Cultivating a Caring Classroom Community

I like to play a little game with my toothbrush each morning as I cleanse my mouth and remove unwanted bacteria and food particles from my teeth and gums.  As I use an electric toothbrush, it has a built-in timer.  After two minutes of use, it emits a special signal to let me know that I have reached the required brushing time mark.  It stops and starts quickly three times, pulsating in my mouth and hand as it does so.  It feels uncomfortable and controlling.  Why does my toothbrush yell at me much like my parents did when I was younger?  “Brush your teeth or they will rot out of your head,” my father would say each morning before I joined him in the kitchen for breakfast.  While my parents were only trying to instill positive life actions within me, my toothbrush doing the same thing to me as an adult is simply uncalled for and degrading.  You’re not the boss of me Mr. Toothbrush, and so you can’t tell me what to do.  To rectify this situation and regain control of my life, I make it a goal, each and every morning, to complete my toothbrushing routine prior to the electrical, manipulative, toothbrush telling me that I have failed miserably as a brusher of my own teeth.  If I succeed in this quest for glory, a sense of great accomplishment washes over me as if I had just broken some important world record.  I imagine myself receiving a fancy medal made of toothpaste and floss.  If I am unsuccessful in my endeavor, then I begin my day with a bit of angst as some anthem from the Grunge-era plays on a loop in my brain for several minutes.  While I often use this sleepy, toothbrushing time as a way to contemplate my goals for the day, I usually struggle to stay focused on the only real goal that matters– beating my toothbrush’s timer.  However, there are those few, rare days where the stars seem to be aligned and I can feel Kurt Cobain’s presence shining down upon me reminding me to fight the system, and BAM! I beat the vicious ticking time bomb within my toothbrushing device.  Today was one of those days, and it felt so good to stick it to the man or woman in charge.  Take that Mr. Toothbrush, I won and you lost.  You have no control over me or my mouth.  The taste of victory was minty fresh.

Like me, you’re probably wondering what oral health care has to do with teaching and creating a caring class community: Breaking down barriers and working towards one’s goals.  Effective teachers sometimes go against the grain to do what they know is best to help and support their students.  They don’t always listen to what those in charge tell them to do.  Great educators fight for their students.  Amazing teachers set goals for themselves and work daily to meet them.  They persevere in the face of adversity and never give up.  My toothbrush timer is a metaphor for all those obstacles that have made it challenging for me to do what I know is best to help my students throughout my years as an educator.  Today was a great reminder for me to keep fighting the good fight no matter how many extra hours or money it may take.  I want my students to have the best possible chance of happiness in life, no matter what hurdles they may face.  I strive to spread the news of the many wonderful things happening in education at my school and around the world.  I brush my teeth quickly to help foster light and love in this often dark world in which we live.

Wow, that’s quite the stretch.  But then again, isn’t that what teaching is all about?  We try new things and take risks to help engage and reach our students.  I’m simply taking a slightly different path to arrive at the same location.  Last Thursday, my students and I read and discussed different examples of free verse poetry.  After each piece, I asked the students to make observations on what they noticed.  Following the reading of one poem, a student explained how she had interpreted it in a very different way than the rest of the class.  “I think it’s about love.  She had it and then it went away, like how snow melts each spring,” she said.  I was blown away, as I had not seen the piece this way.  I praised her for her unique perspective and then got on my soapbox for a brief moment to pontificate on the unique beauty of poetry.  “Each person takes from a poem what they want or need.  How I interpret a poem may be very different from how you all see a piece.  And that is perfectly wonderful.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  This one student saw something different in a poem and wasn’t afraid to share her thoughts.  I love that I have been able to create such an open and accepting classroom community in the fifth grade this year.

