavior

Would we not expect our students to apologize when they make mistakes? I don’t mean making mistakes in their attempts at learning; I mean when they accidentally (or “accidentally”) knock a classmate down. Or when they speak in a way they know hurts others.

What if they don’t know how, or have never experienced what that’s like?

How could we reasonably expect them to apologize to others if we don’t apologize to them?

2. It humanizes you

You know who doesn’t make mistakes? Robots. And that’s only assuming a mistake means to go against how they were programmed. Humans make mistakes all the time. If we pretend we didn’t, it’s as if we pretend we’re not human. Not a good thing if you’re trying to run a classroom built upon relationships and community.

This also takes us back to bullet #1. We can draw upon our own modeling to help a student navigate how to apologize when there’s a lot of conflicting human emotions at play (regret and pride to name two big ones). Also, if you apologize…

3. It keeps you from looking like a fool

Do you really think your students don’t know when you screwed up? Please. Show them that you also know you made a mistake, and what to do when that happens.

4. It levels the playing field

Similar to humanizing you as a teacher, it also makes it okay for anyone in the room to apologize to anyone in the room. The person with the most positional authority apologized to those with the least. That flips the standard model, and it allows for all kinds of positive actions if your classroom is set up with the respectful environment that permits those actions.

5. It empowers your students

When you apologize, to anyone, it gives them the power. They can accept your apology or not. They can move forward with your plan to make it right or not. They can learn to apologize when they make mistakes. Or not. They hold the cards.

How often do we give the students the cards? How often do we let them accept an apology from us? Trust them with this power. I promise you, they won’t let you down.

Again, we’re sorry we didn’t have a post ready to go for today. We will work to ensure that doesn’t happen in the future.


A Tale of Two Classrooms

I have a son. He’s two years old.
There is a student. She’s 14.
He’s 15.

Last summer, he moved across the country to a new house.
She recently entered a new classroom for the first time.
So did he.

He loves to bathe.
He loves to learn.
She loves to learn.

But this new bath was different.
This new classroom is different.
This new classroom is different.

The first day, the water was poured and inviting, but he was screaming and kicking before his feet touched the bottom. I tried to get him to just get used to the water, and maybe let me pour a little over his shoulders, but he was having none of it. He didn’t bathe that day.
The first day, the bulletin boards were inviting.
The bookshelves were stacked.
But he was lonely.
She was afraid.
They were uncertain of this new place. The teacher asked them to write, but it was all
just too much. They didn’t learn that day.

The next day, I got in the water with him.
The next day, the teacher pulled out their notebook and wrote beside her.
The next day, the teacher asked him to pull out his notebook and write.

He didn’t cry, and was pleased to stand in the water. Not much washing got done, but he was comfortable with the situation.
She didn’t sulk, and even wrote a few lines in her notebook. Nothing too great was written, but, unlike the day before, the page was not blank.
He opened his notebook, but just stared off. His teacher didn’t seem to care enough to do anything about it, so he didn’t even reach for his pencil.

The next day, I tried to wash his hair. He wasn’t ready. He instantly cried out, threw down the cup, and climbed out of the tub. This was actually a newly-learned skill: he had never climbed out of the tub before.
The next day, the teacher asked her to write an essay. This was too much. The few lines from yesterday were fine, but she wasn’t ready for an essay. She closed his notebook, closed her eyes, and slept through class. She learned something new that day: she had never known she could sleep through class before.
The next day, the teacher asked him to write an essay. This was too much. The teacher hadn’t even pronounced his name correctly, and now they wanted an essay? He closed his notebook, closed his eyes, and slept through class. He learned something new that day: if the teacher didn’t care for him, he didn’t have to care, either.

