Celebrating through Stories

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September 15 through October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage month.  As a country we celebrate the heritage, culture, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Of course this type of celebrating does not just happen during this month but is incorporated throughout all we do all year long.

As a young African-American girl it was hard for me during the month of February when I felt that Black History month was spent learning about slavery and hardship. The celebratory aspect was often lost for me. As a teacher I have tremendous power over how students feel during these months of celebration. In our classroom community we choose to celebrate stories, authors, and people who represent this rich culture of beauty and strength.  It is important to acknowledge and participate with the rest of the country as we pause to lift up our fellow Hispanic and Latino Americans. Here are the stories, biographies, and histories our classroom community has enjoyed during this time…

Little Night, Nochecita by Yuyi Morales Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.57.17 PM

My class fell in love with the playful nature of Little Night. They wanted to take time to look through all the pictures  to find all the places Mother Sky looked for Little Night. They also enjoyed having the Spanish text to go along with the English text. One student commented, “I feel like we are playing hide and seek too!”

 

 

Little People, Big Dreams Frida Kahlo

“Frida Kahlo taught the world to wave goodbye to bad things and say “Viva la vida…Live Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.58.00 PMlife.”

This quote from the text has sparked a saying in our classroom community as things happen throughout the day you can often hear someone saying, “viva la vida”. This picture book biography was the first introduction to the life and work of Frida Kahlo for each and every one of my students. They were fascinated by how she overcame so many things. They couldn’t believe how she was able to draw from her bed or how she used mirrors to draw self-portraits.

 

Nino Wrestles the World and Rudas by Yuyi Morales

These two laugh out loud stories captured the attention of all my students almost immediately. They jumped right in and read along with me as the author so beautifully combined Spanish and English to tell and adventure tale of Nino. Students said that you couldn’t read one without the other and many tried to use many of Morales craft moves in their own writing. Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.58.44 PM

Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.59.30 PMBut why? But why? But why? This question could be heard over and over again as students listened to the story of Sylvia Mendez in this beautifully written account of her family’s fight for justice. This is definitely a book we will visit again and again as we think about people who have overcome adversity.

 

 

 

Maya’s Blanket, La Manta De Maya by Monica Brown

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According to my students this book read like a guessing game. They couldn’t wait to see what Maya and her abuelita would create next with the 

fabric from the blanket.  I noticed that his book also sparked many ideas for writing. Students used the example of the playful text structure to create their own recycling tale.

 

 

Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell

In addition to the wonderful story of Mira and how she joined forces with an artist to create beautiful murals in her community my students were captivated by the author’s note in the end. Once they discovered that this story was based on the true story of Rafael and Candice Lopez ,who organized to create beautiful murals around their city, they started thinking of how they could do similar things in our community.

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Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales

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We got to the last page where Grandma Beetle gave a wink and the class erupted, “

READ IT AGAIN” and so we did! Students love to read it along with me as the text has a playful repetitive structure that was fun to read. But the most fun was listening to all the theories around who was Senor Calavera and where did he want to take her?!

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 8.01.27 PMDanza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuh

“I can’t wait to tell my mom about her, she will be so excited because she’s from Mexico City too!” A student couldn’t hold this in as I read the first few pages of Danza.  Students enjoyed listening to Ami’s story and how she worked hard and was able to start her own dance school that became famous and toured all over the world.

 

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh

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Many of students shared connections or stories while listening to this migrant’s tale. We took our time through this book and read it over a couple of days. Our conversations were deep, but felt as if they brought us a little more together. This tale takes readers through the experience of what it may be like to leave everything you k

now to go to the unknown. It was a powerful read for us.

 

Bravo by Margarita Engle

These poems were a window for most but also for some a mirror. They got to see themselves, their heritage, and culture celebrated through the hard work of the people honored in this book. We will continue to revisit these poems as a way to learn about people who have made a difference in our world.

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Call me Tree, Llamame Arbol by Maya Christina GonzalezScreen Shot 2017-10-05 at 8.03.08 PM

“Is this a yoga book Mrs. Burkins?” This bilingual text invites students to want to read both the English and Spanish. Many students physically tried the poses as the book was read aloud. One student even suggested we play soft music the next time we read it. They enjoyed the way the illustrations completely matched what the children were doing in the book. This was a very fun read with them.

