Feeling Connected

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Communities foster connection.  Connection fosters communities.

This past Sunday both of these statements were confirmed for me and then I took this confirmation to my classroom today.  I was leaving church at 8:20am on Sunday and he shakes my hand, “Thank you for worshipping with us this morning.”  I reply with, “thank you (read that again with a confirming tone of voice).

I already felt at peace with the homily and guidance for the day and yet at this moment I felt something else.  Maybe it was a sense of joy.  Maybe it was a sigh of relief I survived shaking his hand.  Maybe it was letting go of a worry thought – do I really belong to or in this large congregation.  As I exited the church, I was glad I shook his hand.  I think the verbal and physical touch was an invitation to return.  I felt grounded a bit.

I’ve read a few pieces on social media lately about greeting students at the door and all the benefits this simple act can foster.  I learned this while studying to become a teacher. I wish I could tell you I’ve pulled it off every day for my twenty some years of teaching.  I haven’t.  There’s been something to set up.  There’s been a meeting to attend.  There’s been a classroom chore to do.

It’s a new year; I’ve missed my students, and I wanted them to feel how I felt leaving church on Sunday – content, welcomed, and noticed.  So, there I was this morning standing outside the classroom door waiting for my first arrival.

“Good Morning Jackson.  It’s so nice to see you this morning.”  Arms outstretched wide waiting to see if he takes the bait and comes in for a hug.  Score, my first hug of the day!  Twenty one hugs and two handshakes later my heart was full.  Each squeeze released happiness.  Only one grumpy face walked through the door.  After being off for two weeks, we had the best first hour of our day ever!

That morning greeting created a connection and embraced reentering our community.  We had a great first day back and I hope your return to school as gone as equally as well.

 

When Santa Claus Doesn’t Come To Town

The TV ads
Have been telling me
Since October,
Since I was born,
That Christmas is
Snow covered
Evergreens with
Glittering ornaments
Families happy together in cozy jammies
Hot cocoa in hands
Fires crackling, embers aglow
And
Gifts — Latest. Greatest. Batteries not included.

You may believe it’s the most wonderful time of the year
Or dream of a white Christmas
You may rock around your Christmas tree
And, gosh, I hope you do!

I was told in a folk song
This land is your land
This land is my land

Our shared space
In the city
Is draped in wreaths and holly and twinkly lights
Like stars that fell to Earth
To amplify the season
It is truly beautiful
Luminescent
Nostalgic
Joyful
What has been ours, together,
Is more yours for now
But we can all benefit from the light

At school,
I am expected to clap and sing to
“Santa Claus is Coming To Town”
With passion and spirit
Though the lyrics don’t apply to me

Because the truth is
Santa isn’t coming to town
Not for me
He never has
I don’t miss his absence

He doesn’t know if I’ve been bad or good
I try to be good
Anyway
Are we not a combination of both
Over time?
For goodness sake!

I am expected to clap and sing
To appeal to their melody
To appease their comfort
I am expected to clap and sing

When your comfort
And melody
Matter more
Than making space for
My identity
To harmonize
It is the very definition of
Privilege

I always thought
Words were best shared
Honestly

When I sing of Santa
The words are
False
For me
I’m happy they bring joy to you

I am Jewish.
I am Muslim.
I am Buddhist.
I am Hindu.
I am Sikh.
I am Jain.
I am agnostic.
I am atheist.

I celebrate
Rosh Hashanah
Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr
Vesak
Diwali
Vaisakhi
Holi
Kwanzaa
Solstice
…Nothing

It is possible
You may not have noticed
Our new years
Our harvest festivals
Our revelations
And revolutions

Amidst those twinkly lights of Christmas
Look closer
Throughout the year
And you will see
The lights of
Chanukah menorahs
Kwanzaa kinaras
Buddhist shrine candles
Diwali diyas
Chinese lanterns
Piercing the dark
Illuminating us all

Together, with Christmas,
Each holiday, celebration, festival
Turns a single melody
Into a
Harmonious tune
We can all sing
To light up our world

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We need more stories to help us think!

