The 7-Minute Debrief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Things Foster Communities

When I read our first post by Tony and Brian introducing our vision for this space I instantly got my writer’s notebook out and started writing a list.  They shared ‘little things’ that helped create meaningful relationships in the post, Looking at Teaching and Learning through a “Relationship” Lens.  I started my own list, wondering if I could think of five small things that might have an impact on our community.  I decided to let this list percolate and study them during the first month of school.  I was quite surprised last night at parent teacher conferences each of my five things were mentioned at some point by parents.

  1. Each morning during our morning meeting greet each other.  Each week I pick a different greeting for the students and I to do with each other as each child is welcomed.  We started with a formal greeting – Good morning, Sam.  Good morning, Mrs. Robek.  Parents shared last night their child was plotting out how they would “hit the floor” the next day during a greeting chant we did last week and were disappointed we were doing something different this week.  This week we did an ankle shake around our circle; they laughed and giggled as they tried to balance.
  2. Use student names for labels.  Names are special gifts from parents with meaning and thought.  Every time I write a label with a name I feel like I’m creating a special spot for that child this school year.  A notebook or folder or coat hook that will be a place to nurture.
  3. Send snail mail notes home to share good news.  Life is busy and technology can make communication easy but I miss getting meaningful, touching mail in my physical mailbox.  When I do, I get a little flutter of joy.  I had some postcards made to hopefully bring my students and their families a flutter of joy.  I find handwriting a note brings a little more intention to my observations.  Just today as we lined up for dismissal a student didn’t hear his name called and another student who rides the same bus got out of line and helped him find a place within the line that was growing to help him get home.  Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 9.56.18 PM
  4. Start the year with empty walls and curate them together with the class.
  5. End the school day in song.  One summer I worked at a day camp and they had a tradition to end their day.  They sang a song; staff and campers.  It had a message of closure, wishes for our time away, and a time frame for when we’d be together again.  Enjoy our sharing.  

From the Top Down

As some who find themselves reading this may know, my family recently moved halfway across the country. Personally, this meant a move closer to family and to a community we knew, even as it did bring me farther from where I grew up and my family in that area. Professionally, this meant a new position in a new school division.

(Note: “School Division” is a largely Canadian term used the same way “School District” is in the US)

With this new position came meeting new people, attending new employee workshops, etc. Things most of us have been through once or twice in our careers — at the very least, at the start of our careers.

I’ve been at new schools and/or new school district/divisions 5 times in my career. 4 of them had largely the same new teacher orientation information:

  • How to get paid
  • How to request time off
  • Expectations of teachers
  • How to file grievances
  • Welcome to our team! excitement (either genuine excitement or not, this always exists)

This one was different. And I have to share why.

When the superintendent spoke at the beginning of the orientation, there was a bit of the “here’s what we’re doing as a division this year; here’s our new strategic plan for the next 3 years; etc.” That’s pretty standard.

But before he even got to that, he started with talking about trust. He started by talking about how all the teachers in the room (there were about 40 of us) were going to build relationships with our students and with each other, and how that was the most important thing that we do. RTI, PLCs, curriculum, best practices: these are all important supports. But the most important thing is the relationships we have with our students and the community of support that we build.

I was blown away.

I’ve never had the leader of entire school division say that, much less kick off the year by saying that. But maybe it was an anomaly. He might have the most powerful voice, but maybe other senior administrators didn’t buy in to that same philosophy.

Then it was an assistant superintendent’s turn.

He shared with us 8 Standards of Excellence in Teaching. But he highlighted one in particular that was the necessary starting point: Interpersonal Relationships. He went on to say, “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” Essentially, if you don’t have that one, the others aren’t really going to matter nearly enough.

Think about those words. “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” If I had asked you before this post who said that, what would you say? A classroom teacher? A former teacher turned speaker? Perhaps a principal? The impact of a superintendent saying these words is significant.

I felt it in myself, and I saw it in my colleagues as we understood. It was clear what is important to this school division. It’s not just the academic outcomes that we lead our students toward. It’s an adult caring about every student. It’s every student having an adult who cares about them. It’s about helping each student feel a sense of belonging. It’s about community. It’s about relationships.

I thought this was as amazing as it was novel to me to hear it from the highest administrators in the division.

Then I really started to think about it.

When the primary directive to teachers is to build trust, community, and relationships among themselves and among their students, that’s going to look different than what I’m used to. I’m used to raising test scores. I’m used to graduation rates. I’m used to proficiency targets and goals.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is student scores, that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about raising student scores. Good teachers know that relationship-building is part of this.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is building relationships, then that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about building a community with their students. Good teachers know that this will raise student scores.