Bringing School Home: Our Seesaw Story

Amazing things are happening every day in our classrooms. I realized early on, however, that parents rarely hear about these amazing things.  Parents see only what we send them.  In their minds, the classroom is often a reflection of what shows up in the take home folder each night.  This is often a poor representation of what happens during the day.  We knew we needed a better way.  We needed an easy, quick way to share what was happening in the classroom.  How could we do this?  That question led us to find Seesaw.  Seesaw has been one of our strongest relationship building tools with parents.   We knew parents would love seeing what was happening each day.  We are fortunate to have two Seesaw ambassadors in our school, Jennifer Moeller and Kelly Hendrick.  They have volunteered to collaborate on this post to share how Seesaw is used to build relationships with parents in their classrooms.

Jennifer Moeller, Kindergarten Teacher:

I first used Seesaw in my classroom two years ago, but last year I can honestly say that I used it almost every single day.  I asked myself daily, “what part of our school day can I show parents?”  I uploaded pictures of the children playing, eating, working, singing, exercising, and the list goes on.

It wasn’t until one father reached out to me that I really understood what an impact this app was having with families. When he and I met for fall conferences, he told me a very personal story of how his wife had passed away a couple years ago.  As a result, he was raising his two young children on his own while finishing his last year of medical school. He broke into tears as he told me how much he appreciated me sending pictures of what was happening in the classroom, as he was not able to volunteer and see for himself.  I had his oldest child in my class and this was the first of his two children to go off to kindergarten to be independent all day. This was his way of being connected to her at school and I could help him to be connected.  I could tell that he had viewed the pictures within minutes of me sending them because he would always “like” them by adding a heart.

To my surprise, he nominated me for a B.L.O.C.K. award that spring.  This award is given by my district each year to staff that portray Benevolent Leaders Of Creativity and Knowledge. His letter was heartfelt and it expressed how much he loved and appreciated the connection I gave him by seeing the inside of our classroom each day.  Although I did not win the award that spring, I did win in the end. I know that what I’m doing with Seesaw in my classroom has a powerful connection with my students and their families because of this one child and her dad.

Kelly Hendrick, Third Grade Teacher:

As a teacher, I am constantly asking myself, “What else…?”  

-What else can I do to help my students learn?  

-What else can I do to help include my parents in our classroom days?  

-What else can I do to better myself as a teacher?  

Well, a few years back, I found a FREE classroom app that answered many of those questions…that app was Seesaw.  

At first, I used Seesaw to post photos of our classroom and pictures of the students hard at work.  But again, I found myself asking, “What else can I do with this amazing resource I have at my fingertips?”   I started posting glimpses of student work and locker art.  The parents were loving it!  They really felt as though they were a part of our classroom day by seeing their children’s accomplishments.

As time went on, I realized that I wanted this experience to be as interactive as possible, so my Seesaw entries took a turn in that direction.  One day, I posted our “Problem of the Day” for the parents to solve and their participation was through the roof.  The students went home that night with the answers in their heads while the parents were able to also talk and share their own experience in solving the same problem.  What a fun way to bring the classroom to life for everyone!

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The other thing I realized was that our classroom anchor charts hold valuable trinkets of information to help parents feel connected to our current learning, so I started posting those for reference as well.  Students and parents could use them as a guide and resource at home or in the car – wherever it was convenient.  Technology can be a beautiful thing!
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The list could go on and on regarding the other opportunities I have found to interactively include parents into our school day, but a few of my personal favorites are video recorded “Book Talks,” links to Educreation “Book Trailers” made by students, and live recordings of students reading aloud.  These are just some of the “non-traditional” ways to communicate all of the awesome things we do in the classroom with parents who always want to know and see more.  

I will undoubtedly continue to ask the “What else?” question as the days and years go on, but I really feel like I’ve hit the classroom jackpot with this learning journal app.

 

Tell Your Story

During a conference four years ago, educational leader Colby Sharp said, “If we don’t tell our story, who will?”  I still think about this question all the time.  We live in a time where teachers get blamed for everything.  We are bombarded with a false narrative that public education is failing.  It’s not.  However, we do need to do a better job telling our story.  We need to do a better job telling it to community members.  We need to do a better job telling it to legislators.  And we need to do a better job telling it to parents.  Seesaw has been a powerful tool for telling our story.  Amazing things are happening every day in our classrooms.

