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13 Reasons Why Teachers Need to Watch

In the weeks since the TV series "13 Reasons Why" has aired, many have added their online voices to the debate on whether this show should have ever been made, and whether kids, parents, or teachers should watch. Here's my list. Just adding my voice.

Teachers need to watch "Thirteen Reasons Why" because:

1. We need to be aware of what goes on outside our classroom doors.
     Many of your kids might be watching it, already have watched it, or have heard of it and are
     thinking of watching it.

2. We need to be aware of what goes on right under our noses.
    Kids (and often adults) can hurt each other in a thousand low-key ways that fly under our radar  
    every day. 

3. We need to watch for signals of stress and distress.
     Make yourself a kid watcher every day.Watch every child, not just the ones who are
    screaming loudly for attention, but those who may be hurting others or hurting inside themselves
     every day.

4. An early cry for help can be very hard to hear. very soft.
     Signals are often not easy to see or hear at first. Getting to know your students really well right
     from the beginning is your best way of improving your ability to pick up on cries for help.

5. A quiet student isn't always just a pleasure to have in class.
    Some bullies masquerade very successfully as that quiet and obedient successful student.

6. Kids don't look at each other the way you look at them.
    Many issues, often inside of the beholder, make kids view other kids much differently from the
    way we see them.

7. Souls are more important than data.
    This is just another plea to really study the whole child, not just their grades and test scores.

8. Looking away won't make anything stop.
    If you decide to ignore the issues and prefer to use rose-colored glasses as you view your
    classroom and your learning community, issues will still fester and possibly explode. Choosing to
    travel on the river of denial changes nothing.

9. Things that are revered in our learning institutions can be setting kids up to fail.
    Best athlete, most successful test taker, best writer, student council leaders, etc. Although the
    reverence for athletes disturbs me the most, any labels and pedestals can be debilitating to students
    with other, less-recognized gifts as they travel on their educational journey.

10. Our society creates rankings and situations that can be impossible to escape.
      I was reading The Hate U Give at the same time as I viewed the episodes of 13 Reasons and was
      struck by the meaning of THUG LIFE (Tupac Shakur) as it was described in the book. "The Hate
      U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody" Children who grow up experiencing hatred and lack of
      acceptance grow up to give it right back to everyone. This is next to impossible to change once
      the child has grown. As teachers, we have an amazing opportunity to change lives.

11. You can't just order a kid to "talk" to you when in a crisis situation. Channels of communication
      that a kid can trust must be in place long before the crisis raises its ugly head. Watching 13
      Reasons, my jaw dropped over and over at parents and school staff who suddenly wanted to talk
      and expected answers.

12. As teachers, we have the power to teach REAL life skills. (That life skills teacher in 13 Reasons.    
      Please.) Make your life skills lessons meaningful. Base them on what your students are
      experiencing. Don't just plod ahead with the lesson you planned so carefully. Look at your own
      students and their needs. Adapt and adjust.

13. Kids can start to feel valued, respected, and supported from their earliest school experiences on.
     They need to be able to take small and then increasingly bigger risks with their learning and with
     reaching out to friends as they progress through the stages of school.  "Hey, I'm here for you"
     means nothing if it hasn't been demonstrated all along.

From The Hate U Give:
Momma (after an encounter with a police stop): "See, baby, everything's fine."
"Her words used to have power. If she said it was fine, it was fine. But after you've held two people as they took their last breaths, words like that don't mean shit anymore." (p. 165)

Teachers, our words have power. Our actions have power. Please force yourselves to watch "13 Reasons Why", if you haven't watched already. Read The Hate U Give, if you haven't yet. Let the messages sink in as you plan for the upcoming school year. You will never know the many ways in you will personally touch the future. Make it count.

A gift for you to use in your classroom:

For more from the 3 E's Blogging Collaborative:

Where We're From

Where are you from? 
There could be many answers to that: the city you born in, where you grew up, what career path you've chosen, what your interests are, the people you surround yourself with, the values you hold. At the heart of all the places, things, and ideas we are from though is our mother. Your mother (birth or adopted) is at the center all that you are today. As we celebrate Mother's Day this week, I can't help thinking of my own mother and all that she gave to me. I hope you will find some similarities here in recalling some of what your mother has given to you.

She gave me life and a particular way of looking at the world.
My mom married very young and gave birth to me after just fifteen months of married life. In many ways, she was a child raising a child. She often had a childlike way of looking at things. She convinced me that God was everywhere and watching all the time, but not making choices for me. I was in charge of that.

