What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?

In June, I had the privilege to attend the Teaching for Creativity Institute at our local Columbus Art Museum. Four days of connecting with area educators while focusing on what creativity is, looks like, and how to foster creativity.  Creativity can be practiced, you can get better at it, and creativity is the basis of change.  Learning and growth require change. To help develop creativity we studied and learned about thinking and how to create cultures of thinking.  As our learning continued, we started talking about how to explain and justify to parents things we may do to foster creativity.  Ideas were shared for engaging parents and changing up the traditional curriculum night format.  I loved the ideas shared and I’m sure I will incorporate some this coming year.

Fred Burton, one of my former principals was a guest speaker during the institute and as he discussed studying and fostering cultures of thinking he proposed an essential question to guide that work.  “What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?”  I loved this question and kept pondering it.  This is a big question and an important one to be answered.  It would probably help with the beginning of the year jitters, I think everyone feels on some level.

At the end of day three I visited an area of the museum that’s called the Wonder Room.  It’s a place where families and children can interact with materials either by doing something or making something.  The activities connect in some way and during my visit my head began to swirl with thinking from my time at the institute and Fred’s essential question.  If I was a student, I would hope to find out some answers about learning in our classroom right away.  All the routines and things we do can bog down our first days, if we aren’t careful.

When families visit my room before school starts to meet me and see our learning space I typically have them work together to unpack and sort the student’s school supplies.  This doesn’t answer the question, What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?”  I found myself wanting to change the format of coming to see the classroom and meet your teacher before school starts.  What if their time in our classroom had creativity moments and opportunities to talk to others?  What if it involved collaboration and sharing ideas?  What if it generated student work to display and welcome them on their first day?  These photos are ideas I may borrow in one way or another to revamp meet the teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting My Room Too Early…

entering

I went back and it had only been a week and a half since the last day of school.  I was only going to use the laminator in the workroom and head right back out the front door.  I was waiting for the laminator to warm up and got curious.  I began wondering what the room looked like now?  Had anything been cleaned yet?  Was everything out in the hallway?  It hadn’t been that long since I left and I didn’t really want to know the answers to any of these questions but I took a walk down the hall to room 127 while the laminator warmed up.

I work really hard at the end of the year to finish up on our last teacher work day.  I put the room to rest, my work to rest, and close the door.  For years I’ve been under the assumption I do this to rush home and be a full time mother to my three girls.  I love being with them full time.  I was completely surprised to learn this may not be the only reason I put my room to rest, my work to rest, and close the door.

As I rounded the bend in my hallway I saw doors open in some rooms before mine and things shifted a bit but things weren’t out in the hallway and rooms empty.  I kept walking even know I knew things were in the same place as when I left.  I walked in and it felt all out of sorts.  A few physical things had been moved.  My carpet might have been cleaned and then I froze.  Strange feelings surfaced.  I felt alone.  I started envisioning my students working collaboratively at the tables.  I started seeing the books and writing/creating tools on the shelves as they should be.  I started to feel lonely and creepy at the same time.  This is my space and yet it felt all wrong.

It felt all wrong because I was hanging on to what and who I had.  I think putting my room to rest, my work to rest, and closing the door has done more than let me be a full time mom.  It’s let me savor the end of the school year with a community I came to adore.  It’s let me read professional books and connect with others on social media with open eyes and for myself.  Maybe having time to think on my own without student faces in front of me gives me a clearer space for thinking ahead.  I think summers are more than trips to the pool and physical rest.  I think we need time to process the year and put to rest what is behind us.  I think space away from my classroom has let me find time to open my heart and thinking to a new set of students.

 

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.

Was It Enough?

Was it enough?

Do they
Feel
Prepared for middle school?

Do they
Feel
Prepared for life?

Do they
Feel
Physically and emotionally safe?

Do they
Know
Their own potential?

Do they
Know
How much they’ve taught me this year?

Do they
Know
How much I care?

Was it enough?

Will they
Fail?

Will they
Fail
forward?