 

This article was collaboratively written by Jennifer Moeller, Kelly Hendrick, and Jim Bailey

Kelly Hendrick is a 3rd grade teacher at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, MI.  She loves connecting with her students each year and learning about their favorite things.  She has a husband, Trace, and two of her own children, Liam (6) and Ellie (3).  She loves to golf with her family and browse Barnes and Noble with her kids who MAY have been known to put on an impromptu puppet show in the children’s section from time to time 🙂  You can follow her on Twitter @kel2orange

Jennifer Moeller is a kindergarten teacher at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, MI. She loves getting to know her students and building positive relationships with them and their families that last for years. She has a husband, Nate, and two children, Sadie (8) and Sam (7). As a family they love to spend time together watching movies, taking weekend trips up north, and just being outside. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @jenmoeller33

Can You Dab?

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“Can you dab?”

A fourth grade boy sitting twenty-some rows back from the front of the auditorium asks. Eyes sparkling, face beaming, perched on the edge of his seat, he waits.

“Can I dab?!” grins award-winning author Jason Reynolds, wearing a knowing expression that humorously reads ‘how-old-do-you-think-I-am?’

“Yeah! Can you dab?!” the young boy repeats.

Jason walks up the aisle, dragging the microphone cord, as middle school heads whip around to follow his every move. He is dressed head to toe in black, his dreads tumbling over each other. Reaching the boy’s row, Jason looks over to him. This fourth grade boy, now standing, is
enraptured
engaged
enthralled.

This fourth grade boy, who is black, gazes up at this adult black man who says:

“Yeah, I can dab.”

One heartbeat flutters. One breath exhales. One boy wonders…

He need not ask for proof. Jason bows his head into his elbow. He dabs. The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Smiling. Cheering. Dabbing back. It’s a response, a conversation, between 450 middle school students and a man who, through one seemingly simple question, let them know that they were
seen
heard
acknowledged.

* * * * *

For several months, I had been co-organizing an author visit to our school district with Jason Reynolds. We were lucky beyond measure to get the opportunity to host him. If you’re not familiar with Jason, visit his website, read his poetry, hear his story. His literary accolades and honors are stickered across the covers of his books for young people:
Coretta Scott King
National Book Award
NAACP Image Award
Kirkus Prize
Schneider Family Award

Jason’s good fortune as an author of children’s literature was a long time coming before it was finally realized. Way before the awards, the book tours, and the bestselling novels, there was his childhood in Washington, D.C. A childhood that drives him to create authentic characters, stories, and voices for his books, putting the “real” in realistic fiction. He stood in front of our students and told them stories, his true stories about
eating ramen noodles and generic peanut butter
dying hair with kool-aid
popping cassette tapes into Walkmans
playing basketball

And then there were stories that made us gasp, laugh, sigh…think.

He told them that he didn’t read until he was 18 years old. Our reading workshop trained, book loving kids were horrified. This was unthinkable. Why, they asked. WHY didn’t you read?! Because the only books that were available to kids like me were “classics” like Moby Dick…and I couldn’t relate, because there weren’t any whales living in my neighborhood, he explained.

He told them that one of the first cassette tapes he ever bought was a rap album by Queen Latifah, and it changed his life. The more he listened to her, the closer he grew to realizing that her words, her raps, were poetry. This epiphany began a daily practice of writing poetry, as he told himself, “I’m going to be Queen Latifah when I grow up!”

He told them that he moved to New York to pursue his writing dreams.

He told them that he was living in his car a handful of years ago.

He told them that he was working in a clothing store a couple of years ago.

He told them that through all of this, he was writing. Two pages a day. Squeezing in time to write in the edges of his days.

He told them that he was on the verge of giving up his writerly dreams, but was prompted to start writing stories and characters who
looked like him
talked like him
acted like him
lived like him

He wrote through a lens of “everyday diversity”, showcasing characters with authentic
voices
families
challenges
interests
stories,
creating books to read about black people outside the oeuvre of “boycotts, bondage, and basketball”, because “black kids do more than play basketball”, Jason told them. He knew children of all kinds needed to be able to hold up a book as a mirror and see themselves in it. And he was determined to tell those stories.

* * * * *

“Curry or Jordan?” another black student asks Jason, challenging him to name the greatest basketball player of all time.

“Ooooh, you’re asking me difficult questions,” Jason plays along.

After a long pause…

“Jordan.”

And the crowd goes wild.

