On Struggling

A 2-day PD I was part of last week and some Twitter conversations over the weekend got me thinking about some of the ways we label our students, especially those who require different supports than we might prepare for on a regular basis. Specifically, I was thinking about the word “struggle” as used in education.

When we talk about the struggles encountered with various students of differing abilities, we often use the adjective “struggling” to describe a person, or the verb “struggles” to describe their work. And that person is almost always the student.

“I have a struggling student.”
“One of my students is struggling with their behavior.”
“Several students struggled with this concept.”

Go ahead and Google “struggling students.” You will find page after page of sites that look, at first glance, to be good and useful sites for teachers and parents to find ways to help students.

And on the surface, the use of this language is both accurate and appropriate. But underneath the surface, I would argue it is neither of those things.

Because yes, a student who had a hard time paying attention in class might be struggling with that. They are struggling because they’re trying to improve.

But also, they then become a “Struggling Student,” which is a stone’s throw from “Difficult Student,” which very quickly becomes something that is a problem with the student, and not a problem for us to tackle.

In this profession, however, the problems are ours to navigate, not to be placed on the shoulders of children.

Notice the difference:

“Olivia is struggling with decoding” vs. “I’m struggling with finding ways to help Olivia with her decoding.”
“Mark is struggling with paying attention” vs. “I’m struggling with how to help Mark stay attentive.”
“Brian is struggling” or “Brian is a problem student” or “Brian is a problem” or “Oh, you have Brian? Good luck” vs. “I’m struggling with Brian. I need help with Brian. I don’t know what to do for Brian.”

Imagine one of your students who is not understanding a concept. Needs help with a skill. Is constantly displaying behaviors not appropriate for a classroom.

Where are they going to get help with those concepts/skills/behaviors if not from you? That’s our job. It’s the first 5 letters of our job title. It’s our job to teach them.

If we take it upon ourselves to recognize that it is our job to do these things, then we will be working to help our students with these things.

The reality: we all know this. We’re teachers because this is what we’re called to do. But the other reality: it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to disassociate with some of those tasks. It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming the student for their deficiencies rather than helping them navigate their way to success. Our words play an important part in that.

Ultimately, the struggle lies with us. It’s our professional job to struggle with the challenges presented by some of our students to find what works for the student. It’s also our professional job to struggle with how to help the student accept what they need to do and put in their work. As I heard Mike Mattos say at a conference a year ago yesterday (thank you, TimeHop), “We have the degrees. We are the professionals.”

It is not our students’ job to struggle. They’re children.

Who should be struggling more: the child who is forced to attend school, or the adult who has 1-3 degrees in this field and chose to do this work?

Of course, this is part of the larger picture of the community of a school. If all the students are the students of all the teachers — all “our” students, not “my” students and “your” students — then it’s okay for teachers to struggle. It’s okay because we have each other. We can brainstorm solutions. We can work together for the betterment of our students: all of them together as well as individuals.

So please, join me in the struggle. Let’s struggle together so that our students — our children — don’t have to.

HOW TO BUILD CLASSROOM COMMUNITY – 10 EASY TIPS by Kelli Smith

“This work” by Wokandapix is in the Public Domain, CC0

Today I am beginning my 28th year of teaching. What have I learned after all these years? It’s this: there is nothing more important in these first days of school than building a classroom community and our relationships with students. Yes, content will be taught, but establishing the classroom community remains the most important “thing to do” first.

So how do we start? Here are 10 go-to activities.

“This work” by laterjay is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Read aloud, read aloud, read aloud. This is THE quickest and best way to build community. Why does it work so well? Stories bring people together. Everyone, from our youngest learners to our high schoolers, enjoys listening to and discussing a great story together. I make a point to read aloud to students every single day, but I especially use it on the first day of school to help me bond with students and to help students connect with each other. Keep a stack of good picture books available and read one whenever you have a chance during that first week of school. Reading aloud regularly (preferably at predictable times) helps establish classroom “rituals”, enabling students to feel safe and connected to the classroom. Consider participating in #classroombookaday. See more here.

“This work” by Wokingham Libraries is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Learn the correct pronunciation of each child’s name. Ask the child. A simple “tell me how to say your name”, said with a warm smile, is all it takes. Names are important and communicate respect and caring about the individual.

*First day “morning work” – you’ll be busy collecting forms, possibly collecting classroom supplies, greeting everyone — so it’s important to have work that students can do independently, but that will also give you a lot of information about them. Something that asks them questions about themselves is perfect. As they’re completing this work at their seats, you have a chance to observe how they get started working, how they interact with other students, etc. Read these morning work questionnaires as soon as you can. Make it your first day of school homework. 🙂

“This work” by Paul Hanaoka is in the Public Domain, CC0

*If you don’t do morning work questionnaire, you can still gather that information in a whole group. Form a circle on the carpet (or pull chairs into a circle). Go around the circle and answer pre-made questions. Keep these simple at first and work your way up to “bigger” questions such as “name one word that describes how you are feeling about school this year”. To do this, you might use an object that you pass around the circle (like a beanbag or stuffed animal). You might share something first then pass the object to a student beside you. Continue going around the circle until everyone has had a chance to share.

