No Rules

The start to this school year has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding starts in recent memory. There could be many reasons for this, but I want to believe that a significant cause is that we have no rules in our classroom. That’s right. No. Rules.

A community is more than just a group of people living and working in a common area. It is a group of people who have shared interests, share a set of values and work towards the collective goal. In order for our classroom to be a true community this year, I feel it is necessary to engage students in a discussions about the clear and specific behaviors that would produce the kind of classroom they want. So far this year, our conversations have not been about how students comply and behave for me, but how we behave towards each other. Our behaviors can strengthen or demean our culture. “If you want the classroom to be a positive place, then you have to contribute positive behaviors.”

Over the past few years, my district has spent a great deal of time and professional development days establishing a clear cultural blueprint. Our district calls this the VBO. The VBO establishes a clear set of values, behaviors and outcomes that we want from each student and staff member. Our school district has three values: Stand Up & Own It, Power of the Team and Passion For Growth. These three statements have become a common language throughout our district and school. As students move through grade levels and switch schools, these remain the constant.

In my last blog post, I explained that on the first day of school I asked students to complete the following statement: Our classroom should be ________ every day. My students responded with “happy,” “clean” and “kind.” With that, it was time for students to recognize how Stand Up And Own It, Power Of The Team and Passion For Growth would create a happy, clean and kind classroom community. It is crucial for students to see the connection between the school’s values and our behaviors within our learning space. I wish I could tell you that I planned some fun, collaborative, inquiry-based activity to achieve this. I didn’t. We just talked. And we are still talking. And we will keep talking.

Almost every day for the past six weeks my class and I have shared time and ideas about our classroom community. We finish each day in a circle sharing our highs and lows and playing icebreaker games. My students will tell you some of my favorite questions to ask are:

  • “What worked in our classroom today?”
  • What went well for you?”
  • “How can you do better tomorrow?”

I am finding that making conversations like this part of the daily routine will only strengthen our classroom culture.

For the past few days, my students and I have created a display to summarize our conversations. Borrowing an idea I saw in the classroom of a colleague, Anita Norris, we created the following bulletin board. Each phrase on a sentence strip was suggested by a student. We feel that this clearly reflects what our classroom community holds dear.

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As I said, this has been one of the best starts to a school year I can remember for a long time. Even my principal, on a recent visit to my classroom, mentioned how she could feel a different energy from previous years. Yes, classes have different personalities from year to year. Yet, I firmly believe that taking the time to discuss how our values, behaviors and outcomes are all linked has made a large impact on the success of our learning community.

PS – I lied. We do have rules in my classroom. But only ONE rule.

Absolutely. No. Doritos!

(That’s the subject of another blog post).

A Teacher’s Promise

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

My students, this is my promise to you…

I will harbor you

I will welcome you to
our school
our classroom
our space

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

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

I will ask you to
think deeply
reflect thoughtfully
question boldly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will harbor you.

I will harbor
you.

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

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Rethinking Curriculum Night

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO BUILD CLASSROOM COMMUNITY – 10 EASY TIPS by Kelli Smith

“This work” by Wokandapix is in the Public Domain, CC0

Today I am beginning my 28th year of teaching. What have I learned after all these years? It’s this: there is nothing more important in these first days of school than building a classroom community and our relationships with students. Yes, content will be taught, but establishing the classroom community remains the most important “thing to do” first.

So how do we start? Here are 10 go-to activities.

“This work” by laterjay is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Read aloud, read aloud, read aloud. This is THE quickest and best way to build community. Why does it work so well? Stories bring people together. Everyone, from our youngest learners to our high schoolers, enjoys listening to and discussing a great story together. I make a point to read aloud to students every single day, but I especially use it on the first day of school to help me bond with students and to help students connect with each other. Keep a stack of good picture books available and read one whenever you have a chance during that first week of school. Reading aloud regularly (preferably at predictable times) helps establish classroom “rituals”, enabling students to feel safe and connected to the classroom. Consider participating in #classroombookaday. See more here.

“This work” by Wokingham Libraries is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Learn the correct pronunciation of each child’s name. Ask the child. A simple “tell me how to say your name”, said with a warm smile, is all it takes. Names are important and communicate respect and caring about the individual.

*First day “morning work” – you’ll be busy collecting forms, possibly collecting classroom supplies, greeting everyone — so it’s important to have work that students can do independently, but that will also give you a lot of information about them. Something that asks them questions about themselves is perfect. As they’re completing this work at their seats, you have a chance to observe how they get started working, how they interact with other students, etc. Read these morning work questionnaires as soon as you can. Make it your first day of school homework. 🙂

“This work” by Paul Hanaoka is in the Public Domain, CC0

*If you don’t do morning work questionnaire, you can still gather that information in a whole group. Form a circle on the carpet (or pull chairs into a circle). Go around the circle and answer pre-made questions. Keep these simple at first and work your way up to “bigger” questions such as “name one word that describes how you are feeling about school this year”. To do this, you might use an object that you pass around the circle (like a beanbag or stuffed animal). You might share something first then pass the object to a student beside you. Continue going around the circle until everyone has had a chance to share.

