Slime and Smiles

About a month ago, one of our other divisional specialists and I started to work with an after-school group. This group, comprised of immigrant students who are at varying stages of learning English, was to be working on incorporating technology to find creative ways to tell stories of important things in their lives. It made sense for myself (the Ed Tech Specialist) and my colleague (the EAL Specialist) to work with them.

It has been a blast. I don’t get to work one-on-one with students much this year, so I jumped at the chance. I get the added bonus of being surrounded by 10-15 students (depending on the day) who speak 5-6 different languages among them, and have a wealth of culture to share. It’s a very positive environment, and I count myself fortunate to be a part of it.

But there is one student–I’ll call her Jasmine for the sake of this post–whom I’ve had a hard time connecting with.

Jasmine speaks Spanish, but very little English. She is also quite shy, and those two things together sometimes become obstacles to engaging her in the activities.

I know some Spanish, but I’m often intimidated when attempting to speak it in front of those more fluent than I am. I realized, though, that Jasmine probably feels the same way about speaking English. So I put my pride aside, and started to do my job.

When she was working on identifying parts of her story, I asked her if I could see what she had. Her work was mostly in Spanish, but I did my best to read and ask her questions about what she had written. My questions were mostly in English, but then there was a question I needed to ask, and I knew the Spanish words. So I used them.

I had not seen Jasmine smile until that point, though the group had been together nearly a dozen times. Her face lit up, just for a second. She answered me, as best as she could, and we had a difficult but doable conversation about her story.

That’s when it really hit me. What her story was about.

It could have been her journey from her home country to Canada.
It could have been about family or foods she misses.
It could have been about how difficult it has been being in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

It wasn’t.

Her story was about slime. Glitter slime, specifically.

Photo Credit Wikipedia Commons

I couldn’t not ask! I didn’t know the Spanish, and she didn’t know the English, but we talked about slime for 5 minutes. At some point, we both smiled as we didn’t know the words we needed, but we could understand each other.

At that moment, I knew Jasmine felt different. Sometimes, she has a Spanish interpreter who is with her. Sometimes, her friends can act as translator. Translating apps help as well. But in that moment, it was just her and a teacher, having a conversation.

As we packed up to leave that day, Jasmine came up to me with something in her hands. She held it out to me–it was slime! I took it and played with it. It was slimy but clean. Liquid yet solid. It was fun! It’s no wonder kids love the stuff! I thanked her as I handed it back, and for the first time in the 6 weeks I’d been working with this group, she said goodbye as she left.

The next time we met, Jasmine didn’t sit off to the side, nor did she sit super close to one of her Spanish-speaking friends. She was just a member of the group, like any other. She finally felt the truth that we knew all along: she belonged.

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.

Halfway Here: The Just Ten Challenge

Halfway there.
We are halfway there.
Near equidistant from the first day of school to the last…
I still have beginning of the year “to dos” and aspirations hanging in limbo, waiting for a minute of my attention.
The pile of manila folders I placed on my cabinet in September still sits there.
I’ve been running on the binder creating, Google Drive organizing, classroom library reshuffling gerbil wheel all year.
And I think I forgot to tear off yesterday’s page on my daily desk calendar.

Today was a rainy day. In Wisconsin. In January.
Thunder and lightning, puddles and humidity.
Cloudy and gloomy.
And it felt like it.

It was one of those days where the air and the energy was heavy. District math testing. Indoor recess. Winding down reading and writing units. A student meltdown. It was a slow motion, going-through-the-motions sort of day for the kids and me, and I came home defeated and frustrated. Today lacked luster. Today was mundane. Today was mediocre. But it wasn’t without its joyful moments. To shake off the dust for tomorrow, I was determined to consciously remember and recognize those highlights. Closing my eyes and thinking back on my day, I realized it wasn’t too difficult to name the good in our day.

Andrew brought in his Spirograph tracers to share with his friends during our morning “Spark & Shine” soft start choice time. Kaylah wrote a heartfelt dedication to her dog in the informational book she is writing on how to raise a puppy. Amir jumped into a new favorite series to push himself as a reader. Akilah finished the third book in her series, the most of a series she’s ever read before. Elijah said, “Have a great lunch Mrs. Werner!” on the way out the door. We all laughed during our end of day read aloud. And that’s just what came to mind right away.