* * * * *

While Jason was presenting, I was kid watching. Scanning the faces of our very diverse district, I saw one face after another light up, engage, and connect. That was when I realized the profound impact this author visit was having on our children.

When our student raised his hand to ask if Jason could dab, he wasn’t really asking “Can you dab?” He was wondering
Do you see me?
Do you hear me?
Do you know that I have stories, too?

And Jason, a man who mirrors him in many ways, wordlessly responded, in one gesture
I see you.
I hear you.
I am writing my stories for you.
(Jason Reynolds is the author of When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in The Black Suit, All American Boys, As Brave As You, The Track Series (Ghost, Patina), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and forthcoming Long Way Down.)

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.  

Connections

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One morning in early September, my quiet student Alicia asked me an unexpected question as we wrapped up a reading conference.

“Why do you love teaching so much?” she asked.

Without thinking, I answered, “Because it reminds me so much of my family when I was growing up.”

“You should tell us more about that someday…” she said gazing around the room smiling at her classmates. “I think they would like to know too.”

For me, family and teaching share the power of connections.  At home and in the classroom, shared common bonds create dynamic and powerful forces.  I am a fortunate person because my childhood connections allowed me to thrive.  Whether it was for support, reflection, or celebration, those connections were a reassuring constancy in my life.  The world outside our home always seemed to be full of changing people and experiences, but the dependable connections of home and family guided me through childhood with confidence.  

In my world, family was the insurance plan reminding us that no matter what happened, we always had one another. Our lives were so interconnected.  Birthdays. New babies. Baptisms. Funerals. Report Cards. Graduations. Illness.  Anniversaries. Accomplishments.  Holidays.  Vivid memories are those of Sunday dinners. Sundays meant we were together because that was the only day nobody went to work.  From the energy of a colorful dinner table, to the interesting people, and the lively conversations,  my family and relatives would move together to quieter afternoons after our meal.  Sitting near my father and grandfather with the Yankees game playing on the television gave us time to talk while giving them time to rest after a busy week.  I remember waiting on the couch to have 1:1 time with my grandmother as she listened to each grandchild read a book aloud just for her; meanwhile the mothers cleaned up Sunday dinner and then took time to chat and laugh on the front stoop of the house.

Our lives were shaped, strengthened and made richer because we were together.  Those connections reassured each one of us that we mattered and we belonged.  

The constant reassurance of family was the priceless gift of my childhood;  my life out in the world from a young age also taught me that not  every child grew up with a supportive family network like mine.  Years later when I entered the world as a teacher, I wanted to show gratitude for my family by building a supportive and connected community for students.  

As a new teacher, I knew that regardless of their lives and experiences outside of school, my students deserved to be more than a roster of names. They deserved a caring and connected school community.  After 30 years, I still believe our first job as teachers is to provide consistent and persistent opportunities for students to know they matter and they belong.  I still believe that teachers can build relationships with simple, but powerful practices that are worthy of being repeated, noticed, and celebrated.  And just like my family, I found that classrooms can capitalize on quiet, yet powerful connections that provide long-lasting and far reaching benefits for students.  

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Arrival Time:  A Chance for a Reflective Connections

My mother taught me to be practical, yet reflective.  She always told us, “How you start the day, determines the rest of the day.”  As a teacher, I know that getting to school isn’t always easy for kids.  The crazy bus ride, noisy hallway traffic, and breakfast line frustrations can be hard to leave at the door.  Just as my own mother created calm, reassuring starts to my childhood days, I have tried to pay her kindness forward to my students.  

Our first school connection of the day is Arrival.  My students are encouraged to enter the building, get their breakfasts if needed, and head to our classroom as quickly as possible so they can begin to leave the noise and the hurry of getting to school behind.  Once students enter our door, the mood shifts.   I play soft music and children find me in our quiet community area rather than standing in the doorway competing with hallway noise .  They find me waiting to greet each person entering the room.  Each child comes over to say good morning so I can look each one in the eyes to discover what kind of energy he or she is bringing to school that day. As we say our good mornings,  I check them in for attendance and lunch count.  