Will they
Act
With purpose and drive?

Will they
Do
The right thing, even when it’s hard?

Will they
Read
With the same excitement and passion as they do now?

Will they
Write
With the same tenacity and courage as they do now?

Will they
Respect
Everyone’s differences?

Will they
Embrace
Productive discomfort?

Will they
Return
To visit and share their successes?

Was it enough?

Please continue to
Collaborate well.

Please continue to
Use your voice.

Please continue to
See the power of the word “yet”.

Please continue to
Stay curious.

Please continue to
Notice and wonder.

Please continue to
Find your passion.

Was it enough?

Did I
Provide
Books that mirrored their life experience?

Did I
Listen
To them sufficiently?

Did I
Push
Them beyond their comfort zones?

Did I
Empower
Them to own their learning?

Did I
Give
Enough high fives?

Did I
Treat
Them all fairly?

Did I
Tell
Them how proud I am?

Was it enough?

All About Me to All About Us

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I had the pleasure to attend The Ohio State University’s Commencement this past Sunday as a proud parent of an undergraduate senior.  I had no idea I would find a topic to share today and start taking notes during the keynote address while listening to, Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Desmond-Hellmann shared her story; growing up, education, and research.  She had bumps, valleys and success.  Her message to the graduates was based on her own journey.  Shifting her thinking from all about me to thinking all about us; brought depth and purpose to her work.  She urged the audience to ask, What can I do for our world?  This will shift our thinking from me to thinking about us.  She urged us to question ourselves and cautioned us that good intentions are not enough.  Good intentions are still about me.  She wants us to ask; What was the impact?  What improved?

She urged the graduates to shift their thinking as soon as possible from me to us!  I began thinking about my second graders.  Why do we need to wait to start thinking broader? Can we shift our thinking at seven and eight years old to be bigger than me? I started brainstorming questions and ideas  –

  1.  What can we do for a younger grade?
  2.  What can we do for a special group of students?
  3.   What can we do for families staying at our local childrens hospital?
  4.   What can we do to impact our world?
  5.   What can we do to make a difference in our own building or classroom?

 

  1.  Read biographies about those not so famous.
  2.  Find stories about kids making a difference.
  3.  Discuss and identify feelings we have.
  4. Do things locally now to make a difference and make it concrete.
  5. Encourage and foster inquiry.
  6. Foster a relationship with an organization that needs help.
  7. Do community service more than once with an organization.
  8. Field trips are so limited – bring speakers from the organization to us.
  9. Share photos with the organization or video for visuals.
  10. Spark and provide creative moments to be a maker.

When Dr. Desmond-Hellmann said, “we under estimate ourselves” I instantly thought about our elementary age students.  I think they get under estimated. They are powerful and filled with potential.  Listening to her speak on Sunday made me think about fostering a community and how that is really taking the thinking all about me and making it all about us.  However, can we take that all about us and make a difference?  Can we go outside our four walls and have an impact on others?

I’d love to know what others are doing to take help their communities to make a difference and impact others.  Please share ideas in our comments.

Student Teaching Lessons

In the late fall of 2006, I was elated to receive my placement for student teaching the following semester. I was a double-major in English and math, and my university required a diversity of classroom experiences–and there were some I had yet to successfully complete. I figured with those restrictions, I would be splitting time between classrooms (or schools or even districts), or have something that was far from my parents’ house, where I was hoping to live for the semester.

But that’s before I knew the teacher I would be placed with existed.

This teacher was a middle school math and English teacher in a school about 30 minutes from my parents’ house. His classroom satisfied the remaining requirements I needed to graduate from my university’s secondary education program.

It was, to put it lightly, one of the best experiences of my life.

I was able to practice various lessons out, get honest and constructive feedback regularly, try out some things, and basically run a classroom with all the scaffolds and supports I needed as a neophyte teacher.

What I didn’t realize until just recently is how strong his impact is on me when it comes to relationship-building. This teacher is a Milken Award-winning teacher, and I assumed that was because he knew both his content and how to deliver it masterfully (both of which are true).

