Acts of Grace and Confidence

unnamed

On the first day of school, I met my student Hiba.  As she stood in our classroom doorway, her first contact with me was a warm, firm hug with the words:

I am Hiba.  Good morning.

Gazing at her, I observed a happy girl wearing a colorful sundress, a beautiful hair bow and the cutest of sandals.  Behind this student’s  big smile and sparkling eyes, was a story, one of grace and confidence. 

“Welcome to our classroom. We are so happy that you are here. ” I replied

I only knew bits and pieces of her story.  Hiba arrived at our school the year before as a  9 year old.  Chronologically, she was old enough for fourth grade, but due to circumstances beyond her control, she was assigned to third grade.  Her placement was not based on language; our school often enrolls children speaking limited or no English.  Hiba’s situation was different; her family fled their home country of Syria when Hiba was a very young child and had lived as refugees for years in Turkey.  Interrupted schooling was an understatement.  Hiba had never been to a formal school and spent her early years folding clothing in a garment factory next to her seamstress mother.   

Regardless of past challenges, Hiba now had a chance to write a new chapter in her story.  She spent her third grade year in our school community  thriving and growing with the support of a loving classroom and caring adults. Hiba was like a very young plant her first year in the United States.  Like a seed, she was absorbing important elements like the culture of school and life in the United States.  As a seedling, she was building the basic language skills that connected her to a new community.  She empowered herself with an understanding school culture.  She made friends, while building her knowledge of life in the United States.  During her third grade year, a team of teachers collaborated with time and care,  helping Hiba build her identity as a reader, writer, and speaker of English. Hiba may have arrived in 4th grade with the label of “pre-functional,” a language learner with a limited English vocabulary, but she came with the confidence and optimistic energy of a student who was ready to work and ready to grow.

 

My Mission?  Better Yet…Our Mission:

I quickly understood that I could not best serve this child on my own.  I do not speak, read, or write Arabic.  How could I provide experiences for this motivated child and make up for time lost to war, relocation and interrupted schooling?  The task felt daunting and I knew I needed to find a way to move from worry to ease.  Foundational questions helped me discover our collective strengths so both Hiba and I could begin our work together from a place of ease and confidence.  I launched our year together asking:

  • How can my language arts classroom help this child grow?
  • What skills and strengths does this child bring to the classroom?  
  • Who is available to help support this child?

Just like most schools, our ELL teachers and aides have schedules that are stretched in mind-boggling directions.  With great care, the team and I collaborated and  secured a schedule, developing an intentional plan to maximize the talents of our support staff.  Our ELL teacher would provide daily intensive reading support, focusing on reading strategies and vocabulary instruction based on Hiba’s identified strengths and needs. Our bilingual aide would support Hiba’s knowledge of sight words and English vocabulary during writing workshop 3 times a week. With their support steps in place, I planned my role.

 

My Role:

As Hiba’s classroom teacher, I knew I was responsible for her mainline instruction in language arts, so I prepared my own action plan.  Using Marie Clay’s Observation Survey to gather literacy information about Hiba, I came to know her as a reader and writer during the first weeks of school.  I determined the kinds of sight words, functional words, and cultural vocabulary that would support her literacy development.  

  • During our Reading Workshop, I scheduled a guided reading lesson four days a week with one day to assess her progress, listen to Hiba read a self-selected book, and help her continue to build her own book collection with titles.  
  • I planned daily guided writing lessons for Hiba and other striving writers during Writing Workshop.  I could work closely and support Hiba and a small group of writers showing Hiba that she was not the only one working to become a better writer.  My striving writers learned that they could be teachers and help one another grow in the smaller circle of our guided writing group.  
  • For Word Study, I wanted her to experience our Word Study lessons, but I knew she needed more.  I secured a Rosetta-Stone online account for Hiba to use as an independent study tool to support her English and to enrich her Word Study experiences.

During the first weeks of school, I got to know Hiba just like any other student through “kid-watching” and anecdotal notes.  I watched her handle books and noticed she eagerly asked others to read aloud to her.  I noticed she loved to write and draw elaborate pictures to support her work in her Writer’s Notebook.  She absolutely adored her circle of friends, sweet girls that rallied around Hiba and helped her in any way possible.  Just like a pride of mamma lionesses, each girl took turns making sure that Hiba was happy, included, and successful.  I watched them patiently take time to understand her attempts to be part of conversations at lunch, lessons and workshop experiences.

Hiba demonstrated from Day 1 that she was always observing her classmates, listening to the conversations, and following their actions so she could be an active part of the community. I needed students to authentically enrich Hiba’s learning in a respectful and efficient way by harnessing the social power of our community.

