My Classroom Is A Mess

There have been so many professional books that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person. Each summer, I try to read two or three professional books because I am always striving to become more knowledgeable and more efficient so I can set up my students to be better learners. These books always make me feel more organized and give me a better handle on what I’m doing.  However, this may sound crazy, but I read a professional book this summer that has made my classroom messy, confusing and cluttered.

Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children in School completely changed the way I view my school, my students and my classroom community. As I finished the last page, I just sat there for a good five minutes pondering what I had just read.  Upon completing this book three days before students arrived in the classroom, I felt compelled to delete my “First Week Of School” folder that was full of lesson plans and activities that I had used for the past few years. With my plans in the trashcan on my laptop, I envisioned a new first week of school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew it had to be different.



“Everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.”

As I sat there staring at a blank computer screen, I knew that the most important time spent in my classroom at the beginning of the year is establishing community norms. I have never been one to have classroom “rules” because I believe this sets students up to think about what they are NOT permitted to do. Shalaby states that schools are traditionally places where “everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.” I don’t want my classroom community to be a place where anybody has to anticipate getting caught.



“Classrooms must be places in which we practice freedom. They must be microcosms of the kind of authentic democracy we have yet to enact outside those walls—spaces for young people, by young people—engaging our youth to practice their power and to master the skills required by freedom.”

Instead of classroom rules, I have always employed “essential agreements” so students have a chance to think about what positive behaviors are essential to our classroom community. Within the first few days, I have always presented these five essential agreements to the students as our classroom bill of rights:

  • We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe.
  • We have the right to be treated with respect.
  • We have the right to speak and be listened to.
  • We have the right to work and learn in a positive supportive learning environment.
  • We have the right to do out best.

“These are the things that your peers may not take away from you,” I always say. We would then have multiple conversations over the first weeks about what these essential agreements do and don’t look and feel like. However, it is now day 6, and I have not introduced these essential agreements because I have decided to start the conversation differently this year.

On the first day of school, I asked the students to think about the following question: Our classroom should be _________ every day. Most students responded with the words like “happy,” “clean,” and “kind.” It seems so simple. Students want a place that makes them feel welcome.

The following day, I continued the conversation by asking a question that left many students perplexed.
What do human beings need in order for us to do our best? After a few minutes of partner talk, we came together to record our thinking. I was delighted at their answers for many reasons. First, every answer was student-centered and did not mention the teacher. Second, their responses exhibit a growth mindset. Persevering, learning from mistakes and being patient all demonstrate the importance of the learning process over the final results or products.

IMG_4199.jpgThe next part of our discussion puts a spotlight on rules. What is a rule? Similar to the previous day, many students had difficulty clearly defining what a rule is. However, students provided some interesting insights into what they understand about rules. At

this point in the conversation, I asked students to ponder if we should have “rules” in our classroom. Most of them agreed that there need to be some boundaries or limits would help them monitor their behavior and make sure the classroom stayed happy and clean.



“He loved the freedom of learning just enough to hate the constraints of schooling.”

This book has forced me to reflect upon the aspects of my classroom culture that are rooted in student compliance. I have always considered our classroom as a place where students have a sense of freedom and choice in their learning. Yet, as I think about daily routines and classroom expectations, I am constantly asking myself, Is this procedure motivated by compliance and teaching students to “do school”? Or does this promote the freedom for students to learn and do their best? Often times, the answer is I don’t know.

I can honestly say that I have no idea where this conversation will lead us. These discussions have left me with more questions than answers.  I guess establishing a free and just society is messy with no clear answers. Yet, what I do know is that our classroom culture is going to be much stronger because of this reflection. I know that our conversation will continue. I hope that all of us will have a better vision of freedom and democracy. I hope that my students will work together to create a learning space that is happy, clean and kind.

Shalaby has made my job much harder! I have not gotten as far with organizing materials and setting routines as I usually have done in previous years. We have not labeled our spiral notebooks yet. Our classroom library is not completely organized. We haven’t finished setting up our iPads. Of course, we will eventually get everything organized and begin with our subject area content. But, for right now, my classroom is a mess.  And that’s just the way I want it.

Was It Enough?

Was it enough?

Do they
Feel
Prepared for middle school?

Do they
Feel
Prepared for life?

