We Teach People by Sarah Krajewski

When I was a first-year English teacher 17 years ago, I thought my job was to teach the literature I loved. I believed that if I shared my love for The Call of the Wild, my students would love it as much as I do, and many did. Some, however, didn’t. There were heads down on desks, and failing grades showed up on report cards. Looking back on that year, I cringe. I put the book before my students. Now, my priorities have shifted.

Now, I observe.

His eyes are up more than down. Her eyes look to her lap where her phone is hidden. When I ask students to mark their spots, I note who shuts their book without a marked page. Two boys don’t lift their pencils during the first quickwrite. Another doesn’t even open her notebook when asked to. I watch this all without saying a word, and store it away for conferences.

Now, I comfort.

Frustration and anxiety appear on faces. I smile. I take out my pencil and write too. I share my mistakes. When I see a boy’s head in his hands, I kneel down to quietly share some suggestions to get started. This notebook is for mistakes. It’s where we can take risks, I say. I’m an awful speller, he replies. I reassure him that spelling doesn’t count here. This is where he has the freedom to explore. No need to worry about perfection.

Now, I listen.

Miss? I came to get that book, remember? The boy’s hands shake as he sits down and looks up at me as I get the book he requested. Can I tell you something? he asks me nervously. I immediately sit next to him to confirm. I’m not a good reader. My last school told me I read like a 4th grader, and my Lexile is too low for an 8th grader. My teachers and classmates mocked me. They told me I improved, but not enough. I can’t go through that again. I want to get better.

Now, I reassure.

You are not a level or Lexile, I reply. Don’t let those people define who you are. You are a reader, and I’ll help you realize that this year. He shares his frustration with staying focused and his concern that he’ll forget to read at home, and I share my recently-discovered love for audiobooks and the value in having reading partners. He states that his father would be a great reading partner. By the time he heads home, he has The Hate U Give and a reading plan.

Now, I create safe spaces.

Miss? Can you look this over for me and tell me what you think? She opens her Chromebook and I read about the night she told her parents she’s gay. Her father and uncle did not handle it well, and it hurt her deeply. She shared her pain and disbelief that they could feel this way about their flesh and blood. I admire you, I said. Thank you for sharing this piece with me. I can only hope that someday your family sees the incredible person that I do.

Now, I show my true self.

She enters my room after school, and immediately checks to make sure she’s the only one here. When her hope is confirmed, she walks over and sits down. Over the next hour, we share stories about the girl we both lost in an accident. A best friend and a mentee. A confidant and a budding artist. Tears are shed more than once as we watch a butterfly appear outside the window.

As the second week of school ends, more pencils are moving along the paper. Conversations revolve around writing topics, and more students openly share favorite lines. When I see these buds begin to emerge, I am reminded that this comes first. I don’t teach texts. I teach the amazing human beings that enter my classroom each day.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 11th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 17th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at https://skrajewski.wordpress.com.

A Teacher’s Promise

          “Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’
          I will harbor you.”
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (p. 34)

My students, this is my promise to you…

I will harbor you

I will welcome you to
our school
our classroom
our space

I will teach you
to multiply
          your kindnesses
to write
          your story
to read
          your world

I will show you
how to crawl inside the pages of a book
          so you can stand outside of yourself
how to raise your voice
          by lowering one sharp pencil to paper
how to be brave
          without a cape or armor

I will ask you to
think deeply
reflect thoughtfully
question boldly

I will listen to you
when you speak confidently
when you whisper timidly
when you say nothing at all

I will see you
in beaming rays of sunshine
under heavy gray clouds
between the silent stars

I will be honest with you
that good people can do bad things
that life is full of unfairness
that grown-ups think making war will lead to peace

I will challenge you
to seek a million answers
          but ask a billion questions
to be intolerant of injustice
          relentless in reform
          persistent in peace
to understand that every day is an opportunity
          to be a friend
          to learn something new
          to be an agent of change

I will comfort you
when wicked words sting
when reliable routines change
when the world tumbles off its axis

I will help you
ride out the storm
stand your ground
find your balance
find your calm
find your home

I will guide you as you
navigate the waves
hoist the sails
dock your ship

I will harbor you.

