Enough

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling to write this post.

 

I have known I was on the schedule to post on May 3, 2018, for months now. I have begun a post at least 5 times in the past week. But when I go back to reread or revise I know my writing is awful.

 

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling with stress and worry.

 

I have had too many restless nights. It is impossible to focus when you are consumed with uncertainty.

 

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling because I can’t control the cause of my stress and worry.

 

I am struggling because I want to scream out into the void – all the time – but I can’t.

 

———————————————————-

 

I am.

 

I am learning.

 

I am learning that it is ok for me to be stressed and worried.

 

I am learning that I am not quite the extremely rational and logical thinker I thought I was.

 

I am learning a great deal about humility and empathy.

 

Since the cause of my stress and worry is something I am not ready to share to share with my fellow writers and readers of Classroom Communities I feel like I am being a dishonest member of this community.

 

However, while I know that I am struggling, I am learning a great deal about myself. I am realizing that it is not so easy to compartmentalize when something out of your control is taking up so mental energy.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am learning.

 

I am enough.

Mission Seek and Uplift

Several weeks ago our superintendent challenged all departments and grade level teams to come up with a series of goals around the idea of creating a “generous and welcoming” school community. We were asked to create thirty and sixty day goals, and goals for next fall. The notes from my department included the phrase “Mission Seek and Uplift” under 60 Day Goals. Someone added “Can someone clarify this?” to our shared doc. I’m not sure what we meant we originally wrote this, but here’s what I added:

Between now and June 1, we will seek out and reconnect with students who are currently getting a D or an F in our classes and develop a plan with the student to raise the grade to at least a C by the end of the marking period. This will include the ability for students to show proficiency toward essential standards to earn credit. We will exercise grace and exempt failed or missing work from early in the semester if the student can demonstrate proficiency now. We will give full credit for makeup work during this period.

I once sat in a meeting where third grade teachers argued vehemently that their students should not get full credit on a spelling test unless they can pass it the first time. They taught itthe kids should have learned it. A fifth grade math teacher and I disagreed with them; students earned full credit even if it took them longer to master material or a new skill.

Each week I print a grade check for my advisory students and we have the same conversation about any low grades: “Have you talked to your teachers? Do you have the missing work? Can you retake the tests?” In my AVID class we also do weekly grade checks, and I suggest that students bring questions about the classes they’re struggling in to tutorial. With some students I offer to talk to the teacher, but for the most part the burden is on the student to figure out how to raise their grade.

But what if we, as teachers, took on that burden instead? Of course, many teachers already do this, but what if the mission of an entire department, or an entire school, was to seek out struggling students and help them succeed during these final weeks of the school year? Not because an administrator is hounding you about graduation, or because you don’t want to deal with that one awful parent, but because our students need our help.

We all have students who have given up. Maybe they’ve missed so many days that they don’t know how to rejoin. Maybe they fear students calling attention to their return. Maybe you’re the problem. Have you ever greeted a returning student with a sarcastic, “Hey, nice of you to join us?” Maybe that’s why they don’t want to come back.

It takes courage to ask for help when you’re struggling, courage to try to pass a class that you’re currently failing. It’s much easier to act like you don’t care.

What are you doing to seek and uplift your students who have given up?

All Means All

Yesterday was the National Day of Silence, a campaign started by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Going back to 1996, this is a day where students take a vow of silence in honor and support of those who feel they cannot safely speak the truth of who they are in terms of their sexuality.

But that’s not what this post is about.

The National Day of Silence is the most recent example, but we don’t have to reach too far back (all of one week) to find another large student-oriented (and, in many cases, student-organized) awareness/activist campaign. In the world of social media, these are much easier for students to organize nationwide. There is also an increased awareness about a lot of things that various students find themselves passionate about and wanting to do something about.

But that’s also not exactly what this post is about.

This post is about our response, as educators, to these sorts of movements and campaigns.

As there are more and more of these student activist events, it is likely that we will find ourselves in varying stages of agreement with them. Some we may fully support, and some we may fully oppose. After all, as humans and as teachers, we should be engaged with the politics of our world, and we all have different political beliefs.

I’m reminded of this quote from Dr. Demond Means, the Superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville School District:

“We made a commitment as educators when we walked into our classrooms for the first time that we will reach every kid in our classroom. We didn’t make a commitment to reach 75% of the students.” [source]

While this quote has often been used to talk about not leaving our students hanging out to dry academically, I think it applies to our students as people, not just as brains. Putting another spin on the quote, we didn’t make a commitment to support 75% of our students. We made a commitment to support all of our students.

