My Not-So-Fancy Classroom

As my classroom assistant and I were setting up our room this past week her seventh grade son remarked, “It’s like you’ve centered everything around books in here.” And I stopped and made him repeat his words just so I could be sure that I heard him correctly. And then I looked him straight in the eye and said, “That’s the greatest thing anyone could have ever said about our classroom.”

A few days later, another teacher walked in and said, “So what’s your theme? Every class has to have a theme.” After I first told him I didn’t really have one and he seemed a bit disappointed, I remembered the words of the wise seventh grader and I said, “Well then, my theme is reading.”

You see, I decided that this year everything that went into my room had to serve a purpose. It had to help my students to be better readers or writers in some way. It had to help us to create a community of readers and a community of writers. If it was just there for decoration then it was taking up space that could be used for something more important

The result of this decision is that I have a pretty un-fancy classroom. I have no fancy bulletin boards. I have no cute Pinterest displays. I have no catchy sayings lining the walls of my room.

What I have are a whole lot of books. Everywhere. What I have are a whole lot of supplies that are easily accessible for my students so that they can do the writing work that they need to do in a way that works for them. What I have are spaces for students to work where they can be comfortable and where they can collaborate. What I have are lots of choices of where to sit and how to sit. What I have are places for us to gather, to share our thinking with one another and to document our thinking so that we can share it with the world.

So when my students arrive next week I hope they won’t be disappointed. I hope they won’t miss the clever sayings. I hope they won’t be disappointed that there is no bag of treats sitting on their desks waiting for them. I hope they won’t be sad that there are no giveaways to win.

I hope instead that they will see that this is a place where we will read and write. I hope they see that this is a place where their voices matter. I hope they will see that this is a place that includes them and is waiting for them to fill. I hope they will see that this is a place where we will celebrate our successes. I hope they will see that this is a place where meaningful collaboration happens. I hope they will see that this is a place that is made for them and that nothing in this room is off limits to them. I hope that they will see that this place is a work in progress and it cannot possibly be complete without them.

This is the message that I hope our classroom sends as the students start to file into it this week.

If you’d like to take a look at our classroom, you can watch the classroom tour that I posted on YouTube. I try to give a bit of an explanation about all the things in my room and what purpose they each serve. The one glaring exception to my rule is the ridiculously large collection of rubber ducks that you’ll see along the windowsills. Most of those have been given to me by students, so there’s no getting rid of them now!

You can find the classroom tour here. 

What if i don't want to teach my students

What if I Don’t Want to Teach My Students to Calm Down?

This year, my district has adopted a new social-emotional curriculum. As I have expressed in the past, I have some serious concerns about this specific program and about using pre-written and scripted programs in general. Yesterday, I completed the mandatory online training for this program. There were several things about the program and about the training that were upsetting to me, but one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the repetition of the concept of self-regulation throughout the course of the training.

One of the things that this program prides itself on is that it teaches students to self-regulate. What I think that means is that it teaches children how to calm down when they are upset. Strategies are taught to the children such as taking deep breaths, counting to ten and using positive self-talk. These strategies are to be used by the students and reinforced by the teachers in order to reduce the number of conflicts that erupt into more serious situations.

Now, I think it is great that we teach our students ways to deal with anger. When that anger results from not getting what they want or not winning a game or being jealous of their friend’s new toy, then I think it is great to teach students ways that can help them to calm down so that they can think about the situation more clearly and then find a way to deal with the problem that will help to solve it and not make it worse. I happen to think that these strategies would be more meaningful if they came from the students themselves and if we showed them that no one strategy is going to work for every child, but I do understand the need to help students learn how to calm down in certain situations.


I also think that it is important for us to teach our students that there is a difference between anger that is the result of not getting what you want and anger that is the result of witnessing an injustice in the world. I believe that in school we spend a whole lot more time teaching kids to calm down, when I think our world might be a better place if we spent some of that time also teaching our students how to get angry. But I notice that there are no lessons on that in this new program.

