Communities Don’t Need Elaboration

IMG_0604

I long for a decent snowfall here in Central Ohio.  I dream of days when snow was always around; bright, shiny, and glistening.  Snow was a daily part of my life growing up in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State and I bet you can image what my college days in Buffalo looked like.  Snow was just a way of life.

Last week we got our first decent snowfall during the week and had a snow day.  I walked outside.  I shoveled the driveway.  I tried to help my dog find his tennis ball we lost in the cul-de-sac snow piles.   I added bird seed to my feeders to help my feathered friends.  As evening came, I got restless.  I knew recess would be inside tomorrow and my heart and soul said it shouldn’t be inside.

At 8:10pm I sent an email and a See Saw message to families.  I wanted to double guarantee everyone saw this classroom news.  I asked everyone to bring snow pants, boots, hats, mittens or gloves because we would be spending recess outside.  I technically had recess duty and I wanted to watch my children have fun and feel joyful.  I do believe snow can be joyful.

The students got themselves dressed with excitement and independence.  We went outside to embrace the sunshine and the snow.  Then I had a moment of weakness amongst the joy and fun my students were feeling.  I thought, “What if someone questions me being out here?”  I had asked my team to join me but they chose not to.  I get it, not everyone likes snow.  Then I watched and listened.

We were investing in our community.  We were smiling and laughing.  We were collaborating while digging tunnels in a bank of snow.  We were creating new games when we made a snowball and tried to make a basket with the basketball hoop.  We asked to do something we couldn’t normally do in winter; go out into the field.  Have you ever watched 19 students flopping around and making snow angels?  Pure joy.  We had to problem solve when someone pushed snow into something we were trying to do.  We got to be kids.  We got to enjoy life.  We got to be together.

There are lots of ideas for ways to create a community.  Once we create communities we need to invest on fostering communities.  Communities need tweaking and uplifting every once in a while.  I realized this day tweaking and uplifting didn’t need elaboration. It just needed simple, different, and an embracing environment.

In The DRIVEr Seat

Have you ever had a class that causes you to seriously reevaluate your beliefs about one aspect of your teaching practice? This year, my class has pushed me to spend a great deal of time thinking about classroom management. I have had many conversations with colleagues at my school and in my Twitter PLN about this topic over the years. Just when I think I have it, I have a group of learners who cause me to ask questions:

  • When is it okay to offer extrinsic motivators?
  • Is it ever okay to abandon voice and choice and tell a student, “You are doing it this way.”
  • When is it time to set up a behavior plan for a student?
  • Am I punishing the entire class for the actions of a few?
  • Is it okay to ask a student to finish work during recess if they don’t have the support at home?

To guide me in my quest, I recently reread one of the most informative and inspiring books. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink was the first, and probably most significant, factor in shifting my thinking when I first read it in 2010. In a nutshell, Pink states that the key to having high performance and productivity in today’s workplaces and schools is based on three factors that keep motivation high: 1) the need to direct our own lives (autonomy), 2) to learn and create new things (mastery), and 3) to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). He states, “enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on a project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver” of keeping people motivated. I want my students to develop the intrinsic motivation to do something because it is challenging or enjoyable, not because of any “if you do______, then you get______” motivators. These “if-then” situations tend to stifle creativity and critical thinking.

I’ve been making some simple shifts to allow for more autonomy, mastery and purpose in my classroom community. One example, I recently tried is to ask students how long they think it will take to complete their work. I’ve had students set time goals for when they will complete a task, and ask them what should happen if they don’t reach their goal. Some students have self-imposed the “no recess” consequence. Another little tweak I’ve made is by having a class discussion around the question, “What does it take to be successful in this classroom?” By asking students to define what success looks like and feels like in our learning community, they are able to gauge their own behavior based on a list of criteria and “look-fors.” Hopefully, they will get a better sense of mastering the feeling of success.

Nevertheless, even Daniel Pink says that rewards are not always inherently bad. What Daniel Pink has made me think about is turning rewards into altruism. That means I do not give any tangible rewards for basic classroom responsibilities (e.g. quality work, good behavior). However, I try to make sure every student feels supported and valued. These “rewards” are not always tied to a particular task, but are meant to acknowledge hard work or show appreciation.

