Beyond Thanksgiving: Indigenous Books Anytime

A minute ago, it was summer. Now, the leaves have all blown away, the garden has been put to bed, the sun only works part-time, and the snow dared to arrive in my part of the world. We are eyeball deep in the season of assessments, report cards, and parent-teacher conferences. We are all exhausted. But we have a break in sight. Despite Christmas commercials insisting we should have been shopping since the beginning of October, it’s Thanksgiving’s turn next.

 

The Thanksgivings of my youth were spent at Nana’s and Papa’s house in Indiana, family and friends crowded around folding tables, eating the turkey Dad carved with Papa and the noodle kugel Nana made for every gathering. Before the long road trip there, we celebrated and did activities at school: paper hand turkeys, coloring pages of cornucopias and Pilgrims and “Indians”, writing about what we were thankful for, and once, a feast that included venison stew made from the meat of a deer my teacher had hunted.

 

As I have grown more aware of how simplified, inaccurate, and white-washed my school experience was of Thanksgiving, I will work to do better as I teach this generation of children. We will not color stereotypical portraits of Native people. We will not teach that the Pilgrims and Native people lived in harmony or in an equitable symbiotic relationship. We will not talk and read about the Wampanoag or any Native peoples ONLY for a day or two…on the contrary, we will continue to talk and read about indigenous people in ways that challenge biased perspectives of history, invites critical conversations of Native peoples’ experiences, and centers them accurately in their own stories. We will be inclusive of Native voices in our read alouds, our classroom libraries, and our shared reading.

 

November is officially Native American Heritage Month. Much like Black History Month, and other recognized cultural spotlights, they were created to draw awareness and attention, as well as, to make space for celebration and recognition. These designated months are a tremendous opportunity to educate ourselves and others about cultures, ethnicities, and identities that deserve our time and undivided attention, and intended to encourage awareness and education all year long. But they can be a double-edged sword.

 

A highlighted month does not permit us to relegate diversity to a determined frame of time, a curricular unit, or as a means of comforting the majority. If as educators, we save stories by and about Native people only for November, if we don’t include representation outside of the month, then we guarantee that they will always be “othered”. What happens when Native children see books by and about indigenous people disappear from their educational experience after Thanksgiving? They disappear, too. However, if those same children hear books read aloud and find books in their classroom and school libraries by Joseph Bruchac, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Tim Tingle, Monique Gray Smith, Julie Flett, and more, they find their stories and people. They find their mirrors, their representation. Representational literature effectively communicates to its readers that they are worthy, their stories are real, and who they are is valuable and whole. For the many children in our classes who are non-native, these books serve as windows, glimpses into another’s experience, a way to grow education and empathy towards those different from ourselves.

 

This November, if you are making a point to read books about America’s first people, ensure you are sharing culturally accurate, truly representational texts, and elevating #OwnVoices texts created by Native authors and illustrators. Then, be sure to read, share, and shelve them throughout the year. Make that promise to yourself and your students that the stories and experiences of indigenous people are valid and normal any time of the year. Buy some for your classroom or get them from the library. Your library doesn’t stock it? Ask them to purchase it for circulation. Research, reach out, and read. Here’s a picture book resource list from Cynthia Leitich Smith and few of my recent favorites to get you started. Images and descriptions courtesy of Goodreads.com.

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Picture Book: “A look at modern Native American life as told by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.”

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Picture Book: “…encourages children to show love and support for each other and to consider each other’s well-being in their everyday actions.”

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Picture Book: “Go on a Mission to Space with Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, as he shares his flight on the space shuttle Endeavor and his thirteen-day mission to the International Space Station.”

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Picture Book: “Nimoshom loved to drive the school bus. Every day, on the way to and from school, he had something to say. Sometimes, he told the kids silly stories. Sometimes, he taught the kids a new word in Cree.”

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Picture Book: “Set in the Okanagon, BC, a First Nations family goes on an outing to forage for herbs and mushrooms. Grandmother passes down her knowledge of plant life to her young grandchildren.”

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Picture Book: “Circles are all around us. We just have to look for them. Sometimes they exist in the most unusual places.”

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Picture Book: “When Uncle and Windy Girl and Itchy Boy attend a powwow, Windy watches the dancers and listens to the singers. She eats tasty food and joins family and friends around the campfire. Later, Windy falls asleep under the stars. Now Uncle’s stories inspire other visions in her head: a bowwow powwow, where all the dancers are dogs.”

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Picture Book: “As a young Navajo boy, Chester Nez had to leave the reservation and attend boarding school, where he was taught that his native language and culture were useless. But Chester refused to give up his heritage. Years later, during World War II, Chester—and other Navajo men like him—was recruited by the US Marines to use the Navajo language to create an unbreakable military code. Suddenly the language he had been told to forget was needed to fight a war.”