Environment:  I began building supports into the learning environment so that Hiba was guided toward independence.  

  • Seating:  A caring team of friends agreed to sit with Hiba at a table so they could provide support as needed.  I met with the girls and modeled ways to support rather than just “doing” for Hiba.  Their job was to let her be independent and only offer help as requested by Hiba, offering assistance in a kind and respectful manner.
  • Quick Communication Board:  Hiba had access to a clipboard with icons and survival phrases that were presented and explained to her by our Arabic-speaking bilingual aide.  The Quick Communication Board helped Hiba to have dignity and independence when asking for help.  As she felt comfortable with phrases like, “I need to sharpen my pencil”  or “I need to visit the restroom,” new phrases replaced mastered life skills.
  • A Visual Schedule:  Consistency and predictability help children gain control over their lives as they navigate a sea of new language and culture.  Knowing what was going to happen throughout her day helped Hiba to feel secure so her energy was focused on learning.  A buddy or the bilingual aide reviewed our schedule at the start of each day so she knew what was happening at all times.

 

Workshop Supports:

I looked for intentional ways to capitalize on dignified peer support to help Hiba move towards independence during our literacy workshops.  Thinking about our 3 literacy blocks, I targeted ways that students could enrich Hiba’s membership in our literacy community.

Reading Workshop:  

During Reading Workshop, the freedom to make choices are important to all children, including ELL students.  By adjusting workshop experiences to match Hiba’s growing confidence and skill-set, we launched the year with Book Buddies supporting Hiba in various ways during independent reading time.

  • A Book Buddy listened to Hiba read books from her leveled book tub.
  • Another Book Buddy read a picture book selected by Hiba. The reader not only practiced reading aloud for meaning and fluency, but Hiba grew her reading life and English knowledge with picture books.
  • Audio Books on sources like Epic gave Hiba other independent reading options.
  • Wordless Books were always available for Hiba to read by herself or with others during independent reading time.  The powerful illustrations of these books were later used for vocabulary development during Word Study or 1:1 sessions with an adult.  

Writing Workshop

Hiba met each day for a focused guided writing lesson with me. During Independent Writing Time, Writing Buddies helped Hiba capitalize on labeled visuals.

  • Labeled Pictures:  Hiba would select an image with vocabulary labels to support her writing.  As she crafted a sentence, a writing buddy could read or listen to Hiba and offer support as needed.
  • Visual Dictionary: Peers could target a page in a Visual Dictionary so that Hiba was comfortable using this writing tool to find the words she needed for writing. Students were encouraged to add synonyms to useful pictures.  For example:  on a page with art supplies, a peer added the word “markers” to a caption that read “felt tip markers.”
  • Tech Support:  As Hiba learned to use Google writing tools, spellcheck became an empowering way for her to move closer to conventional spelling.  Those “red squiggles” on misspelled words allowed her to control how she asked for help or corrected words by herself.

Word Study

  • A Word Buddy helped Hiba review vocabulary in her picture dictionary.
  • A Word Buddy listened to her complete Rosetta-Stone lessons so she had an audience for the speaking components.
  • A Word Buddy also served as a vocabulary tour guide around the classroom, checking her understanding of functional life vocabulary cards taped around the classroom.

Lessons Learned

It is natural for classroom teachers to scramble, searching for ways to support and enrich the learning lives of ELL students.  By nature, teachers are experts at designing and controlling experiences for students that lead to positive outcomes.  The lesson I learned from Hiba was one of grace and confidence.  I discovered it was not necessary for me to be the sole provider of her learning experiences.  Rather than looking at a pre-functional student as a daunting challenge for a classroom teacher working alone, support is available when a teacher looks to the strengths of a child and accepts the help of the community.  

With intentional planning, the people in Hiba’s learning community coordinate and maximize learning opportunities.  Teachers and students help Hiba navigate a new language and culture each day in our own way.  As teachers, we cannot control a child’s past experiences or a child’s present level of English language skills.  What we can control is how we respond to this learner.   When we respond with dignity, optimism and the strengths of our community, we find unlimited unlimited powers and opportunities.

In A Million Words Or Less…

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today.

Ask any veteran teacher. The first year is survival. Thankful to have a shiny new job, wide-eyed and just starting out, we rookies learned routines, deciphered curriculum, wrote late-night lesson plans, navigated new hallways, memorized acronyms, and treaded the proverbial waters of education. Frantically and relentlessly.

