Won’t You Be My Donor?

This year has been an incredible learning journey for me so far. As I have worked to give power back over to my students in the classroom and to help them take more ownership of their learning, I have seen dramatic results. This classroom is quickly becoming a shared space. One in which both my students and I feel empowered to make choices that allow us to do our best work.  Students are learning to be more reflective and to think about what they need in order to learn new things.

I want to give my students the kind of choices that I value in the real world. And one of the things that I value is being able to work in a way that meets my needs in a given moment. At the end of a really long day, I like to do my work curled up on my oversized chair.  At the start of a busy day, I like to sit in my porch room with a cup of coffee to read. And when I am gearing up for a large writing task, I like to sit at my kitchen table where I am least likely to get distracted.  No matter what spots we choose for the tasks before us, the important part is in the choosing.  We choose the seats that work best for us in order for us to accomplish our current work.  We choose the seats that honor who we are and what we need in that moment.

I want my students to have that choice.

Right now, we are pretty limited in our selection of working spaces in my classroom.  I have one rocking chair (which the kids are always eager to sit in/fight over), we have two office-type desk chairs (again, a hot commodity during work times) we have large pillows, floor chairs, clipboards, regular chairs and stools. The kids are always welcome to choose from these options, but it often just doesn’t seem like it is enough.

So this past Friday night, I became rather obsessed with researching alternative seating for classrooms.  I recognize that researching chairs on a Friday night highlights all of my “un-coolness,” but it is also a pretty honest reflection of my life. Anyway, I got really excited about some of the options that I discovered, but realized that there was no way I could purchase these chairs with my own money (unless I removed all food from my child and all the pets in my house for the near future and that just didn’t seem right).

Enter Donors Choose.

I had heard about the website Donors Choose before, but I have always been incredibly fortunate to have most of my teaching needs met by the wonderful district that I work in.  It wasn’t until this year, when I started to reach beyond just what we needed to get by, that I started to realize that I wanted things for my students that I could not fund myself.  The Donors Choose website is a wonderful place where teachers can post projects that they hope will be funded and anyone can make a donation, of any amount, to help teachers fund those projects.  The amazing thing about this crowd sourcing website is that everyone’s small donation adds up to create something really big for kids.  It is the internet at its very best.  It is social media at its very best. It is this small way to show that when we come together, we can do a lot of really great things for kids.

So I began my very first Donors Choose project. And it is somewhat terrifying because unless the whole project is funded, you don’t get any of the money that is donated. So it’s all or nothing.  I, and now my 40 fifth graders, are sincerely hoping for all.

The project went live on Saturday and because my Twitter network of teachers is the most amazing group of people, I have already made a great amount of progress towards my goal.  But we still have a really long way to go. So now, I am asking for your help.  Anyone who should happen to come across this blog post.  If you have even a few dollars to be able to give to our project, it would be so very much appreciated. Not just by me, but my very excited students (we will get to their words in a moment). And here is the best part:

FOR THE NEXT WEEK ONLY (UNTIL SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15th) EVERY DOLLAR YOU DONATE WILL BE MATCHED AND DOUBLED IF YOU ENTER THE PROMOTIONAL CODE “SPARK” AT CHECKOUT. That is huge!

When I shared this project with my students today, the expressions on their faces were enough motivation to keep working towards this goal. They were so excited at the thought of these new seating options. They immediately recognized what an impact these seats would make on their learning. I had them do some writing about why they think these chairs would help us in the classroom and what they had to say was incredible. They posted their thoughts on our blog and they can be found in full, here and here. But in case you just want some highlights of what they had to say, just take a look at these:

Nell said: “I can NEVER get to the rocking chair on time. When I try to sit in a Crazy Creek and rock I flip over on my head. I want to stretch, to keep that beat into my life and have a comfortable position as well. Our teachers have already spent enough money. We need your help to encourage focus, to encourage fun.”

Brady said: “The normal mid-day fidgets hit me at 1:34 and so suddenly my feet can’t stop tapping, pencils can’t stop hitting my desk.  Then my teacher glares at me in a nice way but with the look in her eyes that I was distracting her.  But I can’t help it I need movement recess was already so far away and I don’t think I would be able to make it through the school day. But there is a solution for kids to get higher grades with more movement. If we earn enough money this will teach us that if we work together we can accomplish big things and that is a lesson that is not just a kid lesson but a life lesson.”