It is the start of indoor recess season and last week I walked into a classroom explosion of signs, sign-ups, and lots of blocks. Students had been busy for sure. As they were all hastily trying to clean up a group hIMG_3092ad gathered around a particular sign. I heard some saying, “Why hasn’t anyone signed up yet?” and others saying, “What does this even mean?” The sign they were discussing said, “Cool kids Club Sooo Much fun we Do girl and Boy Stuff“. I had my immediate thoughts and it took everything not to insert them.

As one student glanced over and saw me watching they asked, “Can we talk about this?”My students routinely bring things to the group to discuss. It stems from a practice we do each morning where students have time to talk in small groups about things they are thinking about. Sometimes students bring topics to the discussions and sometimes I do.Well, on this day students felt the need to talk about the sign and didn’t want to wait until the next morning.

We gathered and I put the sign under the document camera. I asked the students to discuss what they noticed. Right away students pulled out the words, “cool”, and  “girl and boy stuff”.  As they began to question one another and share their thoughts it didn’t take long for the conversation to move to books as a way to make sense of what they were thinking.

Students said things like, “Remember when we read about Oliver and he didn’t do things boys were “supposed” to do? and “What about Jessie and how he liked things that sparkled?” One student even said, “Where do you think they would sign-up on this sign? Would Jessie have to be under the girl stuff because girls are supposed to like things that sparkle?”

As I stood back and listened I noticed that their evidence to help them support their assertions were based off a few books we had read together that helped us think about gender. Most these books were from a “boy” perspective and experience. These stories helped us think through previous comments and experiences that have been made about “girl things and boy things”. I have to admit, it was so encouraging that they were referencing these stories, characters, and the authors who created these stories but even more obvious to me is that their repertoire of evidence was small. Their evidence was confined to a short list of books.

No one cited real life experiences, commercials, friends, family members or other books outside of our shared experiences that helped them come to their conclusion that the sign didn’t feel right. Students were quick to say that they wished the makers of the sign would have not used “girl and boy”. But the reality for the sign makers and the rest of them is that all around them it is girl and boy. We only have a short list of books that say otherwise and everything else that we read, see, watch, and experience leads us to feel the need to make sure everyone feels included by saying “boy and girl” versus come and create whatever you like to create.

The makers of the sign said that they just wanted everyone to know that it would be cool no matter if you are a boy or girl because they wanted anyone to join. They even said they felt like they needed to say boy stuff because they were girls and they were worried boys would not be interested. There is so much to unpack here and the work never ends. We just need more stories and life experiences to help us think. The conversation ended that day with the class thinking of ideas to recreate the sign and thinking about how indoor recess club could look and operate.

The conversation still continues and has evolved from the sign. A question we will continue to think through as we read books is, “What does this author want us to think about what children (boys and girls) can do and should do?” Most books we read whisper messages to us through characters actions…the question remains what messages are we aware of and not aware of?

Nice vs. Kind

 

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Our seventh-grade team chose ‘kindness’ as a year-long theme this year. We planned a variety of short and long-term activities across all content areas to promote kindness. Some of them have been very successful in my opinion, some of them not-so-much, but that will happen. Not every great idea works out in the end.

We are now approaching the half-way mark of the year and I have been thinking about whether this focus on ‘kindness’ has worked. Have our students embraced kindness? As teachers have we embraced kindness? Is our large seventh-grade community kinder?

It is too early for me to clearly see a huge shift, but small ones are happening. I notice students offering support to each other in the classroom without prompting. I see a lot more smiling faces. I see more students with a welcoming stance in my room and in the halls.

However, I keep coming back to the question of “Have I embraced kindness?” I think I have because it is in my nature to be kind. However, I am struggling to model kindness. It is not like I am harsh or mean to students, but I think I am modeling nice more effectively than kind.