  • Giving a high-five or fist bump goes a long way
  • Giving students a simple positive comment such as, “Thanks for working hard today” or “I appreciate your positive contributions to our class.” or “I love how you showed passion for growth today when that math task was challenging.”
  • Let a student be the first to read a brand new book you bought for your classroom library. Let him/her know you thought of them when you bought it.
  • If you do not have open seating, perhaps surprise the students by letting them choose their seats. “You’ve been working so hard on your student-led conferences, let’s have a choice of seats today.”
  • Let students share their work first during writer’s workshop. I can tell you this is one reward I don’t mind students requesting again.

These are all “rewards” that I try to do on a regular basis, and I don’t believe they reinforce the idea of dangling a “carrot and stick.” Are they extrinsic rewards? Well, I assume they are because I am the one giving them. But, I believe the most important part of these is the conversation I have with the students about the purpose. While some may see them as “rewards,” I see them as a way to keep our classroom culture strong. As long as I don’t dangle these rewards as an “if-then” situation, then I see no harm in acknowledging students’ positive behavior. They are positive consequences to keep students excited and energized to learn, and they let the students know that I’m thinking about them and that their hard work is not going unnoticed.

The search for answers goes on. I will continue to refine my classroom management and provide a safe supportive learning environment or each group of learners. It boils down to this. I try my best to maintain a classroom culture where students experience respect, acceptance, fairness, consistency, joy and positivity. I am always searching for a way to connect with students, and show them that each of them is an important member of our classroom culture. Whenever I start to question my teaching practice, I always try to remind myself that every decision I make is to cultivate a love of learning and encourage my students to be active learners and productive global citizens. The best reward I can give my students is to show them they are cared-for and valued. I want every student to know, “You matter.”  With this in mind, I hope that being a part of my classroom community every day is reward enough.

A Tale of Two Classrooms

I have a son. He’s two years old.
There is a student. She’s 14.
He’s 15.

Last summer, he moved across the country to a new house.
She recently entered a new classroom for the first time.
So did he.

He loves to bathe.
He loves to learn.
She loves to learn.

But this new bath was different.
This new classroom is different.
This new classroom is different.

The first day, the water was poured and inviting, but he was screaming and kicking before his feet touched the bottom. I tried to get him to just get used to the water, and maybe let me pour a little over his shoulders, but he was having none of it. He didn’t bathe that day.
The first day, the bulletin boards were inviting.
The bookshelves were stacked.
But he was lonely.
She was afraid.
They were uncertain of this new place. The teacher asked them to write, but it was all
just too much. They didn’t learn that day.

The next day, I got in the water with him.
The next day, the teacher pulled out their notebook and wrote beside her.
The next day, the teacher asked him to pull out his notebook and write.

He didn’t cry, and was pleased to stand in the water. Not much washing got done, but he was comfortable with the situation.
She didn’t sulk, and even wrote a few lines in her notebook. Nothing too great was written, but, unlike the day before, the page was not blank.
He opened his notebook, but just stared off. His teacher didn’t seem to care enough to do anything about it, so he didn’t even reach for his pencil.

The next day, I tried to wash his hair. He wasn’t ready. He instantly cried out, threw down the cup, and climbed out of the tub. This was actually a newly-learned skill: he had never climbed out of the tub before.
The next day, the teacher asked her to write an essay. This was too much. The few lines from yesterday were fine, but she wasn’t ready for an essay. She closed his notebook, closed her eyes, and slept through class. She learned something new that day: she had never known she could sleep through class before.
The next day, the teacher asked him to write an essay. This was too much. The teacher hadn’t even pronounced his name correctly, and now they wanted an essay? He closed his notebook, closed his eyes, and slept through class. He learned something new that day: if the teacher didn’t care for him, he didn’t have to care, either.