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Middle Grade Picture Book: “When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her.”

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Young Adult: “#NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman.”

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Young Adult: “thoughtful story of a Native teen navigating the complicated, confusing waters of high school – and first love.”

 

Some Summers

The summers of my childhood were filled with
Hawaiian Punch popsicles and
Lemonade stands
Polka-dot ruffle-butt swimsuits
Leaping through sprinklers
Inflatable kiddie pools filled with icy water from the green garden hose
Sundresses and pigtails
Scraped knees and
Care Bear bandages
Watching Mom’s soap opera
Digging in the garden with Dad
Petting worms
Itchy grass
Potato bugs
Tree climbing
Hill rolling
Bike riding
Roller skates and jump ropes
Singing on the back stoop
Sidewalk chalk dust up to my elbows
YMCA Day camp
Girl Scout equestrian camp
JCC Jewish camp
Neighborhood block parties
Burgers on the grill
The ice cream man. THE ICE CREAM MAN!
Wiffle ball with the big red Mickey Mouse bat
Sweltering Brewers baseball games
Frigid put-your-sweatshirt-on-in-the-house air conditioning
Road trips to see
Mountains
Deserts
Canyons
Parks
Prairies
Oceans

My summers felt endless.
I felt carefree, creative, busy.
I couldn’t wait for summer to begin.

As teachers, we quickly learn that many of our students do not look forward to summer at all, the way some of us did as children. While some miss the companionship of their classmates, daily routines, and their teachers, others know that summer brings uncertainty, anxiety, disruption, and instability.

Their summers feel endless.
They feel anxious, bored, overloaded.
They can’t wait for summer to end.

Some children, anticipating change, need extra hugs, reassurances, and positive mindset coaching.

But for those who dread summer because they do not know where their daily meals will come from, cannot afford summer camp, return to respite care as foster children, worry for their safety, lack books in their home or a library within walking distance…these months away from the insulation of schools only raise anxiety instead of inducing relaxation.

These are the children who have started to cling. To worry. To whine. To act out. To cry. To argue. To resist. To build walls. To withdraw. They push away so the leaving doesn’t feel so hard. They fall apart because their million separate pieces feel safer at school than their whole, anywhere else.

Notice them now. Acknowledge them now. Help them with how to move on. Tell them that it may not feel like it, but summer will eventually come to an end. Show them that they will always be in your thoughts.

Send them into their summers with hope.
Love them now.

Spend your time now until the last day of school to
Read more aloud in class
Build summer TBR (to be read) lists
Check out classroom library books for students to take home and return next year
Teach families how to keep summer reading love burning
Talk about the value of a library card
Connect with your kids on Goodreads
Embark on literacy passion projects and studio time to pursue writing ideas
Give students the gift of their very own book (Scholastic Reading Club $1 books!)
Share your school or personal email so your kids can reach out over the summer
Decorate new Writer’s Notebooks: blank, fresh, and full of possibility
Build idea jars with writing prompts, thoughts, and inspirations to take home
Remind students that a good book can take them to
Mountains
Deserts
Canyons
Parks
Prairies
Oceans
And beyond, in their minds, in case they want to go somewhere, but need to stay here at home for the summer.

On the last day of school, they will leave your care, and know that they were, and are, loved.

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The Feels

The * Feels /thə feelz/  n. shorthand for the word “feelings” that is used to describe an intense emotional response about something that has deeply affected the speaker.  (source: knowyourmeme.com)



The past week in my classroom has been hitting me right in the feels. I’m so blessed to have a job passion that allows me to get this intense emotional responses every so often. These past five days have been a roller coaster of emotion in Room 27. Here is why…

Feels #1 – March Book Madness

After months of build-up, Tony and I are launching the voting rounds for the March Book Madness book tournament. For the next four weeks, schools all over the US (and some in Asia) will be reading, discussing and voting for books in our brackets trying to determine the TOP book for “Compelling Characters.”

The response to this year’s MBM is unprecedented. Tony and I receive tweets daily from teachers and librarians showing us how much MBM is inspiring the love of books and reading in their schools. Nothing brings me more joy than to see photos of kids examining and pointing at the bulletin board in their classroom with the MBM bracket. I’ve seen Flipgrids, Padlets and iMovies with students sharing their love of a particular book and persuading their peers to pick it to advance to the next round.

Tony and I text regularly about how we can’t believe how this small idea we hatched during a twitter chat in 2014 could give thousands of young readers such excitement and joy about books.

