Hornet Pride: Engaging Students in Authentic Learning

Earlier last school year, a parent shared a grant opportunity with me from Delta Dental to add filtered water bottling drinking fountains to our school.  I loved this idea. My school is located 36 miles from Flint, Michigan so we are well aware of the importance of having access to clean drinking water. The students had also been very interested in this topic.  I knew my fifth grade teachers had talked about the Flint water crisis quite a bit in their classrooms so I thought this could be a great opportunity to engage students in an authentic learning opportunity. I knew this grant writing opportunity would align well with the informational writing standards the students were studying during writing workshop.

The teachers were on board and excited to have the students participate in this learning opportunity.  They started by looking at the questions on the grant application. These would be guiding questions for the research.  The students decided that they were going to divide up the questions using Google Docs to help focus their research. It was inspiring to see the groups work on different parts of the project.  They were passionate about the topic and applying everything they were learning during writing workshop to make a difference in the real world. One group was researching the benefits of drinking water compared to pop and sugary juices.  Another group was learning about the negative effects that contaminated water has on health and development. They were drafting responses and editing and revising them together. They learned about how to find quality sources, cite research, use clear, concise word choice, and the importance of considering their audience.  I saw the students engaged in informational writing in ways I hadn’t seen been before. They were excited and had a clear sense of purpose.

After several more rewrites, we were finally ready to submit our application.  We clicked send and waited. The students asked several times over the next couple of weeks if I had heard anything from Delta Dental about the grant.  I explained that it takes time to read all of the applications and it would probably be awhile before we heard anything. Right around the time students stopped asking about the grant, I received an email from Delta Dental.  I was so excited to open the email. The students worked hard on the grant and completed each question on their own for the grant. I was confident Delta Dental would be impressed that the entire grant was completed by the students in the school.  I knew this was exactly the kind of authentic learning opportunity that would separate our grant from the rest. I was so excited to share the email with the students. I opened the email and had to read it twice. Delta Dental thanked us for applying but they regretted to inform us that we did not receive the grant.  

Suddenly, I realized I needed to prepare for a completely different conversation with the students.  While completing the project, I had never considered not getting the grant. I had spent a lot of time thinking about how awesome it was going to be to tell the students about the grant we received.  I had envisioned the pride the students would have looking at the new filtered drinking fountain. I shared the news with the students and they were disappointed, but not nearly how I had expected. The next question I heard from a student was, “So what’s our new idea?”  I hadn’t considered that thought before approaching the class. In my mind, the rejection letter from Delta Dental was the end of the journey. However, they didn’t see it that way at all. They viewed it as just another roadblock in the journey of getting a new drinking fountain.  I admitted to them that I didn’t have a plan for a next step. It took two students exactly two days to come up with a next step.

Owen and Nathan, two fifth grade students from Nicol Howald’s class, emailed me and said they wanted to meet to discuss the next idea for getting the drinking fountain installed at Hemmeter.  I was impressed with their perseverance and commitment to making this idea a reality. They told me they were working on a presentation during their genius hour time and wanted to share it with me.  The boys were organized and professional during the meeting and convinced me to allow them to organize a class pop can collection fundraiser to buy the new drinking fountain. They were going to create the flyers, make the posters, collect the cans, and handle all the returns (including washing them out).  The one part of the meeting with Owen and Nathan that really swelled my heart with pride was when they mentioned that this was their last year at Hemmeter and they really wanted the drinking fountain to be something they could do for future students. That was when I realized we had to make this happen. It wasn’t just about getting a new drinking fountain, this was about students understanding in a very real way what it means to give back to your school.  I approved the project and wished them good luck.

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The boys worked hard and collected over 1500 pop cans.  A significant chunk of money that when combined with some additional building funds I had available was enough to purchase the new drinking fountain!  I am working to get a plaque made for the drinking fountain to recognize the hard work and determination the boys displayed seeing this project through.  Amazing things happen when we engage students with authentic work. The application and learning goes well beyond academics. It’s about building pride in school and community and having a generous, kind heart.