Reflecting on this lesson and my amazing students, I started to think about an upcoming workshop session that I will be leading on social-emotional learning.  How can I help educators see the value in cultivating a caring classroom community?  How can I best impart my knowledge and experience on the topic with others in an engaging manner?  What exactly should I talk about or focus on in my 90-minute session?  While I have some ideas, I also was feeling a little stuck.  So, I brought my dilemma to my students during our Morning Meeting on Friday.  After sharing with them that I am in the process of planning my workshop session, I asked them, “How have we created a strong, nurturing, compassionate, and caring community and family within the fifth grade class this year?”  And again, my students amazed and wowed me with their ideas and thoughts.  Almost every student had something to share on the topic.  By the end of our brief, six-minute chat, I had filled the whiteboard with their suggestions.  They have noticed things that we have done in the classroom that I never even thought of being part of our social-emotional curriculum.  For each example they shared, I had them explain how it has fostered a sense of community and care within our class.  They blew me away with their understanding of why we do what we do in the fifth grade.  Remarkable.  I truly am so fortunate to be working at such an amazing school with wonderful and intuitive students.  Here is what they had to say…

  • “The Mindfulness techniques we practice help bring us closer together as a community.  Yoga, for example, helps us calm down and focus on the day.  Mindful Meditation allows us to practice self-control and be aware of how we are feeling.”
  • “Morning Meetings help us to learn empathy and understand each other and how they are feeling.  The Bucket Filling book, activity, and reviews help us to focus on the positive ways we can help support each other.”
  • “The I Feel… statements we use help us to practice self-control as we learn to channel our feelings and actions into words.  They help us to become more compassionate towards one another, as we share exactly how we are feeling when big emotions take over.”
  • “The Gratitude Wall teaches us to focus on how others help us so that we can share our words of thanks with our classmates.  It feels really good to be thanked and to give thanks.  It fosters a sense of positivity within us.”
  • “The reflection activities we do throughout the year help us to learn from our mistakes so that we can grow and improve.”
  • “The Forest Friday activities help bring us together as a group because we complete activities and challenges together.  We also have lots of opportunities to help each other.  Like when (a student) helped me and my partner start a fire.  That was really kind of him.”
  • “The freedom to choose activities or projects, at times, helps make us feel free and open to make our own decisions.  We like that you trust us enough to make good decisions.”
  • “Reader’s Workshop and how you let us choose our books leads to us being and feeling more calm.  We like being able to read what we want to read.  You trust us and it makes us feel good about you and the class.”
  • “The Marble Jar and Bonus Points help us feel like we are doing good.  We like to be rewarded and so we do good things.  Now, we just do good things because we are so used to doing it.  It’s like muscle memory for us.”
  • “The way we talk about not using the C-word (can’t) and how important mindset is.  That really helps us to learn perseverance and the power of positive thinking.”
  • “The Acts of Kindness wall helps us to celebrate and notice all the caring things we do as a class.  It feels good to add new things to the wall.”
  • “The positive posters around the classroom remind us to do and be good.  We read them over and over again and they get stuck in our minds.  They help to change how we think, from negative to positive.”

Back in late August, before the school year even began, I set a goal for myself: I want to foster a sense of kindness, caring, and compassion in my fifth grade classroom this year.  Who knew that almost every little thing I do as a teacher helps to cultivate that sense of community within my students each and every day?  From the little things to the big things, my students are learning how important it is to take care of each other and feel like a part of something more than just a class in a school.  I was floored by how attuned they are to everything that happens in the classroom.  They seem to grasp the purpose of everything that I do with them in class.  It’s amazing, and an absolutely crucial reminder of how important this work on social-emotional learning truly is.  Our students are always watching and paying attention; therefore, we must be sure that we give them lots of positive and kind things to notice as we work to cultivate caring classroom communities.

