The 7-Minute Debrief

With eight weeks complete in this school year, I can officially declare writing workshop as the favorite time of the day for most of the students. Lately, it seems like this chunk of time is when our class bonds the most. I’m blessed to have a class of passionate and creative writers this year.

For many of us, the best moment of writing workshop is when it ends.  In other words, the last few minutes of workshop time when my students and I gather on the carpet for what we call “workshop debriefing.” This 5-10 minute conversation between writers is a quick way to build relationships as a writing community. I try to keep this debriefing focused on the writing product as well as the writing process. I usually facilitate our debriefing with three questions:

  • What went well today?
  • What are you heading as a writer next?
  • What did you work on today that we can learn from?

I view this as an opportunity to teach and to assess. I always look forward to this discussion because it provides me with teaching points for the coming days. Plus, the students and I get to hear what everyone is working on. I am noticing that my students are starting to become very helpful to one another as they are always willing to offer feedback.

This past Wednesday was like any other day. It was the end of writing workshop, and my stomach was growling as lunchtime was just a few moments away. I started out the debriefing session by asking each writer to share where they are in their writing process. As they made their way around the circle, I noticed that I had stopped writing down teaching points and “next steps” on my Status Of The Class page.  Instead, I was amazed at how these 10 and 11-year old students were speaking to one another.  They were talking like…writers.

I quickly started jotting down what these young authors were saying.  Here is a sample of what I observed:

  • Josh shared that he was planning out a story with lots of suspense. He had a basic idea for a plot, but he needed to fill in some plot holes.  Nathaniel, who is Josh’s peer editor, suggested looking at Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read: Thriller anthology.  Another boy ran over to his desk and pulled out Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs To Know and gave it to Josh.
  • Abby shared that she was working on some poetry as she held up a few mentor texts I had suggested including poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
  • Chris announced that he had started writing the third episode of “Monkey Attack.”  This announcement was met with a few fist pumps and shouts of “Finally!” from about half of the class. “Looks like you have some fans, Chris,” I said as he shyly chuckled.
  • Hannah shared that she started writing workshop with nothing to write about, so she used Rory’s Story Cubes for some inspiration.  Three other students asked if they could borrow those tomorrow.
  • Ella mentioned how she was mulling over the idea of starting a graphic novel about ferrets.  I steered her towards a book in our classroom library that was about how to design comics, paying particular attention to the pages about when to use wide-angles and close ups.
  • Ahmed, a very reluctant writer, explained how he was writing a script for a book trailer he was going to make for a story he was creating.  A few students offered him help for writing the draft, as they had just finished creating a book trailer themselves.
  • Donya announced that she had finished typing up her biography of Margaret Peterson Haddix, and was starting a poem inspired by the book RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.

All this occurred in about seven minutes. What I had just witnessed was a community of writers helping each other, offering feedback, giving advice, sharing their failures, planning out their writing and asking questions.  For a few moments in the day, these young writers were cherishing this time to share, comment and connect.  Even some of my most reluctant writers had found a topic, audience or genre to pursue.  These seven minutes were special to me because I saw the power of our writing culture.  The writing customs, routines and behaviors we’d worked so hard to develop were on full display.  This group of writers had connected around an appreciation for the writing process.  Yet, none of these young writers had noticed recess had started 4 minutes ago.

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.

Wonder
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.

Can You Dab?

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“Can you dab?”

A fourth grade boy sitting twenty-some rows back from the front of the auditorium asks. Eyes sparkling, face beaming, perched on the edge of his seat, he waits.

“Can I dab?!” grins award-winning author Jason Reynolds, wearing a knowing expression that humorously reads ‘how-old-do-you-think-I-am?’

“Yeah! Can you dab?!” the young boy repeats.

Jason walks up the aisle, dragging the microphone cord, as middle school heads whip around to follow his every move. He is dressed head to toe in black, his dreads tumbling over each other. Reaching the boy’s row, Jason looks over to him. This fourth grade boy, now standing, is
enraptured
engaged
enthralled.