The next day, we didn’t have a chance for a bath. Instead, though, we did go down to the pool. We didn’t soap up, but he did get all the way in the water, smiling and laughing most of the time. On the way back, my son exclaimed, “Fun water! Fun bath!” At least I knew it wasn’t the water itself that was causing his behavior.
The next day, the teacher tried something new. “Today, we’re not going to write an essay. We’re just going to play around with word and story.” The students each wrote a line and passed their paper along, creating collaborative stories. Some were nonsense, some were passable stories, and at least one was too vulgar to share. But every student wrote the whole time. After class, our student exclaimed, “That was fun! We should write like that more often.” It wasn’t the act of writing causing her to shut down.
The next day, the teacher tried something new. “Today, we are going to write an essay together. Please, at the top of your page, write down ‘Class Essay #1.’ I would like you to start out with the line ‘My summer was….’ Fill in the blank for that sentence. Next, write ‘It was this way because…’ and finish that sentence.” Our student wrote these sentence starters, but never finished them. The teacher walked by, asked him to please put his name on his paper, and moved on. He put down the wrong name. The teacher never corrected him. It wasn’t the act of writing causing him to shut down.

The next day, my son had a bath. He grabbed his own washcloth, added his own soap, rinsed and washed his own hair, and even drained the tub. He had never done any of these things before. He was now not only comfortable with the new tub, but his skill set was greatly improved. I believe he would have done this had I not stepped in the tub with him, followed his lead, played around with water in other situations, and respected his autonomy. But I’m glad I don’t have to find out when that would be.
The next day, she was eager to write. They weren’t doing a collaborative story as a class, but she was applying that practice to hew own work. The teacher asked them to write about anything they wanted to, and even gave some prompts for anyone who needed help coming up with a topic. She chose to write about a time she felt scared. She wrote for longer and better than she ever had before. She was not only at her skill level she was at before she entered the room, but had surpassed it. Perhaps she would do this even if her teacher had not written beside her, let her find her own way, had her play around with words and language, and respected her autonomy. But how long would that have taken?
The next day, he skipped English class. He found one of his favorite teachers on their prep hour. That teacher talked with him and took him to the counseling office. There, he found someone who would listen to how things were going in class. He decided to give class another shot. When he returned to class, pass in hand, the teacher greeted him with his name, and said they were glad he was with them today. Maybe this would work. He had promised the counselor he would try, and he likes to keep his word. Besides, he’s only a week behind. Perhaps he will grow as a writer yet. Perhaps.

Social Media and Former Students

In the Classroom Communities post on Thursday, I wrote about a message I received from a former student about a moment we had shared in the classroom nearly 10 years earlier.

I greatly appreciated him reaching out and sharing that story with me, as it was not one I could quickly recall.

There’s another piece to that story, though. One that underlies the entire thing:

Charles was able to contact me, and felt comfortable doing so.

This is because we are connected on social media. In particular, on Twitter.

Social Media
Social Media, from Wikipedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socialmedia-pm.png

I have found social media an immense help to my professional life and my personal life. Twitter has not only connected me to educational thought leaders (such as my fellow Classroom Communities contributors), but also has provided me with new things to try in my classroom, or now in my role as ed tech specialist. I would not be the educator I am today without Twitter.

Facebook and Instagram have also helped me grow in these ways, and I’m dipping my toes into Snapchat. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I met my wife and many of my closest friends through social media.

I have also found it incredibly useful in connecting with former students.

This allows for stories like the one Charles shared with me. Another former student, on Wednesday night, tweeted to me that she was participating in a hashtag edchat. Another former student recently contacted me to discuss a webcomic we both love which has taken yet another surprising turn. I’ve had former students share some of their poetry with me. On one occasion, a former student from my first ever job (teaching summer school credit recovery geometry) contacted me to apologize for his behavior during our 6-week session.

These connections blow me away, and I am glad they can happen.

