We Don’t Know…Yet

Quiet down
And listen

The kids
Have something
To teach

A few years ago, I invited a friend of mine, who was working as a local television meteorologist, to do a weather presentation for our third graders. He talked about thunderstorms and rainbows, and even did that awesome tornado-in-a-bottle trick to teach them about a twister’s rotating winds. At the end of his presentation, he opened it up for a Q&A. Kids asked questions about his job, and more questions about tornadoes. Then he called on a student who happened to be one of the most brilliantly gifted children anyone on my team had ever taught. Using vocabulary I didn’t even know, she proceeded to ask a complex question about positively and negatively charged lightning.

Needless to say, our weatherman was stunned, the teachers shot the “this-kid-is-smarter-than-I’ll-ever-be” look at each other, and the students sat waiting to know if the expert knew the answer. After a moment of shocked silence, he was able to answer her question, but later shared with me that it made him sweat!

Now, he is an expert in this field. Adept in math, science, and technology, he was well-equipped to respond, even if he didn’t expect such a high level question from an 8 year old.

We, as educators, especially elementary educators who teach across curricular areas, are experts in our field, but I will be the first to admit that my students stump me regularly. And you don’t have to be a child genius to be able to do that to teachers. I don’t always have the answers.

Early in my teaching career, when I was asked a question, I remember scrambling to compose coherent responses, because I was the teacher. Wasn’t I supposed to know and have the answers? I have learned a lot in my journey as an educator, but one of the most valuable realizations was this:

My job as an educator is not to have all the answers. My job as an educator is not to demand that students have all the answers either. My job as an educator is to teach students that questions are worth asking, how to ask questions, and how to seek answers through critical thinking and problem solving.

The most powerfully honest words you can speak to a child who has asked a question you don’t know the answer to are “I don’t know…yet.”

Modeling what it looks like to not know yet, and then sharing how to seek knowledge and understanding is what we are ultimately hoping to teach our children in their pursuit of lifelong learning.

And sometimes, our students come to us, with a bounty of expertise and background knowledge on subjects we have barely dabbled in. If we insist on being the “sage on the stage”, only our experiences and range of knowledge is shared and blessed. But if we create student-centered environments in which learners have opportunities to be teachers, and teachers become learners, we communicate to children that they are worthy and capable of being heard and acknowledged. They see that even teachers are always in the midst of a learning process.

No one has proved that more than the brave teenagers of Parkland, Florida who have demanded “never again”. They have taught their peers, and young ones looking up, but especially adults, that they will not be defined by others’ generational marks of criticism: they are addicted to their phones, lazy, and have no attention span. Instead, they started a movement. They leveraged their social media skills to garner international attention for gun reform, organizing a nationwide walkout just a week ago to honor the victims and to make visible their voices. They changed laws. They are unrelenting. Grassroots planning, conducting interviews, giving speeches, organizing a march in the nation’s capital. Every single day since that tragedy, they have been active and vocal. They wondered what could be done to ensure this never happens again, and they have been seeking the answers since then.

No adult told them to initiate this movement. It is of their own creation. Circumstances demanded that the kids become the teachers this time, and if we are wise, we will support and sustain them, because this time, this time, the adults need to listen.

Being the expert in the room doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means we are experts in teaching children that learning is wondering, thinking, and following their inquiries. We should be expert enough to know that it also means descending from the stage and taking a seat to listen to our next generation of wonderers, thinkers, and doers. What will they learn, accomplish, invent, change, and solve?

We don’t know…yet.


Not One More

I am your child’s teacher.

I do not need

your thoughts and prayers

speeches about school shootings that do not once mention guns

a government that makes it easier for mentally ill individuals to purchase guns

congresspeople who place lobbyists’ wishes above those of their constituents

gun laws that ban assault weapons lapsing

another day of setting curriculum aside to address my students’ fears and questions

hashtag activism

to see one more child posting or tweeting about their slain classmates and family

to be told that today is not the day to talk about this

to look around my classroom, deciding which pieces of furniture make the best barricades and self-defense weapons

to train children how not to die at school

the solution to be that American teachers should now be armed.

We never have enough money to stock school libraries, retain full-time guidance counselors, buy supplies for art teachers, and update technology, but somehow we’re flush with the finances to buy every teacher in America a gun? I teach math, and that doesn’t add up.

I am your child’s teacher.

You want to arm me?

Arm me with books.
Arm me with winter coats.
Arm me with healthy lunches.
Arm me with a social-emotional curriculum.
Arm me with full-time support staff.
Arm me with time.