“This work” by ludi is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Create scavenger hunts for students to complete with partners. It could be a scavenger hunt in which they have to find someone who went to the beach this summer, has a younger brother or sister, likes pizza, etc. Another option is to create a scavenger hunt of areas in the classroom. This activity also gets students moving around and talking to each other

*Use whiteboard messages. These are quick questions such as “what is one thing you are thankful for, what will you do to make today a wonderful day,” etc. There are plenty of pre-made questions on line or for sale at Teachers Pay Teachers. It builds community for students to share these answers in a way that other students can see. Thus — the notion of answering the question on the whiteboard. If that is a problem (or if it gets too crowded at the board), you might try an online tool such as Padlet or a Google doc. Post the question and allow students to add their answers to the question.

“This work” by Gerd Altmann is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Keep most bulletin boards and hallway displays bare. Have the students do some work in the first week that can be posted and that shows them that this classroom belongs to all of them as much as it belongs to you. It’s also fun to take lots of pictures the first week and post some of those on walls or displays as well.

“This work” by charisse Kenion is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Discuss your class/school expectations and create something that shows what these expectations look like/sound like. Try to continue keeping this activity as a “what do we need/what helps everyone” activity rather than “these are my rules and you need to follow them” activity.

*Share things about you. Kids love to find out things about their teacher which makes you more “real” to them. It’s also a good way to find common areas of interest. I have a Google slide presentation with 50 facts about me. They’re not anything major — just things about my family, what I like, what I don’t like, etc. Think about some facts about yourself that you could share! Another variation on this idea is to share one fact about yourself from the first day of school to the last (such as “I am now reading . . .”, “This weekend I tried sushi for the first time”, and “I am learning to bake the world’s best cinnamon rolls”, etc.).

“This work” by Nappy is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Name homework and sharing – read Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (or any other picture book about a child having to explain their name). Discuss how names are part of what makes us special and unique. Ask students to ask their families about how they were given their name and what it means, if known. Share these stories in partnerships or in a class circle.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful. Have an awesome school year and enjoy building relationships with your students!

Kelli Smith has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach and an instructional coach for 28 years. She has her master’s degree in literacy instruction and has earned and renewed National Board Certification as a middle childhood generalist. She loves coffee, sticky notes and picture books and she still gets nervous on the first day of school! She blogs about teaching and teacher life at www.stillteachingstilllearning.com.

Your Place Was Empty

In Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, a recurring phrase is “your place was empty.” One of the characters mentions this is a saying in Farsi: jāt khāli-yé. [Note: I am lifting this phrase in English from the ARC of the book, though I can’t imagine it being cut from the final copy]

It is explained in the book that this essentially means “I miss you,” but in a different sense. As if there was a place waiting for someone, and it is empty — and a reminder of their absence — until they are there to fill it.

I was reminded nearly immediately of Pernille Ripp’s welcome poster she wrote about and shared here. “You are just the child we hoped would show up.” I love this for a first day and every day sentiment.

I also was reminded of my 10 years in the classroom, and how I did not have a single year where a student did not join mid-year. And, inevitably, it was an adjustment. We had to catch them up on classroom routines, figure out what of the curriculum they had or hadn’t learned, and make sure there was a spot for them, physically and emotionally.

My students were pretty welcoming, and our room was a place where I think everyone found a home pretty comfortably. But I don’t know that for sure.

What if someone joined our class mid-year, and felt like an outsider the entire rest of the year? What can I do at the start of the year to help prepare my classroom for the student(s) who will be joining us?

I’m not in the classroom this year, but here is what I would do:

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Photo credit: Clker-Free-Vector-Images  https://pixabay.com/en/desk-school-chair-classroom-304189/
  • Always have more chairs than students, no matter our seating arrangement.
  • Make certain the students who are there know that this is intentional. We always want to have a place ready for anyone who may join us: a guest for the day, a visiting teacher or administrator, or a student who is joining our classroom. I want my students to know that it is a privilege and responsibility to sit next to an empty chair, as at any moment, someone might come in to fill that place.
  • Say to any student who joins us: “Your place was empty. We are so glad you’re here to fill it.”

Of course, we would do other things, too, to make sure everyone felt welcome in our room. But I think this would be an easy piece to add that could make a world of difference for helping everyone know they have a place with us.