However, the world of social media is not all rainbows and unicorns, and there are some things to keep in mind:

Connect with FORMER Students
Notice that every time I talked of a connection in the preceding paragraphs, it is always a “former” student. I do not follow my current students on social media or communicate with them using anything but official school channels. That said:

Remember that, on the Internet, Private means Public, and Public means Everyone
If you have a public profile, your students, both current and former, might follow you — either officially or discreetly. If you have a private profile, you still don’t know who might share things out or who might gain access to your posts. Treat everything as if it’s public.
That means that you should act as if all your students, their parents, friends, coworkers, your principal, superintendent, EVERYONE follows you and sees what you post. If you aren’t okay with them seeing pictures and thoughts of yours after you’ve had a couple rounds at the bar with some friends, then don’t post those pictures and thoughts.

Keep It Public
While I have some direct messages with former students, I prefer and try to keep communication public, or keep their parents in the loop. This is essentially a requirement if the former student is still under the age of 18. While former students can sometimes grow into friends as they move into their adult lives, keep in mind the teacher-student relationship which serves as the underpinning for those connections. This is why I have for the most part stayed away from things such as Snapchat, Whisper, and Marco Polo.

Model Appropriate Behavior
For better or worse, being a teacher is a 24/7 hat we wear. Even if we take it off, our students and former students are going to treat us as if we have it on. We should be demonstrating the manners and positive approach to the world we’d hope our students have themselves. In the days before social media, this might have been a student seeing their teacher being rude to the cashier at the grocery store. In today’s world, it might be a former student (or current student) coming across your Twitter feed, and seeing a video mocking their generation for stereotypes they likely don’t actually exhibit, with your comment of “it’s so true!” [I’m not going to link to the video here, but this is an actual example that I have seen in 2018] If they’re a current student, do you think they’ll ever connect with you? If they’re a former student, do you think they’ll ever re-connect with you?
When it comes to political issues, I don’t shy away on my social media accounts. Donalyn Miller’s Nerd Talk last year really empowered me in this. However, being political doesn’t have to mean being rude. Being angry doesn’t have to mean being insulting. We are a built-in role model for our students. We can demonstrate how to be politically involved without slinging mud. How to be mad about various things without degrading everyone who disagrees with us. As always, consider your words before you post them.

This Is Us
Okay, maybe I just wanted to use that show’s name in this post (no spoilers, please!). But we are teachers. This is who we are. Again, we wear that hat 24/7. We signed up for this. If you’re a teacher and are reading this blog, presumably it’s because you care about the community you build in your classroom. That community necessarily extends beyond the walls of the room, or it’s not a real community at all. Walls don’t define the group; the people do. If your students think you’re putting on a teacher mask every day when you come to school, then they will put on their student masks and you’ll never help each other with who you all really are. In other words:

Be Who You Are
Be the same person in the classroom and on Twitter. Pretending, in the classroom, that you don’t have a life and interests outside of school is as disingenuous as pretending, outside the classroom, that you’re not a teacher who cares about your students. And if the person you are outside of the classroom isn’t one you’d bring into your classroom, then do the work on yourself that you need. Our students need us to be 100% with them. That doesn’t mean that we have to work 24/7 and use social media to continue the work we do with our students 8 hours a day. We would all burn out way too fast if we did that. But it does mean we have to be ourselves 24/7, because they will know if we’re not.

That’s really what it all boils down to. If you’re the real deal, a genuine article, your students will know. And they will know that you care for them in the classroom, but you also care about who they are outside the classroom. And they’ll respond to that. You’ll see wedding pictures and birth notices. You might grab a cup of coffee with a former student if you’ve both moved to the same town (in my case, it was a bacon cheeseburger). You might get messages like the one Charles shared with me.

And you will be assured that, despite the work, despite the 24/7 teacher hat, it has all been worth it.

Grace and Mercy

I was once told that grace is when we get what we don’t deserve and mercy is when we don’t get what we do deserve.

I needed some help unpacking that, so let me do so here. Grace would be the presence of love when perhaps what we’ve earned is coldness, and mercy is the absence of a punishment we deserve — the opposite of justice.