She told my stories.
ALL my stories. The ones I was proud of, the ones that made us laugh, the embarrassing ones. My children, husband, and grandchildren know my stories. They add them to their stories, and so it goes.
On the way to the hospital after I had tried to remove my sister's arms and legs (as I had previously tested out on my baby dolls). "How did you even get her out of the crib?" "I fwipped her over my shoulder."

She made me laugh.
My mom had a unique outlook on life, and was often funny without even trying. You can't be both mean and ugly. Pick one. (Translation: Being mean makes you ugly. So stop it.) The hill is too icy to go to school? Sit down at the top, and before you know it, you'll be at the bottom. (Translation: Get your butt to school. Now.) (As I cleared the table too fast after dinner.) Got a date? (Translation: Dinner isn't over. Please remain seated.) Look at how cute your sister looks! (Translation: Your little sister will be accompanying you on your shopping trip with friends.)

She taught me skills for life.
It took courage to put knitting needles in the hands of a three year old, but that's how old I was when my mom taught me to knit. As knitting is an interest, actually a passion, that I have maintained to this day, I still think of her when I pick up those needles. I knit in the European or continental way, holding the yarn at the ready looped around my left pointer finger. Whenever a fellow knitter observes this, they always ask where I learned to do it that way rather than picking up the yarn with my right hand and throwing it over the needle. Precious memories come flooding back when I tell the story about my mother teaching me to knit when I was so small.

My mother was in a serious car accident when she was pregnant with my sister and needed to find a way to keep me near her and out of trouble while she healed. Knitting kept me busy for long stretches of time and was one way that we formed a lasting bond.
Never completely recovering from that accident when she was so young, my mother also taught me the importance of showing up. Often ignoring excruciating pain, my mother showed up for work in my dad's deli restaurant every day, lifting heavy pots of chicken soup, and mixing gargantuan pans of chopped liver and potato salad. She still managed to get back in time to welcome her kids home for lunch and then again again after school. She showed up.

I learned to cook and to be pretty good at laundry too. My skills here insured that our family would be fed and have clean clothes if my mother was in the hospital or recovering from multiple surgeries on her back (following that early car accident). Those skills have served me well so far! I'm working now on a cookbook for my family based on the recipes I learned in my mom's kitchen. None of them were ever written down, so I guess you might also conclude that Mom taught me to face a challenge!

She taught me that I am important.
Home is where we first build our sense of self. When I left for school each day, I felt smart and capable. When I left home for a party or date, I felt smart and beautiful. When I left for dancing school, I felt clumsy (Ha! No one is perfect! And dancing school just didn't do it for me!) My mom said that was ok, and I could go to the library instead if I wanted to. I really felt smart there!

Roots and wings. My mom sent me off into the world each day, telling me it was going to be a great day. My dad always reminded me that I could just come back home and start over if it wasn't such a great day. They were a great team!

She made me appreciate the time I have with loved ones now.
Our house was always overflowing with relatives. Barbecues by the pool in the backyard all summer long, front patio and lawn with standing room only all spring and fall and for a great view of our city's July 4 fireworks, and tiny living room packed with people all winter long.

I live far away from where I grew up, and my children are grown with families of their own. Sometimes I look around my empty house and remember wall to wall relatives. We tried to recreate that feeling with a family reunion over Thanksgiving last year. It was amazing, and we will probably do it again!

Where I'm From
I'm from my mother. From all the memories, from all that she gave me and all that she taught me. Inspired by an amazing picture book, I  have enjoyed this little poetry experience with my students for many years. The book is Momma, Where Are You From? by Marie Bradby. You can find it here.

Here's my version of the "Where I'm From" poem:

Retta, where are you from?
Where are you from, Retta?
I’m from pushing across a snowy field to get to school all winter long.
I’m from fun summer barbecues around our pool.
I’m from family and friends who care about me and respect who I am.
Where is this place?
Where is this place, Retta?
It’s where Mom is stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce,
Where there's always room for one more at the table.
It’s where kindness counts and everyone matters,
Retta, can we go there?
Can we go there, Retta?
Yes! we can!
Anytime I remember my mom.
Because I am that
Library going,
Dancing school dropout,
Family and friends all around

What's yours? Where are you from?

For more poetry ideas and templates (in both PDF and Google Drive versions) you might enjoy finishing your year with this resource from Rainbow City Learning.

Happy Mother's Day!

For more spring ideas, please visit these great posts from our Teacher Talk blogging group!