I worry that the message that we are sending to our students is that anger is purely a negative emotion that leads to only negative things. I worry that we are missing opportunities to show our students that anger over injustice can be used to spark social change and to make our world a better place. I worry that we are telling our children that any outward display of anger is bad. I worry that we are teaching our students to think that when they see people who are expressing anger in a way that doesn’t involve taking a deep breath, counting to ten and using positive self-talk then these people are doing something wrong. And I think that is a dangerous message to send to our students.

Because I want my students to know that there are things in this world that are worth getting angry about. I want my students to know that sometimes counting to ten isn’t going to work. I want my students to know that there are things that are worth fighting for in this world and that there are things that are not. I want my students to know how to tell the difference between the two. I want my students to know that there are sometimes when you will need to shout and scream and let your anger show in order to talk about the things that make you upset because there will be so many people in this world who won’t want to listen. I want my students to know that sometimes when they see people on t.v. or in their own lives yelling and screaming and letting their anger show, it is because they have been forced to be a part of a system that has oppressed them for too long and they are tired of not being heard and they are tired of being told to just calm down. I want my students to know that there is such power behind this kind of anger. And I want my students to know that they have no right to judge the anger of other people until they sit and listen and try to understand what people are really so angry about.

And I don’t think that we teach this to our students often enough. I certainly know there are no lessons in this new program of ours that deal with the concepts of using anger to spark social change. And I don’t want to be too cynical, but sometimes I think that we don’t teach this to our students because that wouldn’t make them the kind of students we want. The kind of students who sit quietly and swallow their anger if they feel they have been wronged by a teacher or someone else in power. I worry that we don’t teach our children to be angry because then we might actually have to deal with their anger and the things that they are angry about.

I worry that we spend so much time teaching our students how to calm down that we forget to teach them how to be angry about the injustice. So then, I worry that they will just stop seeing the injustice. Because how can you really look at injustice without getting angry? How can you really see the terrible struggles of this world and not allow your blood to boil? How can you really count to ten and take deep breaths after witnessing the lives that our society forces some people to live? Is that really what we want?

Again, I am not saying there isn’t importance in teaching our students to calm down. I think it is necessary. I think that when dealing with injustice, there is a time to be calm. A time to try taking deep breaths. A time to try counting to ten. But I also think that there is time for anger. And anger that is loud and noisy and sometimes scary. There is a time to be the opposite of calm. And I think we owe it to our students, and really to this world, to teach lessons about both.

And so, I as prepare to head into this school year and find a way to adapt this program to fit the needs of my students, I know that one place that I will be starting is by asking my students to think about times that they need to calm down AND times that they need to get angry. I want us to have conversations about the positive use of anger. I want us to have conversations that discuss the possibilities that exist other than calming down. I want us to talk about the benefits and the dangers of always calming down after experiencing anger. I want us to talk about all of this because I think it will help them to view the world differently. I think it will help them to know that there is not just one correct way of dealing with anger. I think it will help them to stop judging the people they see reacting to anger in ways that are different than their own.

I think, in the end, it will help them to not just be better students, but instead to be better human beings.


Assumptions Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the assumptions made between teachers and administrators. That led me today to think about the assumptions made between teachers and students.

Soon we go back to school. Soon a new bunch of students will enter through our classroom. And before we even get to know the humans that we will be teaching, we start to make assumptions about them.  And before our students even get to know the humans that will be teaching them, they are making assumptions about us.  So many of these assumptions go unspoken, but just like I believe assumptions can cause rifts between teachers and administrators, I also believe that assumptions can cause rifts between us and our students.

Many students walk into our classrooms and assume that they should wait and be told what to do.

Some assume that we do not want to hear their ideas or that they should not even bother to have ideas of their own.

Some students assume that we wish we were still on summer break.

Some students assume that there is no space for their voice in our classrooms.

Some students assume that who they are is not good enough for school or good enough for us.

Some students assume that they will never be successful in our classrooms.