This fourth grade boy, who is black, gazes up at this adult black man who says:

“Yeah, I can dab.”

One heartbeat flutters. One breath exhales. One boy wonders…

He need not ask for proof. Jason bows his head into his elbow. He dabs. The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Smiling. Cheering. Dabbing back. It’s a response, a conversation, between 450 middle school students and a man who, through one seemingly simple question, let them know that they were
seen
heard
acknowledged.

* * * * *

For several months, I had been co-organizing an author visit to our school district with Jason Reynolds. We were lucky beyond measure to get the opportunity to host him. If you’re not familiar with Jason, visit his website, read his poetry, hear his story. His literary accolades and honors are stickered across the covers of his books for young people:
Coretta Scott King
National Book Award
NAACP Image Award
Kirkus Prize
Schneider Family Award

Jason’s good fortune as an author of children’s literature was a long time coming before it was finally realized. Way before the awards, the book tours, and the bestselling novels, there was his childhood in Washington, D.C. A childhood that drives him to create authentic characters, stories, and voices for his books, putting the “real” in realistic fiction. He stood in front of our students and told them stories, his true stories about
eating ramen noodles and generic peanut butter
dying hair with kool-aid
popping cassette tapes into Walkmans
playing basketball

And then there were stories that made us gasp, laugh, sigh…think.

He told them that he didn’t read until he was 18 years old. Our reading workshop trained, book loving kids were horrified. This was unthinkable. Why, they asked. WHY didn’t you read?! Because the only books that were available to kids like me were “classics” like Moby Dick…and I couldn’t relate, because there weren’t any whales living in my neighborhood, he explained.

He told them that one of the first cassette tapes he ever bought was a rap album by Queen Latifah, and it changed his life. The more he listened to her, the closer he grew to realizing that her words, her raps, were poetry. This epiphany began a daily practice of writing poetry, as he told himself, “I’m going to be Queen Latifah when I grow up!”

He told them that he moved to New York to pursue his writing dreams.

He told them that he was living in his car a handful of years ago.

He told them that he was working in a clothing store a couple of years ago.

He told them that through all of this, he was writing. Two pages a day. Squeezing in time to write in the edges of his days.

He told them that he was on the verge of giving up his writerly dreams, but was prompted to start writing stories and characters who
looked like him
talked like him
acted like him
lived like him

He wrote through a lens of “everyday diversity”, showcasing characters with authentic
voices
families
challenges
interests
stories,
creating books to read about black people outside the oeuvre of “boycotts, bondage, and basketball”, because “black kids do more than play basketball”, Jason told them. He knew children of all kinds needed to be able to hold up a book as a mirror and see themselves in it. And he was determined to tell those stories.

* * * * *

“Curry or Jordan?” another black student asks Jason, challenging him to name the greatest basketball player of all time.

“Ooooh, you’re asking me difficult questions,” Jason plays along.

After a long pause…

“Jordan.”

And the crowd goes wild.

* * * * *

While Jason was presenting, I was kid watching. Scanning the faces of our very diverse district, I saw one face after another light up, engage, and connect. That was when I realized the profound impact this author visit was having on our children.

When our student raised his hand to ask if Jason could dab, he wasn’t really asking “Can you dab?” He was wondering
Do you see me?
Do you hear me?
Do you know that I have stories, too?

And Jason, a man who mirrors him in many ways, wordlessly responded, in one gesture
I see you.
I hear you.
I am writing my stories for you.
(Jason Reynolds is the author of When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in The Black Suit, All American Boys, As Brave As You, The Track Series (Ghost, Patina), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and forthcoming Long Way Down.)