The River is Wide

And if you need a friend, I'm sailin' right behind.... (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel 1970) Sometimes each of us finds ourself in just that position. The water is rising around us, we are overwhelmed and searching for a solution, and really really really need a friend. Children and adults. Little difference. Stress and seemingly impossible life situations can and do overwhelm each of us at many points during our lives. We have many smooth sailing days, and the storm clouds start to take shape. Where to turn?

A very personal story: I was nearing the year I had planned to retire, when my district suddenly decided to close the school building where I had built my career. The staff and families were my family, and I truly felt adrift in a huge sea with a tiny boat. I moved to another building, as did many students from closed buildings (not mine). Two thirds of the teaching staff was displaced and new. My 174 boxes and I landed next door to the most revered and popular teacher in the school, the one everyone wanted their child to spend the year with. This could end badly, I thought as I unpacked. Maybe I should have retired a bit early.

Each of the four years I spent in the new school, I enjoyed many perfectly wonderful and easy to teach students along with some to whom the institution of education had not been as kind. Some of these kids had anger bottled up inside (maybe anger from their school closing, maybe other baggage), and I could relate. At times, as I stood before them trying to address our lesson plan, I felt the water rising. You could retire now, I always told myself, but there was always something, a little voice inside, tugging at me to stay and ride out the storm.

The much-loved and much-requested teacher next door? Quickly became a true friend, someone I could depend on, loved, and who respected me too! We began to share all the kids (along with the teachers who taught the third and fourth sections), collaborating on teaching different subjects for each other. Because who wants to teach science, right? Meeeee!!!! Technology????? My hand is up!!! Writing? I looovvve to read those adorable writing pieces every weekend. I read them aloud! Ask my husband. He has always sailed right behind me too!

One more personal story: I've always used music in my classroom. From the very beginning of my career, when I realized how much influence the Jackson Five had over my students. (Haha, yes. The Jackson Five. I'll be there...) Some energizing tunes for transitions could always get kids moving to the next session with a smile, and some soothing piano solos could relax reluctant writers and anxious mathematicians. During a trying time in my "new" classroom, I was looking around for some new music. I was observing some behavioral issues that resembled bullying to me, and I started searching for ways to "bullyproof" my students. I happened upon a TpT store called "I Am Bullyproof" with some amazing songs. The lyrics jumped out at me as just the kind that I'd like to encourage my kids to remember, and the tunes reminded me of soft folk-rock (a favorite genre of mine).

I started with "Got Your Back", and the rest is friendship history.
"I can't tell you how your life will work
It's a complicated earth.
But I really care...

If you just fell down 'n' you can't get up
If you've been runnin' ragged and you're plain outta luck
If your sweet spirit won't let you even laugh
Just know I'm here for you. Just know I've got your back."

Before long, my kids were singing that song as they transitioned from activity to activity in my room and as they walked in the halls from class to class. Singing sounds oh so much better than mindless wall-bouncing chatter. As  they finished the song, kids were ready for the next learning experience to come.

We moved on to several other "I Am Bullyproof" songs and I saw real and measurable differences in my kids. Episodes of nasty behavior and frequency of parent complaints about other people's children decreased, and collaboration and kindness increased. I'll take that!

I began communicating with Lessia Bonn, the amazing creator of these bullyproof tunes, and letting her know about the magic that she was creating in a faraway classroom. I bought all of her songs, and eventually began to collaborate with her on units to reinforce the messages in those songs, using literature and writing to meet the standards. You can find those units here. When I found the music of Lessia Bonn, I found a way to reach my students, and I discovered a friend for life.

These are trying times for so many of us. As teachers, we have to be wary of our words when discussing current events with students. Music can speak for us. Since the Jackson Five assured us that "I'll be there" and way before that I'm sure, powerful lyrics and soulful tunes can get inside us, reassuring us, and changing each of us for the better.

Last spring, I discovered yet another song from Lessia's studio, and found it to say everything I was searching for as I tried to offer encouragement to my after school Bullyproof performance club at our neighborhood middle school. Kids were moving on to high school and life beyond, and I was bringing our experiences together to a close. We discovered that being in that club did even more for each of us personally than it had for the students we were attempting to reach through our performances. You can find some of those performances here on You Tube.

We knew that the river of time that stretched before each of us was bound to have some pretty daunting and wide spots. The words of this song once again soothed our souls and helped us to journey forward. I listen to it myself from time to time and then seek out like-minded friends whenever I am feeling down. Post election 2016 has been a particularly painful time for me, and I have returned to this song again and again to remind myself that there are friends I can talk with about local and world issues. Friends are always at your side when the river runs wide. You merely have to turn your head away from your "me" focus and listen to them.