If you’re in the classroom, what are some things you do to help everyone feel welcome? What do you do to help students who join mid-year feel welcome and part of the group?

Note: though this is a borrowed phrase from Farsi, I would speak it in English, as Farsi is neither my culture nor my language. However, I would explain to the students where the phrase comes from, also highlighting the book where I learned of it in the process.

Summer, Classroom Communities, and You!

Greetings from August!

Summer Beach
Photo Credit: Karen Arnold @ publicdomainpictures.net https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=33915

I hope that you, like us, have been enjoying a relaxing summer with your family and friends. In this profession, it’s important to recharge and recenter yourself.

Many teachers also use summer as a chance for self-directed professional development. Reading new books and brainstorming new ideas, bouncing thoughts off other educators. It was great to see so many of you at Nerd Camp doing exactly that.

A lot of you are already back at school, or will be soon. I, for one, look forward to seeing your tweets about the things you’re doing as you start the school year.

We’d also like to invite you to share your work here on the Classroom Communities blog. If you’d like to write here about what you’re doing in the classroom, especially in terms of developing community and relationships, we’d love to have you!

Fill out the form at this page: https://classroomcommunities.com/want-to-be-a-contributor, and we’ll be in touch with you from there to schedule your post. Can’t wait to hear your stories!

“Thanks”

This post will be short. Practically a tweet in the blogging world.

But there’s something I’ve been doing, for about 10 years now, and I think I need to share it.

It’s simple, really. But has framed most professional interactions I’ve had for a decade.

I say thank you.

Meeting with a student? End with a thank you.
Meeting with a colleague? End with a thank you.
Meeting with a parent? End with a thank you.

What am I thanking them for, exactly? Their time. Their attention. Their energy. Their ideas. Their willingness to work with me.

Sometimes, the thank you is very natural. Someone is doing something for me, so I thank them.

But sometimes, it’s the exact opposite: I’m doing something for them. And I thank them.

To this point: nobody has thought it weird. Most have probably not noticed. Certainly, there have been times when I haven’t said thank you. I’m not batting 1.000.

And while I like to think it’s helped others have a more positive view of me, that is not very likely. I mean, it’s a throwaway phrase sometimes, so others may not even notice it.

But for me, it’s been a reminder. Every interaction I have, someone is giving me something: their time, their advice, their work. Something. It has helped me be mindful of what others have done for me, in every interaction of every day.

I hope this has helped me better appreciate those around me and better serve those entrusted to my care. I know it certainly hasn’t hurt.

Thanks for reading.

Oh, the Humanity!

Last week, I wrote a post that ended on a low note. A sad note. Some responded and said it was realistic. I think it’s all of this. I do want to take a moment to say that the most extreme examples given were hypotheticals, and fortunately not a reality I’m facing right now. But many of the other examples were real situations from my teaching career.

The notion that sometimes, we act in ways that, from the perspective of some students, appears to disenfranchise students. In ways that actually harms the community we try to build and protect.

I charged myself with writing a post about hope in these situations. Perhaps a post about moving forward.

I don’t know if this post will do that. But I will try.

This week, the President of the United States of America said, referring to undocumented immigrants (and likely specifically MS-13 gang members), “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

The internet, as the internet does, exploded. “He’s calling people animals!” “Are you really defending MS-13?” And what was lost in all the divisiveness was every aspect of humanity: ours, those we disagree with, and yes, the gang members being referred to.

But the truth of the matter is that every human being is a person. While there are reasonable disagreements over when personhood begins and when it ends, I think we can all agree that, at the very least, once a baby is born, they are a person until they are brain dead. There isn’t anything they can do to change that.

To repeat: there isn’t anything we can do to no longer be people.

But this isn’t a morality blog. It’s not a religious blog. It’s an education blog. But for me, those are all wrapped up in each other. Because what I know is that every single human being who comes into my classroom, my school, my community, is a person.

Even those who deny or repress the personhood of others.

That we are people is the thing that truly brings us all together. That is the essence of our communities.

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Photo by DrewMyers – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2286/2211382500_60061ce422_b.jpg

So. What does that mean when it comes to situations where student groups declare supremacy of race, gender, or sexuality? When students are actively oppressing other students?

It provides us the basis of the conversation. But the conversation cannot go “hey, Student A, you’re dehumanizing Student B, and I can’t allow that.” Ever been told you’re dehumanizing someone? I haven’t, but I can’t imagine it gets taken very well.

The conversations need to start with understanding. “No, I cannot let your group meet on school campus. Yes, I realize you’ll be talking to the administrators. Yes, I understand you want to hire a lawyer and you feel your free speech rights are being trampled upon. But what I really want to know is why you feel so passionately about this cause. Tell me what it means to you.”