The next day, we didn’t have a chance for a bath. Instead, though, we did go down to the pool. We didn’t soap up, but he did get all the way in the water, smiling and laughing most of the time. On the way back, my son exclaimed, “Fun water! Fun bath!” At least I knew it wasn’t the water itself that was causing his behavior.
The next day, the teacher tried something new. “Today, we’re not going to write an essay. We’re just going to play around with word and story.” The students each wrote a line and passed their paper along, creating collaborative stories. Some were nonsense, some were passable stories, and at least one was too vulgar to share. But every student wrote the whole time. After class, our student exclaimed, “That was fun! We should write like that more often.” It wasn’t the act of writing causing her to shut down.
The next day, the teacher tried something new. “Today, we are going to write an essay together. Please, at the top of your page, write down ‘Class Essay #1.’ I would like you to start out with the line ‘My summer was….’ Fill in the blank for that sentence. Next, write ‘It was this way because…’ and finish that sentence.” Our student wrote these sentence starters, but never finished them. The teacher walked by, asked him to please put his name on his paper, and moved on. He put down the wrong name. The teacher never corrected him. It wasn’t the act of writing causing him to shut down.

The next day, my son had a bath. He grabbed his own washcloth, added his own soap, rinsed and washed his own hair, and even drained the tub. He had never done any of these things before. He was now not only comfortable with the new tub, but his skill set was greatly improved. I believe he would have done this had I not stepped in the tub with him, followed his lead, played around with water in other situations, and respected his autonomy. But I’m glad I don’t have to find out when that would be.
The next day, she was eager to write. They weren’t doing a collaborative story as a class, but she was applying that practice to hew own work. The teacher asked them to write about anything they wanted to, and even gave some prompts for anyone who needed help coming up with a topic. She chose to write about a time she felt scared. She wrote for longer and better than she ever had before. She was not only at her skill level she was at before she entered the room, but had surpassed it. Perhaps she would do this even if her teacher had not written beside her, let her find her own way, had her play around with words and language, and respected her autonomy. But how long would that have taken?
The next day, he skipped English class. He found one of his favorite teachers on their prep hour. That teacher talked with him and took him to the counseling office. There, he found someone who would listen to how things were going in class. He decided to give class another shot. When he returned to class, pass in hand, the teacher greeted him with his name, and said they were glad he was with them today. Maybe this would work. He had promised the counselor he would try, and he likes to keep his word. Besides, he’s only a week behind. Perhaps he will grow as a writer yet. Perhaps.

Social Media and Former Students

In the Classroom Communities post on Thursday, I wrote about a message I received from a former student about a moment we had shared in the classroom nearly 10 years earlier.

I greatly appreciated him reaching out and sharing that story with me, as it was not one I could quickly recall.

There’s another piece to that story, though. One that underlies the entire thing:

Charles was able to contact me, and felt comfortable doing so.

This is because we are connected on social media. In particular, on Twitter.

Social Media
Social Media, from Wikipedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socialmedia-pm.png

I have found social media an immense help to my professional life and my personal life. Twitter has not only connected me to educational thought leaders (such as my fellow Classroom Communities contributors), but also has provided me with new things to try in my classroom, or now in my role as ed tech specialist. I would not be the educator I am today without Twitter.

Facebook and Instagram have also helped me grow in these ways, and I’m dipping my toes into Snapchat. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I met my wife and many of my closest friends through social media.

I have also found it incredibly useful in connecting with former students.

This allows for stories like the one Charles shared with me. Another former student, on Wednesday night, tweeted to me that she was participating in a hashtag edchat. Another former student recently contacted me to discuss a webcomic we both love which has taken yet another surprising turn. I’ve had former students share some of their poetry with me. On one occasion, a former student from my first ever job (teaching summer school credit recovery geometry) contacted me to apologize for his behavior during our 6-week session.

These connections blow me away, and I am glad they can happen.

However, the world of social media is not all rainbows and unicorns, and there are some things to keep in mind:

Connect with FORMER Students
Notice that every time I talked of a connection in the preceding paragraphs, it is always a “former” student. I do not follow my current students on social media or communicate with them using anything but official school channels. That said:

Remember that, on the Internet, Private means Public, and Public means Everyone
If you have a public profile, your students, both current and former, might follow you — either officially or discreetly. If you have a private profile, you still don’t know who might share things out or who might gain access to your posts. Treat everything as if it’s public.
That means that you should act as if all your students, their parents, friends, coworkers, your principal, superintendent, EVERYONE follows you and sees what you post. If you aren’t okay with them seeing pictures and thoughts of yours after you’ve had a couple rounds at the bar with some friends, then don’t post those pictures and thoughts.