This got me thinking…we all have our highs and lows during the school year, but as educators, we often sell ourselves short considering all that we have taught and facilitated with our students. We get stuck on what we have yet to accomplish, the unmemorable days, and the unsuccessful teaching moments we have experienced, that we leave little time to reflect on all that is good and joyful and celebratory in our classrooms. In the mood to make lists and at an appropriate point in the year to be more deeply reflective, I challenged myself to jot down the first ten moments that came to mind that were unforgettable, heartwarming, profound, and positive. Just ten! I was hoping I would prove to myself that even on this gray day, there is, and has been, so much to celebrate.

  1. Getting emails from parents elated that their children are for the first time excited about reading and choosing to read on their own for pleasure in their spare time.
  2. “Hey, he looks just like me!” said Marius, an African American student upon seeing a childhood photo of Jason Reynolds in People magazine, after the author did a visit to our school. The power of mirrors.
  3. Twitter. Students tweeting at their favorite authors and receiving tweets back.
  4. Making Claymates inspired by Dev Petty’s and Lauren Eldridge’s book of the same name. Watching them come alive through student-created stop motion videos was awe-inspiring. Especially Dominic, who channeled his creative energy and ever moving body into unique and clever claymated narratives.
  5. Hiking in the fall with our kindergarten pals in the woods where we discovered the beauty of the natural world readying itself for winter…and a skull. An animal skull we brought back with us that turned into a spontaneous science lesson to identify it the next day. Armed with magnifying glasses, iPads, books, sketching tools, they wondered and sought to learn more.
  6. We are fresh off of Skype visits with authors Shelley Johannes and Debbi Michiko Florence, we are inspired by their advice and experience as writers. Connecting to authors in real time is magical.
  7. “I used to not like math, but this is fun!” And in related news, “Do we have to stop writing to go to recess?”
  8. Field trip to the Milwaukee Film Festival to see the children’s shorts program. Watching the kids’ reactions as much as the films themselves, I witnessed laughter, tears, wonder, and surprise across their faces.
  9. The day we finished reading Stone Fox together. You know the part. Pass the tissues. And a hug.
  10. Kalani found her heritage in Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen, which turned her into a book lover and frequent snail mailer and Twitter pen pal with the author.

Wait! That’s ten already?! But I have eleven and more! It may still be dreary outside, but the gray cloud is lifting from my day. Now, I challenge you to do the same. Pause during your day. In your mind, on paper, in a doc, wherever, what ten moments come to mind that showcases the awesome in your school year? Instead of thinking about counting down the days, let’s look back at how far we’ve come. We’ve built communities, class families, and made an impact on our children.

We are not halfway there.
We are halfway here.
Halfway here.

Share your #JustTen moments in the comments below or on social media with #ClassroomCommunities!
*All names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.



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.

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.

The Shamash, The Helper


‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the world
All the presents were opened, all the wonders unfurled;
The hugs were all given to those loved so dear,
In hopes that this light and this warmth lasts all year.

As many as two billion people around the world celebrated the Christmas holiday yesterday. Here in the Midwest, it was a beautifully sunny, snow-covered day, reminiscent of childhood holiday seasons. It stirred up the nostalgia in my Christian-raised husband, as he fired up Netflix, searching for “White Christmas”, while I washed out the hot cocoa mugs our family sipped from that evening.

It had already been over a week since my menorah was cleaned of melted wax and placed back in the china cabinet, and the air was cleared of the smell of latkes sizzling in hot oil.

“So, is Chanukah like Jewish Christmas?” asked my dental hygienist a few weeks ago as she scraped and prodded, while I could do nothing more than respond with garbled grunts. Finally sitting upright and all instruments of dental torture out of my mouth, I shared the Reader’s Digest version of the holiday’s history…

Over 2,000 years ago, King Antiochus ruled over the land of Judea, and decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship Greek gods. The Jews were not down with this plan, as they were a monotheistic people who prayed to one God.  One of those Jews, Judah Maccabee, possibly a Jedi, gathered his fellow resistance fighters, and fought back against Antiochus’s army, pushing them right out of Jerusalem. The Jewish people went right to work cleaning and spiffing up the Temple, restoring it to its original state. They decided to light an oil lamp, but seeing there was only enough oil to last one day, they expected their light to burn briefly…however, the oil continued to burn for eight days! Chanukah, “The Festival of Lights”, is now celebrated to recall this miracle and success over those who wished to oppress them.*
*So, no, Chanukah is not Jewish Christmas.