Feels #2 – Refugee

Last Friday, we finished reading Refugee by Alan Gratz for our read aloud. (If you have not read this book, you must, after reading this post of course, go straight to your local independent bookstore or reserve this book from your library.) This particular read aloud with my fifth graders has been like no other. Not only did I have students begging to miss recess to keep reading another chapter, I had students getting copies from the library so they could start reading it again during their free time. But, the suspense and action-packed plot was only part of what made this book truly magical.

Refugee is not just a book. It’s an experience. An experience that allowed me to connect to my students’ lives unlike any other book has. I teach in a school that is almost 30% English language learners and 25-30 students have refugee status. One of them is in my class. He is old enough to remember his journey, yet comfortable enough to pull me aside and tell me that this book made him sad.

Throughout the book, I would show videos about refugees from Nazi Germany in 1940, Cuba in 1994 and Syria in 2015 to provide context to the characters. I will never forget hearing students say “That’s not fair!” or “Why are they doing that?” as they watched Hungarian border patrol aggressively deny entrance to a group of refugees. Forever etched in my mind is the image of three girls huddled together, arm in arm, as we read the author’s note. I’ll always remember watching Mason wipe away a single tear from his cheek as we listened to the final chapter. And perhaps he will always remember watching Mr. Jones wipe away a single tear at the same time.

This book is powerful. Students have talked about it every day since finishing it.

Feels #3 – Letters of Thanks

Each planning period, I walk to my staff mailbox and look to see what annoying professional development pamphlet I’m going to recycle that day. But, this week, I didn’t get any. Instead, I received three envelopes all addressed to me in “not-adult” handwriting. I opened each envelope to find handwritten thank you cards from former students. I took them back to my classroom and began to read. Here are a few samples of their words that are the epitome of right in the feels.

“Thank you for making school fun and making me glad to actually come to school.”
“In your class, school became a happier place that I used to think about it.”
“Thank you for teaching me things that I can pass on to other people to help them too.”
“Thank you for kickstarting my confidence. I’m taking high school math classes in 8th grade.”
“You have made me see what is worth seeing.”
“Thank you so much for boosting my confidence to keep going and never give up.”
“After your class, I feel like I see the value of education.”

 

IMG_0848My intention is sharing these is not to be self-congratulatory. Rather, it is to show how their thank-yous are not directed towards the assessments, daily lessons or academic standards we provide for our students. Instead, their appreciation is rooted in how our classroom community made them feel.

Most teachers get into this profession to make a difference in the lives of children. It is often a thankless job, and we don’t always get the recognition from our students or the community. Yet, our jobs as teachers is unlike any other job.

We get to see the excitement on our students’ faces first hand when they finally solve that math problem.

 

 

We get to experience a great book with our students every day.

We get to provide safe spaces for our students to ask, wonder and notice.

We get to kick start a child’s confidence.

We get to see learning take place first hand!

What makes our job so special is that we actually get to feel the feels.

Did you allow yourself to feel the feels this week? I invite you to share the source of your feels in the comments section.

Halfway Here: The Just Ten Challenge

Halfway there.
We are halfway there.
Near equidistant from the first day of school to the last…
I still have beginning of the year “to dos” and aspirations hanging in limbo, waiting for a minute of my attention.
The pile of manila folders I placed on my cabinet in September still sits there.
I’ve been running on the binder creating, Google Drive organizing, classroom library reshuffling gerbil wheel all year.
And I think I forgot to tear off yesterday’s page on my daily desk calendar.

Today was a rainy day. In Wisconsin. In January.
Thunder and lightning, puddles and humidity.
Cloudy and gloomy.
Gray.
And it felt like it.

It was one of those days where the air and the energy was heavy. District math testing. Indoor recess. Winding down reading and writing units. A student meltdown. It was a slow motion, going-through-the-motions sort of day for the kids and me, and I came home defeated and frustrated. Today lacked luster. Today was mundane. Today was mediocre. But it wasn’t without its joyful moments. To shake off the dust for tomorrow, I was determined to consciously remember and recognize those highlights. Closing my eyes and thinking back on my day, I realized it wasn’t too difficult to name the good in our day.

Andrew brought in his Spirograph tracers to share with his friends during our morning “Spark & Shine” soft start choice time. Kaylah wrote a heartfelt dedication to her dog in the informational book she is writing on how to raise a puppy. Amir jumped into a new favorite series to push himself as a reader. Akilah finished the third book in her series, the most of a series she’s ever read before. Elijah said, “Have a great lunch Mrs. Werner!” on the way out the door. We all laughed during our end of day read aloud. And that’s just what came to mind right away.