As a reminder: all means all.

If we want our students to develop as members of society, we need to support them when they find something they’re passionate about. Even if (and perhaps especially if) the thing they are passionate about, we are equally passionate about, but with an opposing view.

If you have a student who is raising awareness of gun violence, support them.
If you have a student who is raising awareness of 2nd amendment rights, support them.
If you have a student who is protesting the banning of books, support them.
If you have a student who is campaigning to ban a book, support them.

That last one was hard for me to type. I am adamantly opposed to the banning of books. But this is the key, and I want to be sure I am absolutely clear:

It’s not about supporting the message. It’s not about agreeing with the campaign.
You are supporting the student, not the campaign.

We need to support all of our students. We don’t need to share their views. We don’t need to agree with their goals. We do need to show them that they are supported in working for something they believe in. They’re going to meet resistance to their message; they don’t need resistance to their actions from those they have come to rely on for support.

It is impossible for us to divorce ourselves from our politics. However, it is important for us to realize that our job requires us to not allow our politics to suppress the voices of our students. If a student campaign is something we want to support or oppose, we can certainly do that as well, in the same ways that anyone else can and does. But we don’t have an option when it comes to supporting or opposing our students: we must support them.

Our world is more partisan now than it has been in recent memory. Anecdotally, it seems as if those who have any given ideology don’t believe that they could ever work with those who have a different ideology. If all our students can see that they have the support of all their teachers, even if some of those teachers don’t support the politics at play, imagine the world we can be a part of creating. Imagine the community we will have. Imagine as people realize that it’s okay to support someone even as they disagree.

We need to support our students as they engage in the political process. All students. All means all. No exceptions.

And I know: this is HARD. WORK. It’s arguably easier to help a student who hasn’t read a book in their entire life become an avid reader than it is to support a student in a campaign that we are completely opposed to. The important work is rarely easy. It doesn’t make it any less important.

Note: this is the first post in a planned series. Subsequent posts will explore the nuance of these situations and how to engage in that nuance with students, as well as from the administrator perspective.

A Fraction of You

Dear Students,

For the past few weeks, we have asked you to sit in silence, sometimes for hours at a time. Your little bodies wiggle and squirm as you are asked to read and comprehend text without an opportunity to activate your background knowledge. Your fingers stretch to type letters, words, sentences, paragraphs with eloquence and confidence, though you are still just learning how to type. Your curious minds have quieted. Because we need quiet. Voices off. No talking. Shhhhh. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Because we are taking

THE test.

We tell you, “It is very important!”
But what we mean to say is “It doesn’t mean everything.”
Because we really believe that “The important things happen when we’re learning.”

They will measure you on your measurement skills.
They will ask you about elapsed time as you peek at the clock wondering how much time until recess.
They will challenge you to explain a character’s emotions, even though I saw tears roll down your cheeks when you finished your book this morning.
They will evaluate whether or not you know what fraction of the candy bar Jennifer ate.

Fractions.

The test will only measure a fraction of who you are and what you know. The test reflects your thinking on one day, in one shot. The test doesn’t know, and will never know, you.

But I know you.

I know you are kind.
(You invite friends to play with you at recess.)

I know you are thoughtful.
(You hold the door open for each of your classmates.)

I know you are brave.
(You shared the rough draft of your writing for all to hear yesterday.)

I know you are patient.
(You wait your turn for my help with your questions.)

I know you are creative.
(You built a two-story castle out of cardboard and duct tape.)

I know you are empathetic.
(You hug your classmate and tell him you know how it feels when a pet dies.)

I know you are growing.
(You call yourself a reader…for the first time ever.)

I know you
write fan fiction
break boards in tae kwon do
speak three languages
play piano with your stepmom
compete as an Irish dancer
co-design your fresh cuts with your barber
collect supplies for animals at the Humane Society.

I also know that
you didn’t get breakfast this morning
mom worked the late shift again
your baby brother kept you up all night with his cries
anxiety makes your heart beat fast
you haven’t seen dad since he’s been incarcerated
anger often disrupts all of your calm
you worry about doing well on

THE test.

You, my friends, are complex and curious creatures. There are no rulers or scales or numbers or tests that exist that can calculate YOU. You are fierce and free-spirited. Inquisitive and introverted. Witty and wonderful.

How lucky I am that I know you, to know more parts of your whole than any multiple choice assessment ever will.

When we finish the test, and get back to the joy of learning, just remember, that this test is a fraction of your time to measure a fraction of you.