Remembering back to the days when spelling tests and whole class novels were expectations of the curriculum, overhead projectors were THE technology standard, and students each had a desk with a nametag on top and a tornado of papers inside, I cringe to think of myself as a teacher in those early years. But we are meant to evolve, as teachers, as humans. When we learn more, we do better. When the excuses for “the way we’ve always done it” become crushed under mountains of research that support something more effective, we take that new path. We appreciate the teacher we were, but look forward to the teacher we can become.

There is one thing, however, I have done every year on the first day of school, from my very first year of teaching until now. It continues to prove to me that it is one of the most robust and authentic ways to get to know my students. It is…The Million Words letter.

On the first day of school, students take home an assignment from me to give to their parents/guardians at home. It contains a brief letter on a mostly blank piece of paper and it reads:

It’s the beginning of an exciting school year in third grade! You can help me be the best teacher I can be for your child if you share with me. So…

In a million words or less, please tell me about your child.

Besides my signature, the rest of the paper remains empty, wide open for a response. There are no extra prompts, explanations, or requirements. Like a blank canvas, it invites parents to fill up the space with a colorful and layered picture of their child. I receive handwritten notes, typed pages, photographs, and timelines.

I have read parents’…
detailed observations
hopes and dreams
unfiltered love
anxious worries
confessions

They are…
proud
thoughtful
grateful
awed
hopeful
honest

They tell stories of…
community
family
love
divorce
talent
difference
potential
loss
resilience

When I sit down to read through these pages, I often tear up or feel my breath catch in my throat. The adults who love and care for my students pour their hearts out onto the page, many with refreshing honesty and fierce love. They entrust me with personal stories. The Million Words letter gives a welcoming invitation to share and a sweeping space to lay out all of the complicated and wonderful facets of their children.

At the beginning of the school year I inherit files and documents, cumulative folders and data sheets, running recs and district testing results. But nothing gives me a truer, more meaningful picture of who a child really is than this letter. When parents are empowered to tell the story of this human being they know by heart, and when teachers take the time to read and listen to these stories, students go from a name on an attendance sheet or a statistic on a data wall, to a multi-dimensional individual. I learn about the children who ride the city bus for an hour each morning to get to school. The dearly missed grandparent who recently passed away. The newly blended families. I learn about the yellow belt test in tae kwon do. The weekly visits to the library. The Diwali celebrations at the temple. Students emerge as athletes and artists. Siblings and scientists. Introverts and innovators.

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today, but reaching out to say to parents, “tell me the story of your child”, with a mostly blank piece of paper and an open ear was, and always will be, a good decision.

 

*(To be clear, The Million Words letter is not my original idea, but whoever inspired me to do it definitely deserves an extra doughnut for Friday staff treats. Please be inspired to do the same and use this idea now, the beginning of next school year, or whenever you want to know more about your students’ stories.)

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:

IMG_3877

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.”

 unnamed-9

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.

 unnamed-11

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?

 unnamed-13

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.

 unnamed-4

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.  

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 9.14.37 PM

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.

 

Lessons From The Geese

I had a completely different post ready to go for today. However, I was inspired to write this new post because of a letter I received this morning from a former student. 

Today is day three of school, and I’m standing at my classroom door ready to greet my new fifth graders. I see one of them, Marta, turn the corner. She’s walking briskly down the hallway with an arm extended in front of her. Marta approaches me and says, “Good morning. Stick out your hand please.”  Uncertain of what’s about to happen, I do as she requests.  Into my hand falls a carefully folded piece of paper. Thankful that it’s just paper and not something worse, I open the paper and read.  It’s a letter from Marta’s brother, Diego, who was in my class two years ago. The letter reads:

Dear Mr. Jones,

Hi, It’s Diego.  I am in seventh grade now, but you probably already know that.  Or maybe you don’t. I like seventh grade. My teachers are nice. I’m really glad that my sister is in your class.  Now, she get’s (sic) to learn about The Flock.  I loved being in The Flock because I learned about thinking of other people.

Your friend,
Diego

This simple gesture made me realize that one of my former students appreciated being a member of our classroom community so much that he wanted his sister to have the same experience.

“The Flock” is an idea I was introduced to as a teenager when a coach used it during a pep talk. It originates from a piece of writing called Lessons From The Geese, which describes the science behind why a flock of geese flies in a V-formation. You can find this piece of writing here. I use these facts about the migratory patterns of geese to start off the year with a series of conversations about respect, collaboration, ownership and kindness. I guess I think of this piece of writing as a mentor text that becomes the framework for our classroom culture.