I am learning it easy to model niceness, but more difficult to model kindness. I greet people by name, ask them questions, listen well, and work to be positive in my language. However, all of those concepts fall into what I perceive as being nice, not necessarily being kind.

I completely understand the world, especially the world of schooling, needs a great deal of nice. We need to acknowledge others, we need to offer a smile or heartfelt greeting, we need our ‘please and thank yous’, and we need to be quiet instead of saying something awful. Nice is not bad at all, but I don’t think it is enough because we can be on autopilot and be nice.

However, I think we need the grace of kindness much more than we need niceties.

For me, kindness is more intentionally active and much more personal. Kindness is showing acceptance and giving lots of support. Kindness is much more intrinsically motived. It is an act of giving with nothing expected in return. Kindness can also mean being strong enough to deal with difficulties.

As I am working through this year of ‘kind’ with my seventh-grade friends, I have been working on being more openly kind. And that is where I am struggling. When I check in on a colleague who has been ill, I am doing that not in full view of my students. When I have a quiet conversation with a student about a struggle she might be dealing with it is quiet on purpose and not in front of the entires class. When a student says something that is awful to another, how do I intervene without being awful myself?

I am working and thinking and working some more on how to model kindness, not just niceness. The other night I heard the phrase, “fiercely kind” I am fascinated by this because I think it hits at the essence of my thoughts about the differences between nice and kind. To be kind you also need to be ready to be fierce.

I will continue to be nice, but I need to look for ways to be more fiercely kind.

Student Quotes and Books to Provide Windows

I spend a lot of time listening and writing down things I hear my students saying. These quotes often find there way back into our learning together. Most of the books we read together have come from questions, ideas, comments, or statements that a student has said. Here are the top 5 quotes from students that have led to us using stories as a way learn about our world.

5. “Why do people call them Indians not Native Americans?”

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4. “What’s the whole point of gender as kid?”

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3. “Can someones culture be a costume?”

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2. “Why are people racist just because someones skin is different?”

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1. “Why are people upset about immigrants?”

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The conversations and questions didn’t end with these books they were just the first in a series of books, tweets, photographs, video clips, and podcasts that are working together to help us understand what we see, hear, and feel around us.

Reflection on Classroom Libraries

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“A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.” -Lemony Snicket

I once came across a quote by Lemony Snicket that read, “A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.” The visual that instantly formed in my head was a classroom library. Never too neat, never too dusty, somebody will always be in it…taking books off the shelves. Those words danced in my head as I envisioned the classroom library that I hoped to curate for the children in my room.

In my school district that is situated right outside of Columbus, Ohio we are provided with an initial classroom library. This initial library is selected by a group of teachers who create a list of books that would be appropriate respective grade levels. I consider this initial library just a start. The list…while a start, wasn’t created specifically for the readers in my room. In my mind classroom libraries are built each year based off the children that are living in it each year.

As I browse my current collection of books I can see the many children reflected from past and current years. I add books all the time. In the past I’ve used donations, written grants, always my own funds, and each year my entire classroom budget that is provided by the school strictly goes to buying books for the year.

Buying books happens all throughout the school year as I get to know the children in my class. Choosing books to add to our classroom library largely depends on the identities of readers that sit in front of me. The stories that they tell me about themselves and bring into our classroom space guide the book selection process. I look to see if the children’s interests, race, religion, gender, family structure, language, ability, national origin, personality type, socio-economic experience, and ethnicity are represented in the books that are currently in our library and add books based on the stories that will increase the mirrors and windows for the readers in the room. Rudine Sims Bishop forever changed me as she taught me about mirrors and windows in books for children. I believe classroom libraries should be filled with mirrors and windows.

A library is never too neat.” With the number of books coming in and out of our classroom library our system for housing books is simple. I currently teach third graders but to be honest our system was the same when I taught first and second grade students. We have baskets for realistic stories. Both picture books and chapter books are in these baskets. These stories the children say are everyday children stories. We have baskets for series books. Where they are early chapter books series or picture books series. Students know if a book is in a series where they should go to find it. There are baskets for “animal fantasy” books as one of my students lovely named those baskets. These are books with animals who exhibit human features. And there are baskets for fantasy, poetry, non-fiction, biographies, and author sets.