Good morning check-ins really mean that each child starts the day hearing his or her name with kind words.  Just like the family breakfast table where my mother started our day with a hug and a strong gaze into our eyes with some encouraging words, I know how much arrivals and beginnings matter.  The first connection of the day with students is one of reflection: the hugs, the smiles, the high-fives, the chatting, or the gift of a quiet.  How can we start this day in the best possible way? Arrival time may only last a few minutes, but this time presents a reflective connection each child needs every morning: a quiet time to know and understand that he or she matters and belongs in our classroom.

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Independent Reading: A Time For Supportive Connections

The second ritual of the day in our classroom is Independent Reading.  This peaceful time in our classroom reminds me of the supportive flow my mother created for our evenings as a family. As we finished our busy day and a conversation-filled dinner, my siblings and I wrapped up kitchen chores and transitioned one by one to homework.  My mother was a believer in letting us do our own homework, but she felt we needed to be together in the kitchen with focused and purposeful intentions.  As we finished our work, we packed up and prepared our school bags for the next day. Then we drifted into the living room to read our own books while my father read the newspaper.  This same peaceful, predictable flow continued and we read until it was our turn to have a bath or shower.  Looking back, the easy predictability of our evenings and being together combined with the collective spirit of reading was a peaceful way to end our day.

I provide that same peaceful transition for students at the start of the day instead.  As children arrive, the transition from “getting here” to “being here,” is supported by the joy of books.  Morning arrivals are staggered with bus schedules, long breakfast lines, and the flow of 25 children arriving through a doorway.  Teaching right away would be impossible since school-wide announcements and the pledge will burst from the loudspeaker at 9:15.  If “being here” means getting ready for a day of learning, then the joy of books seems like a perfect bridge.  Children arrive and settle in around the room.  Some children read in our comfortable chairs.  Some readers find quiet spaces in our Book Nooks.  Breakfasts are eaten with books in hand at our tables.  Readers are sharing latest favorites.   With each passing minute, you can feel the calm descending, bodies relaxing and minds engaging with the joyful act of reading.  The supportive connection of books and reading and sharing makes all the difference to our mornings.

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Reading Conferences:  Another Time for Supportive Connections

When you are a member of a family with brothers and sisters, you treasure the time you get to spend all by yourself with a parent.  I can remember riding with my father in his truck, headed to the dump to get rid of construction debris just to have uninterrupted time with him.  We took turns talking or listening; we asked questions and shared opinions.  What mattered to me was that I did not need to compete with anyone else.   I always appreciated how my father made sure to have one-on-one time with us whenever he could, even if it was a simple truck-ride to complete an errand.  My father taught me to show someone you care, you start by being an active, attentive listener.  

Over the years, my father’s wisdom has guided my conference-life with students.  During those first days of school when I slowly introduce students to the components and expectations of workshop, they all nod their heads in shared understanding when I connect reading conferences to that 1:1 time with a parent.  Students thrive in groups, but they also crave special attention from a caring adult.  Family life teaches us that.  As much as I loved my family, I took advantage of those “only child”  opportunities to have my father’s complete attention.  Students understand my story.  As soon as students show me that they can manage on their own during independent reading, I launch our one-on-one reading conferences.  Students know that each one of them will have that coveted, uninterrupted alone time with me to talk about new books, funny characters, exciting plots, or what to read next. Conferences are a time to build those supportive connections that help each child feel valued and heard.  

Book Partners and Book Talks:  Taking Time for Group Celebrations  

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My mother took my siblings and I to the library often.  Since I was the oldest, I was expected to help the younger ones find books that were fun, right for their age, and matched their interests.  I remember how easy it was to help my brother because he wanted to read everything he could about baseball; he was an easy customer.  I parked him by sports  in the library’s 700s section and he carefully explored, book by book, looking for new baseball titles. Then he would wander to the the biographies and search for books about his baseball heroes.  My sister was another story.  She wanted to read every book I was currently reading; being three years younger than me, I  knew she would lose interest in her copycat books as soon as we lugged them home.  Then I would be stuck listening to her fuss plus I would find myself explaining  to my mother why my sister was complaining about her bag full of books and nothing to read.  I had to be a great saleswoman to convince my sister to value my book recommendations that were just right for her.  In hindsight, my sister provided the best preservice PD on matching books to readers.