These lessons can be applied to any group, and I’ve found that they work perfectly for initiating the discussion about our classroom norms. We begin by reading Lessons From The Geese as a class. Students work in small groups to make comparisons of how geese work as a team and how students work together in a classroom. We revisit these lessons almost daily during the first weeks of school. My goal is to ensure that students have a strong understanding of this metaphor and how it relates to our work in the classroom.

Here is the list of facts, followed by how these facts can be used to build the culture in a classroom:

FACT: By flying in a V-formation, the whole flock adds around 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.
LESSON: If we are part of a learning community that has a common purpose or direction, then we will be more successful in meeting their learning goals and making improvements.  Our behaviors will affect our classmates.

FACT: Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go through it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the power of the flock.
LESSON: It is important that we work together, collaborate, learn from each other and share ideas.  If we do these things, each person will reach their goals easier than if they try to do it alone.  We must trust the power of the team.

FACT: When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose takes over.
LESSON: The teacher will not always be the leader. We must share ownership of our classroom community. We all need to be responsible for our own learning.  We should always stand up and own our behavior.  Also, our community must remain strong even when there is a guest teacher in the classroom.

FACT: Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep their speed.
LESSON: Our communication with one another needs to be positive and supportive. We are all here for the same reason, and we need to be respectful to everyone. We need to give each other feedback that is constructive and helpful.

FACT: When a goose gets sick or is wounded and falls out of formation, two geese fall out of the formation and follow the injured one down to help and protect it.
LESSON: It is important for us to work together, but we also need to care about each other. We should look out for each other and support each other when someone is feeling down. Every single student should feel physically and emotionally safe in our classroom community.

Our series of discussions in the first weeks of school culminates with each Flock member, including me, writing a paragraph answering questions such as: “How will YOU contribute to the Flock this year?” or “Which lesson from the geese means the most to you?” In years past, students answered this question by writing their answer on a goose outline glued to construction paper. I then hung these paper geese from the ceiling in a V-formation after school, so the next morning students would come in surprised to see our Flock on display. Unfortunately, my local fire marshal has smothered that idea.

After a few weeks of daily conversations to start the year, it’s time for The Flock to take flight. Even though our discussions about this metaphor decrease, I try to weave it into our daily routine as much as I can. I don’t address the group by saying “Ok, boys and girls…” Instead, I say, “Listen up, Flock members!”  We have daily Flock meetings where we sit in a circle (more conducive to discussions than a “V”) to reflect on our goals and evaluate the day. Our class Twitter, Instagram and website all are titled “The Flock.” I feel an important part of any strong community is a shared vision along with common language.  For me, “The Flock” is what provides these things. My students grow to love the fact that we are the only class in the school with a name. They also learn that once you are in The Flock, you are always in The Flock.

Eight years ago, I will never forget when a student shared this idea about the flock at one of our daily meetings. She said that a flock of geese and a class of students are similar because they are both on a journey.  Geese are in a v-formation on a journey for food and warmth and a flock of students is on a journey of learning.  As teachers, we want to create an environment where their journey is a success. I hope that “The Flock” gives my students a sense of community that will make their learning journey easier. I hope “The Flock” motivates them to think of others before they think of themselves. I hope “The Flock” allows them to go on their journey through fifth grade with sense of purpose and a passion for growth. Diego’s letter gives me hope that it does.

Geese4

photo credit: pecooper98362 Where The Wild Geese Go via photopin (license)

Learn Their Names, Learn Their Story

In fifth grade, my teacher was firm, but loving. She played the harp, had emerald green eyes, and read aloud Tuck Everlasting to our class. We rapped about rainforests, memorized the Fifty Nifty United States, and kept chameleons in aquariums (except for the one that escaped, making for a frantic morning search around the classroom!). I loved being in her class, but every day, the whole grade switched to different teachers for reading. Despite being an enthusiastic reader at home, I dreaded my reading teacher’s class from the beginning, all because of one thing. She refused to learn my name.

My name is Aliza.
It is derived from Hebrew.
Depending on the etymology, it means “joyful” or “oath of God”.
There are not many of us. I have only met one other Aliza, in person, in my life.
My name is pronounced “ah-LEE-zah”.
It rhymes with (The Leaning Tower of) Pisa and (The Pyramids of) Giza. Caesar, if you’re from Boston.

My entire life, I have heard my name pronounced incorrectly. Alyssa, Alisa, Alizay, Elise, Azalea, Aliva, Liza, Allie, Eliza (thanks Hamilton!). I empathize with the harried baristas, well-meaning teachers, and hopeful telemarketers as they bite their lips and take a stab at my name out loud. If it’s wrong, not to worry. I say “Thank you. It’s ah-LEE-zah.” (Although the telemarketers get some version of “I’m sorry. Eliza isn’t here right now. She’s out with Angelica and Peggy at a revel with some rebels on this hot night.”)