A Teacher’s Promise

          “Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’
          I will harbor you.”
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (p. 34)

My students, this is my promise to you…

I will harbor you

I will welcome you to
our school
our classroom
our space

I will teach you
to multiply
          your kindnesses
to write
          your story
to read
          your world

I will show you
how to crawl inside the pages of a book
          so you can stand outside of yourself
how to raise your voice
          by lowering one sharp pencil to paper
how to be brave
          without a cape or armor

I will ask you to
think deeply
reflect thoughtfully
question boldly

I will listen to you
when you speak confidently
when you whisper timidly
when you say nothing at all

I will see you
in beaming rays of sunshine
under heavy gray clouds
between the silent stars

I will be honest with you
that good people can do bad things
that life is full of unfairness
that grown-ups think making war will lead to peace

I will challenge you
to seek a million answers
          but ask a billion questions
to be intolerant of injustice
          relentless in reform
          persistent in peace
to understand that every day is an opportunity
          to be a friend
          to learn something new
          to be an agent of change

I will comfort you
when wicked words sting
when reliable routines change
when the world tumbles off its axis

I will help you
ride out the storm
stand your ground
find your balance
find your calm
find your home

I will guide you as you
navigate the waves
hoist the sails
dock your ship

I will harbor you.

I will harbor
you.

This poem, this promise, was inspired by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel, Harbor Me, published August 2018.

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Rethinking Curriculum Night

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I had such great success Rethinking Meet the Teacher event and I keep coming back to the question What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this classroom?; I did some rethinking about working with parents.  I enjoy going to Curriculum Nights as a parent for three reasons.  I want to see the space and teacher that will be working with my child and I hope to learn about the teacher personally.  I enjoy learning about the topic or material covered for the year and I get really interested when they mention anything about the how we learn.

Taking my learning from the Teaching for Creativity Institute this summer, I decided to engage my parents in a creative task.  I prepared eight brown paper bags with recyclable materials.  Parents were around the room; some standing and some sitting.  I asked them to come together in small groups around the tables and introduced the material bags, task, and time limit.  They looked at me hesitantly.  The task was to decide on a problem they had they had and make something to fix it.

The room slowly became a buzz and I “worked the party” discovering this work had more benefits than I thought.

  1.  Parents introduced themselves to each other and identified who their child was.
  2.  They shared ideas for problems and were validated for their thinking.
  3.  They laughed and giggled.
  4.  They learned how hard it can be to get started.
  5.  They wanted to work longer to produce their ideas.
  6.  They were hesitant to share and then enjoyed that step.
  7.  They wanted to make something “real” and struggled with prototypes.
  8.  Parents shared more excitement than usual for our year of learning together.
  9.  I felt more relaxed during the evening.
  10.  I felt more engaged with the parents than just presenting information to them.

The night was a bigger success than I thought and I decided the biggest benefit was I had spent time in developing a parent community for our classroom.  We know our work isn’t just with students and I’ve had parents join us on and off every year I’ve been teaching.  This evening felt different and I think it’s because I had them engaged and being a learner, like their child will be this year.

Honoring Identity

Sara Ahmed is an educator who I am fortunate to call a friend. As much as I value her friendship, I value her role as a mentor to me even more. Her two books Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry (co-authored with Harvey Daniels) and Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension have pushed my thinking and encouraged me to do better for the kids I learn with every day. I highly recommend reading these books and if you ever get the chance to hear Sara speak don’t miss that opportunity.

I opened this school year with her thinking in the back of my brain. One of the lessons she shared in Being the Change is an activity an Identity Web. Sara explains Identity Webs as “personal graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are.” Middle school is definitely a time and a place where our students wrestle with their identity. I know I did. Many factors that shape who I am today can be traced to middle school. My lifelong love affair with both soccer and art were cemented in middle school. Middle school teachers I had were adults who shaped both how I act with seventh graders now and how I will never act with those same seventh graders. And I sill remember the name of my first girlfriend. I wonder what happened to her once we both left our hometown.

So the idea of leading students to recognize what or who has shaped or will shape how they view their lives and the world definitely appealed to me, so I jumped right into it. But first, I did one myself. In Being the Change, Sara strongly recommends that teachers do the work she recommends for teaching students social comprehension because “this examination is just as adults as it is for kids.” Doing the work we expect our students to do is time-consuming, but it opens our eyes to a more empathetic stance.

Here is my Identity Map:

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When I was working on this, it amazed me how some of my identity came easily. Filling in the area around sports was easy. However, I realized I hesitated a great deal with the family section. I kept second-guessing what I should share. I love my family, but like many families, there are difficult memories flowing next to the wondrous memories. I wondered when it came time to share my identity web as a model for my students, how would I handle this section. Honesty drove me to be very candid about some of the difficult factors that have shaped me. It may not have helped my students write down any of the tough things on their webs, but my hope was they would quickly know that I am a person who will be very honest with them. 

While my students were working on their identity webs, I had mine in my hand and looked for connections I had with my students. I sat with them at tables or on the floor and named the connections we had like reading, sports, or living most of my entire life in Central Ohio. But, I also delighted in seeing things that were very different than me. I celebrated the students who immigrated to the United States, students who loved dance, and the student who plays five, yes five, different instruments.