“This work” by ludi is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Create scavenger hunts for students to complete with partners. It could be a scavenger hunt in which they have to find someone who went to the beach this summer, has a younger brother or sister, likes pizza, etc. Another option is to create a scavenger hunt of areas in the classroom. This activity also gets students moving around and talking to each other

*Use whiteboard messages. These are quick questions such as “what is one thing you are thankful for, what will you do to make today a wonderful day,” etc. There are plenty of pre-made questions on line or for sale at Teachers Pay Teachers. It builds community for students to share these answers in a way that other students can see. Thus — the notion of answering the question on the whiteboard. If that is a problem (or if it gets too crowded at the board), you might try an online tool such as Padlet or a Google doc. Post the question and allow students to add their answers to the question.

“This work” by Gerd Altmann is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Keep most bulletin boards and hallway displays bare. Have the students do some work in the first week that can be posted and that shows them that this classroom belongs to all of them as much as it belongs to you. It’s also fun to take lots of pictures the first week and post some of those on walls or displays as well.

“This work” by charisse Kenion is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Discuss your class/school expectations and create something that shows what these expectations look like/sound like. Try to continue keeping this activity as a “what do we need/what helps everyone” activity rather than “these are my rules and you need to follow them” activity.

*Share things about you. Kids love to find out things about their teacher which makes you more “real” to them. It’s also a good way to find common areas of interest. I have a Google slide presentation with 50 facts about me. They’re not anything major — just things about my family, what I like, what I don’t like, etc. Think about some facts about yourself that you could share! Another variation on this idea is to share one fact about yourself from the first day of school to the last (such as “I am now reading . . .”, “This weekend I tried sushi for the first time”, and “I am learning to bake the world’s best cinnamon rolls”, etc.).

“This work” by Nappy is in the Public Domain, CC0

*Name homework and sharing – read Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (or any other picture book about a child having to explain their name). Discuss how names are part of what makes us special and unique. Ask students to ask their families about how they were given their name and what it means, if known. Share these stories in partnerships or in a class circle.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful. Have an awesome school year and enjoy building relationships with your students!

Kelli Smith has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach and an instructional coach for 28 years. She has her master’s degree in literacy instruction and has earned and renewed National Board Certification as a middle childhood generalist. She loves coffee, sticky notes and picture books and she still gets nervous on the first day of school! She blogs about teaching and teacher life at www.stillteachingstilllearning.com.

Rethinking Meet the Teacher Event

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

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

Creative spaces

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

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

Collaborative Weaving

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

A Safety Net

It has been a rough week. I know that our readers come to this blog looking for passion, positivity and inspiration about their classroom community. But, for the past three days, I’ve left school feeling frustrated and discouraged. Rarely do I wake up and feel worried about going to work. But, this week is wearing me down.

First and foremost, it’s state testing season in Ohio. Enough said.

Secondly, there has been a drastic increase of behavior issues in the classroom, in the cafeteria, on the playground and on the bus. It seems like students are being more disrespectful to each other and to me. The quality of work is diminishing. The enthusiasm for reading and writing seems dormant. When I think about how much time and energy my students and I have put into building our a solid classroom culture, it frustrates me to think that I see it starting to crack. I’ve spent a great deal of time this week asking myself…why?

Maybe some of these fifth graders are starting to realize this is the end of elementary school.

Maybe they are frightened and intimidated by the unknown bigness of middle school, unsure of what awaits them.

Maybe they sense how close sixth grade is and can’t wait to get there.

Maybe some are getting a surge of hormones and they don’t know how to handle it.

Maybe they are apprehensive about the summer where there will be less structured days at home.

Maybe they are worried about not being guaranteed a breakfast and lunch every day like they get during the school year.

Maybe they’d rather be outside or exploring sound and light energy projects instead of sitting for two hours taking a state test.

Maybe they are worried about the lock down drills that seem just a little bit more real these days.

Maybe they’re worried about what their families’ future in this country will be like.

Maybe some feel “targeted” and treated unfairly by me or other teachers.

As teachers, we all have our rough days, rough weeks and maybe even a rough year. What this week is teaching me is the importance of having a strong classroom culture. With the increase of behavior problems and struggles, I am thankful that we have a solid culture that we can fall back on. We have our mission statement that we created together which reinforces our purpose for coming to school, even for the last two months. We have our five essential agreements, which act as our “bill of rights” and outline how we treat each other. We have our collaboration norms anchor chart that we created together in September.

While we are experiencing some challenges lately, nobody can deny the expectations and structure or the classroom. When we forget how to act towards one another, we must return to our community mindset that we’ve spent seven months establishing. I am starting each morning by reviewing our essential agreements and mission statement. These tools provide a common language–a safety net to catch us if we stumble. While we may fall or stumble, our classroom culture will prevent us from getting hurt further.

The power of this website Classroom Communities is that it reinforces just how necessary it is for teachers and students to work at strengthening their classroom culture on a daily basis. We must put the time in at the beginning of the year to set up our classroom norms. We must practice how to talk to each other. We must train ourselves how to collaborate. We must learn from each other. We must push through the tough times. We must work and fight for our classroom community so we have something to catch us when we fall.