While this was used in terms of Christianity and God, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply it to the classroom.

Let me tell you a story.

My second year teaching, I had a student. We’ll call him Charles, but that is not his name. Charles was a very respectful student, usually pretty quiet, did his work, and kind of stayed out of everyone’s way. I don’t mean to imply he was a loner, so let me be clear about that. He was well-liked, presumably because he was, as mentioned above, respectful to everyone.

Well, I was taking attendance one day, and Charles let out a not-too-loud but also not-too-quiet “Oh fuck!”

Now, the school I was teaching at at the time had some pretty clear rules on that sort of language. Detention was the punishment mandated by the student handbook.

So I turned around, and I looked at Charles, asking him “what did you say?” because I honestly could not believe he would have said that. It would be more likely to hear “Yes, sir” from his lips than the f-bomb.

Charles didn’t answer my question. Well, that’s not true. He apologized and said he didn’t mean to say that. I imagine a truthful answer of my question (thus repeating the word) was not something he wanted to do. His face, normally a fairly light shade, had turned nearly tomato-red. In the few seconds of eye contact that followed, we had a conversation, though it wasn’t out loud:

“Just to clarify: did you just say ‘Oh fuck’?”
“Yes, I did. And I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to. It just popped out.”
“Are you going to say it again?”
“No, sir.”

The “Okay” was out loud. That was it, and we moved on.

I thought relatively little of this incident. A little mercy in the midst of an Algebra II class.

This was, as I said, my 2nd year teaching. 2008.

9 years later, this past November, I received a message from Charles. It started with this tweet:

“Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll share anyways. I think it was my junior year when I was sitting in your class (I was in the second column from the door and like 3-4 seats back). I was at my desk and said, ‘Oh, f***.’ It wasn’t loud, but it wasn’t quiet, so you did a 180, looked at me, and asked what I just said. I didn’t repeat it but said that I was so sorry and didn’t mean for that to come out. You looked at me for a couple more seconds, I assume because you could not believe that I had actually said that word aloud, and I became so fearful that I was going to get a detention. That would have been the only detention in my entire school career. I’m pretty straight-edged and hate knowing that I ever broke a rule or acted up. I know that many of my peers got more detentions than they could count and that detentions are minor infractions in the grand scheme of things, but I would have felt so much shame from my parents, friends, and teachers. Would a detention from that incident have positively shaped my future? It is impossible to know for certain, but I truly believe that it would not have. The way that I interpreted your reaction was that my words were bad, and that you knew that I knew they were bad, but you would trust me to adjust the behavior on my own since I otherwise 100% earned a detention. Because you did not write me up, I chose to always remember that experience and that I need to be mindful of the words I use at every place and time. It also taught me the power of relationships when it comes to making tough decisions. Thank you for practicing the above tweet. Your action was the most appropriate response for me and I have never lived it down.”

To be honest, my version of this story was completely reconstructed from his message. I don’t recall this incident, though I can imagine how it went. But it’s not about me; it’s about him. By not issuing the detention, Charles learned to be mindful of his words as well as the power of relationships.

Was this the right move on my part? At the time, I likely didn’t know. But to him, it made a huge difference.

But here’s the rub: was I being unfairly impartial with doling out this mercy, because Charles was a respectful student? What if it were a student who often was late to class, didn’t do their work, and wasn’t respectful? What if that student dropped an f-bomb, yet also turned red and apologized? Would I have shown them the same mercy? Would I have denied that student the same opportunity to learn as Charles had?

I don’t know. I wish I knew. What I do know is that teaching is full of these moments. These times when a quick decision must be made that might impact the student for years. And so often, it comes down to simple questions:
Justice, or mercy?
Coldness, or grace?
Relationship-building, or not?

It may give me a reputation as a pushover. It may get me in trouble with my administrators. It may let some students take advantage of me. I don’t know about my 2nd year teaching, but now? I will choose relationship-building nearly every time.