Some students assume that we are looking to catch their mistakes.

Some students assume that they have to hide pieces of who they are.

Some students assume that what you want them to do is comply, not question, not challenge, not think for themselves.

And these assumptions matter. These assumptions hurt the relationship between a child and her teacher before that relationship even has a chance to be built.

And so do the assumptions that we as teachers make about our students.

Some teachers watch students walk into our classrooms and assume that they are too lazy to share any of their own ideas. Some teachers assume that their students don’t want to work hard.

Some teachers assume that their students learn just like they do and when they don’t, they assume something is wrong with them.

Some teachers assume that their students’ lives are just like theirs. That their families are just like theirs and their backgrounds are just like theirs and their homes are just like theirs. And if they are not, then we assume that they are wrong or weird.

Some teachers assume that they can tell a lot about a child based on their gender or race or religion without ever getting to know that child for the individual that he is.

Some teachers assume that they can tell a lot about a child based on the interventions she has received or the labels that have been placed on her.

Some teachers assume that a child’s parents are not involved enough or are too involved or don’t care or care too much and that they are the reason the child is having difficulties in school.

Some teachers assume that what a child’s previous teacher has to say about all the trouble that the child is must be true because how could another teacher ever get it wrong.

Some teachers assume that if a child is having trouble in school that it is the child’s fault and not our own.

And these assumptions matter. These assumptions hurt the relationship between the child and his teacher before that relationship even has a chance to be built.

And the only way around these assumptions is to challenge them out loud. Right from the start. Sometimes we have to tell our students that what they assume about us is not true. And sometimes we have to tell our students that what other teachers might have assumed about them as students, is not true in this classroom. We have to tell them right from the start and we have to keep telling them. Because it doesn’t take a whole lot of time or a whole lot of bad experiences before a child builds an assumption, but it does take a whole lot of time to break those assumptions down and to prove to our students that school can go another way. That we can be a different kind of teacher.

And we have to tell ourselves as well. We have to force ourselves to challenge our own assumptions about the children who walk into our classrooms. Because each and every child that we teach deserves for us to get to know him or her and deserves for us to put aside our assumptions.

Because one day, my child is going to walk into her first real classroom. And I hope that her teacher gets to know her before she starts to assume. I hope that she gets to know my Millie before she assumes that she has one mom and one dad. I hope that she gets to know her before she assumes that because she is a girl she is going to want to play dress up instead of playing with blocks and trucks. I hope that she gets to know her before she hands out a form or a family tree assignment that doesn’t at all fit the family that Millie has. I hope that she gets to know her before she assumes that because she doesn’t sit still for very long it must mean that she isn’t very smart or that she is trying to be disrespectful. I hope that she gets to know her before she allows her assumptions to take over.

And if that is what I want for my own child, then I know it is what I must do for every child who I have the privilege of teaching this year.


Books Can Be Our Rainbow Flags

Yesterday I was driving home from my sister’s house with my daughter in the backseat blabbering away about some nonsensical thing and all of a sudden I noticed a rather large rainbow flag hung on the outside of one of our local synagogues.  I did a double take. Was there really such a large symbol of gay pride and gay love and gay acceptance hanging on the outside of a religious institution? I slowed the car, turned around and did a second drive by. And sure enough, there it was. A rainbow flag.

I stopped for a moment and then at the insistence of the two year old in my backseat, I continued on towards home.  But that image stuck with me throughout the rest of the day, far into the night and it is still strong in my mind today. That image said so much to me.

You see, in places where LGBT people have previously felt unwelcome and unsafe, there is often still the assumption on our part that silence or a lack of recognition means that we should still feel unwelcome and unsafe. Unfortunately, there are perhaps few places in this country that have been more unwelcoming and unsafe for LGBT people than religious institutions. We, as gay people, have been stared at in synagogues, kicked out of churches, told from pulpits of all faiths that we are going to hell, counseled into making “the choice” not to be gay so that we could live a life without sin, and largely made to feel as if we are less than and unworthy and immoral.  And I know that there are exceptions. Of course there are exception. But the overwhelming and very public narrative coming from religious institutions in the past has been mostly unkind towards who we are.