So, imagine my experience as a shy, rule-following, teacher-pleasing 10 year old when my reading teacher looked at my name on her attendance sheet, wrinkled her nose, and tried…“Alisa”. Correcting her, “It’s Aliza, with a Z.” She tried again. Man, Zs are difficult! Giving up all too soon, she spoke words that have stuck with me to this day:

“Ack! That’s too hard. I love Charlotte’s Web, so I’m going to call you Charlotte.”

She nicknamed me after one of literature’s most beloved characters, and Charlotte is a lovely name, but there is one problem. It is not MY name. Embarrassed, I cried the whole bus ride home that afternoon. When I told my parents that night, they encouraged me to tell her I did not like that name. It took every fiber of bravery saved up over my entire life to walk up to her soon after, surrounded by her favorite students, to say: “I don’t like being called Charlotte. It’s not my name.” Her response? An eyebrow raise, a smirk, and

“Oh! You don’t like Charlotte? Then I’ll call you Wilbur.”

A pig. A boy.

I suffered in silence, afraid to speak up again, to correct or share my hurt feelings with this adult. Too introverted to take the risk. Too anonymous to overcome my fears of becoming an original human with a name again. So I faded into the background for the rest of the year to survive her class.

Names are more than just words. They are an intangible tattoo of a person’s identity. They represent tradition and heritage, originality and creativity, honor and hope. Our name is the first thing that ever belongs to us in this world. Receiving a name is a ceremony, a rite of passage, in many religions and cultures. Being Jewish, I had a baby naming, where my Hebrew name, Havalah Shira, was bestowed. My Catholic dad chose his confirmation name, Paul. Names are a clue to identity, an invitation to others to learn more. They help cultivate a sense of self and can embody who we are and what we want to become.

Names have stories. They honor family members, here and gone. They reference favorite characters in literature and films. They allude to memories, feelings, places, and inspirations. Years ago, I had a student whose parents named their five kids with anagrams of their father’s first name. If you are like me, your name was chosen because your parents liked it and thought it to be original. The story of your name might just start with you.

Names can change. Whether by force or by choice, they transform and adjust. Names have inherent power and meaning. Name-calling bullies, dehumanizes, and denigrates others. To show respect to others, learn their names.

When you know someone’s name, it is the entry point to knowing that person more deeply. When you learn your students’ names, you acknowledge their existence. You convey to them “I see you. You are important to me. I value your story.” Learning their names is the first step in growing trust, rapport, relationships, and equitable classroom communities.

It’s as easy as:

  1. On the first day of school, ask students how to pronounce their names. Ask them to teach you and insist on taking the time to get it right.
  2. Ask students what they prefer to be called. Do they have a nickname? Does Christopher prefer Chris? Does Jasmine feel comfortable with Jazz?
  3. Have multiples of the same name in your class? Allow Sophia and Sofia, and Jaxon and Jackson to steer a conversation with you about how to avoid confusion in using their names aloud. Will you use last initials? A nickname? And if Jaxon and Jackson prefer their name and nothing else, that is what you accept and honor.
  4. Start every morning (or class period) at the door outside of your classroom to greet your students by name: “Good morning, Dejah!”, “Love that new haircut, Henry!”, “Oooh, what are you reading, Ahmed?”, “Mia! How was swim practice last night?”
  5. Whether through a formal project or stolen moments, take time to ask students about their names: how they were named and what their name means to them.
  6. If it’s your own name that throws the curveball, remember to kindly correct, be assertive, and offer opportunities for others to practice and learn it. I put the pronunciation of my name in my Twitter profile.

Many years later, near the end of summer, I saw that teacher in a restaurant. In the fantasy scenario in my head, I would have walked up to her and said:

To my dad, I’m Leezie.
To my mom, I’m Ali (ah-LEE).
To my nieces and nephews, I’m Auntie Leez.
To my high school softball teammates, I’m Al.
To my coach, I’m Z.
To my Deaf Education professors in college, I’m the hand sign for the letter “A” with a twist on my cheek.
To my students, I’m Mrs. Werner.
To you, I’m Aliza. It rhymes with Giza. Please learn it.

Instead, I walked mindfully into my classroom that new school year ready to learn the names of 22 young people. Pronouncing our students’ names accurately and respectfully is a true welcome into our classrooms. They hear you speak their names and their hearts ignite. Their confidence grows. Their dignity is defended.

Learn their names, learn their story.