Keep It Public
While I have some direct messages with former students, I prefer and try to keep communication public, or keep their parents in the loop. This is essentially a requirement if the former student is still under the age of 18. While former students can sometimes grow into friends as they move into their adult lives, keep in mind the teacher-student relationship which serves as the underpinning for those connections. This is why I have for the most part stayed away from things such as Snapchat, Whisper, and Marco Polo.

Model Appropriate Behavior
For better or worse, being a teacher is a 24/7 hat we wear. Even if we take it off, our students and former students are going to treat us as if we have it on. We should be demonstrating the manners and positive approach to the world we’d hope our students have themselves. In the days before social media, this might have been a student seeing their teacher being rude to the cashier at the grocery store. In today’s world, it might be a former student (or current student) coming across your Twitter feed, and seeing a video mocking their generation for stereotypes they likely don’t actually exhibit, with your comment of “it’s so true!” [I’m not going to link to the video here, but this is an actual example that I have seen in 2018] If they’re a current student, do you think they’ll ever connect with you? If they’re a former student, do you think they’ll ever re-connect with you?
When it comes to political issues, I don’t shy away on my social media accounts. Donalyn Miller’s Nerd Talk last year really empowered me in this. However, being political doesn’t have to mean being rude. Being angry doesn’t have to mean being insulting. We are a built-in role model for our students. We can demonstrate how to be politically involved without slinging mud. How to be mad about various things without degrading everyone who disagrees with us. As always, consider your words before you post them.

This Is Us
Okay, maybe I just wanted to use that show’s name in this post (no spoilers, please!). But we are teachers. This is who we are. Again, we wear that hat 24/7. We signed up for this. If you’re a teacher and are reading this blog, presumably it’s because you care about the community you build in your classroom. That community necessarily extends beyond the walls of the room, or it’s not a real community at all. Walls don’t define the group; the people do. If your students think you’re putting on a teacher mask every day when you come to school, then they will put on their student masks and you’ll never help each other with who you all really are. In other words:

Be Who You Are
Be the same person in the classroom and on Twitter. Pretending, in the classroom, that you don’t have a life and interests outside of school is as disingenuous as pretending, outside the classroom, that you’re not a teacher who cares about your students. And if the person you are outside of the classroom isn’t one you’d bring into your classroom, then do the work on yourself that you need. Our students need us to be 100% with them. That doesn’t mean that we have to work 24/7 and use social media to continue the work we do with our students 8 hours a day. We would all burn out way too fast if we did that. But it does mean we have to be ourselves 24/7, because they will know if we’re not.

That’s really what it all boils down to. If you’re the real deal, a genuine article, your students will know. And they will know that you care for them in the classroom, but you also care about who they are outside the classroom. And they’ll respond to that. You’ll see wedding pictures and birth notices. You might grab a cup of coffee with a former student if you’ve both moved to the same town (in my case, it was a bacon cheeseburger). You might get messages like the one Charles shared with me.

And you will be assured that, despite the work, despite the 24/7 teacher hat, it has all been worth it.

Grace and Mercy

I was once told that grace is when we get what we don’t deserve and mercy is when we don’t get what we do deserve.

I needed some help unpacking that, so let me do so here. Grace would be the presence of love when perhaps what we’ve earned is coldness, and mercy is the absence of a punishment we deserve — the opposite of justice.

While this was used in terms of Christianity and God, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply it to the classroom.

Let me tell you a story.

My second year teaching, I had a student. We’ll call him Charles, but that is not his name. Charles was a very respectful student, usually pretty quiet, did his work, and kind of stayed out of everyone’s way. I don’t mean to imply he was a loner, so let me be clear about that. He was well-liked, presumably because he was, as mentioned above, respectful to everyone.

Well, I was taking attendance one day, and Charles let out a not-too-loud but also not-too-quiet “Oh fuck!”

Now, the school I was teaching at at the time had some pretty clear rules on that sort of language. Detention was the punishment mandated by the student handbook.