So now, if things are really changing, that is an amazing thing. But we, we aren’t that trusting. We have been hurt and shamed and embarrassed and it takes a while to work our way back from that. Even with the incredible Supreme Court decision of this summer. So a public symbol like a rainbow flag goes a really long way in sending a different message, in proving that the narrative is changing.  A rainbow flag, anywhere, tells me that we are safe here. We are welcome here. We are accepted here. Even if I am not always ready to believe that.

And that makes me think about our schools.

I think that a lot of LGBT people, in the past, have felt similarly about schools as they have about religious institutions. And though I hate to admit it, I think that many LGBT people today continue to feel that way about schools. They feel as if they are unsafe. They feel as if they are unwelcome there. They feel as if they cannot be who they really are within the walls of their school buildings.

And it is certainly not just LGBT people who feel this way. There are so many people who have been marginalized within our school systems. There are so many groups of people who have been made to feel unworthy and undervalued and misunderstood within our schools. There are so many people who look at a school building and think, “This is not a place for me. I am not welcome here. Who I am is not celebrated in this institution.”

And because there have been so many bad previous experiences for so many people, we, as teachers, must go out of our way to change the narrative. We must go out of our way to send new messages of love and acceptance to students, their families, and to the other teacher with whom we work. We have to find ways to say, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”

And I don’t think that rainbow flags are the answer. I don’t think that every classroom in America needs a rainbow flag hung outside the door. Because A) That would just get ridiculous and B) This goes way beyond just LGBT people.

So instead. I think we look to books.

I think books can be the rainbow flags of our classrooms.

Because I think that having books, the right kinds of books, can send new messages to kids and teachers and families who really need to hear them.

I imagine a child who is transgender walking into his new classroom on the first day of school and seeing the book Jacob’s New Dress prominently displayed on the bookshelf right alongside all of the other books. That child automatically receives the message, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”

And I imagine another child who has two moms walking into that same classroom and seeing the book In Our Mothers’ House. And another child who is adopted from China seeing the book Red Butterfly. And another child who is African American and whose life revolves around basketball seeing the book The Crossover. And another child from India seeing the book Chained. They see those books and they instantly know that this is a safe place. This is a place they are welcome. This is a place they will be loved and celebrated.

Our books have the power to send those messages to our students. To their families. To our fellow teachers.

And in this way, our bookshelves can become a place of hundreds of different flags celebrating hundreds of different kinds of people.  Our bookshelves can become a beacon of hope for children who have never before felt safe or welcome or accepted in school. Our bookshelves can become a place where children see themselves and learn about others.  Our bookshelves can become a place where every person who walks into our classroom can see that he or she is welcome here. Safe here. And will be celebrated here.


We Seem To Be Forgetting Something (Or Someone)

It has struck me as of late, that we seem to be forgetting something.  Or someone. Or many someones. Ones who should be at the front of every single thought that we have and every single action that we take.

It seems to me that we have been forgetting about our students.

Not about teaching them, providing them with rich curriculum, instructing them in the ways that are most effective, giving them the tools they need to connect to the global community they are a part of. These things we have not forgotten. These things seem to occupy much of the time and space of our discussions.

But it seems to me that we have been forgetting about the students themselves. The human beings sitting right next to us. The living, breathing, dreaming, hurting, crying, hoping, wishing human beings that are the reason we all got into this job in the first place.

These thoughts began to swirl around in my brain this past Tuesday as I read the incredibly brave and honest posts on the struggles with mental illness that made up the beautiful and courageous #semicolonEDU landscape. I read and listened to stories, some of which were like my own and some of which were so very different. And what I heard throughout so many stories was the authors’ need to raise awareness on mental illness issues for the sake of educators and for the sake of our students.