Because my arms were meant to
Hug children
Carry books
Paint watercolors
Create writing
Turn pages
Capture thinking
Open doors

They were not meant to
pull children into hiding
make bookshelves into barricades
soundlessly signal for silence
shield students from bullets

But, because
I am your child’s teacher
I would.

I am your child’s teacher.

And I am now required to
Life and death…because I want to teach kids.

I am your child’s teacher.

I need you.

I need you to care enough about children to hold accountable those who refuse to act and who ignore the fact that we are the only economically advanced country where this happens REGULARLY.

Because thoughts and prayers do not stop bullets.

Because I’m tired of going to work every day wondering if today will be the day I’ll need to shelter my children in silence to survive.

Because schools should be the safest places in our communities.

Because every time this happens, shoulders are shrugged, and complicit helplessness thrives and asks us to accept this as normal.

This is not normal.

Take your thoughts and prayers and turn them into votes and action.

Thoughts and prayers vocalize our pain.
Votes and action catalyze our change.

Not one more school.
Not one more child.
Not one more.


This post adapts and expands upon an original post I shared on my personal social media accounts the day after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people, most of them children, were killed.


Halfway Here: The Just Ten Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Shamash, The Helper


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I Am Thankful For You

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

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

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

He had taken his own life.

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

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

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

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

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

What can we do now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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In A Million Words Or Less…

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today.

Ask any veteran teacher. The first year is survival. Thankful to have a shiny new job, wide-eyed and just starting out, we rookies learned routines, deciphered curriculum, wrote late-night lesson plans, navigated new hallways, memorized acronyms, and treaded the proverbial waters of education. Frantically and relentlessly.

Remembering back to the days when spelling tests and whole class novels were expectations of the curriculum, overhead projectors were THE technology standard, and students each had a desk with a nametag on top and a tornado of papers inside, I cringe to think of myself as a teacher in those early years. But we are meant to evolve, as teachers, as humans. When we learn more, we do better. When the excuses for “the way we’ve always done it” become crushed under mountains of research that support something more effective, we take that new path. We appreciate the teacher we were, but look forward to the teacher we can become.

There is one thing, however, I have done every year on the first day of school, from my very first year of teaching until now. It continues to prove to me that it is one of the most robust and authentic ways to get to know my students. It is…The Million Words letter.

On the first day of school, students take home an assignment from me to give to their parents/guardians at home. It contains a brief letter on a mostly blank piece of paper and it reads:

It’s the beginning of an exciting school year in third grade! You can help me be the best teacher I can be for your child if you share with me. So…

In a million words or less, please tell me about your child.

Besides my signature, the rest of the paper remains empty, wide open for a response. There are no extra prompts, explanations, or requirements. Like a blank canvas, it invites parents to fill up the space with a colorful and layered picture of their child. I receive handwritten notes, typed pages, photographs, and timelines.

I have read parents’…
detailed observations
hopes and dreams
unfiltered love
anxious worries

They are…

They tell stories of…

When I sit down to read through these pages, I often tear up or feel my breath catch in my throat. The adults who love and care for my students pour their hearts out onto the page, many with refreshing honesty and fierce love. They entrust me with personal stories. The Million Words letter gives a welcoming invitation to share and a sweeping space to lay out all of the complicated and wonderful facets of their children.

At the beginning of the school year I inherit files and documents, cumulative folders and data sheets, running recs and district testing results. But nothing gives me a truer, more meaningful picture of who a child really is than this letter. When parents are empowered to tell the story of this human being they know by heart, and when teachers take the time to read and listen to these stories, students go from a name on an attendance sheet or a statistic on a data wall, to a multi-dimensional individual. I learn about the children who ride the city bus for an hour each morning to get to school. The dearly missed grandparent who recently passed away. The newly blended families. I learn about the yellow belt test in tae kwon do. The weekly visits to the library. The Diwali celebrations at the temple. Students emerge as athletes and artists. Siblings and scientists. Introverts and innovators.

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today, but reaching out to say to parents, “tell me the story of your child”, with a mostly blank piece of paper and an open ear was, and always will be, a good decision.


*(To be clear, The Million Words letter is not my original idea, but whoever inspired me to do it definitely deserves an extra doughnut for Friday staff treats. Please be inspired to do the same and use this idea now, the beginning of next school year, or whenever you want to know more about your students’ stories.)

Can You Dab?


“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

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

* * * * *

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
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…


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.)