Do they
Feel
Physically and emotionally safe?

Do they
Know
Their own potential?

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

Do they
Know
How much I care?

Was it enough?

Will they
Fail?

Will they
Fail
forward?

Will they
Act
With purpose and drive?

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

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

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

Will they
Respect
Everyone’s differences?

Will they
Embrace
Productive discomfort?

Will they
Return
To visit and share their successes?

Was it enough?

Please continue to
Collaborate well.

Please continue to
Use your voice.

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

Please continue to
Stay curious.

Please continue to
Notice and wonder.

Please continue to
Find your passion.

Was it enough?

Did I
Provide
Books that mirrored their life experience?

Did I
Listen
To them sufficiently?

Did I
Push
Them beyond their comfort zones?

Did I
Empower
Them to own their learning?

Did I
Give
Enough high fives?

Did I
Treat
Them all fairly?

Did I
Tell
Them how proud I am?

Was it enough?

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.

The Feels

The * Feels /thə feelz/  n. shorthand for the word “feelings” that is used to describe an intense emotional response about something that has deeply affected the speaker.  (source: knowyourmeme.com)



The past week in my classroom has been hitting me right in the feels. I’m so blessed to have a job passion that allows me to get this intense emotional responses every so often. These past five days have been a roller coaster of emotion in Room 27. Here is why…

Feels #1 – March Book Madness

After months of build-up, Tony and I are launching the voting rounds for the March Book Madness book tournament. For the next four weeks, schools all over the US (and some in Asia) will be reading, discussing and voting for books in our brackets trying to determine the TOP book for “Compelling Characters.”

The response to this year’s MBM is unprecedented. Tony and I receive tweets daily from teachers and librarians showing us how much MBM is inspiring the love of books and reading in their schools. Nothing brings me more joy than to see photos of kids examining and pointing at the bulletin board in their classroom with the MBM bracket. I’ve seen Flipgrids, Padlets and iMovies with students sharing their love of a particular book and persuading their peers to pick it to advance to the next round.

Tony and I text regularly about how we can’t believe how this small idea we hatched during a twitter chat in 2014 could give thousands of young readers such excitement and joy about books.

Feels #2 – Refugee

Last Friday, we finished reading Refugee by Alan Gratz for our read aloud. (If you have not read this book, you must, after reading this post of course, go straight to your local independent bookstore or reserve this book from your library.) This particular read aloud with my fifth graders has been like no other. Not only did I have students begging to miss recess to keep reading another chapter, I had students getting copies from the library so they could start reading it again during their free time. But, the suspense and action-packed plot was only part of what made this book truly magical.

Refugee is not just a book. It’s an experience. An experience that allowed me to connect to my students’ lives unlike any other book has. I teach in a school that is almost 30% English language learners and 25-30 students have refugee status. One of them is in my class. He is old enough to remember his journey, yet comfortable enough to pull me aside and tell me that this book made him sad.

Throughout the book, I would show videos about refugees from Nazi Germany in 1940, Cuba in 1994 and Syria in 2015 to provide context to the characters. I will never forget hearing students say “That’s not fair!” or “Why are they doing that?” as they watched Hungarian border patrol aggressively deny entrance to a group of refugees. Forever etched in my mind is the image of three girls huddled together, arm in arm, as we read the author’s note. I’ll always remember watching Mason wipe away a single tear from his cheek as we listened to the final chapter. And perhaps he will always remember watching Mr. Jones wipe away a single tear at the same time.

This book is powerful. Students have talked about it every day since finishing it.

Feels #3 – Letters of Thanks

Each planning period, I walk to my staff mailbox and look to see what annoying professional development pamphlet I’m going to recycle that day. But, this week, I didn’t get any. Instead, I received three envelopes all addressed to me in “not-adult” handwriting. I opened each envelope to find handwritten thank you cards from former students. I took them back to my classroom and began to read. Here are a few samples of their words that are the epitome of right in the feels.

“Thank you for making school fun and making me glad to actually come to school.”
“In your class, school became a happier place that I used to think about it.”
“Thank you for teaching me things that I can pass on to other people to help them too.”
“Thank you for kickstarting my confidence. I’m taking high school math classes in 8th grade.”
“You have made me see what is worth seeing.”
“Thank you so much for boosting my confidence to keep going and never give up.”
“After your class, I feel like I see the value of education.”