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Engaging Students with Creative Activities

As the biggest storm of the winter is currently in the process of dropping over a foot of snow right outside my window, I can’t help but think of my childhood.  Growing up in New England, we used to see massive snow storms like this all the time.  For many years, we didn’t get out of school until almost July because of all the snow days.  I remember one storm that brought about three feet of snow with it.  It snowed for almost two days, non-stop.  It was crazy.  At one point we even lost power, as so much snow had piled up on the utility lines.  Being about eight years old, I loved it.  I went outside and made tunnels and castles in the white and fluffy stuff.  I imagined I was king of all that the snow touched.  I played outside for hours each day, as my imagination ran wild like a like a lion or a hyena.  I would pretend to build tunnels to new lands or worlds, digging through the snow with enthusiastic vigor.  I used my imagination to be creative.  Back then, there were no portable electronics.  The first Game Boy hadn’t even been invented yet.  If we wanted to do something as kids, we had to invent and create our own fun.  We pretended that we lived in lands we saw in movies or read about in books.  It was epic, before epic took on its current meaning in our vernacular.

Now it seems as though kids don’t know what to do without their portable electronics.  They don’t know how to be bored or use their imagination and be creative.  They get so lost in their screens that they don’t realize they aren’t actually having real fun.  They are having faux fun.  Despite being able to go outside and play in the snow, most children remain inside held hostage by the television or other screen.  While the technological advances that have been made since I was eight years old are wonderful and amazing in many ways, I do wonder if they have prevented children from genuinely embracing creativity.

As a teacher, I have the opportunity to tip the scales a bit.  I have the ability to craft unique, hands-on, and engaging lessons that allow students to be creative, without the use of technology.  I can provide students with a safe space in which to take risks, try new things, flex their imagination, be creative, and have a ton of fun.  And I have done just that in my fifth grade classroom this year.  No, I haven’t banned devices.  In fact, I do require that my students have a laptop with them each and every day, as I can’t ignore the fact that I need to prepare them for and to live meaningful lives in a very digital and connected world.  They need to understand how to type on a keyboard, respond to emails, navigate the Internet, and effectively utilize digital devices.  However, laptops are merely one tool I use in the classroom to help provide my students with a well-rounded educational experience.  We also spend every Friday morning outside in nature for Forest Fridays.  This past week, the students built fires without any sort of modern technology like matches or fire starters.  They used flint and steel, birch bark, and lots of perseverance.  They love being able to go outside and explore, learn about, and play in the wonderful nature that exists just a few steps from our small school.  Experiences like these, free of technology, allow my students to get creative and use their imagination.  In fact, the students even named the forested area which we visit weekly.  They call it Narnicheeia, a cross between Narnia and our school’s moniker, the Beech Hill School.

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In the classroom, I also find inventive ways to help students explore the curriculum as they learn about the world around them.  In Language Arts class, we have just begun a unit on poetry.  I began this unit last week by having the students explore the power of words.  They generated a huge list of words that hold a lot of power for them and/or others.  This chat then led into an interactive activity, in which the students began playing with words and putting them together in new and unique ways.  Each table partnership was provided an envelope full of Magnetic Poetry words.  Their first task was to simply play with the words and put them together in fun ways.  I gave them time for some free play without a concrete purpose other than exploration.  The students really enjoyed the freedom that came with this fun activity.  They combined words in silly and interesting ways.  It was great.  While the second task did have some parameters, it still allowed for much freedom and creativity.  The students moved, with their table partner, through four stations in the classroom.  Each station had Magnetic Poetry words strewn about and a theme written across the top of the table.  The students had to create a “chunk of verse” as I called it, around the theme, using the words on the table.  They needed to craft at least 3-5 lines on each of the topics or themes in 10 minutes.  They could use no more than 1-2 extra words, words that weren’t on the table, per line.  Once they had their lines, they typed them into a Google Doc.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this activity.  They laughed together, as they generated some brilliant lines of verse.  After each group had rotated through the four stations, I had them each choose two of their favorite verses to read aloud to the class.  Despite having access to the same words at each station, every verse was different.  Each student brought their own voice and creativity to their particular verse.  It was awesome.