And I started to wonder why we needed so many movements that asked us to remember the struggles of our students and the issues in their lives. #LGBTeach is begging for educators to think about the struggles of our LGBT students. #EduColor is begging for educators to think about the issues of race and how they are intertwined in every aspect of our students’ lives. And now #semicolonEDU is begging for educators to think about the issues of mental illness that are present in the daily lives of so many of our students.

Why do we need all of this?

And then I realized. It is because it is so easy to forget. It is so easy to forget the children who we teach and the struggles that they face when we are constantly surrounded by demands to think about other things. We are asked to think about test scores, we are asked to think about technology, we are asked to think about instructional strategies, we are asked to think about teacher evaluations and policy and funding and textbooks and so. many. other things. And while these things are important, they will never be as important as the beings that walk through our doors every day and look to us to notice them.

And it is so easy for us to forget.

We work in districts that will spend countless days and countless hours and countless dollars on professional development to ensure consistency and to ensure we are ready for the big standardized tests and to ensure that we have the latest technology or the most comprehensive assessments and yet our districts relegate topics like suicide prevention and sexual abuse warning signs to ineffective online training just to meet state mandates.

We spend days and weeks and months talking about curriculum, instruction and assessment. We spend so much time on these topics that many teachers begin to ask, “Well what else is there to think about?” And that question makes me want to scream. That question breaks my heart. What else is there to think about? What about the students? What about their well-being? What about how we can see the many ways that they are hurting and how we can help to make that better? Where is our professional development on that? When does that get figured into the budget?

And when we don’t set aside time to think about our students, as humans, then we find ourselves spending our own time talking about things that just don’t matter. We waste time talking about the right titles for school principals. We waste time arguing about whether or not teachers were cliquey at the last conference that we went to. We waste time shaming other teachers for not doing things the way that we do them. We waste time arguing about which instructional strategy is the more effective than any of the others. As if any of that matters if our students are hurting. As if any of that makes a difference if our students feel as if we don’t understand them or understand their lives. As if any of that makes one iota of difference if we have forgotten to think about our students first.

So, for me, it is important every once and awhile to remember to take a step back. To refocus on what is truly important. To listen to the students sitting right next to me and to realize that the words coming out of their mouths are the most important words that I could ever hear.  To take a second and just remember that nothing is more important than loving and accepting the students who walk through our doors every day.  And as we gear up for another school year we have this amazing chance to do it all better this time.  From day one we get to start over with a brand new group of students and make them feel as if they are the most important thing in our world inside of that classroom. And THAT. That fills me with tremendous hope.


My End of the Year Letter to My Students

To My Precious Students,

Earlier this year, I told you that I did not believe that the PARCC tests could possibly measure all that you have learned this year.  Well, now I want to tell you some of the ways that I do believe we CAN measure all that you have learned this year.

This year:

*You have learned to use your voices to make positive change in the world and I know this because your combined blogs have been visited over 18,000 times.

*You have learned to be leaders and I know this because you have led Twitter chats that have been joined by students from across the country.

*You have learned to care about justice and equality and I know this because you were inspired by the injustice and inequality you saw in children’s literature to contribute an amazing video to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. (By the way, you can still see that video here:

*You have learned that there is more to this world than what exists inside of Northbrook and I know this because of the way you have connected with classrooms across the country in our Mystery Skypes and asked questions with an incredibly genuine interest to learn more about other parts of the world.

*You have learned to speak respectfully to people in power and still ask for things to change and I know this because you have written letters and sent them across the country, you have written to the president of the United States of America, you have been published in our local newspaper and you have written to the people in charge of your education.

*You have learned to love books and I know this because I hear you excitedly whispering about them in the corners of our classroom and in the hallway and on the internet.  I see you excitedly passing books back and forth until their covers are worn through with love and use.  I have even seen some of you pump your fists in excitement when it is your turn to read one of our new classroom books.

*You have learned to see purpose and meaning in your writing and I know this because you ask me what we are going to do with every piece of writing that we work on and you talk about your readers when you write and you make decisions in your writing based on who you think will be reading it.