This got me thinking…we all have our highs and lows during the school year, but as educators, we often sell ourselves short considering all that we have taught and facilitated with our students. We get stuck on what we have yet to accomplish, the unmemorable days, and the unsuccessful teaching moments we have experienced, that we leave little time to reflect on all that is good and joyful and celebratory in our classrooms. In the mood to make lists and at an appropriate point in the year to be more deeply reflective, I challenged myself to jot down the first ten moments that came to mind that were unforgettable, heartwarming, profound, and positive. Just ten! I was hoping I would prove to myself that even on this gray day, there is, and has been, so much to celebrate.

  1. Getting emails from parents elated that their children are for the first time excited about reading and choosing to read on their own for pleasure in their spare time.
  2. “Hey, he looks just like me!” said Marius, an African American student upon seeing a childhood photo of Jason Reynolds in People magazine, after the author did a visit to our school. The power of mirrors.
  3. Twitter. Students tweeting at their favorite authors and receiving tweets back.
  4. Making Claymates inspired by Dev Petty’s and Lauren Eldridge’s book of the same name. Watching them come alive through student-created stop motion videos was awe-inspiring. Especially Dominic, who channeled his creative energy and ever moving body into unique and clever claymated narratives.
  5. Hiking in the fall with our kindergarten pals in the woods where we discovered the beauty of the natural world readying itself for winter…and a skull. An animal skull we brought back with us that turned into a spontaneous science lesson to identify it the next day. Armed with magnifying glasses, iPads, books, sketching tools, they wondered and sought to learn more.
  6. We are fresh off of Skype visits with authors Shelley Johannes and Debbi Michiko Florence, we are inspired by their advice and experience as writers. Connecting to authors in real time is magical.
  7. “I used to not like math, but this is fun!” And in related news, “Do we have to stop writing to go to recess?”
  8. Field trip to the Milwaukee Film Festival to see the children’s shorts program. Watching the kids’ reactions as much as the films themselves, I witnessed laughter, tears, wonder, and surprise across their faces.
  9. The day we finished reading Stone Fox together. You know the part. Pass the tissues. And a hug.
  10. Kalani found her heritage in Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen, which turned her into a book lover and frequent snail mailer and Twitter pen pal with the author.

Wait! That’s ten already?! But I have eleven and more! It may still be dreary outside, but the gray cloud is lifting from my day. Now, I challenge you to do the same. Pause during your day. In your mind, on paper, in a doc, wherever, what ten moments come to mind that showcases the awesome in your school year? Instead of thinking about counting down the days, let’s look back at how far we’ve come. We’ve built communities, class families, and made an impact on our children.

We are not halfway there.
We are halfway here.
Halfway here.

Share your #JustTen moments in the comments below or on social media with #ClassroomCommunities!
*All names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.

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Our Reading Lives

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

~Jim Henson

As a teacher it’s always been my hope that my students leave my classroom as readers. They may not remember everything we learn about Romeo and Juliet or Twelve Angry Men, but I hope they remember the books they chose to read in class, my excitement about reading, and our classroom reading community. I hope they remember that I care about them.

FullSizeRenderFor six or more years now I’ve been posting covers of the books I read on my classroom door for students and staff to see. It encourages others to read, promotes conversation, and also helps me keep track of what I’m reading (and where I need to fill in genre holes). My students see me reading during SSR and I think it’s beneficial for them to see my reading life as a whole via the covers on my door. They also notice how quickly I’m reading (or not reading).

In the past I’ve saved a bulletin board for my seniors to post recommendations for the classes following them. Unfortunately none of my seniors last year participated, so I was left with an empty board this year. After some careful consideration, I decided to dedicate my two bulletin boards to my freshmen and my seniors’ reading lives. It’s fun to create Pinterest-worthy bulletin boards, but 1. I’m not that artsy and 2. I want my students to have ownership in my classroom. So these bulletin boards aren’t “artsy” by any means, but they are effective, which is the whole reason for bulletin boards in the first place.

My classroom now has a space for me, my freshmen classes, and my senior classes to post covers of the books we’ve read. I wasn’t sure what my students would really think of the idea, but they jumped right on board. It’s also prompted some healthy peer pressure between the grade levels. In fact, I just updated my senior board and I heard one of my seniors whisper “Bring it, freshmen!” to another student. Little did he know that I have yet to update my freshmen board! My last group of freshmen walked into class and noticed the updated senior board as well. “I thought we’ve read more than that! They’re ahead by a whole line!” They’re paying attention and the bulletin boards haven’t become “wallpaper” like so many pieces of classroom decor can become.