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Activities like this help my students practice being creative and inventive in new ways.  It helps them see that they don’t need video games or movies to have fun.  Learning and interacting with one’s classmates can be very rewarding and engaging.  Allowing my students to exercise their imagination and creativity in many different ways on a daily basis, allows for true development, growth, and learning.  I’m helping to prepare my students to live in a world that will most likely be dominated by things and occupations that haven’t even been invented yet.  If my students learn how to solve problems in creative ways by using their imagination, I feel as though they will be well prepared for all that this mysterious and amazing future holds for them.

Empowering Students to Take Responsibility for their Decisions

Growing up, all of my decisions were made for me by my parents, my teachers, and everyone else but me.  I was not in charge of my own life.  I ate what my parents made for me.  I completed the work my teachers assigned.  I did the jobs my boss told me to do.  I followed the rules of life and never questioned why.  I walked through life as if I were a robot following pre-programmed commands.  I was not responsible for anything other than what everyone else told me to do.  Back then, I just accepted my fate.  I thought that’s what life was all about.  Do this, don’t do that.  Life was simple and routine.  I knew what to expect.  Then, came college.  For the first time in my life, I was in charge of everything.  Do I stay up late or go to bed early?  What do I want to eat for dinner?  Do I want to go out or stay in?  Do I want to take this class or that class?  At first, it was all very overwhelming.  I didn’t really know what to do, as I had never had to make any real decisions for myself before.  It was scary.  I made many mistakes at first, and I didn’t take advantage of this newly found freedom.  I didn’t know what choice would be best, and so I usually just did nothing.  I felt like a lost puppy dog looking for his master.  I was so used to having others make decisions for me, that it took me quite some time to navigate this crazy thing called free will.  I wish I had been provided more opportunities to make my own decisions before I went off to college.  I wish my teachers had given me options for demonstrating mastery of the concepts covered.  I wish my parents had given me choices instead of mandates.  I wish my transition into the real-world hadn’t been so harsh.  It was almost as if I were plucked from my cozy bed on Earth and thrown onto Mars without any sort of instructions or fancy space suit.  I hadn’t been empowered to really understand how to survive in life once I left home.  While I did eventually figure out how to make choices on my own, I wish I had been given the opportunity to practice taking responsibility at a much younger age.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have made the same erroneous mistakes I did during my first year on my own.  Perhaps I would have been better equipped to traverse the many obstacles I faced during my first few years as an adult.  As they say, hindsight is like having the cheat codes to the video game of life without any way to input them.

While I have yet to find or build the way-back machine, I can help empower others to learn from my mistakes.  As a teacher, I can hand over the reigns of control to my students.  I can help them learn how to get back up and try again when they fail.  I can help them learn how to become responsible decision makers.  I can provide them a safe space in which to take life out for a test drive without any serious, lasting consequences.  I can empower my students to take responsibility for their lives in order to create the future they want for themselves.

However, in this overly protective world in which we live, it seems almost impossible to find a school that embraces a similar philosophy.  Many parents and schools want to shield children from pain, suffering, failure, and genuine learning.  Many educational institutions in our country force students to learn a pre-determined body of knowledge that may not effectively prepare students to learn how to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and be responsible for their own lives.

Fortunately for me, I have found a school that believes, like me, students need to be provided a safe space in which to learn how to make decisions, fail, try again, and take responsibility for their learning.  At the amazing micro-school at which I teach, I can try things that most teachers only dream of being able to do.  I can provide my students with options and choices.  I am able to allow my students to make their own decisions.  I can help my students learn to take responsibility for their lives in and out of school.  I have the freedom to allow my students to be who they truly are as individuals, thinkers, readers, and problem solvers.  Instead of me telling them what to think, do, or learn, together, we write the road map that moves us forward.  What do you really want to learn more about, and how would you like to learn that body of information?  At the Beech Hill School, I am able to give my fifth grade students the educational experience I wish my teachers had given me when I was just a wee young lad.

What does this look like in action, you wonder.  Well, I’ll provide you with two brief snapshots of how I empower my students to learn how to take control and embrace responsibility.