This system has made it simple for students for search for books and put them away. The simplistic approach has ensured that the classroom library is never too neat but many students are always in it searching and finding books the need to read all throughout the day.

Book displays have been a great compliment to housing books in baskets. The organized baskets allow students easy and quick access but displays also get them excited about new additions. I use book displays around the room to show case new books. We talk about them and think about where they would go in the classroom library when it’s time to put them in baskets.

Oftentimes I use books off the displays for our classroom book-a-day and random book talks. Classroom book-a-day started by Jillian Heise, a school librarian, has been a perfect way to get children excited about books. It’s a time of the day where I read a book for the shear enjoyment of reading the book. Also, doing quick book talks randomly throughout the day has been a fun and easy way that I’ve gotten children excited about books. Children have come to expect classroom book-a-day and my random book talks each day and they often tell me they have gotten ideas for their next book to read because of them.

Taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.” That’s the goal, right? Children taking books off the shelves and reading them. To achieve this goal in my mind it is not finding the perfect balance of older or newer books, only have popular authors, or only selecting award winning books. It is knowing the identities of the children in front of you. It’s matching books to readers who are reading them.

A book that was written twenty years ago that never won an award can do that just as a brand-new book that is the top seller can also do that. It is my job as an educator to be an avid reader of books for children. I need to know books well and be responsive to the identities of the readers in my room. To get children taking books off shelves and reading them I need to provide the books that reflect who my students are and their interests each and every year.

My classroom library was built and will be curated from the vast identities of children who have entered through the doors of our classroom. The books tell their stories. Reflect their interests. Have touched their hearts and have hopefully changed their human experience.

 

 

Listening to Students: The Most Important Feedback

The waitress placed four plates on the table: pancakes and bacon; an egg fried over-easy with buttery toast; a sausage, cheese, and hash brown omelette; and a side of corn beef hash for the table to sample.  I was eating breakfast at Sullivan’s, a local restaurant that I worked at through high school and college. Every year at our school carnival raffle, I donate “Breakfast at Sullivan’s with Mr. Bailey.” It is supposed to be a big prize for the students, but honestly it is one of my favorite days of the year and not just because Sullivan’s has the best breakfast in town.  I always leave the breakfast table with new insight about the students we serve and how they view school. Today was no exception as I met with two fifth grade students. We spent the early part of breakfast talking about our favorite books, family members, and sports we play. Right around the time the food arrived, the conversation shifted to what the girls liked and didn’t like about school, especially related to classroom organization and the learning environment established by different teachers.  The students were clear. They loved every teacher during their time at Hemmeter but loved each for different reasons. I sipped my coffee, fascinated by the things they were saying and secretly taking notes in my head. We do parent, staff, and student surveys every year, but they always seem somewhat artificial. This conversation at Sullivan’s was truly some of the best feedback I have received about the school. If you want to know what works for your students, take the time to sit down and ask them.  Have a conversation and let them share what is working and what is not working.

Here is what I learned:

Furniture

The furniture in the room matters to kids.  Both shared how they were initially disappointed when they found out they were going to be in a third grade classroom that was using tables instead of desks.  This may seem odd, but they both viewed having your own desk as a right of passage into the upper elementary. They wanted space for the books they were reading and the writing they were creating.  “Desks allow you to keep stuff that is personal to you at school.”

They also loved having different options for seating.  “It is so cool how Mrs. Howald lets you bring your own chair to school.”  A quick glance at Mrs. Howald’s room shows many students agree with this assessment.  Mrs. Howald has used a BYOS (Bring your own seat) approach to classroom design for the past two years.  The students get to take ownership over their seating. The classroom is filled with different seating options: exercise balls, wiggle stools, and all different types of chairs.  My favorite is a chair completely decorated in fancy faux fur. Standing desks, pillows on the floor, and camping chairs were also popular with the students. Most of all, the students loved having the option of what was comfortable to them.