 

IMG_0848My intention is sharing these is not to be self-congratulatory. Rather, it is to show how their thank-yous are not directed towards the assessments, daily lessons or academic standards we provide for our students. Instead, their appreciation is rooted in how our classroom community made them feel.

Most teachers get into this profession to make a difference in the lives of children. It is often a thankless job, and we don’t always get the recognition from our students or the community. Yet, our jobs as teachers is unlike any other job.

We get to see the excitement on our students’ faces first hand when they finally solve that math problem.

 

 

We get to experience a great book with our students every day.

We get to provide safe spaces for our students to ask, wonder and notice.

We get to kick start a child’s confidence.

We get to see learning take place first hand!

What makes our job so special is that we actually get to feel the feels.

Did you allow yourself to feel the feels this week? I invite you to share the source of your feels in the comments section.

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 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.

Pushing The Reset Button

A few years ago, it was pretty common to find me pecking at my iPhone playing the game Angry Birds. For some reason, this game had me hooked. As you probably know, Angry Birds is a mobile game where you launch a set of birds from a slingshot and destroy pigs and structures made of rocks. At the end of each level, you can earn up to three stars based on the number of points. Always wanting to improve my Angry Birds proficiency, if I knew that I wasn’t going to earn all three stars at the end of the level, I would quickly stop the level and try again. Essentially, I was pushing the reset button, all the while saving my progress and points I’ve earned so far.
counter-949233_640Each year, I find that winter break is the time when I start to get a bit restless. It’s the half-way point of the school year and a wonderful opportunity for our classroom communities to get together and reflect on all we’ve accomplished.  It’s also a time when we can push that reset button and strategize how we want to move forward.

This week, I asked my students to reflect on the school year and what we have accomplished together so far. I asked them to think of our school year as a video game with winter break being a sign that we’ve made it to a certain checkpoint. We can’t go back to the beginning of the game, but we can start a new level with new strategies and mindset. To start our conversation, I asked students to take a few moments to consider these three questions: What have been the most positive parts of our classroom community that are working well? What parts would you like to change? How do you want to change them?

One idea that has always stuck with me is “how we look back affects how we look forward.” The manner in which we reflect and give feedback will influence how we utilize that feedback and take our next steps. With this idea in mind, I introduced an evaluation tool called a Plus/Delta Chart to help facilitate our discussion.  It’s a simple tool that helps provide continuous improvement for a group or team. I explained that the pluses are working well and what we want to maintain and build upon.  The deltas are opportunities for improvement. These are the things that can be changed so that our classroom culture can become stronger and more effective. The third column is for our prescriptions. This column is where we collectively come up with action steps to change, or cure, our deltas.

After about 10 moments of quiet reflection, we gathered on the carpet to share our thinking. I was anxious to hear what feedback they would offer. I hoped that this would be productive and not a place to complain and criticize.  As the kids talked, I recorded their thoughts. You can see our pluses and deltas below. ** I intended to complete the chart in one day; however due to time constraints, I saved the prescription column for the next day. I feel the prescription column is a vital part of this process, and should not be cut short. I chose to postpone the discussion until the next day since we were running short on time.

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When I zoom out and look at our pluses and deltas, there are a few things that caught my eye.  Many of the pluses come from parts of the day when students have choice–soft starts, writing workshop, book clubs and flexible seating options.  Also, I was intrigued to see that they liked when I stand at the classroom door in the morning. Further evidence that small gestures and simple acts of kindness can be crucial to a strong classroom culture.

When scanning the deltas, it seems like students are very interested in holding each other accountable particularly when it comes to their behavior. I’m thankful for those students who were brave enough to point out these concerns. My hope is that together, we can work through these concerns and strengthen our culture where everyone feels physically and emotionally safe. Without this feedback, this problem could have grown into a larger issue. I am excited to continue this discussion and collectively develop some prescriptions to help cure our deltas.

The first half of the school year can often feel like we are one of those Angry Birds being hurdled through the air at a breakneck pace. Using this winter break as an opportunity to regroup, reorganize and reset has been a healthy step in making sure everyone in our classroom community is heard. This “pushing reset” conversation, aided by the Plus/Delta chart, helped us learn from past mistakes, yet carry optimism into the future.