So I turned around, and I looked at Charles, asking him “what did you say?” because I honestly could not believe he would have said that. It would be more likely to hear “Yes, sir” from his lips than the f-bomb.

Charles didn’t answer my question. Well, that’s not true. He apologized and said he didn’t mean to say that. I imagine a truthful answer of my question (thus repeating the word) was not something he wanted to do. His face, normally a fairly light shade, had turned nearly tomato-red. In the few seconds of eye contact that followed, we had a conversation, though it wasn’t out loud:

“Just to clarify: did you just say ‘Oh fuck’?”
“Yes, I did. And I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to. It just popped out.”
“Are you going to say it again?”
“No, sir.”
“Okay.”

The “Okay” was out loud. That was it, and we moved on.

I thought relatively little of this incident. A little mercy in the midst of an Algebra II class.

This was, as I said, my 2nd year teaching. 2008.

9 years later, this past November, I received a message from Charles. It started with this tweet:

“Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll share anyways. I think it was my junior year when I was sitting in your class (I was in the second column from the door and like 3-4 seats back). I was at my desk and said, ‘Oh, f***.’ It wasn’t loud, but it wasn’t quiet, so you did a 180, looked at me, and asked what I just said. I didn’t repeat it but said that I was so sorry and didn’t mean for that to come out. You looked at me for a couple more seconds, I assume because you could not believe that I had actually said that word aloud, and I became so fearful that I was going to get a detention. That would have been the only detention in my entire school career. I’m pretty straight-edged and hate knowing that I ever broke a rule or acted up. I know that many of my peers got more detentions than they could count and that detentions are minor infractions in the grand scheme of things, but I would have felt so much shame from my parents, friends, and teachers. Would a detention from that incident have positively shaped my future? It is impossible to know for certain, but I truly believe that it would not have. The way that I interpreted your reaction was that my words were bad, and that you knew that I knew they were bad, but you would trust me to adjust the behavior on my own since I otherwise 100% earned a detention. Because you did not write me up, I chose to always remember that experience and that I need to be mindful of the words I use at every place and time. It also taught me the power of relationships when it comes to making tough decisions. Thank you for practicing the above tweet. Your action was the most appropriate response for me and I have never lived it down.”

To be honest, my version of this story was completely reconstructed from his message. I don’t recall this incident, though I can imagine how it went. But it’s not about me; it’s about him. By not issuing the detention, Charles learned to be mindful of his words as well as the power of relationships.

Was this the right move on my part? At the time, I likely didn’t know. But to him, it made a huge difference.

But here’s the rub: was I being unfairly impartial with doling out this mercy, because Charles was a respectful student? What if it were a student who often was late to class, didn’t do their work, and wasn’t respectful? What if that student dropped an f-bomb, yet also turned red and apologized? Would I have shown them the same mercy? Would I have denied that student the same opportunity to learn as Charles had?

I don’t know. I wish I knew. What I do know is that teaching is full of these moments. These times when a quick decision must be made that might impact the student for years. And so often, it comes down to simple questions:
Justice, or mercy?
Coldness, or grace?
Relationship-building, or not?

It may give me a reputation as a pushover. It may get me in trouble with my administrators. It may let some students take advantage of me. I don’t know about my 2nd year teaching, but now? I will choose relationship-building nearly every time.

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.

IMG_5366IMG_3821

IMG_3803

Behind The Quiet

IMG_0451

Jamel looked like any typical 4th grader walking into my room on the first day of school, yet right away, he became a concern on my radar.  Guarded with quiet, he spent the first weeks in our 4th-grade classroom watchful and barely speaking.   Like a frightened bird perched always on the edge of the group, he listened but chose to only speak on the rarest of occasions.  Vocal and needy students were usually the focus of my teaching energies, so Jamel presented different worries.  Two whispers away from the label of selective mutism, there was something about this child that encouraged me to remain patiently watchful.  I looked forward to the moment when Jamel would finally feel safe enough to open up and initiate a conversation.