As a teacher, I learned to value Book Partners and Student-Lead Book Talks early in my career.  In the beginning, I tried to read every title that I believed my students might enjoy; with the ever-expanding reading lives of students, it was a challenge to be a child’s only source of book recommendations.  Just like my mother relied on me to help my siblings select books, I now rely on Book Partners to add variety to the sharing element of Reading Workshop.   After students learn how to have book conversations, I match pairs of readers to informally chat about books.  Reading Partners meet at least twice a week and talk about what they are reading.  I love listening to the excited book conversations at the end of workshop.  Why were certain books selected?  Why were certain titles obvious favorites?  Who was confident when talking about books?  Who might need some different supports in order to grow as a speaker and listener during Partner Book Talks?

Student-Lead Book Talks also give students a chance to share and celebrate their book recommendations just like sharing news and having conversations at the dinner table.  Students learn to take turns, listen without interrupting, and ask questions when their peer is finished talking about a book. It is important for students to slow down and watch their friends present a book.  They learn to be supportive of their shy friends.  They discover that people beyond their friendship circle could help them grow.  Just like conversations at the dinner table, connections between students grow stronger when they take time to see each individual’s perspective.  

The Power We Hold

Being a teacher allows me to provide so much more than instruction for my students.   Our classroom presents multiple opportunities to grow and enrich a community through connections, moments of support, joy, and celebrations.  Just like the rituals of family, it is possible for a classroom to provide many rituals that can nurture students social, emotional and cognitive growth wrapped in the joy of learning.  Each day as I gather with children in my classroom, I smile with gratitude for the opportunity to share my family’s gift:  the power of support, reflection, and celebration.  Many times I have gazed across my classroom and felt the support of my family like warm hands resting on my shoulders.  They helped me achieve this teaching life that I love.   How fortunate I am.

Where Are We Going?: Creating a class mission statement

The Flock is about to finish its fourth week of school.  Our classroom is up and running.  Our daily routines are mostly established. Beginning of the year assessments are nearly complete. Most importantly, our classroom community is continuing to grow and get stronger each day. Spending a great deal of time in the first weeks discussing “Lessons From The Geese” is proving to pay off. My students and I have discussed why we are called The Flock. We’ve discussed how we need to work together, learn from each other, and treat each other as partners on this learning adventure. We are on our way traveling as a community of learners. However, the MOST critical part of our journey can be explained by answer this one very simple question.

Where are we going?

My students and I had spoken a great deal about this learning journey, but it was time to establish a destination.  What is our purpose? What is our goal? I wanted to make sure that my students knew why we come to our classroom every day, other than, “My parents make me” or “because I’m legally obligated to be here.”

I have found that creating a mission statement plays a crucial role in building my classroom community. Bringing students into the creation process empowers them to take more ownership of their learning. A class mission statement can also:

  • Ensure a common language for all students
  • Provide students with a purpose for each lesson and assignment
  • Encourage goal-setting and growth mindset
  • Bring a sense of pride to the classroom

Before we wrote our mission statement, I felt it was important for us to know what a mission statement is, as well as look at examples of mission statements. After clarifying that a mission statement is not when the video game states your new mission on the next level of Call Of Duty, we determined that it is simply a statement of purpose and focus. I shared mission statements from well-known corporations like Apple, Facebook, Amazon and McDonalds. Together we noticed that most mission statements answer these questions: What do the company do? How is the company helping their customers? Why is our company important? I asked students to think at home about how we could answer these same questions for our classroom.

The following day, we gathered on the carpet and one student started our conversation by saying, “we are our own customers. We learn for ourselves.”  Students seemed very impressed with this insight, so I asked them to brainstorm a list of answers to these four questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • How are we going to accomplish it?
  • Why is it important to accomplish this?

Students returned after 10 minutes, and I recorded their answers to each question using Google Docs. After much debate, I asked students to vote for their top two answers for each question.  These top two answers for each question would be used to create our final mission statement.  You can see our brainstorming list and voting process here.

Once voting was complete, our final mission statement was written by simply combining what the students selected.  Here is what we came up with:

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Creating the mission statement was only the first step. Now, it is our job as a community to live by this and make sure that everything we do is an example of our shared mission. I have posted this in our classroom, as well as outside of our classroom door.  Students know that I’ve put a copy of this mission statement into my guest teacher folder, so when I am out of the classroom any substitute teacher will know what we stand for. I have challenged students to always ask themselves how every assignment and project fits with our mission statement. If they can’t see a connection, I encourage them to ask me.