What I realize now is that he is the teacher he is because he knows those things, but more so because he knows his students.

Here are some things I learned during the winter of 2007, complete with annotations of what I thought they meant and what they really mean.

EMP Awards

End of Marking Period Awards were his version of a paper plate award. Essentially, he would give out unique awards with names that match each students’ unique contributions to the classroom. He gives them out at the end of each marking period: 4 times a year. He maintained a spreadsheet of who received awards at each quarter, to ensure that everyone received at least one and nobody received more than 2.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to engage the students on a day that was otherwise a difficult one to manage.
I thought this was a way to celebrate each student for the unique person they are.
I thought this was a way to make sure everyone felt loved and celebrated.

What I Now Realize
It is all of those things. But to have it be those things…to have each student feel celebrated for who they are as an individual, it requires the teacher to see each student as an individual. It would be impossible to give out these awards without knowing the students on a level beyond their academic successes and failures. It forced him to see his students as individuals, and for the gifts and talents each of them had.

Speaking Spanish

This teacher had a decent grasp of Spanish, and would casually pepper his class with Spanish words and phrases.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to support the foreign language department as well as promote the use of Spanish. An easy cross-curricular support.

What I Now Realize
There were very few English Language Learners in his classes. However, there was a great diversity of culture, and many of the students spoke more than one language. Arabic, in particular, was quite popular. While this teacher didn’t know Arabic, by speaking another language, it showed the benefit of having more than one language to speak, thereby validating those who did speak multiple languages. It reinforced the idea that multiculturalism is important, making everyone likely more comfortable with the diversity of culture in their classroom and in their lives.

Playing the Accordion

 

Yes, you read that correctly. One of my most vivid memories of student teaching was when my brother was a guest speaker to talk about his role in the business world, for a jobs and careers unit we were doing. My brother quoted The Rolling Stones, saying, “You can’t always get what you want.” The principal, also in the room, starting singing the song, encouraging the students (none of whom knew the song) to join in. Then the teacher whipped out his accordion, and we had an awkward and awesome sing-along for about 10 seconds. It is, to this day, the most surreal teaching moment I’ve had.

That said, this was a relatively common enough practice that nobody (aside from perhaps my brother) was taken aback when the classroom teacher pulled out his accordion.

What I Thought
I thought this was a chance to relieve some pressure and intensity through music, and in an unexpected way that 7th and 8th graders seem to love.

What I Now Realize
The piece I didn’t mention above is that he also played the accordion for every student’s birthday. So every student had a day where they had this really interesting experience of being sung to with accordion accompaniment. It was a way to celebrate the community and the birthdays being celebrated, but it also provided stories for the students to connect with years later. I mean, how many students can say their 8th grade English teacher would play accordion during class?

Pennants on the Ceiling

On the ceiling of his classroom were university pennants. These were either purchased by him or given as gifts from former students and colleagues. I made sure to get a Central Michigan University pennant up there before my time was done.

What I Thought
I asked him about this, and he said he wanted his room to be so distracting that if everything was a distraction, nothing was. He had found this actually helped his students focus on the lesson at hand. I was surprised by this, but I found it to be be the case (the engaging lessons he had probably also played a massive role).

What I Now Realize
I didn’t think anything of the “gifts by former students” thing at the time. But this is a middle school. Grades 6, 7, and 8. If former students are coming by, it’s probably those still in the building, or picking up younger siblings. But these were college students coming back to his room. There was an ever-present facet of community built in to the classroom itself. If you were a part of that room, you could literally be a part of the room, if you came back and gave a pennant. People don’t do that with places they don’t feel are a part of them. They don’t do that if they didn’t feel like they were accepted and belonged. They don’t do that if they forget about that place after a few years.

His ceiling was covered with pennants.

All these lessons, tucked in the back of my mind for years, only now rising to the surface. Thank you for all the lessons you taught me, explicit and implicit. I can only hope I have created a fraction of the community in my classrooms that you have had in yours.