I cannot wait to get back to learning, exploring, and creating with you.
All ten-tenths of you.
Because these cardboard castles aren’t going to build themselves.

Love,
Mrs. Werner
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What Does it Mean to be a Community?

What does it mean to be a community?

A classroom community?

Is it the way we take care of each other? The way we anticipate the emotional moves of one another? How we can collectively see an issue and care about it? How we know each other and seek to learn more about each other?

With only 26 more school days left of this year I’m not sure I’m ready to answer these questions. What I do know is that this year I’ve gotten closer than I’ve ever been to being able to understand the power in the collective voice of a classroom community. Our classroom community has been ever-changing. Since the start of the school year we have had 13 students move in and 13 students move out. Building and maintaining community has been a priority since day one and has not stopped.

This past Monday my literacy coach and dear friend Heather Halli purchased a book a for the readers in room 215. She told me that when she read this story it reminded her of the students in my classroom and she wanted them to have the story. The book she purchased was Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. Heather knows how much we talk about our names and history behind our names. We are always talking names because of the flow of students coming and going.

On Monday I read the story to my class. Listening to their talk during the story helped me to realize how important it is to each one of them that they know about their own names and each other’s. Once we arrived to the author’s note my students couldn’t wait to hear what Juana had to say. Juana talked about the importance of her name and her story. She ended her note with two questions in which my students took as a call to action.

Her questions were:

What is the story of your name?

What story would you like to tell?

My students immediately said, “We already know the answer to the first question…lets answer her second question!” And then we stopped and we all went off to answer Juana’s question. There was no turn and talk to think about what we might say. There was no discussion about what the question meant. The only thing that was agreed on was that we wanted to put our whole name at the top.

As I read through their work I felt a sense of community that had been building all year. A sense of community that I can feel but not give words to yet. Today I dedicate this post to the classroom community of room 215. Here are their words…

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What Changes

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Over the past few weeks, I have rediscovered reading and enjoying poetry. Most mornings before I get moving into the day, I read at least one poem. The act of opening my phone and searching online “poem about ______” or grabbing a favorite volume of poetry from my family room or classroom shelf has created a place and time for me to reflect.

This beginning of this practice started in a failed attempt to try to plan something for National Poetry Month for my seventh-grade students. A classroom study of poetry still hasn’t happened yet. And to be honest, it might not happen this year. However, I have been really enjoying these two to three-minute adventures into a form of communication I adore, but often ignore. Spending some time thinking about the words of Maya Angelou, Czesław Miłosz, Anna Akhmatova, Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, Kwame Alexander, Justin Runge, Jacqueline Woodson, Alan Dugan and others have given me the chance to slow down for a moment or two each day.

The time I spend reading a poem is short, but most days thinking lingers throughout the day. About ten days ago, I read “What Changes” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

 

What Changes

My father’s hopes travel with me

years after he died. Someday

we will learn how to live.  All of us

surviving without violence

never stop dreaming how to cure it.

What changes? Crossing a small street

in Doha Souk, nut shops shuttered,

a handkerchief lies crumpled in the street,

maroon and white, like one my father had,

from Jordan.  Perfectly placed

in his pocket under his smile, for years.

He would have given it to anyone.

How do we continue all these days?

 

“Someday we will learn how to live” was in my mind for the rest of the day and into the next several days. The line also inspired this post.

For me, there is a juxtaposition of hope and frustration in that line – like the coming end of the school year. The hope we have built learning communities that were worthwhile for our students combined with the frustration that we don’t have the time to accomplish everything we intended. The hope that our students will finish the year better than they started combined with the frustration of state testing windows. The hope of seeing students act kindly toward each other combined with the frustration of students ostracizing each other. Hope and frustration are typical partners in the last weeks of school.

During the end of your school year, take the time to look for the hopeful places. I know I will get stuck in the frustrations. I will need to consciously search for the evidence that the 180 days spent with my seventh graders were good. The moments like seeing two friends recommend books to each other, a student complimenting the writing of another, the class groaning a little when our independent reading time is over, the eager smiles when it is time to discuss a shared text.

If you have the time, try reading poetry daily or at least give yourself the opportunity to reflect. Find the hopefulness and good.

Student Teaching Lessons

In the late fall of 2006, I was elated to receive my placement for student teaching the following semester. I was a double-major in English and math, and my university required a diversity of classroom experiences–and there were some I had yet to successfully complete. I figured with those restrictions, I would be splitting time between classrooms (or schools or even districts), or have something that was far from my parents’ house, where I was hoping to live for the semester.

But that’s before I knew the teacher I would be placed with existed.