  • As this is the first year my school has had a fifth grade, there are many possibilities for how my class can fit into the greater school puzzle.  On the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also known as Civil Rights Day in many places, the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at my school have special programming already set in place for them.  What about my fifth graders?  What will we do on that day?  Well, I posed two different scenarios to the students and let them choose which they feel would be best for them on that day?  Would they like to participate in similar programming with the rest of the school or would they like to do something different and unique to the fifth grade?  I allowed the students to discuss the options as a class prior to choosing.  While they asked a few questions, they seemed to understand the options open to them.  I then allowed them to vote on which choice they would like, with the majority-option being the one I will put in place for them on that day.  It was almost unanimous.  All but one student wanted to participate in the special programming the rest of the school will be partaking in on that day.  While I wasn’t surprised by their decision, it was their decision.  I did not make it for them.  They chose.  So, if it goes well, then yah for them; however, if it doesn’t go the way they had anticipated, we can debrief it in the classroom the next day and discuss what to keep in mind the next time we are making a group decision.  A teachable moment will exist regardless of the outcome.  I love it.
  • This past Friday, our school held a special Winter Fun Afternoon for the students.  Each grade chose a special activity in which the other students participated.  Despite the frigid temperatures outside, it was an epic experience in awesomeness.  The students went sledding, decorated cookies, played games, and enjoyed each other’s company as a whole.  It was so much fun.  The best part was that each class had ownership over their activity.  Friday morning, I had the fifth graders hash out how the sledding competition they were in charge of would go.  How many teams would the students be broken into?  How would it be managed?  What were the rules?  The students discussed every aspect of the activity.  They self-selected roles, chose how the competition would be run, and took control of the entire thing.  It was their activity, and so I wanted them to be in charge.  It was so much fun observing them as they spoke and shared their ideas with one another.  They were mindful of one another’s opinions and open to all sorts of ideas and input.  They compassionately crafted a well-structured and super fun event that the students loved.  I was so proud of how they worked together and took responsibility for their event.  They kept track of times, scores, and teams.  It was quite impressive to watch.  During their free period prior to lunch, many of the students made props for the big event to bring more of a realistic feel to the competition.  While the execution of their idea went well, as they had hoped, if it had not gone well, I could have used the experience as an opportunity to help the students learn from their mistakes.  What could we keep in mind the next time we are planning something like this?

Those are only two of the many wonderful experiences students in my class and at my school are able to participate in, which help to teach them responsibility and ownership.  Aside from not being prepared for the real-world as I was, how else might this manner of structuring a school and classroom benefit students?  Engagement.  Neurobiology research on learning tells us that students are much more engaged in the process of learning when they are able to choose how and what they are learning.  Our brains are much more able to focus and become invested in something that we like or helped design.  Allowing students to choose the platform for learning helps bring them into the fold in a more meaningful manner.  Plus, when students feel engaged or a part of something bigger than themselves, their happiness is increased.  The happier they are, the kinder and nicer they are to others.  Then, all of a sudden, you have a school or community filled with caring and positive people helping others make the world a better place for all.  It’s really quite an amazing thing that I am lucky enough to be able to witness and be a part of on a daily basis.  Empowering students to learn to be responsible decision makers is what all schools should strive to do each and every day.

The Power of Gratitude

In the hustle and bustle of daily life, it can be difficult to appreciate the numerous wonderful things that happen all around us every day.  Did you thank that stranger who held the door open for you?  Did you stop to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise?  Did you show thanks to your boss for the compliment he or she gave you?  It’s easy to miss opportunities in which we can be grateful; however, these opportunities pack more power than we may realize.  Research like this article from the Huffington Post tells us that expressing thanks to others helps improve our own mental and physical well being.  Imagine that.  Taking a few seconds to say “Thank You” to someone can actually make you feel better.  How cool is that?  As the new year has just begun, what better time to make a new resolution to be more thankful.  So, go out and show your gratitude to the world and increase your level of happiness at the same time.