Where Are We Going?: Creating a class mission statement

The Flock is about to finish its fourth week of school.  Our classroom is up and running.  Our daily routines are mostly established. Beginning of the year assessments are nearly complete. Most importantly, our classroom community is continuing to grow and get stronger each day. Spending a great deal of time in the first weeks discussing “Lessons From The Geese” is proving to pay off. My students and I have discussed why we are called The Flock. We’ve discussed how we need to work together, learn from each other, and treat each other as partners on this learning adventure. We are on our way traveling as a community of learners. However, the MOST critical part of our journey can be explained by answer this one very simple question.

Where are we going?

My students and I had spoken a great deal about this learning journey, but it was time to establish a destination.  What is our purpose? What is our goal? I wanted to make sure that my students knew why we come to our classroom every day, other than, “My parents make me” or “because I’m legally obligated to be here.”

I have found that creating a mission statement plays a crucial role in building my classroom community. Bringing students into the creation process empowers them to take more ownership of their learning. A class mission statement can also:

  • Ensure a common language for all students
  • Provide students with a purpose for each lesson and assignment
  • Encourage goal-setting and growth mindset
  • Bring a sense of pride to the classroom

Before we wrote our mission statement, I felt it was important for us to know what a mission statement is, as well as look at examples of mission statements. After clarifying that a mission statement is not when the video game states your new mission on the next level of Call Of Duty, we determined that it is simply a statement of purpose and focus. I shared mission statements from well-known corporations like Apple, Facebook, Amazon and McDonalds. Together we noticed that most mission statements answer these questions: What do the company do? How is the company helping their customers? Why is our company important? I asked students to think at home about how we could answer these same questions for our classroom.

The following day, we gathered on the carpet and one student started our conversation by saying, “we are our own customers. We learn for ourselves.”  Students seemed very impressed with this insight, so I asked them to brainstorm a list of answers to these four questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • How are we going to accomplish it?
  • Why is it important to accomplish this?

Students returned after 10 minutes, and I recorded their answers to each question using Google Docs. After much debate, I asked students to vote for their top two answers for each question.  These top two answers for each question would be used to create our final mission statement.  You can see our brainstorming list and voting process here.

Once voting was complete, our final mission statement was written by simply combining what the students selected.  Here is what we came up with:

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Creating the mission statement was only the first step. Now, it is our job as a community to live by this and make sure that everything we do is an example of our shared mission. I have posted this in our classroom, as well as outside of our classroom door.  Students know that I’ve put a copy of this mission statement into my guest teacher folder, so when I am out of the classroom any substitute teacher will know what we stand for. I have challenged students to always ask themselves how every assignment and project fits with our mission statement. If they can’t see a connection, I encourage them to ask me.

One thing that my students have heard me say is “the nine months of fifth grade is a just one part of your learning journey.”  Our life as a learner is a long, gradual adventure with many stops along the way. Perhaps that’s why “The Flock” metaphor has become the cornerstone of my classroom community. We’re all going to be in the classroom together every day for nine months. So we might as well go on this learning journey together with a common destination. I hope that our mission statement inspires a community mindset and empowers students to support each other along the way.

A New Reading Community

For blog
He was reading to find new ways to describe how awesome he is at basketball.

This year I’ll be leading four sections of what I’m going to call Reading for students who need additional time and support in that subject. Our school is committed to 30 minutes of independent reading in school every day and an additional 30 minutes outside of school, but the school reading is a challenge in our 45-60 minute class periods, and outside-of-school reading is a work in progress. So this year, for the first time, students with the highest need will have an extra period devoted just to independent reading and expert coaching.

Personally, I would have loved nothing better than to have an entire period devoted to reading when I was a student, but I worry about how some students who already dislike reading will react to an extra period of reading. And no matter how hard I try to sell the class as a way to grow more quickly as a reader, many students will view placement in this class as reinforcement that they are not good at reading, or at school in general. So even as I organize books and track down intervention materials and debate how to set up the classroom furniture, I know that two things will have to happen before they can embrace this class.

One, I will need to build strong relationships with my students. Many students will be new to me this year since I’ll be teaching a wider range of grades than I did last year. Some of them have spent the majority of their time in school struggling with reading (and thus with every class that requires reading), and I’m going to be asking them to read a lot. I’m going to be asking them to get better when they may have spent years thinking, or even being told, that they’re just not good at reading.