Listen. Converse. Humanize the student with whom you disagree. Stand firm in your decision, but talk with them. It’s easy to protect your students from attacks. They’re our babies. But it’s also important to respect and treat as people our students doing the attacking. Because they’re our babies, too. And no matter what, they all have to learn. And all means all.

Now, as I said, these most extreme examples are hypotheticals. So let me make this real.

2016 US Presidential campaign. I had a group of students who would chant, in the middle of class, “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” It was easy for me to have them stop, because it was inappropriate to chant anything in the middle of Statistics class, let alone what had been used as a divisive, racist chant in schools elsewhere.

But I also talked with them. I wanted to know: why did they support Trump? What was the appeal? I wanted to know, but I also wanted to let them know that I hear them. I disagree, and there are things I won’t allow, but I hear them. I see them. I value them as people. So we talked. Mostly, I listened. The chants mostly stopped, and the learning continued.

After the election, a student tossed a word I’d rather not say here around in the hallway. A blend of a political leaning and a slur for someone with a cognitive impairment. The discipline was easy: that’s not an appropriate term to use, and it therefore had consequences. But I talked with the student. I let him know why I felt that term was not okay, and I asked him why he used it. What motivated it? I wanted him to know that I hear him (literally, in this case). There are things I won’t allow, but I hear him. I see him. I value him as a person. We talked. He apologized, and I didn’t hear him use the word again.

I could not do those things were it not for the community that I had spent time and effort building first. But humanizing those I disagree with and those I was disciplining also helped build the community.

So maybe that’s the trick. Maybe that’s the hope in all of this. If we remember we’re all people, we can heal and continue to move forward together.

Asterisk

2 weeks ago, I published a post about the importance of supporting all of our students as they engage in various levels of activism. My rallying cry of the post was that we support all our students, and that all means all.

But, as is often the case, there are exceptions. There are asterisks to catch-all phrases. This post is about that asterisk.

I stand by my words from the first post (I mean, they’re only 2 weeks old; humans change and evolve, but usually not that fast). But I think there’s something that needs addressing that may seem obvious to some, and may not to others.

I gave examples of supporting students regardless of the activist position they were taking. The examples I gave were perhaps loaded with emotion, but also were all of a certain type. The examples were for/against 2nd Amendment/gun owners’ rights and for/against the banning of books.

While there are certainly powerful responses to those topics, and a lot of passion involved, they all are opinions socially acceptable to hold (though certainly each carry their own set of consequences).

So let’s push the issue.

What opinions are no longer socially acceptable to hold? What opinions infringe upon the rights of others? When is holding a particular opinion actually harboring hate speech?

How do these examples fit in the “support the student regardless of their views” thought?

  • A student group opposing the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage
  • A student group supporting the NRA
  • A student group supporting the building of a wall along the US-Mexican border

Those are all political stances that exist in the US, but carry with them much more weight than the previous examples.

What about these?

  • A student group that declares homosexuality is an abomination and supports gay-to-straight conversion camps
  • A student group that declares the superiority of one race above another
  • A student group supporting Richard Spencer and the rallies he has organized

Do any of these push into the asterisk zone where you cannot support the student because of the opinions they hold?

I cannot answer that question for every individual teacher. But I do know that the last three bullet points would be an absolute deal-breaker for me.

I can be a teacher who supports a trusting community by supporting my students in their opposing views.

However.

I cannot be a teacher who supports students in actions that tear down the very fabric of that trusting community. I do draw a line. I do dwell in that asterisk. When a student supports a message of hate, I can no longer support that student, because hate has no place in a community.

Let me repeat: hate has no place in a community. And it doesn’t matter if the hatred is directed at members of the community or not. Directed hatred cannot be allowed to be a part of the communities we build in our schools.

Most countries have free speech laws. But many countries also have laws that limit that speech when it turns into hatred of others. And regardless of the level of those laws, we have an obligation to support our students and defend our students. When it comes to a point where I have to choose between supporting my students or defending my students against their peers, I will defend them.

And I will also let my students know why I cannot support them. Why I cannot give them space to meet. Why I cannot give them advice on how to get their message out. Why I cannot provide them with any assistance. Why I believe their message is one of hate, and why I believe that has no place in our schools.

Those will be incredibly hard conversations, and those students will likely lose all respect for me, as they very likely disagree. They will feel as though I have failed them. They will feel as though I am a hypocrite. The community will be damaged, and it will not be likely to recover.

I have to stop here. This post is getting too difficult to continue right now. The hardest thing I have encountered as a teacher is when I have been faced with a choice, and all options lead to a fractured classroom community. All options lead to fracturing the thing I value the most for my students. But sometimes, we are faced with just those sorts of choices. I am in tears thinking about it, and I must take time to recharge.

Next Saturday, I will attempt to have a post about hope in these situations, as well as what administrators can do to support their teachers who support their students.