I will harbor
you.

This poem, this promise, was inspired by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel, Harbor Me, published August 2018.

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Rethinking Curriculum Night

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I had such great success Rethinking Meet the Teacher event and I keep coming back to the question What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this classroom?; I did some rethinking about working with parents.  I enjoy going to Curriculum Nights as a parent for three reasons.  I want to see the space and teacher that will be working with my child and I hope to learn about the teacher personally.  I enjoy learning about the topic or material covered for the year and I get really interested when they mention anything about the how we learn.

Taking my learning from the Teaching for Creativity Institute this summer, I decided to engage my parents in a creative task.  I prepared eight brown paper bags with recyclable materials.  Parents were around the room; some standing and some sitting.  I asked them to come together in small groups around the tables and introduced the material bags, task, and time limit.  They looked at me hesitantly.  The task was to decide on a problem they had they had and make something to fix it.

The room slowly became a buzz and I “worked the party” discovering this work had more benefits than I thought.

  1.  Parents introduced themselves to each other and identified who their child was.
  2.  They shared ideas for problems and were validated for their thinking.
  3.  They laughed and giggled.
  4.  They learned how hard it can be to get started.
  5.  They wanted to work longer to produce their ideas.
  6.  They were hesitant to share and then enjoyed that step.
  7.  They wanted to make something “real” and struggled with prototypes.
  8.  Parents shared more excitement than usual for our year of learning together.
  9.  I felt more relaxed during the evening.
  10.  I felt more engaged with the parents than just presenting information to them.

The night was a bigger success than I thought and I decided the biggest benefit was I had spent time in developing a parent community for our classroom.  We know our work isn’t just with students and I’ve had parents join us on and off every year I’ve been teaching.  This evening felt different and I think it’s because I had them engaged and being a learner, like their child will be this year.

My Classroom Is A Mess

There have been so many professional books that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person. Each summer, I try to read two or three professional books because I am always striving to become more knowledgeable and more efficient so I can set up my students to be better learners. These books always make me feel more organized and give me a better handle on what I’m doing.  However, this may sound crazy, but I read a professional book this summer that has made my classroom messy, confusing and cluttered.

Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children in School completely changed the way I view my school, my students and my classroom community. As I finished the last page, I just sat there for a good five minutes pondering what I had just read.  Upon completing this book three days before students arrived in the classroom, I felt compelled to delete my “First Week Of School” folder that was full of lesson plans and activities that I had used for the past few years. With my plans in the trashcan on my laptop, I envisioned a new first week of school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew it had to be different.



“Everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.”

As I sat there staring at a blank computer screen, I knew that the most important time spent in my classroom at the beginning of the year is establishing community norms. I have never been one to have classroom “rules” because I believe this sets students up to think about what they are NOT permitted to do. Shalaby states that schools are traditionally places where “everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.” I don’t want my classroom community to be a place where anybody has to anticipate getting caught.



“Classrooms must be places in which we practice freedom. They must be microcosms of the kind of authentic democracy we have yet to enact outside those walls—spaces for young people, by young people—engaging our youth to practice their power and to master the skills required by freedom.”

Instead of classroom rules, I have always employed “essential agreements” so students have a chance to think about what positive behaviors are essential to our classroom community. Within the first few days, I have always presented these five essential agreements to the students as our classroom bill of rights:

  • We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe.
  • We have the right to be treated with respect.
  • We have the right to speak and be listened to.
  • We have the right to work and learn in a positive supportive learning environment.
  • We have the right to do out best.

“These are the things that your peers may not take away from you,” I always say. We would then have multiple conversations over the first weeks about what these essential agreements do and don’t look and feel like. However, it is now day 6, and I have not introduced these essential agreements because I have decided to start the conversation differently this year.

On the first day of school, I asked the students to think about the following question: Our classroom should be _________ every day. Most students responded with the words like “happy,” “clean,” and “kind.” It seems so simple. Students want a place that makes them feel welcome.