Which brings me to two, mindset. It’s going to be tremendously important that my students believe that they can get better at reading, that reading isn’t some magical power that you either have or you don’t. If no one taught you that “-ch” makes a “-k” sound in the word “stomach”, then a lot of the reading that you try to do in middle and high school is a lot like when I try to read extremely basic French. I recognize a few of the words, but the rest is a mystery.

So how will I begin?

Our school is Pre-K to 12, and our reading curriculum emphasizes that at the earliest reading level, Read-to-Me, students need to have a background of 500+ books read to them. So my reading classes will spend as much time as we can reading to our kindergartners in September. Reading is reading, so even time spent reading a simple book of sight words will build confidence and fluency in my older readers (and build relationships with our youngest learners).

We will also build reading relationships between students in our class. Even though the class is primarily independent work (at this point, no one is reading the same book), we will be sharing and talking at the end of our reading sessions. I’ll use academic scripts and sentence frames to help my students to turn and talk about their book. Since our classroom reading environment will depend on cooperation among students, building confidence and trust will be key.

I loved Andrea’s post “What Are You Superpowers?” on Saturday. I immediately wanted school to start so that I could find out all of my student’s superpowers. To apply my reading teacher lens, I wonder who will be my experts on certain books or subjects? Who will know the backstory for every Marvel comic? Who will be the best at getting the quietest kindergartener to read with them?

Most of all, I’ll build our community with a lot of kindness. This is a scary course for students. I’m going to be asking them to get better at something that is currently very hard for many of them. They may not have had a lot of success with reading, or it’s not something they like. This is not a class for tough love or rigid behavior expectations. I’ll feed them. We’ll celebrate birthdays, and reading milestones. We’ll grow together.

I’ll keep my eyes on the prize: Reading community for all.

What Are Your Superpowers?

“I have 5 younger brothers and sisters.  My superpower is that I am really good at helping somebody feel better because at my house, someone is always needing something like a band aid or a hug.”

“My superpower is that I am good at showing others how to use technology.  I think computer might be my second language.”

“I am really organized.  My superpower is helping to clean things up and make them look nice.  Our team’s supply tub looks really good because of me.”

“I’m really good at helping new kids make friends.  Everybody needs at least one friend.  I’m good at helping others be together at recess or lunch.”

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We are good at book recommendations.

“I can help at Chapman Elementary because I speak two languages.  I know that you cannot speak or read Arabic, Mrs. Smith…so I can help you with students or their parents.”

“After my mom died, I learned to be a good listener.  At my house, my brothers and sisters, but especially my dad needed quiet time to think about things after my mom died.  When someone at my house needs to talk, it’s important we pay attention.  My superpower is listening because sometimes a good listener is what someone needs to feel better.”

“My superpower is music.  I love playing piano for others…it makes me happy to see people smile and sit while they listen to me play.”

These are some of the quotes lifted from recent interviews with my students.  Sifting through my notes the other evening, I smiled, I cried, I laughed, and finally breathed a sigh of relief.  There is hope for our world when we uncover the strengths students carry in their hearts and spirits.  I am renewed with determination every time I think about the amazing children surrounding me each day in our classroom.  These kids are my heroes and heroines, making my community better one day at a time with their superpowers.

Before I start focusing on last year’s test scores and this year’s baseline assessments, I need to acquaint myself with the superheroes residing in my classroom.  In a world challenged by so many issues, I gain priceless information when I take time to discover the many gifts and talents my students bring to our classroom community.  In today’s world, we don’t need someone who can lift a boulder, but we do need someone who lifts the spirits of others.  Our community doesn’t need someone who can out-battle enemy storm troopers in another galaxy, but we do need someone who can unify a group with friendship and respect.  We need skilled listeners and bilingual community members that respect the voice and perspectives of our diverse community.