Seating Charts

Both students preferred when teachers let them pick their own seats in class.  Not exactly a shocking revelation. However, the students recognized why teachers use seating charts, they just thought it was more powerful when students came to the realization on their own.  “In Mrs. Ode’s class, it was awesome because we got to pick our own seats. The class was also the best behaved for her.” They shared that the kids knew she was trusting them. She trusted them to choose their own spot.  She trusted them to choose the group they would be working with during the day. She trusted her students. And they responded. They shared that she used the app Flippity and when the student’s name was selected, they picked their desk.  The NFL draft version of seating charts. The students knew they would be moved if they didn’t follow classroom expectations. Guess what? Mrs. Ode didn’t have to move anyone the entire year. The students understood she was giving them ownership and they respected that.

Classroom Libraries

The classroom library was another topic where the students had strong opinions.  “You can’t just fill your class library with books and put them on a shelf.” The best class libraries are organized.  These students preferred books sorted by genre. They wanted them displayed in a variety of ways.

“Ms. Lewis has a cool classroom library.  She has a big shelf of books in the back with all the series and favorites.  She has another shelf in the corner with all the new books she has bought this year.”  A bulletin board hangs above the bookshelf where all of the students have laminated name tags where they use whiteboard markers to indicate the books they are currently reading.  She uses her window ledge to highlight books the students book talk. “In the front of the room, Ms. Lewis has a small bookshelf with all the March Book Madness books and another with our #classroombookaday books.  It’s so easy to find what you are looking for.”

They wanted the popular titles and appreciated teachers that asked them what books they wanted to read.  They shared that one of their favorite activities was going through the Scholastic Book Orders and picking books for the teacher to use their bonus points on to add to the classroom library.  “And get rid of the old books that no one reads. They are just taking up space.”

Independent Reading

This was definitely the topic they were most passionate about during breakfast.  “I hate when a teacher says, ‘You can finish that assignment during independent reading time.’  I don’t want to finish something during independent reading time. I want to read during independent reading time.”  Different teachers have different expectations during independent reading. “It can be hard to get lost in your book if people are moving around or doing their classroom jobs during independent reading time.”  They didn’t want to hear any excuses for missing independent reading time either. “It’s the best time of the day. I hate any day we miss it.” We strive to provide students at least 20 minutes (preferably 30 minutes) of independent reading time EVERY day.  However, half days, assemblies, school safety drills, and more can throw a wrench in that. The students made it clear though – this should be the LAST thing cut.

Classroom Environment

The students talked highly about all of their teachers.  They LOVED Every. Single. One. But for different reasons.  They loved Mrs. Ode’s because she did “Pop Shots” with the class.  “Mrs. Ode loves basketball. She even has a hoop in her room. When you do something to impress her, you can take a shot and win a prize.”   We talked about how it was cool when teachers share about their family and the things they love. In second grade, the teachers love Disney so they do a special unit on Mickey Mouse.  Mrs. Weber is a Harry Potter fanatic so she sorts her students into Houses with the sorting hat and has the students build wands. It didn’t matter what the teacher was passionate about, they just loved their teacher sharing that passion with the class.  

As the check arrived, we wrapped up our conversation.  They thanked me for breakfast and I thanked them for everything they shared about the school.  I asked if I could share what they told me with the teachers and in a blog post. Thankfully, they said yes. Sullivans

If we want to know what our students think about our classroom or school, we need to ask them.  This 45 minute breakfast session was one of the best forms of feedback I have ever received. The students were thoughtful and honest.  The ideas suggested in this blog post were those that were best for these particular students. They may not be the best ideas for your students.  If you want to know what your students think about the classroom environment, the classroom library, or independent reading time, you will have to take the time to ask them.