Drew said: “We have started a donation for some chairs that allow movement for us and we think that it will maximize our learning experience by help us focus. For example, these chairs allow us to move around safely, whereas with the standard chairs, we greatly enjoy leaning back in our chairs in which the front legs of the chairs come off the floor, which is quite dangerous because you can fall over and hit your head on the floor. All kids are “jumpy”. We move around and lean in our chairs because we can’t sit still. We have a good reason for that though. We need to be able to focus. We can’t focus if we are energetic. Therefore, we move around and lean in our chairs. With these chairs we can get our energy out in class, while not worrying the teachers. You really should donate. If we get these chairs we will be more happy, and we will learn much easier.”

Pretty incredible, right?

So here is the link for our Donors Choose project:

http://www.donorschoose.org/project/kids-are-made-for-movement-seats-that-l/1419128/?rf=email-system-2014-11-proposal_approve-teacher_2646535&challengeid=20514082&utm_source=dc&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=proposal_approve

Every tiny bit helps, and I know a whole bunch of 5th graders who would appreciate any small effort you can make. Remember to use the code SPARK during checkout to have your donation doubled!

We would love your help, even if that just means passing along this blog post. Nothing is too small in helping these kids do the important work of learning.

I am excited to see the power of the internet come to life for my students. And I am excited to get them the kind of seating options that value who they are and what they need. Thanks so much for helping in any way you can!

A tree with an owl.

Our First School-Wide Cardboard Challenge: Risk-Taking for Everyone

This past Friday afternoon might just have been one of my favorite moments ever in my life as a teacher.  This past Friday afternoon, my whole school joined together to take on the Global Cardboard Challenge. The results were beyond what any of us expected.

The whole project began just a few weeks ago. I had seen the Cardboard Challenge continuously pop up on Twitter throughout the month of August and September. As the school year began to settle in and I began to more fully embrace the idea of trying new things in my classroom that would empower my students, I decided to check out the Cardboard Challenge more closely.  It didn’t take long before I was sold on the idea. And then I found myself in an interesting position.

Here I was, looking at this incredible idea, an idea that I knew the kids would love and one that I knew would help teach my students learn the very things that I wanted them to start to learn: the importance of creativity, the challenge of following your own ideas, the power of trying something new, and the genius that they each posses.

I was looking at this incredible idea and I had to decide what to do with it.  The easy thing, the safe thing, would be to do the cardboard challenge in my own classroom.  I wouldn’t need to ask anyone’s permission. I could do the challenge the way I wanted to, without having to worry about any one else’s ideas. If the whole thing was a huge flop, no one would hold me responsible, other than my students, who would have loved the chance to watch their teacher try and fail.  And, though I hate having to admit that these kinds of thoughts ever enter into my own head, if I did this great thing only in my own classroom, then I would get to be the teacher doing the really great thing in her own classroom.  Yep. While I am not proud of it, there was the thought that I had found this idea, I was willing to give it a try, and I should be the one to get the glory.

Luckily, I didn’t stay in that place for very long. I quickly began to imagine what could be possible if our entire school took part in the Global Cardboard Challenge together.  I began to imagine the power of taking an entire afternoon to watch the entire school come together in order to follow the kids’ lead and in order to show the kids that we value creativity and innovation.

So I went to my principal, who, if I have not yet mentioned, is an incredible human being and an incredible educator whose mind is always, always, always focused on the students first.  I shared the idea and the Cardboard Challenge website with him and he quickly grew to love the idea. He suggested that I present the idea to the staff at our next staff meeting and see what they all had to say.

Well, that was pretty terrifying. It wasn’t that I minded speaking in front of my staff, it was the idea of making myself vulnerable, in suggesting a possibility that I wasn’t certain would be a success, in asking my fellow teachers to trust me and to trust our kids and to try something that is far outside of the comfort zone for most of us. I knew there would be teachers who would be hesitant. I knew there would be questions that I could not yet answer. I knew there would be concerns that would not be soothed by an inspiring video and a promise that the kids would love this. But I so believed in the project and in what I had seen my own students do when given the opportunity to be creative and to follow their own ideas, that I agreed to present.