This is why we need to know our children.

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Our superpowers:  Helping someone who is sad or lonely feel better.  

We notice other people.

I start the year sharing an Ignite-style collection of images that capture what I believe to be my “superpowers.”  I share a few slides each day with a short explanation of my strengths.  With each slide, I talk about my perceived talents that I bring to my school and home community.

I show a picture of a bookshelf in my classroom.  My superpower is that I can help kids find captivating books. I turn kids into literacy ambassadors determined to turn the world into a community of readers.

I show a picture of a beautiful meal, my favorite recipe to prepare for my family.  My superpower is that I know the healing power of healthy food and the value of sitting down at the dinner table together.  I want all of my students to always have breakfast and lunch, so I let them know, “If you are worried about groceries, come and see me so we can work this out.”  I want to make sure that families have information and access to nutrition programs as needed.

I show a picture of me trying to do Crow Pose, a tricky yoga balance.  My superpower is NOT that I am great at yoga or any sport for that matter.  However, I am brave enough to try something hard, something that challenges me.  I want to be reminded of the challenges and frustrations students face as learners.   My goal is not to be perfect.  My goal is to keep trying, to keep going after something that is difficult.  When I keep trying, I am proud.  When I tip over, I laugh, but roll up and try again.  I am a super-heroine because I am determined to get better.

After a few days of my personal stories and being together in our classroom, students start to feel comfortable enough to chat with me about themselves.  During a mini-lesson, I explain how readers and writers rely on understanding the strengths of characters to help them understand and explain their stories. Since a classroom is a living story, we need to know one another.  As I’ve revealed what I believe to be my own superhero talents, I now want to know what makes my students special or unique.

Rather than put children on the spot, I meet with informal groups.  Using a simple question, I launch a conversation and record the comments of children.  

What are some of your super powers?

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We can speak two languages.  Can you?

As we talk, children are inspired to think about their talents in new ways.  With guidance, my soccer players move past their skill sets and number of goals scored to consider they are cooperative leaders who know how to work together with teammates.  I discover the budding mechanics who like fixing things; then I know who will be tending our pencil sharpener throughout the year.  Students who excel at caring for siblings often become the caregivers not only to classmates in need, but our classroom plants and pets.  Children who view themselves as active and fun become a go-to person for shy kids looking for a playmate at recess.

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We like taking care of the lunch boxes each day.

As each group talks with me, the others in the room are thankfully eavesdropping on the conversation.  As discussions unfold, things that matter to children are presented.  

“I’m really good at untangling knots in shoelaces.”

“I’m an expert at redoing ponytails and braids because I do all of my sisters’ hair at home in the morning to help my mom get us ready for school.”

“I love to listen to someone who is sad and help them figure out a solution to the problem.  My sister fusses a bunch at home, so I’m good at stopping the whining.”

As I take notes, we build a web of our class’ superpowers.  

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As kids see our growing visual display of superpower categories, they often add their names to the evolving lists.  Using small photos of the kids, I add their pictures to the names listed with our “superpowers” so our community can see and recognizes the strengths and expertise of others in the classroom.  Our superpowers web becomes a community bulletin board, used like Angie’s List, a resource used by adults to find goods and services around the community.  Your shoelaces somehow got tangled?  Go and see Ali.  You need someone to help you with editing your story?  Go and find Omar.  If you are not feeling well and Mrs. Smith is sending you to the nurse, ask Remaz to walk you down because she is good at helping others feel better.  

One way to create a strong, close-knit community is to build the confidence and awareness of its members.  If a child feels valued for the strengths or life-skills he or she brings to the classroom, that same child will be more willing to be a risk-taker as learning opportunities unfold during the school year.  When children feel valued by classmates, connections are established and a supportive community thrives.  Every student, no matter his story or her challenges, has something to contribute.  It is up to us as leaders in our learning communities to take the time to discover and celebrate those superheroes and super-heroines amongst us.  We need them.  In this sometimes crazy world, we need one another.