One of the enduring symbols of Chanukah is the menorah, the nine-branched candelabra which is used to recreate the burning of the oil in the Temple. Chanukah lasts eight days. Each night, a new candle is lit on the menorah, until the 8th night, when the entire thing is ablaze. But, WAIT!!…say my mathematically-minded readers. There are eight nights, but nine branches. That does not add up! Ah, there is, however, a ninth candle, which takes a humble, yet significant role in lighting up the menorah each night.

The Shamash, the ninth candle, is Hebrew for “servant” or “attendant”. It is also informally known as the “helper candle”. On a traditional menorah, the shamash is usually in the middle of the menorah, either taller or shorter than, or set off to the side of, the other 8 branches. The job of the shamash is to kindle the light of the other candles, which then provide a full menorah’s worth of light. The menorah’s light is not meant to serve us, to read or do work by, but to illuminate the darkness, to chase the shadows away.

There is a beautiful sentiment to consider in that the menorah’s light is not created selfishly for us, just as the world was not created for any single one of us. The Earth does not belong to us. We are here to be stewards of this place we call home, maintaining it for everyone else we share it with and for those who have yet to exist. Just as we are caretakers of the Earth, the shamash attends to the lighting of each Chanukah candle. If a candle accidentally flames out, the shamash takes up the task to light it again. One unglorified, plain candle has the ability to bring light to the darkness.

This Chanukah season, after a year of heightened anti-Semitism in the United States, lighting the candles left me pondering the metaphor of the shamash as the candles burned each night in my home.

How can we be a shamash in our teaching lives? How can we kindle the light in others?

With our coworkers, we can be patient, supportive, collaborative, reflective.

With our school’s families, we can be kind, helpful, thoughtful, communicative.

And most importantly, with our students we
Give them a pencil when they need one
Offer hugs, fist bumps, and high fives
Share a snack when they don’t have one
Talk about their lives and the ever-changing world around them
Show them how to be a good friend
Listen to their stories
Validate their stories
Teach them how to amplify their stories
Introduce them to diverse, life-changing books
Make time for them to read those books
Allow them to wonder, explore, be curious
Tell them they are important and unique
Let them teach
Learn from them

We find it is in the simple acts, the quiet moments, the ordinary interactions that we have the opportunity to be a shamash, a helper, with our children. As teachers, we serve our students best by raising them to be stewards of not only this Earth, but of the people who populate it. When we light that fire in our students, they learn how to become a shamash of their own someday, attending to others for the greater good. It is never too late to kindle a flame, or to rekindle a flame that has extinguished. Once ignited, it may last a day, or eight. Or a lifetime.


More than Nothing

On Saturday, November 18, I had the pleasure of delivering an Ignite talk at NCTE. The following is a modified version of that (with a few extras thrown in as this blog does not come with the same constraints as a 5-minute Ignite talk!).

Before you begin reading the rest of this post, do me a favor. If there’s someone nearby, go to them, smile, and ask them how their day is going. Or tell them you’re glad to see them today. Or give them a small compliment. Or just say hi. If you’re not near anyone, pick up your phone and text someone something nice. I’ll wait.

Did you do it? If yes, continue. If no: I’m serious! Go do the thing. Then continue below.



How do you feel? I’m guessing that you feel just ever-so-slightly better than you did a moment ago. Nothing world-changing. Perhaps a similar feeling to a nice sip of a warm coffee or tea. Nothing to write home about, but certainly no worse than you felt before. And there’s a good chance that you feel just a little more connected to the world around you, and just a little better about the day.

But this post does not exist to make you feel good. Frankly, I don’t really care about making you feel good. I mean, I do, but there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, you’re an adult. You have ways to manage your own moods and temperaments. You might be reading this blog post for that very reason, as it tends to be a pretty positive place. But if you’re a teacher, you’re probably here for your students. So take a moment, and think about the student who has no choice but to be in your classroom. If you can, think of someone who hasn’t said a word — not a single word! — to you yet this year. I think there are more students like that out there than we may admit or realize.

I posit that having the sorts of brief, positive interactions you just had at the start of this post with your students is beneficial to both you and your students. But that’s sort of obvious, I think. Being kind and positive to your students is good for them? Super ground-breaking news, I know. But the key is it can’t just be once. Or twice. Or when you’re in a good mood. Or when they’re in a good mood.

It has to be every. Single. Day. You have to be hard to ignore. Because if I’m a student, and I want to shut down, I can do that so easily. All I have to do is nothing. Nothing is often the easiest thing to do. It’s simple to default to nothing. It’s easy to make myself invisible. To make myself nothing.

