eveningskies

Before We Start to Change the World

I have been consumed with doubt about my first day of school (which is tomorrow). This doubt feels heavier to me than the doubt of years past. This doubt feels consuming. It has dampened my usual excitement for the start of the school year.

Most years, I worry that I will not be good enough. Most years, I worry that my first days of school will not set the exact right tone. Most years, I worry that my kids won’t be excited about the work we have ahead of us. Most years, I worry that every child will not feel seen, will not feel heard, will not feel loved for who they are within the first few days of the school year.

But this year. It is even more than that.

This summer has been heavy. To be honest, part of me never quite healed after hearing about the mass shooting in Orlando and then about the continued killing of young, black men and women by police officers. These stories changed me. Made the world seem more cruel. Made our situation seem more desperate somehow.

And that has made the weight of our work seem so heavy. And so huge. And so important.

And I think that underneath that weight, I have crumbled a little bit. Because our job seems more important to me than ever and I also feel more inadequate than ever do the work that is required. There is so much in this world that needs fixing and I feel a desperation to help my students learn how to fix it.

But what I have been trying to remind myself is that we can not set out to change the world on day one. Because changing the world is scary. It is hard. It requires risk and vulnerability and the belief that we are in this together. And we do not feel that and we are not ready for that right from the start.

Before we start to change the world, first we must grow love and community within the walls of our classroom.

Before we start to change the world, we must trust those around us to stand by us and with us as we carry the heavy things that we are likely to uncover as we look critically at the world around us.

Before we start to change the world, we must feel as if we are worthy enough, capable enough, smart enough to do the difficult work ahead of us.

Before we start to change the world, we must know that there is goodness and kindness and laughter left that make this world worth saving.

Before we start to listen to and learn from the stories of those around the world, we first need to learn to listen to and learn from each other and our own stories.

Before we take on the pain in the world, we must first experience joy together.

Before we tackle the injustice and inequity that surround us, we must first believe that in this classroom we will work every day to ensure equity and justice for everyone learning here.

Before we learn to ask whose voices are not being heard in our world, we must first believe that in this classroom everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice will be respected.

Before we fight against hate and intolerance, we must first know that love and acceptance exist here.

And these things take time.

So tonight. I will breathe. I will remember that we must learn to love and trust each other first and then we can get busy changing the world. One school year is not a long time, but it gives us many days within which to do the work that we need to do. So these days, these first days of the school year, we need to take care of ourselves first. We need to build the foundation that will sustain us through the challenging work that lies ahead. We need to ensure that each child feels loved. And then, and only then, can we begin to change the world.

 

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Old Habits Die Hard

The following conversation took place between me and a student during writing workshop today:

Me: Find a place in the room that works for you as a writer and get to work.

Student: Can I sit on a floor chair on the carpet?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at a different table spot than where I was first thing this morning?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit on the chairs in the classroom library?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at your desk?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit in the hallway?

Me: If you will be able to work successfully out there, yes.

Student: So really, I can sit anywhere?

Me: YES.

I am not exaggerating. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have told my students that this is our classroom. That there are multiple spaces to work because I want them to choose the spots that work best for them. That they can move spots as many times as they need to during the day. That there is a variety of seating options because I want them each to work in a spot that feels comfortable to them. That they can sit. ANYWHERE. that works for them.

And no matter how many times I say it, my students still continue to ask for my permission to sit in a spot that they think must be an exception to the rule.

Old habits die hard.

It seems that the first few weeks of the school year often involve some changing of old habits. The things that our students walk into our classrooms believing that they must do. The ways of teaching and learning that our students believe are simply the way things must be in school. And while I am constantly amazed at just how long it takes to break some of these habits, I know that my students just need time. I need to show them that I really do mean what I say. I need to prove to them that I really do value their ideas. I need to help them to believe that what I believe is that there is no one way to do anything that works for every learner in our classroom.

They just don’t know me yet. I have to give them time. I have to let those habits fade away only when my students realize that they are not needed here.