*You have learned to be kind and I know this because you take such good care of eachother. When someone is hurt, you make sure they are okay. When someone is sad, you go out of your way to make them smile. When someone is feeling excluded, you do whatever you can to let them know that they are welcome to join you.

*You have learned to be independent and I know this because you truly do not need me anymore.  You have so much strength and power and courage and brilliance inside of you and I know that you are more than ready to go out and change this world.

So while I am not nearly ready to let you go, I know that it is time.  I thank you, from the very bottom of my heart, for a most incredible year. I believe that I have learned more from all of you then you ever could have learned from me.  Thank you, every single one of you, for being my teachers this year.  You all have earned a very special place in my heart.

Please keep reading with deep thinking.  Please keep writing with passion.  And please keep living your lives with the kindness, compassion and brilliance that you have displayed throughout this entire year.

I love you.

Mrs. Lifshitz

We All Have A Lot To Learn From The Special Olympics

This past weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Illinois Special Olympics Summer Games.  My brother-in-law was competing in the powerlifting event and my family and I went to to cheer him on.  Parenthetically, he won two gold medals, though that is not what this blog post is about.

What this blog post is about, is just how incredible the event was.  This blog post is about how I wish the whole world could be more like the Special Olympics.  What this blog post is about is that when I picture the kind of people that I want my students to be like, I will forever imagine in my head the athletes that I encountered this past weekend at the Special Olympics.  And what this blog post is about is that we all have a lot to learn from the athletes of the Special Olympics.

These realizations hit me on Saturday night at the Victory Dance.  All of the athletes, and there were thousands of them, came together on the football field of Illinois State University to celebrate the incredible accomplishments of the weekend.  My wife and I went to celebrate with her brother and to just take part in the festivities.  I never expected to be overcome with emotions in the way that I was.  At one point in the evening, my wife went to go and dance with her brother.  I stood at the end of the football field on a hill overlooking the massive crowds of athletes and coaches.  In the background the music was playing loudly and I didn’t pay much attention to it, until a song by Lady Gaga came on.

Now, I am not normally moved by the music of Lady Gaga, but I have to tell you that on this evening, I was.  The song was Born This Way and on this night, I stood watching this incredible group of people who were born EXACTLY the way that they were supposed to be.  On this night, I saw more diversity than I witness on any other given day and not one person was being excluded or made fun.  On this night, I watched people dance in groups, or by themselves, or in pairs and never stop to look around to see what everyone else was going.  On this night, I saw people being 100% themselves and being accepted by everyone around them.  On this night, I realized that we all have a lot to learn from the Special Olympics.

The whole evening made me think of how different the event would have looked if the event were filled with people like my fifth grade students.  Had it been them, there would have been cliques of “cool kids” gathered throughout the dance.  If it had been them, there would have been children awkwardly standing at the edges of the activity, too worried about how they looked to join in on the action.  If it had been them, there would have been uncomfortable movements and hurtful conversations.  There would have a lot of good, but what I would have noticed would have been the not so good.

Later, when my wife and I were describing the night to my wife’s mother, she commented that the athletes of the Special Olympics were, “Just the most perfect group of people.” And it was so true.  It resonated with me deeply.  This group of people does not want our pity or our sympathy.  However, this group of people DESERVES our utmost respect, admiration and our complete and utter awe.  Because this group of people has more self-confidence in their beings, more kindness in their hearts, more acceptance in their minds than any other group of people that I have been around.  It was inspiring to witness.

So when I think about what I want my classroom to be next year, when I think about all the things that I want to change, I also remember that what matters most, is cultivating a community where people act more like the athletes of the Special Olympics.  I want my students to know the kind of confidence that those athletes know.  I want my students to feel the genuine kindness that those athletes feel.  I want my students to act with the complete acceptance of others in the same way that those athletes act.  If I can do that.  If I can make my students want to be a little bit more like this “most perfect group of people,” then I can feel good about the job that I am doing.