What is the message you send, when you get to talk to others? Whether you’re a teacher, administrator, parent, or student: what is your focal point? If it’s student scores, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is ultimately a number. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a number and they leave as hopefully a higher number. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

If the message is trust, community, and relationships, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is a person. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a person and they leave as a hopefully more enriched person. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

I would dissent if I had to. I’m fortunate that I don’t. Others are not so fortunate.

I will leave you with this thought. I believe that most people in senior administration in school districts believe in the importance and power of relationships and community in education. I’m not sure how many think it’s the most important thing, but they know it’s quite important. For those in those roles: are you communicating that to your staff? Do they know that you believe that? How? What are you doing to show that every day?

What will you do today to show those around you that you believe in the power of trust, relationships, and community?

Looking at Teaching and Learning Through a “Relationship” Lens

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The photographer Eve Arnold once said, “I don’t see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary. I see them simply as people in front of my lens.” When we think about teaching and learning in schools, we want to emphasize the idea that all of us — teachers, administrators, custodians, secretaries, guidance counselors, parents and most importantly students — are viewed as people first. These people can be extraordinary or ordinary, but we want to send the message that places of learning should be filled with value building relationships first. We should be looking at everything through a relationship lens.

This blog’s primary purpose is to share the how and why it is vitally important for classrooms and schools to embrace the positive impact of building positive relationships. We are thrilled to have a great group of educators joining us to regularly post on Classroom Communities. Within our group we have decades of experience working with students and colleagues in schools. We love the fact our group includes elementary and secondary teachers, administrators, as well as current and former instructional coaches. We believe the community of voices we are creating will resonate with many different readers.

We decided to launch Classroom Communities at the 2017 Nerd Camp Michigan for many reasons, but one is the community of educators and authors who regularly attend Nerd Camp Michigan are wonderful. During a presentation there, we spoke about how relationships are vitally important to help students feel valued and empowered to learn. During our talk we shared the idea of how little things can turn into big things if you commit to them, or as Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently said at the University of Edinburgh Commencement Ceremonies: “Do small things in a big way…whether you realize it or not, these things matter.”

Here are a few of the ‘little things’ we have infused into our classrooms, that over time have helped us to create meaningful relationships with the students in our learning community.

  1. Greeting students in the hall as they enter the room. This is a simple, but effective way to ensure your students know that you want to connect with them. This act doesn’t have to be fancy (you don’t need to have a special handshake or a 5 minute conversation), it can be as simple as, “Hey Alex, how is it going?” or “Good morning Salima, how was dance last night?” Two minutes a day in the hall, can have a tremendous impact of the culture of your classroom.
  2. Invite the teacher board. Consider a sign-up sheet in which students can invite you to out of school activities. Even in middle school and high school, students enjoy knowing if you can make it to a basketball game, piano recital, or theatrical performance. Of course you cannot make all of them (well maybe you can), but if you are able to attend, then you will show that you care more about the student than just the time you spend with them in the classroom. Another side effect of the invite the teacher board is that when you can’t attend an event, you still know when a student was doing something important to them. You can always follow-up with a quick chat after the event or wish them well the day of the event.
  3. Allowing students some say in the design of the classroom. We know that teachers value ‘their space.” There is almost something sacred about our classrooms. For many of us, we can be in our sacred spaces for many, many years. And we think we know exactly how we should design elements in our room. However, we have found that students value sharing input on how tables or desks are arranged. Since we share our rooms with 25-35 other people, we should consider the simple idea of asking them for their input.
  4. Joke Time. Let students share a joke with the class. This can be done at the end of the class period or day or at a transition time. You will need to set some expectations that work for you, but a quick bit of student driven humor infused into your classroom can do wonders for a classroom community.
  5. Share your own wonderings and learning. Schools should be places where everyone is learning. We know that is our responsibility to honor our curriculum and content, but sharing your own wonderings and learning that are outside of your curriculum allows students to see a teacher who is invested in other ideas. It also allows your students to see that you are with them on a learning journey. So open yourself a little to your students. If you spent 30 minutes the night before learning how to prepare a new dinner or reading deeply about a new topic, briefly share that experience in class.

If you have other “little things” that you use to build community within your classroom add the ideas into the comments. We want to learn what everyone else is trying with their students as well.

We hope this blog can serve as one of the little things in your professional life that help make each of us better teachers. Thanks for being a part of this community. We look forward to this journey with you.

– Tony Keefer and Brian Wyzlic

photo credit: Phototravelography Selfie without a stick. via photopin (license)