Here are some of the habits that I notice that my students are having an exceptionally hard time letting go of:

  1. They seek permission for everything: I understand that we have drilled into our students’ heads that they need permission to do just about anything in school. I just forget how hard it is to undo all that drilling. On the very first day I explain that my students do not need to ask me to do the following: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  And from the very first day, here are the things that the continue to ask me for permission to do: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I also am saddened that they think that I mistrust them right from the start.  We do have a system for all of these things. A way to let me know who is where. A way to make sure that the entire class doesn’t leave at the exact same moment. The kids know the system, mostly it involves places a giant rubber duck on your table spot to show that you have left the room. And yet. Still. My kids continue to ask.
  2. They worry about what is good enough: In writing, the most popular question is, “How many sentences do I have to write?” In reading they ask, “Does this book really count as reading?” In every aspect of our day, my students worry that the work they are choosing, the work that feels right to them, the work that fits their needs at that moment, they worry that work just isn’t going to be good enough.  They worry that their writing will be too short. They worry that they are reading the wrong kind of book. They worry that instead of getting to know them, to know where they are and then pushing them gently to new places, that I will instead try to catch them, get upset for not doing the right thing and then give them a consequence because they didn’t guess correctly what I deemed worthy. They do not believe that what works for them is good enough for me.  They do not believe that I will get to know them and know what they need and help them get there from wherever they are right now.
  3. They believe I am trying to catch them doing something wrong: I sat down to confer with a student about what he was reading. I knew that he took home the third book in the Legend series over the long weekend. I noticed that today he was reading a historical fiction graphic novel, so I asked him if he finished his book over the weekend.  He immediately jumped up from his seat, ran and got the Legend book and told me that he was sorry and that he would go back to reading right away.  I was so confused at what had happened and so it took me a minute to realize that he thought that my question was a way to catch him doing something wrong and make sure he got back on track. There I was trying to make a connection with a child, trying to show him that I remembered what he took home to read over the weekend, trying to show him that I was so interested to know his thoughts on the final book, and all he could think was that he was getting in trouble for reading a graphic novel.  When I figured it out, I had to chuckle to myself. Then I told him that I was thrilled that he was trying one of our new graphic novels and that I had just been dying to know what he thought about this last book in the series.  He looked at me skeptically and as I was getting ready to walk away, I heard him ask quietly, “So is it okay if I keep reading the graphic novel?”
  4. They think that a teacher’s rules are more important than what works best for them: My students are still afraid to abandon books when they don’t like them. They are afraid to tell me that a writing strategy doesn’t work for them. They are scared to respectfully speak up and let me know they need a break when I have been talking for too long and they know that no one is listening to me any more. These are things that by the end of the school year, I take for granted. These are the things that I assume they know that they can do and I quickly realize what a terrible assumption that is. So they just don’t do them. They sit there and do what they think I want them to do, even when those things clearly do not work for them.

So we have a lot of work to do. We have a long road ahead of us to travel. I know that we have time. And while I wish that we were already there, while I wish these habits would find their way right out of our classroom, I know that my students need more proof that it is really okay to abandon them. So i will continue to gently reassure them. I will remember that it is not their fault that they don’t believe me. I will remind myself that we were the ones who did this to them. We created a school system that counted on these habits, that thrived on these habits. And now, we have the job of slowly trying to reverse those messages and ask them, beg our students, to trust us and believe that we trust them.

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Why Do We Share Our Stories With the World?

The first few days tell me so much about my students. One of the things that I quickly picked up on is that the only purpose that my current students see for writing is that it completes an assignment. Simply put, they write because they have to. They write because we tell them to.

This is an exciting place to be because I have the chance to show them that there are so many more reasons to write.  I get to show them the power that writing can hold. It’s like I get to let them in on this really big secret that they haven’t had the chance to discover yet.

The first place we did this was with our student blogs. This year I am using Kidblog (yes, I am paying the now required 30 dollars per class). After a discussion on why we write, I told my students that I was going to add a new purpose for writing that no one mentioned in the course of our discussion. I added to our anchor chart that sometimes we write in order to share our thinking and our ideas with the world. I told them that often in school, students are led to believe that the only person who is going to read what they write is their teacher and perhaps their other classmates.  I shared with them that in actuality, there is a whole world outside of our classroom walls that is waiting to hear what they have to say. But, we need to go out and bring that audience in. And then I shared how we could do that with our blogs and by connecting with others on Twitter in order to find an audience for our blogs.