As the first weeks unfolded, Jamel settle into our community. His gentle head nods, quiet smiles, and rare giggles were easy to miss in a busy classroom.  Interestingly enough, his silence did not seem to bother his classmates.  They still chose him to be a reading or writing buddy even if his raspy whispers were difficult to understand.  Kids invited Jamel to play on the playground because he loved to shoot hoops and showed great effort on the Cherry Bomb court.  He always joined a group at the lunch table and he seemed to be content to watch and listen to his classmates, while he quietly devoured his lunch.

What kept Jamel from speaking?  Phone calls home unanswered and many emails never returned kept me second guessing the whys behind his silence.  Without the necessary background information, worries haunted my opinion of Jamel.  After weeks of thinking about the whys behind Jamel’s silence and only focusing on the ways he differed from his classmates,  it finally dawned on me that I needed a new perspective.  I needed to focus on the times he appeared to be quietly confident.  With an intentional shift, I realized Jamel was most comfortable during these portions of our day:

  • Arrival time:  Jamel was often the first child in the room and he seemed to enjoy the first 10 minutes of the day with me and just a few other children.  (Frequent smiles)
  • Independent Reading:  The quietness of independent reading time allowed Jamel to relax and I often observed him curled up on a beanbag chair or in one of our cozy book-nooks.  (Quiet Contentment)
  • Mini-Lessons:  The short, but calm gatherings of a mini-lesson brought Jamel into the group and after a few weeks, he moved from the periphery and would sit near me during lessons. (Progress!)
  • Writing Workshop:  During writing workshop, Jamel often sat with me in my Writers’ Circle, a place in the community area for conferences even if I was not meeting with him.  Sitting together gave me opportunities to ask questions or comment on his writing and this seemed to slowly build a comfortable connection between us. (Increased interactions)
  • Read Aloud:  Jamel was usually one of the first to arrive and joined the group for our shared books during read-aloud time.  (Connections)
  • Recess:  Jamel seemed happy in the wide-open spaces of the playground to be alone or to play games with others.  (Space and choices)

 

In a world of busy, it made sense that this child needed calm moments when he could relax and connect with peers as he settled into our classroom environment.  I capitalized on these quieter moments as opportunities to build safer and stronger connections with Jamel by initiating conversations with him.  I drew him into group conversations with other classmates. Each day seemed to hold more possibilities for Jamel.  Even though it was difficult not to be concerned, I believed that if I continued to be patient, something would and could happen and Jamel would start talking, asking questions, and sharing his thinking.  

Patience paid off.  

I will always vividly remember the 34th day of school when I learned the most revealing and powerful information about Jamel.  He arrived earlier than usual; rather than asking him to explain why he’d been dropped off 20 minutes before the first bell, I encouraged him to settle in and either read or explore the room as I prepared a few more things for our day.  Secretly watching him out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something that I must have missed during bustling school days. I noticed Jamel was drawn to the many plants growing in our room.  

With quiet steps, he circulated, checking on each of the plants.  He gently touched the soil in the pots.  Sometimes he softly traced the shape of a leaf.  His long fingers moved over the leaves as if receiving messages from the green life around our room.

“You have 25 plants….” he announced with a soft voice that was finally louder than a whisper.  

Jamel finally initiated a conversation with me.  I slowly drew in a careful breath trying not to erupt into joyous chatter.  So I nodded.  I watched him gently remove a brown leaf from one plant and walking toward me with outstretched hands,  he presented the leaf like an offering.  

“I like these plants,” he spoke.  His voice was raspy, but I could hear each word.  

“I do too,” I responded, taking the brown leaf from his smooth fingers.  Looking at him, I felt like this was a pivotal moment.  

“The plants need your help.  Can I show you how to care for our plants?  I asked.  “Would you like to be our gardener?”

“Yes,” he said with his full, raspy voice and his biggest smile yet.

And so I found my way into Jamel’s quiet world.  

We talked about watering and the different amounts of water required by each kind of plant.  He suggested that we put a code on the containers so he could remember which plants needed to be kept moist and which ones needed drier soil.

We talked about how brown or yellow leaves should be removed from plants so the plant would stop sending energy to fading leaves and direct energy to the living parts of the plant.  “The brown leaves are kinda like the hairs mammals shed…getting rid of old hair to make room for new hair,” he commented.