To help my students see the value in being thankful and grateful for the many amazing people and opportunities that exist all around our school, I created a Gratitude Wall.  I started by taking down a large poster from the wall that I had put up back in August.  It had been slowly withering away in the sunlight.  Parts of the poster were getting ripped and falling down.  So, I removed it from the wall and put up two colored pieces of poster board and a simple title “Gratitude Wall.”  On our first day back from the lengthy holiday break, I introduced this new addition to our classroom.  I informed the students during our Morning Meeting that we will be adding a new part to our End-of-the-Day routine.  I suggested that they take note of things that they are grateful and thankful for during the academic day.  At the end of that first day of classes for 2019, we gathered around the Gratitude Wall and I explained what it’s all about.  “This is a place where we will gather each afternoon prior to leaving to celebrate the wonderful things that are happening in and around our classroom and school.  We will take a few moments to express our gratitude to others.  You will each record one thing you are grateful for on a sticky note and then add it to our gratitude wall.  Once everyone is packed up and the classroom is cleaned for the end of the day, we will return to this wall and share the things that we are thankful for.”  I reminded the students to think about the specific names and times when these grateful things occurred.  The students then wrote their messages of gratitude onto the sticky notes.  I was very curious to see how this new experiment of mine would go.  Would it be just another new thing I try that fizzles out or doesn’t work out the way I had intended?  Or, would it be something great and wonderful?  I had no idea.  I felt good about my introduction to the activity and so I was excited to see how the sharing of gratitude would go.

When the students returned to our Gratitude Wall, I had them share what they had written.  I was amazed by the uniqueness and sincerity of each note.

  • “I am thankful that Mr. J is allowing a new student to join our class.”
  • “I am thankful for the new books Mr. Holt added to our Class Library.”
  • “I am thankful to be back at school.”
  • “I am thankful to my friend for carrying things for me.”

I thanked the students for expressing their kindness and highlighted a few special ones that showed great compassion.  When we began this activity in class on Thursday, I had shared that a new student would be joining our fifth grade family the following day.  The students were very excited about this fact, and so when that one student shared that she was happy to have her join our class, I almost started to cry.  I truly am one of he luckiest teachers I know.  I am fortunate to work with such a kind and thoughtful group of girls and boys.

Following this activity, the students seemed happier and more upbeat than they had previous to the activity.  Perhaps the power of gratitude is real.  Regardless of what led to this emotional change within my students, I was very happy that I took a risk and introduced this new activity into our classroom.  I discussed with the students the power of gratitude and can’t wait to see how things may change in the coming weeks as we continue to show our thanks and gratitude to others.  As we stood in front of the wall and marveled at the many acts of kindness that stared back at us, one student asked, “What happens when the wall gets filled up?”  Then another asked, “How will we know which ones happened on each day?”  The students then decided to record the date on each of their notes of gratitude beginning the next day.  One student offered to write Thursday’s date on each of the notes already posted to the wall.  Wow, talk about care, compassion, and kindness.  It is alive and well in the fifth grade.

While Thursday’s pilot of the Gratitude Wall went so well, I didn’t know what to expect on Friday.  Well, yet again, my students showed their true, warm colors.  They seemed to think even more deeply about the acts of kindness that happened to them throughout the class day.  What they recorded yesterday blew me away.  They were so thoughtful and thankful.  One student wrote, “I am thankful for Mr. Holt being the best teacher in the whole world.”  Our new student shared that she was thankful for being included and joining our class at BHS.  After she shared her sentiments, I then responded, “Even though this was your first day in our class, it felt like you have always been with us.”  At that point, the other students all chimed in with remarks of “Oh yeah.”  I had no idea that the students could take this activity to the next level, but they did.  As each new thought of thanks was shared with the class, discussions began and blossomed out of what each of them said, as then even more thanks were piled on.  Who knew that something so simple could have such a huge impact on our class?  Being grateful is really something special.  I am so grateful and thankful to be working at such an amazing school, with such kind and caring students.  We really are like one big, happy, and thankful family at the Beech Hill School.