The time I spent chatting and connecting with the students was the second best thing I did during the first few days of school. The best thing was the next day. The students met in small groups to compare and contrast their webs. They looked for connections and delighted in finding differences. As I bounced around the room, I could see them appreciating who they were at the same time they were appreciating each other. We were learning to honor our identities.

As the year progresses, we will add to our webs and look for more ways to celebrate our own identities as well as each others’. We will also be led by the many other ideas Sara shared in Being the Change. The work will be challenging, but I am certain the communities we are creating in Room 229 will be stronger if we rise to the challenge.

Student samples

My Classroom Is A Mess

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Rethinking Meet the Teacher Event

This past summer I was lucky enough to attend the Teaching for Creativity Institute at the Columbus Art Museum for four days in June.  My teaching soul felt hopeful and excited to revisit ideas that grounded my early days of teaching and gather some new thinking.  We talked about our stakeholders and how we can advocate for creativity teaching.  Ideas were tossed around for working with parents during curriculum nights and I began thinking about the two hour window new students and families can stop by to visit our learning space and meet me.  For many years it’s been an opportunity to unpack your school supplies and find out who is in your classroom.  I began thinking about the messages I wanted to start expressing right away and thought this format could be tweaked.

I saw an idea at the art museum in the Wonder Room and wanted to replicate it.  I thought about how they could express and foster messages about our classroom.  We will be inspired.  We will work together.  We will make things.  We will talk.  We will come together.  We will imagine.  When I thought about picking up my phone for some photos tonight, I had another family to meet and visit with.  I wish you could see the room in action.  It was beautiful.

Creative spaces

  1.  Coming Together – pick a fabric strip and add to chicken wire to make a class weaving
  2.  Imagine – explore with post it notes and make something new, tape and colored pencils were offered too
  3. Drawing with Friends – new markers and a square piece of paper hung together in a larger square grid.
  4. Be Inspired – offered four picture books about bugs, tissue paper squares and rectangles, pipe cleaners, and bendable wire

At first, I was worried the creative spaces weren’t going to be used very much.  It was probably a new option for my students.  They loved adding a strip of fabric to a collaborative weave.  When the room was quieter nudging was needed to engage my new friends.  I turned around at a busy moment and there was more engagement.  Old friends were reconnecting.  Neighbors were laughing.  Parents were reconnecting.  A new student, just moved this weekend to be with us and my new friend V did a great job talking to her while her grandpa snapped photos of her new learning space.  As the two hours ended, I found used creative spaces and things to hang in our room.  My space is now our space and the messages I wanted to send about our year together have been sent.

Collaborative Weaving

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What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?

In June, I had the privilege to attend the Teaching for Creativity Institute at our local Columbus Art Museum. Four days of connecting with area educators while focusing on what creativity is, looks like, and how to foster creativity.  Creativity can be practiced, you can get better at it, and creativity is the basis of change.  Learning and growth require change. To help develop creativity we studied and learned about thinking and how to create cultures of thinking.  As our learning continued, we started talking about how to explain and justify to parents things we may do to foster creativity.  Ideas were shared for engaging parents and changing up the traditional curriculum night format.  I loved the ideas shared and I’m sure I will incorporate some this coming year.

Fred Burton, one of my former principals was a guest speaker during the institute and as he discussed studying and fostering cultures of thinking he proposed an essential question to guide that work.  “What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?”  I loved this question and kept pondering it.  This is a big question and an important one to be answered.  It would probably help with the beginning of the year jitters, I think everyone feels on some level.

At the end of day three I visited an area of the museum that’s called the Wonder Room.  It’s a place where families and children can interact with materials either by doing something or making something.  The activities connect in some way and during my visit my head began to swirl with thinking from my time at the institute and Fred’s essential question.  If I was a student, I would hope to find out some answers about learning in our classroom right away.  All the routines and things we do can bog down our first days, if we aren’t careful.

When families visit my room before school starts to meet me and see our learning space I typically have them work together to unpack and sort the student’s school supplies.  This doesn’t answer the question, What’s it going to be like to be a learner in this room?”  I found myself wanting to change the format of coming to see the classroom and meet your teacher before school starts.  What if their time in our classroom had creativity moments and opportunities to talk to others?  What if it involved collaboration and sharing ideas?  What if it generated student work to display and welcome them on their first day?  These photos are ideas I may borrow in one way or another to revamp meet the teacher.