We talked about rotating pots and even locations so plants had changing relationships to the limited sunlight coming from our two small windows.  He asked if we could get some lights to make our own sunshine.

We talked about the plants that were growing too large for their current containers and would need to be repotted soon.  And I could not help but smile as I saw Jamel already outgrowing my first impressions of him.

This green connection started to influence Jamel’s reading and writing life.  He began a plant journal after I surprised him with 2 Amaryllis bulbs in November.  His independent writing choices revolved around watching and waiting for the Amaryllis to grow and bloom.  He started reading about all kinds of plants during reading workshop.  One day I showed him a page with different bulbs to force during the winter months and he asked for daffodils…so he could make a bouquet for the secretaries.  With grounded comfort and connections with plants, Jamel started to find his voice.

The miraculous thing was the other students noticed his interests and they reached out with comments, questions, and celebrations.  Was Jamel transforming into a loud extrovert?  No…and he probably never would be a talkative, outgoing person.  His classmates now had a better chance to know him and understand his gentle nature; through the quiet world of plants,  he was better understood and he drew more people into his quiet circle.  As he answered his peers’ questions about the plants, his confidence grew and Jamel started to initiate conversations.

Behind the quiet, I learned that Jamel just needed his own unique way to belong to our community.  In another time and place, Jamel would have been noticed by the town’s healer or shaman, a person also in tune with the quiet of nature.  Jamel’s stillness would have been recognized as an asset in finding healing and hope within the green world.  In our busy world that often forgets our need for quiet and connections to nature, Jamel reminded me that listening and observing are powerful tools.  I will always be grateful for that unexpected morning when our classroom plants helped us connect with Jamel’s quiet world. Behind the quiet, we cared enough to notice how Jamel was a valued member of our community on his own terms.  

A Panoramic View

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 10.07.26 PM

I always learn so much from former students when they come back to visit me. I listen to them talk about classes they are taking, teachers that inspire them (or bore them), boyfriends/girlfriends and funny stories from the high school cafeteria. As we reminisce about their time in fifth grade, I never hear a comment about the learning target I used to teach them about theme. They don’t recall the goal-setting sheet they completed after their fractions pre-assessment. While I spend a great deal of time planning these experiences, I realize that it’s okay that they don’t remember these things. These tools are important to their development as learners; yet, they are means to an end, with the end being that my students view themselves as important members that belong to a community of learners.

Back in October, my district asked teachers in grades 3-12 to administer a student survey that measures student perceptions about teaching and learning. This survey, created by Panorama Education, allowed me to see how my students perceived their experience in my classroom using five categories:

  • Compassion – How concerned do students get when others need help.
  • Grit – How well students are able to persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals.
  • Growth Mindset – Student perceptions of whether they have the potential to change those factors that are central to their performance in school.
  • Hope – How often do you expect your future to be exciting and
  • Sense of Belonging – How much students feel that they are valued members of the school and classroom community.

Upon looking at the results, I was a bit surprised to see the lowest score in my class was in the Sense of Belonging category. In this topic, students use a scale of 1-5 to answer questions such as: How well do people at your school understand you as a person?  How much support do the adults at your school give you? How much respect do students at your school show you? How much do you feel like you belong at your school? I know that when I feel like I belong to a group, I am able to be a better version of myself. I think for many of us, it’s important to be in a group where this is mutual respect and support. I hope to instill this same feeling into my students before they go off to middle school.

The other day, I was reading Tony’s post Long Term Investment, and this statement struck a chord with me. Tony states, “the work we do as teachers is more valuable in the long run if we invest in our student as humans first.” No truer words have ever been spoken. It’s time that I look past the reading level and math posttest data, and start to view my students as humans. So, for the past three months, I am constantly asking myself, How do my students feel about themselves in my classroom? Have I created a space today where my students can feel like they belong? In order to answer these questions, here is one change I’ve made to hopefully provide opportunities for students to feel a sense of connection to themselves and their peers.