And the kids were hooked.

After writing our first blog posts together in class (you can find them here: https://kidblog.org/class/lifshitz/posts), I watched as blog posts continued to be submitted from home that evening and I watched the excitement grow as students trickled into class the next day to find comments from others waiting for them on their blog posts.

Giving them this purpose. Giving them a chance to share their voices with the world. It created an excitement for writing that I don’t always see from my fifth graders.

So the next day, when it was time to launch our first official writing unit, memoirs, I knew that I had to make sure that my students knew that there was as much purpose in this type of writing as there was in their blog post writing.  I began by sharing one of my new favorite picture books, Rufus the Writer, with my students. And then I began to talk about the POWER of sharing our stories.

And then I stopped and gave my students time to talk in small groups about why we tell stories from our own lives. I told them that as I walk through the halls in the morning and as I listen in on their conversations in class, I often hear them telling each other stories. I know that when they go home, they are eager to share stories from their days with their families. And I know that when they return to school, they are eager to share stories with me from their time at home. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to writing down our stories, so many children believe that they have no stories to tell. So I asked them to think about the stories that they are most excited to share and then I asked them to think about why we want to tell these stories from our own lives.

After giving them some time to talk, I asked groups to share out some of their responses as I gathered them on our anchor chart. Here are the two charts that we developed in my two different classes:

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Their answers were incredible. As always, once given an opportunity to really think about WHY people in this world would do the thing that we are about to learn how to do, the kids came up with incredible meaning and purpose for their work.

Once we identified some of the reasons why we would tell our own stories to others, then it was time to begin thinking about the stories that we all have to tell.  This is typically where I see the most shutdown occur in the first few days of writing. The students who believe that they have no stories worth sharing, who would rather just write fiction (which we will certainly get to) and who do not see value in telling stories from their own lives.

I always struggle with why. Why am I forcing them to write stories from their lives? Why don’t I just let them write what they want to write? Why, other than because it is in our curriculum for 5th grade, do I always begin with memoirs? And then I remember. What I am telling them is what I truly believe. I believe that there is SUCH power in learning how to tell your own story, to control the message that is being shared about who you are, to be the one who is empowered to tell your stories to the world. And I want them to know how to do this. I believe in the purpose of this writing. I believe that each of these children deserves to know how to tell stories from his or her own lives because I believe these stories have the power to teach others. And so we march on.

I shared with my students some brainstorming that I did in my writer’s notebook to help me think of some stories from my own life and to begin to think about the reason that I might tell these stories.  Here is the work that I shared:

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I then asked the kids to create the same chart in their writer’s notebooks. I asked them to look at the list of purposes that we had created and use that to see if they had any stories from their own lives that matched some of the purposes that we listed.  And then, for some students, I watched them sit and struggle for ten minutes.

For so many of our students, they feel as if they have no stories to tell. That feel as if their stories don’t matter. They feel as if their life is not worth writing about. And I used to swoop in to save those students. I used to sit with those struggling students and ask a huge, long list of questions in order to spark ideas for them. But now, now I allow them to sit in silence. Now I am not worried if their pages remain blank for minutes at a time. Now I know that my job is not to simply feed them ideas, but rather it is my job to help them believe that their lives and their stories are worth writing about. And that there is purpose. So much purpose. In writing stories from our own lives.

At the end of our first day, I asked students to sit and talk with each other about some ideas that they had. I noticed kids who had struggled beginning to be inspired by the stories of others. I noticed that kids were talking about WHY these stories were worth telling. I heard kids beginning to talk about a bigger purpose for their writing than simply to fulfill an assignment. For other kids, this work is going to take much much longer. But I am okay with that. I am okay with the slow way in which this important writing work begins. I am okay with knowing that it is going to take some time before my students begin to believe that there is a space in this world for their words and ideas and writing. It is going to take some time before they trust that our stories are worth sharing.