We know this isn’t good! Being nothing, as it turns out, is very bad. And if a student acts like they’re nothing, they will begin to feel — or perhaps already do feel — like they are nothing. And if they feel like they are nothing, then we have failed them, because each and every child who comes into our classroom is someone who has worth. Every child — even if they’re only there for one day — has value. Every child is deserving of celebration and deserving of love.

So you can’t be easy to ignore. Imagine you decide, for example, that you are going to greet every student at the door when they arrive to your room. And you do this for 3 or 4 days, but on the fifth day, your principal is talking with you, and on the sixth day, you’re just not feeling too good because it’s Monday, and on the seventh day you’re there again, but on the eighth day, you just have too much to prepare for the students inside the room that you can’t be at the door, and the ninth day, you stop greeting your students at the door because it’s a lot of work.

Well, guess what? It’s really easy to be a nothing student with a teacher who does that. The first few days, I can just give you the cold shoulder and take my seat. And then there were a couple days where I thought you stopped trying to greet me, so it was easier for me to be nothing. And then there was another day of it, and I thought “oh geez, she’s trying it again,” and then you stopped, and I went on being nothing. And I learned nothing except how to feel like nothing.

The students who think they are nothing need you to show them they are something Every. Single. Day. Because it’s easy to ignore the idea that I am something when I am not confronted by it. But it becomes really hard to continue on the path of believing I am nothing when I have someone who says hi to me every day, with my name, and they are smiling at me, and they say my hair looks nice, and I guess it does, but I walk past them because I don’t care and I don’t want them to care but they say hi to me with my name and a smile every day, asking about me as a person, not just me as a student, and they’ve been doing this for 3 months straight, and don’t they understand that I’m nothing?

Or maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe I’m not nothing. Maybe the reason they say hi to me is because I’m worth saying hi to. Maybe the reason they say they’re glad I’m here is because they’re glad I’m here. Maybe they want me here. Maybe I’m wanted. But who wants nothing? How can I be wanted and be nothing?

Maybe I’m not nothing. I’m not nothing. I’m something. I’m someone. I’m someone, and I’m wanted.

I believe that there is not a teacher out there who wants any of their students to feel like they are nothing. Guess what? YOU have the power to make every single student feel like they are someone. Let me repeat that. You have the power to make every single student feel like they are someone. Feel free to read that again and again until you understand it.

Do you know why you have that power? Because you’re the adult. You chose this profession. You chose to accept the job you’re in. You get to make these sorts of large-scale choices. The student doesn’t get to choose whether or not to come to school. They usually don’t get to choose their teachers. Their choices are limited. They can choose to act like they are nothing.

Also as an adult, you have the emotional maturity to act in ways you might not want to because you know it’s for the betterment of yourself and others. So you are the one who has to make the choice to say hello outside your door, with a smile, every day for 5 months straight to someone who acts like they are nothing and like you are nothing. Your degree is a contract that you will outwait your students. You will treat them like a person longer than they will treat you like not a person.

We have to do this. We have to do this because people who think they are nothing don’t graduate high school. People who don’t graduate high school are three times more likely to be unemployed than those who do. 80% of the incarcerated population in the US are high school dropouts. 70% of African-American males who don’t graduate high school are imprisoned by the time they are 30. We have to do this work.

And we’ve gotta love them all. We have to love the ones that are going to end up in prison, and the ones who love Drake as much as we do. We have to love the students who fail our courses as much as we do the ones who do the extra credit they don’t need because they just love our class that much. We have to love the ones who treat us like garbage as much as we do the ones who pick up the garbage in our classroom because they want to be nice. We MUST make sure EVERYONE who comes into our rooms knows they matter.

Because the student who thinks they’re a nobody? They drop out. And things are not great for those without high school diplomas in our current society. There aren’t the farming or factory jobs there used to be. Minimum wage isn’t enough to survive on, if they can even find those jobs. What often is available and provides enough income to survive on is illegal. There are things we need to address as a society, but we need to focus on what we can do with the students right in front of us.

Because those students who think they’re somebody? They try. They often don’t drop out. It might be hard. It might take them 3, 4, 5 dozen times before they really understand the concept. But if there’s someone who believes in them, they will do it.

So we have to be those people. We have to believe in them. If not us, who? If not now, when? Your students need you, the very day you arrive back in the classroom, to tell them you’re glad they’re there, as Pernille Ripp does with the sign outside her classroom (click the image for her blog post about this sign).