WONDERBALL
This activity involves a ball and a list of questions. Typically, our end of the day meetings are where we sit in a circle and share our highs and lows of the day. Now, a few days a week, we play “Wonder Ball.” I took a permanent marker and wrote numbers from 1-8 on a Nerf basketball. Students sit in a circle and take turns throwing the ball to each other and responding to questions. When a student catches The Wonderball, the number their right thumbs is touching (or is closest to) corresponds with a question on a list that they will be asked. Students may “pass” or request another question if they are uncomfortable for any reason. There are three levels of questions.  Once everyone in the class has had a chance to answer level 1 questions, we move on to level 2, and so on. Here are a few examples of questions:

  • Level 1 – What is your favorite color and why? Where is your “happy place?”
  • Level 2 – Who is the most important person in your life and why? Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
  • Level 3 – Has there ever been a time when you were with people but you felt alone? Who is a person in this class that has made you feel special or important, and what did they do?

As I sit here and write this blog, I realized that the word “panorama” is a perfect name for this survey. While it is only one piece of data from one day in October, it allowed me to see a sweeping, wide view of my students–they mindset, their hopes, their sense of belonging. Wonderball has become a very popular activity, and I often have students begging to play. They seem to really enjoy the time getting to know one another. I actually think that many of them crave the opportunity to relate to one another. To feel like they belong.

Fostering Talk

It had been years since I saw my college roommate!  I pulled into her driveway and there she was waiting for me.  She had pulled a lawn chair onto the blacktop just watching the road.  It reminded me of myself as a little girl waiting for my grandparents to come over for my birthday.  We both hurried to hug and squeeze and we couldn’t stop talking.  My high school daughter was with me and slowly walked around the mini-van and shut my door.  It was so good to see her.  All those years melted away and didn’t matter.  We picked right up where we left off.   Our whole time together was filled with talk; we had so much to catch up on and discuss.  This experience reminded me about the entrance to my classroom after a long break and how could I create, foster, or embrace this same experience for a classroom community.  Everyone should feel such joy to see others.

When I began teaching, one of my mentors shared with me an activity to help students get to know each other.  It’s a Find Someone Who (people scavenger hunt)…read a book, went to the zoo, played outside, ate cookies, or saw their grandma.  It gives new friends an invitation for talk.  They can’t use themselves and they can’t repeat a friend.  It’s hard to meet new friends and I love how this provides some direction and language to foster talk.  The students have really enjoyed this activity over the years and I soon created other versions for after long breaks from each other.

After many years, I added to a previous version with more talk support.  I added a question to help foster more conversation; find someone who read a book followed with what book did you read?  It changed the pace of this activity.  They lingered more.  They shared more information with each other and sometimes extended their talk beyond the prompt.  They were focused on finding out a bit more information and not just “fill” a spot with a name.  It felt natural.  It reminded me about those first few moments in the driveway.   Reconnecting with my college roommate felt good.  It was easy and comfortable.  How can we expect students to jump right back to learning if they don’t reconnect socially and share what they’ve been doing?  Talk fosters a community and a community can make things easy and comfortable.

 

Thinking About Safely

“Community is so important.  Who can we walk through the world safely with?” Jacqueline Woodson – NCTE convention in St. Louis.

 

If you are a reader of this blog, I bet you agree with Jacqueline’s first sentence; Community is so important.  I think each of our posts here at Classroom Communities reinforces this idea but my thinking was stretched this day when it followed with the question; Who can we walk through the world safely with?

A community may be where you live geographically and the places you share physically for day to day living.  A community may be a gathering of people with the same beliefs; social, religious, or work related.  A community might be a group of people you do the same activity with on a regular basis.  I hadn’t really thought about walking through the world with my different communities.  I had to stop and ponder Jacqueline’s words, “Who can we walk through the world safely with?”

In looking up the word safely, dictionary.com of course states it’s an adverb and leads the reader to the word safe.  I started pulling out words I felt I wanted within the four walls of my classroom; secure, free from hurt, dependable, trustworthy, careful, and avoid danger.  Our world does bring uncertainty in many forms.  Our world brings hills, valleys, and plateaus even within a classroom.  I now have goals to provide a net of safety so our walk can be easier in second grade.   I’m so glad Jacqueline Woods made me stop and reflect on communities and how they help us navigate our world safely.