Since beginning this process, I’ve noticed students looking to the boards to see what everyone has been reading and then asking about specific books they see. It’s also been a great way for me to see the trends in their reading. When a student reads a book that has already been posted, I place a star sticker on the cover. Some books–my book club books in particular–are going to end up swamped with stars! I’ve also been playing around with the idea of including student reviews with the covers as well, but for the sake of space, I’m not sure if that will work. At this point, we may end up posting book covers around the outside of the boards!

The organization has been tricky. I try to carve out time each week to ask my students which books they’ve finished and add it to the list I have for each class. I also have to make time during my planning to insert book cover images onto Google Slides and then ask our media center assistant to print the covers in color. That also means making time to cut out each cover and staple it to the board. It’s an ongoing and somewhat time consuming project, but it’s worthy of my time. I plan on surveying my students at the end of the school year to find out what they think of it and if they think it’s a project I should continue.

I was disappointed when my seniors last year didn’t participate in my former bulletin board practice, but I’m ultimately thankful for it now. This new idea has been much more interactive and successful than any other bulletin board I’ve created. I hope my students continue to enjoy it.

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.

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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.

Bleeding Scream

I am in a new role this year, one that means I am removed from classroom teaching. It’s been an adjustment, but one that is going fairly smoothly. That said, any time I have a chance to be in a school, I get excited and can barely contain myself. Even if it means I’m giving a short presentation to teachers about how they can use their new laptops in their classrooms.

As I’m also new to my school division, some of the building leaders have given me short little tours the first times I’ve been in their schools. The first building I was in was a K-8 building that was a modified open-classroom building. Most rooms didn’t have doors, and many walls were “missing” as well. The result was a really powerful experience as I would walk by “classrooms” and hear bits and pieces of the learning going on around me.

When I walked by one of the grade 5/6 areas, I saw the students all looking at their teacher, and I heard him say two words: “Bleeding Scream.”

I had to stop the person giving the tour, to make sure I heard that correctly. Sure enough, I did not miss those words. He was about to read a chapter of Wonder. For those who know the book, that is the chapter. The chapter when Jack Will says those words.

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Do you know the book? One of my favourite read-alouds.

I didn’t want to distract the students from that moment, so I continued on.

But those kids stuck with me. I’ve never read the book with that age level before. How did they react? What did they think? Were they surprised? Did any of them feel sick to their stomachs, as I did when I first read that scene?

Fortunately, the answer was but an email away.

I asked the teacher those very questions. His response was better than I had hoped. Sure, he let me know their thoughts. But he also invited me to come talk with them myself.

So yesterday, I had the opportunity to put on my teacher hat and read a section of Wonder to a group of students who were so invested in every word, I could have read with them for hours.

Some incredible things happened as a result of that experience:

  1. I was able to connect with my teacher self a little more deeply, feeding that fire.
  2. The classroom teacher got to a) have a well-deserved break and b) see his work validated by a colleague.
  3. The students got to see that this practice — reading a book and talking about it — is not something limited to them and their teacher. It’s something adults do because it’s a good practice.

As administrators, sometimes we can lose sight of the impact our actions can have. We get caught up in what we see as important, forgetting that the most important thing is the students in our care. Though they might not be directly in our care most of the time, they are still the only thing that matters in this profession.

The look on their faces, seeing someone from the division office (perhaps capitalized Division Office in their minds) step in and do what their teacher does with them every day, was one of wonderful realization. This isn’t just their teacher doing something good. This is something of value beyond their learning space. This is something that matters. They are someone who matters.

Some will say the time spent with these students could have been better spent. I suppose I could have worked some more on the database of instructional videos I’m creating. I could have met with my team members on a project we are working on. I could have done some more professional reading.

But that stuff will happen. That’s a required part of my job. What’s important are the things that aren’t required. For 30 minutes at the end of the work week, I chose to be with students and bring some validation to a teacher and his practice.

I can’t think of a better use of my time.

I don’t want to sit here and put a false air of importance on myself. But it is important that those of us on the administration side of things realize the “official” nature of our presence, whether we want it or not. How are we using it to validate and appreciate those around us? Worse yet, how are we using it to invalidate or depreciate those around us?

Let’s use the little bit of power we have for good, as often as possible. Because those students? The looks on their faces? I’ll never forget it.

Of course, doing a one-time visit is nice. But it is that much better when we can repeat these things. When we can really show the students how important they are. The students recognized that. They asked me to come back as I was leaving. And sure, that felt nice. As much as I validate their work, those words of theirs validated mine.

But to come back. To show them that yes, they are important. Yes, they matter. That is key. They are worth my time, no matter how busy I may be.