And so I did. And most people loved the idea. And a few people hated it. And I tried really hard to focus on the good.  And so we went ahead with the idea, there were incredible people who stood up to help.  There was excitement in the air. There was cardboard filling our hallways.  And on Friday afternoon, you could almost feel the creativity in the air.

Our afternoon began with two kick-off assemblies.  Each assembly was made up of a mixture of grade levels. Each group of students saw an incredible presentation by our literacy coach where she reenacted the storyline of the picture book This is Not a Box and then they watched a group of 5th grade students demonstrate how they might build something from cardboard and tape. And finally, they heard our principal explain the project, why we were doing it and how the afternoon would run.  He explained that we would be working together, as a school, to build our community out of cardboard.  Each student would choose to work alone or with a group to build something that could be found in our own community. And by the end of the day, each cardboard creation would be brought to one of our two gyms and combined to build our town. And then the kids were dismissed from the assemblies and the building began.  And that is when I started to realize how amazing this afternoon really was.

Not one single child, asked me one single question about what he or she was “supposed” to do or how he or she was “supposed” to do it. Children chose to work alone or they figured out groups to work in and everyone just got busy.  In that hour and half of building, not one child asked to go get a drink of water, not one child asked to go to the bathroom. My principal told me that on any average day, the nurse’s office gets around 40 student visitors throughout the day. On Friday, there was one. One single child went to see the nurse. And as my principal told me, “That kid REALLY needed to go home.”

One co-worker, who also has a child who goes to our school, stopped to tell me that usually waking up her son is a terrible ordeal. He never wants to get out of bed. But on Friday morning, she walked into his bedroom, reminded him that it was Cardboard Challenge Day and he popped right out of bed and was ready for school in fifteen minutes.

One of the boys in my classroom, walked right up to me in the middle of the challenge, put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Lifshitz. Thank you.”

As I walked around the school to watch all of the classrooms who were busy building, I didn’t see a single child who was out of control, there was not a single behavior problem to be solved and there was not a single child who was unmotivated to build something out of cardboard. It was amazing. As I think back on it now, I still can’t believe what I saw.

It was so incredible to see the kids creating, to see the kids taking risks, to see the kids working together seamlessly. I think we all felt in awe of the kids. I think we all realized that this is how we wish our school looked all the time. And true, perhaps we aren’t able to figure out just how to bring this kind of excitement to our students every minute of every day, but I think that we at least realized that we need to work a whole lot harder in order to bring these kinds of experiences to our students. These experiences that honor and value more than one set of strengths. These experiences that allow the students to lead. These experiences that allow opportunities for our students to work together in order to create and not just consume. These experiences that bring energy and passion and excitement into the classroom instead of just ask our students to sit down and be quiet.  These experiences that make kids want to come to school and want to stay at school.

The day ended with all of the kids bringing their cardboard creations to the gyms. It almost brought me to tears to watch the kids stream into the gym carrying their carefully constructed creations.  Here are just a few of the things that we built:

My principal and his cardboard tie.

My principal and his cardboard tie.

Our community ice arena.

Our community ice arena.

A tree with an owl.

A tree with an owl.

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The public library.

The public library.

A swing set. It really swung!

A swing set. It really swung!

A house.

A house.

A car.

A car.

The fire station. Complete with fire truck.

The fire station. Complete with fire truck.

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Another car.

Another car.

A corn maze!

A corn maze!

Something, really, really tall.

Something, really, really tall.

A cemetery! Complete with tiny little headstones.

A cemetery! Complete with tiny little headstones.

Our very own school built out of cardboard.

Our very own school built out of cardboard.

As you can see, the day was a success. I was so glad that I allowed this activity to exist outside of just my classroom because the benefits were enormous. Feeling the power of the whole school coming together for one activity was no small thing.  When we return to school, when the hallways are free from cardboard, I believe that this experience will stay with all of us.  I know that for me, this experience has motivated me to look for more ways to get my students following their own ideas, their own passions, their own creative spirits. It has reaffirmed my desire to teach in a way that allows the students to lead. It has reminded me of what these kids are capable of when we just stop, step aside and watch them go.