One thing that my students have heard me say is “the nine months of fifth grade is a just one part of your learning journey.”  Our life as a learner is a long, gradual adventure with many stops along the way. Perhaps that’s why “The Flock” metaphor has become the cornerstone of my classroom community. We’re all going to be in the classroom together every day for nine months. So we might as well go on this learning journey together with a common destination. I hope that our mission statement inspires a community mindset and empowers students to support each other along the way.

Building Relationships in Unexpected Ways: The Story of Recess Baseball Club

I love baseball.  The kind of love that includes things like subscribing to three different baseball podcasts, coaching two Little League teams, and having every Baseball Prospectus from the past ten years.  I own enough Detroit Tigers shirts that I could wear one every single day of the month without repeating.   I love baseball so much that the most surprising part of this story might be how long it took me to realize that sharing my passion with students would be one of my best relationship building tools.

Recess Baseball Club started simply enough.  Two years ago I found myself bored monitoring the playground during recess time.  My baseball glove, bat, and ball were in my car from Little League practice the night before.  I grabbed four frisbees for bases and headed out to the open grass area on the playground.  I yelled to the students, “Does anyone want to play baseball?”  A mob of students ran over and we spent the rest of the recess playing baseball.  Not a bad way to pass the time.  

I was surprised the next day when a dozen or so kids showed up to lunch with baseball gloves.  “We can’t wait to play baseball today,” one of them said to me.  I guess we are playing baseball again, I thought to myself.  At the end of recess while picking up the bases, one of the first grade students approached me.  As the principal of the building, I unfortunately knew him well after several trips to the office.  He thanked me for playing baseball with him during recess and told me he loves baseball too.  He told me that when he goes to his grandma’s house, he even gets to watch the Tigers.  He also told me he wishes he could watch them at his own house but his mom doesn’t own a TV.  During our conversation, I learned about his rough home life and the struggles he faces every day.  Baseball became a way for me to reach him.

Recess baseball club continued to grow and each day I had more students heading out to the field to play ball.  We eventually ended up with so many kids that wanted to play that I had to rotate which grades got to play each period.  A couple of local businesses heard about the program and asked if they could do anything to support the program.  They donated money to buy baseball gloves, balls, and real bases-no more frisbees.  I was surprised one day when the fire inspector called and asked if he could come play some day.  He was guest pitcher the next week and the reaction was priceless.  The kids were so excited to see Firefighter Brian on the ball field.  We plan to invite more community leaders out this year to join us as guest pitchers.  The possibilities for the program are endless.

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The Recess Baseball Club had unintended positive consequences that I never could have imagined when I first grabbed the bat and ball from my car.  First, the number of office referrals during recess had dramatically decreased and misbehavior had almost completely disappeared.  The students were too engaged and having too much fun to misbehave.  

Recess Baseball Club was great for building community in the school and allowing leadership opportunities for students that didn’t always have the opportunity to lead in the classroom.  Like most students, my students can be very competitive.  We set very clear expectations early on about expected behavior during Recess Baseball Club.  The #1 rule of Recess Baseball Club was to have fun by developing a love of baseball.  I intentionally pulled aside my travel baseball players at the beginning for a special role in Recess Baseball Club.  They were going to be the most enthusiastic supporters of kids that have never played before.  I loved the time I spent with them talking about how they could encourage others and how they could use their great skills at baseball to help me “coach” the kids playing for the first time.  One of my favorite moments of the year was watching one of most competitive students consoling a student after he made an error that cost his team the game.  In the past, this particular student would have been the first student to yell at a teammate for blowing the game.  Now, because he was trusted to be a leader, he showed the compassion we hope for our students.

Another thing I noticed was that baseball was starting to spread to the classroom.  Nicol Howald, one of my amazing teachers, asked if I had any favorite baseball books that she could add to her library because the kids were suddenly interested in reading about baseball.  The students passed around copies of The Boy Who Saved Baseball by John Ritter, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane, and Baseballogy by Kevin Sylvester.  The fifth grade teachers invited me in to teach a sabermetrics lesson during math class.  We proved that sacrifice bunting was dumb and learned how to calculate run expectancy.  I was able to connect with kids about baseball.

 

Make no mistake though, this is not a story about a baseball program.  This is a story about opening up and sharing our personal passions with our students to help relationships flourish.  Be real.  Allow your students to see the real you.  Share the things you are passionate about with them and learn about the things they are passionate about.  Strong relationships begin to form when we take the time to really get to know each other.