Image via Pernille RippI cannot think of better words to add to that sign, but I will just say this: remember who is more important in the student-teacher relationship. It’s not the person with the name on the door and the degree on the wall. It’s the child whose creations are the reason you ran out of wall space and took your degree down to make room.

Because if you ask yourself who matters more in the student-teacher relationship and the answer is “I matter more than my students,” you will not change the lives of anyone in your care. You are the professional. You are the adult, and they are the still maturing human. For the hours they are in our care, they matter more than us. Their feelings matter more. And it is important they know they matter.

All of our students matter. Every single one — even the one who has only shown up to class 3 times this year. Even the one who might only set foot in your room once. Even the one who would sooner spit in your face than ask or answer a question. Every single student matters. It’s imperative that we help them see that in themselves. Every single day. Until each of them know they are more than nothing.

I Am Thankful For You

Halfway through November, the leftover Halloween candy in the school office still tempted the staff as the realization set in that the holidays were approaching. Thoughts of report cards and running records, defrosting turkeys and holiday shopping ran through our minds simultaneously. Was it really time to plan for the last days of school before Thanksgiving break? How could it be? Didn’t the school year just begin?

Every morning, teachers hit the “go” button, jumping into the usual rush to
write the morning message
run one more copy
check out a library book
track down the tech guy
grade writing pieces
plug in the iPads
drop off papers with teammates
grab the mail
rehearse the day’s minilessons…
But on that Monday morning, our rush came to a stop.

That Monday morning, we arrived at school to learn that one of our middle school students had passed away over the weekend.

He had taken his own life.

Blank space. Because there are no words to adequately fill it.

We stopped. We listened to the news. We stood with our mouths agape, our eyes pooling with tears. He was a young man none of the elementary teachers knew, as he was new to the district this year. According to his mother, he had experienced bullying from a young age, but this loss was a shock to everyone.

As we absorbed the news and struggled to comprehend this horrific reality, there were only questions to fill the heavy silence.

How could this happen?
What will his teachers think?
How will his classmates handle the news?
What else could have been done?

That evening, on a group text with my third grade teammates, we asked each other those very questions. Desperately wanting to dissolve our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, we asked ourselves a new question:

What can we do now?

Like dry kindling to a newly lit fire, ideas began to spark, bouncing back and forth, until we had a plan. Our response. Our refusal to let this tragedy be unanswered.

Grand scale change always starts with a small act, a kind word, a good idea. “This is what kindness does…Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world,” the teacher in Jacqueline Woodson’s book Each Kindness tells her students. How many people have their day changed for the better by a smile, a compliment, a thoughtful word?

This got us thinking…how often our children are told to be grateful for things, yet how rare it is for them to hear that others, especially adults, are grateful for their existence.

Our big plan would be, in practice, a small gesture. A little kindness that we hoped would reverberate within each of our students, perhaps becoming infinitely meaningful to some. We wanted to let each of our children know that we are grateful for their existence.

The last day of school before Thanksgiving break, before the children arrived, my team printed out a template that read: “I am THANKFUL for you because…” and wrote a personal note to each of our students. We admired their talents, highlighted their unique personalities, and encouraged them to shine. Like secret kindness ninjas, we hung each note on their lockers and waited for the buses to arrive.

One by one, our 8 and 9 year olds strolled down the hallway, catching glimpses of the notes, and rushing down to their own lockers to see what treasure awaited them.

One by one, they discovered their notes, and stood reading, backpacks dangling from their arms. What followed were
blushed cheeks
second and third reads
“Thank you Mrs. Werner!”
ripples of kindness.

At the end of the day, each student carefully peeled his or her note off the locker and took it home with them. I figured some of the notes would be waved excitedly in parents’ faces at home, others silently cherished and saved, and others soon to be lost or forgotten. But what mattered most was that each child got to experience a moment reading words that let them know that we, their teachers, are grateful for each and every one of them.


Back to work Monday morning after a restful break, I leapt into the usual rush once again. Checking my email, I noticed a parent had written one over our break. It read:

“Thank you for your kind words that you wrote on A’s locker. He showed me the note and we proudly displayed it on our fridge.”

In the rush of preparing for a full, busy week, I took a moment to stop and be grateful that my words had a ripple effect on this student. Thanksgiving may have passed, but it is never too late to tell your students directly and sincerely how thankful you are for them. You can never know how deeply that may affect them. It just might send ripples straight through their hearts.

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