The following day, I continued the conversation by asking a question that left many students perplexed.
What do human beings need in order for us to do our best? After a few minutes of partner talk, we came together to record our thinking. I was delighted at their answers for many reasons. First, every answer was student-centered and did not mention the teacher. Second, their responses exhibit a growth mindset. Persevering, learning from mistakes and being patient all demonstrate the importance of the learning process over the final results or products.

IMG_4199.jpgThe next part of our discussion puts a spotlight on rules. What is a rule? Similar to the previous day, many students had difficulty clearly defining what a rule is. However, students provided some interesting insights into what they understand about rules. At

this point in the conversation, I asked students to ponder if we should have “rules” in our classroom. Most of them agreed that there need to be some boundaries or limits would help them monitor their behavior and make sure the classroom stayed happy and clean.



“He loved the freedom of learning just enough to hate the constraints of schooling.”

This book has forced me to reflect upon the aspects of my classroom culture that are rooted in student compliance. I have always considered our classroom as a place where students have a sense of freedom and choice in their learning. Yet, as I think about daily routines and classroom expectations, I am constantly asking myself, Is this procedure motivated by compliance and teaching students to “do school”? Or does this promote the freedom for students to learn and do their best? Often times, the answer is I don’t know.

I can honestly say that I have no idea where this conversation will lead us. These discussions have left me with more questions than answers.  I guess establishing a free and just society is messy with no clear answers. Yet, what I do know is that our classroom culture is going to be much stronger because of this reflection. I know that our conversation will continue. I hope that all of us will have a better vision of freedom and democracy. I hope that my students will work together to create a learning space that is happy, clean and kind.

Shalaby has made my job much harder! I have not gotten as far with organizing materials and setting routines as I usually have done in previous years. We have not labeled our spiral notebooks yet. Our classroom library is not completely organized. We haven’t finished setting up our iPads. Of course, we will eventually get everything organized and begin with our subject area content. But, for right now, my classroom is a mess.  And that’s just the way I want it.

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.

Rethinking Meet the Teacher Event

This past summer I was lucky enough to attend the Teaching for Creativity Institute at the Columbus Art Museum for four days in June.  My teaching soul felt hopeful and excited to revisit ideas that grounded my early days of teaching and gather some new thinking.  We talked about our stakeholders and how we can advocate for creativity teaching.  Ideas were tossed around for working with parents during curriculum nights and I began thinking about the two hour window new students and families can stop by to visit our learning space and meet me.  For many years it’s been an opportunity to unpack your school supplies and find out who is in your classroom.  I began thinking about the messages I wanted to start expressing right away and thought this format could be tweaked.

I saw an idea at the art museum in the Wonder Room and wanted to replicate it.  I thought about how they could express and foster messages about our classroom.  We will be inspired.  We will work together.  We will make things.  We will talk.  We will come together.  We will imagine.  When I thought about picking up my phone for some photos tonight, I had another family to meet and visit with.  I wish you could see the room in action.  It was beautiful.

Creative spaces

  1.  Coming Together – pick a fabric strip and add to chicken wire to make a class weaving
  2.  Imagine – explore with post it notes and make something new, tape and colored pencils were offered too
  3. Drawing with Friends – new markers and a square piece of paper hung together in a larger square grid.
  4. Be Inspired – offered four picture books about bugs, tissue paper squares and rectangles, pipe cleaners, and bendable wire

At first, I was worried the creative spaces weren’t going to be used very much.  It was probably a new option for my students.  They loved adding a strip of fabric to a collaborative weave.  When the room was quieter nudging was needed to engage my new friends.  I turned around at a busy moment and there was more engagement.  Old friends were reconnecting.  Neighbors were laughing.  Parents were reconnecting.  A new student, just moved this weekend to be with us and my new friend V did a great job talking to her while her grandpa snapped photos of her new learning space.  As the two hours ended, I found used creative spaces and things to hang in our room.  My space is now our space and the messages I wanted to send about our year together have been sent.

Collaborative Weaving

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