So we will keep working and talking about the many purposes for writing and sharing and telling our stories and I am putting my faith in my students that soon they will understand. Soon they will begin to see the stories that they are surrounded by. Soon the pages of their notebooks will start to fill up. Soon there will be so much writing to do.

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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. 

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To My Students: The Minute You Walk Through That Door

The minute you walk through that door you become one of my students.

And here is what it means to be one of my students:

It means that you will forever be a piece of my heart.

It means that I will think of you far beyond the first and last bells of the day.

It means that I will listen to you and your voice and your ideas and your thoughts and I will help you to find a way to put them into this world.

It means that I will love and accept you for exactly who you are.

It means that I will celebrate in your successes with you, even when you don’t realize that they are successes.

It means that I will work to make sure that the work that we do is meaningful and purposeful and authentic and has value outside of the walls of our classroom.

It means that I will sit with you when you mess up and help you find a way to make things better.

It means that I will help you to see the strengths you posses and help you to see how they make our classroom community, and this world, a better place.

It means that I will love you for your faults and your weaknesses and help you to see how these can be the most powerful places to begin your learning.

It means that I will allow you to struggle in this classroom, I will allow you to feel uncomfortable, I will not hide the things in this world that will cause you to feel that way because I know that these are the things that are worth wrestling with.  

It means that I will acknowledge when I mess up and when I don’t know what to do and I will apologize and ask for your forgiveness.

It means that I will ask for your opinion and I will listen to what you have to say because I believe that you know best what will work for you.  

It means that when you come to me with an idea, I will ask you how you plan to make it happen and I will help you in any way I can without taking away the power of having your own ideas.

It means that I will give you second chances and third chances and fourth chances and as many chances as you need.

It means that I will be there for you on the tough days when you aren’t really sure if you can make it through the school day.

It means that I am on your side. Always.

So I know that you might be nervous to start this next school year. I know that you might be uncertain of what will happen when you walk through that door. But you can rest assured that from the minute you walk through that door, you will be one of my students.

I HOPE THEY KNOW WE ARE EXCITED

I Hope They Know We Are Excited

Something funny tends to happen on Facebook as soon as August rolls around.  My dear teacher friends begin to share the inevitable back-to-school posts.  The vast majority of these posts lament the end of summer and speak of the common dread that many feel as back-to-school commercials appear on t.v. and talk of returning to the classroom fills the air.

I often wonder what these posts might look like to the children who will soon be entering our classrooms. I know that most likely, our students will never view these posts, but perhaps their parents will. Perhaps those in this world who wish to paint teachers in a negative light will see these posts. Perhaps those in a position of power to determine how much control teachers should have over their own classrooms will see these posts.  And I can’t help but wonder what they all will think.

These posts might give the impression that the only thing we feel in August, is a reluctance to return to our classrooms.

But.

I think that these posts do not show the whole picture. Because, yes, I see these posts, but I also see other things. I see my school parking lot full of teachers’ cars a full week before the official start of the school year.  I see teachers happily working in their classrooms in order to make sure that our students feel at home when they walk through our doors.  I see teachers busy meeting with each other to eagerly discuss new plans for the year and to discuss ways in which we will better ourselves in order to do better for our students.  I see classroom libraries filling up with new books that have been so carefully chosen in order to ensure that every child finds a book that is right for him or her in our classrooms.  I see teachers who are also mothers and fathers bringing their own children to spend their last days of summer in their classrooms in order to be ready for the school year to begin. I see teachers who are excited.

So I hope that we let this excitement show. I hope that in addition to feeling sadness at the passing of summer, we remember that there is also joy to be felt at the start of a new school year.  I hope that we share not just our wishes for summer to continue, but also our excitement for a fresh start with a brand new group of kids. I hope that while we share the funny posts about back-to-school commercials, we also remember to share our hopes and dreams for what this new school year will bring.

Because I hope that our students know that we are excited. And I believe it is our responsibility to make sure that we show them.