This teacher was a middle school math and English teacher in a school about 30 minutes from my parents’ house. His classroom satisfied the remaining requirements I needed to graduate from my university’s secondary education program.

It was, to put it lightly, one of the best experiences of my life.

I was able to practice various lessons out, get honest and constructive feedback regularly, try out some things, and basically run a classroom with all the scaffolds and supports I needed as a neophyte teacher.

What I didn’t realize until just recently is how strong his impact is on me when it comes to relationship-building. This teacher is a Milken Award-winning teacher, and I assumed that was because he knew both his content and how to deliver it masterfully (both of which are true).

What I realize now is that he is the teacher he is because he knows those things, but more so because he knows his students.

Here are some things I learned during the winter of 2007, complete with annotations of what I thought they meant and what they really mean.

EMP Awards

End of Marking Period Awards were his version of a paper plate award. Essentially, he would give out unique awards with names that match each students’ unique contributions to the classroom. He gives them out at the end of each marking period: 4 times a year. He maintained a spreadsheet of who received awards at each quarter, to ensure that everyone received at least one and nobody received more than 2.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to engage the students on a day that was otherwise a difficult one to manage.
I thought this was a way to celebrate each student for the unique person they are.
I thought this was a way to make sure everyone felt loved and celebrated.

What I Now Realize
It is all of those things. But to have it be those things…to have each student feel celebrated for who they are as an individual, it requires the teacher to see each student as an individual. It would be impossible to give out these awards without knowing the students on a level beyond their academic successes and failures. It forced him to see his students as individuals, and for the gifts and talents each of them had.

Speaking Spanish

This teacher had a decent grasp of Spanish, and would casually pepper his class with Spanish words and phrases.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to support the foreign language department as well as promote the use of Spanish. An easy cross-curricular support.

What I Now Realize
There were very few English Language Learners in his classes. However, there was a great diversity of culture, and many of the students spoke more than one language. Arabic, in particular, was quite popular. While this teacher didn’t know Arabic, by speaking another language, it showed the benefit of having more than one language to speak, thereby validating those who did speak multiple languages. It reinforced the idea that multiculturalism is important, making everyone likely more comfortable with the diversity of culture in their classroom and in their lives.

Playing the Accordion

 

Yes, you read that correctly. One of my most vivid memories of student teaching was when my brother was a guest speaker to talk about his role in the business world, for a jobs and careers unit we were doing. My brother quoted The Rolling Stones, saying, “You can’t always get what you want.” The principal, also in the room, starting singing the song, encouraging the students (none of whom knew the song) to join in. Then the teacher whipped out his accordion, and we had an awkward and awesome sing-along for about 10 seconds. It is, to this day, the most surreal teaching moment I’ve had.

That said, this was a relatively common enough practice that nobody (aside from perhaps my brother) was taken aback when the classroom teacher pulled out his accordion.

What I Thought
I thought this was a chance to relieve some pressure and intensity through music, and in an unexpected way that 7th and 8th graders seem to love.

What I Now Realize
The piece I didn’t mention above is that he also played the accordion for every student’s birthday. So every student had a day where they had this really interesting experience of being sung to with accordion accompaniment. It was a way to celebrate the community and the birthdays being celebrated, but it also provided stories for the students to connect with years later. I mean, how many students can say their 8th grade English teacher would play accordion during class?

Pennants on the Ceiling

On the ceiling of his classroom were university pennants. These were either purchased by him or given as gifts from former students and colleagues. I made sure to get a Central Michigan University pennant up there before my time was done.

What I Thought
I asked him about this, and he said he wanted his room to be so distracting that if everything was a distraction, nothing was. He had found this actually helped his students focus on the lesson at hand. I was surprised by this, but I found it to be be the case (the engaging lessons he had probably also played a massive role).

What I Now Realize
I didn’t think anything of the “gifts by former students” thing at the time. But this is a middle school. Grades 6, 7, and 8. If former students are coming by, it’s probably those still in the building, or picking up younger siblings. But these were college students coming back to his room. There was an ever-present facet of community built in to the classroom itself. If you were a part of that room, you could literally be a part of the room, if you came back and gave a pennant. People don’t do that with places they don’t feel are a part of them. They don’t do that if they didn’t feel like they were accepted and belonged. They don’t do that if they forget about that place after a few years.

His ceiling was covered with pennants.

All these lessons, tucked in the back of my mind for years, only now rising to the surface. Thank you for all the lessons you taught me, explicit and implicit. I can only hope I have created a fraction of the community in my classrooms that you have had in yours.