Here's a free video to help you get a discussion started among your students. Everyone needs a friend to turn to when the river runs wide.

RIVER by Lessia Bonn

It fell apart, my broken heart
I thought my world would end but in my despair, I said a prayer 
‘n found myself a friend
a cold river risin’ I was feelin’ so lost
you put your faith in me ‘n helped me make it across there’s always a way...I know that because
you were there by my side when the river ran wide you were there by my side when the river ran wide

How to let your kids know that they can turn to each other in tough times is not difficult, but you may need to shift a classroom practice or two to make it happen. I recommend the "conversational opportunity", a handy management tool I developed with my Rainbow City students long ago. The rules are simple. The conversational opportunity is to be used only for communication that can't wait until lunch, recess, or after school. It can be used to encourage someone or let them know they have a friend. It is not to be used for fooling around or wasting time. Short and focused. When kids feel respected and trusted, they get it. I used this "conversational opportunity" for more than twenty years in my own classroom, and cannot think of one time when the privilege was abused. I think it's a tool that might be helpful to you in your classroom.

Hoping that your river ahead is smooth sailing, with friends to help along the way if the water rises.

For more tips and free resources to bring empathy, equity, and empowerment to your classroom, click below!

Plan a Portfolio Party

It's Spring! And the children are blooming! Thanks, Lasenia Jones, principal extraordinaire, for those words of wisdom! It's true! Whatever struggles you may have have had all year in identifying the needs of each of your students, working diligently to fill every gap in their learning, while juggling standards and testing along with behavior management, when Spring comes, you start to notice some of the results of your efforts beginning to bloom. It's a great feeling.

The growth that always meant the most to me was the growth that my students showed as writers right around this time of year. In April, May, and June, I no longer felt like I was dragging just another word, sentence, or thought out of my kids. I actually began to feel like an effective teacher of writing, a coach allowing their creativity and personal take on things to soar. As I went through portfolio collections, the growth could easily be seen. Poems flowed, paragraphs made sense, and ideas just were not so hard to come by. It was easier to assess the writing because it was fun to read! In fourth and fifth grade, little touches of humor began to peek through. Loved grading those papers with a smile on my face!

With all this growth in mind, Spring is the perfect time to celebrate your students as writers and as producers of great work in general by having a Portfolio Party. It can be as simple or as fancy as you'd like. Your kids will appreciate any type of celebration, any positive recognition of their work. For me, some years it was simply meeting with our buddy class and sharing some of our favorite pieces with them as they shared theirs with us. Some years, it was all-out party mode with invitations, refreshments, and all the glitter I thought adults might be able to handle!

This type of celebration is definitely different from a student-led conference. There should be no discussion of assessments and goal setting, no stars and wishes, just stars, stars, and more stars! Accomplished authors sharing the fruits of their labors with pride. Chairs in a circle for individual presentations, or smaller groupings around your room. Plan it with your young authors.

If your portfolios are a little short of writing pieces this year for any of the reasons that our challenging profession has presented, April is the perfect month to get that collection growing. April is poetry month! Poetry is short and doesn't have a lot hard and fast rules to follow. It flows from the heart.

Journal pieces or interactive notebook reflections (maybe one from each month) also make great additions to portfolios. My students loved collecting their pieces and gluing them into bare books. I have posts all about that here and here. We also loved selecting a special story or essay and making it into a picture book, actually published by Studentreasures.

Whether the collection is a glossy hardcover book with the author's name on the spine (What could be better, right?) or a file folder or a construction paper mounted and lovingly hand assembled handful of writing pieces, the pride that your students will feel will last for years.

Here are some resources that just might help you to build those collections:

For more Spring ideas to try, check out these great Teacher Talk blog posts:

Race and Culture in Our Classrooms

Turning to a more serious topic today, teachers, that of race and cultural identity and how they affect the students in our classrooms. I know. You're colorblind, and so are your students. Yeah. Me too. While we like to say (and believe) that we don't see color when we look at our students, deep down we know that this can't possibly be true. Not really. We see gender (identified or born), hair color, height, and body type pretty easily on first glance. Why would we not notice skin tones? Of course we do. We notice, and whether we admit it or not, our brains and prior experience set us up to think and act in certain predetermined ways if we don't directly address the issue.

I began my career long ago in an inner city school. The population was ninety-five per cent African American, coming from a public housing project. Five percent of the students were children of University staff, as our school sat on the northern edge of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. As the only caucasian face in the room, I was in for a major culture shock on the first day of school. The first day of a teaching career can be shocking all by itself, but my fifth grade classroom on Day One was quite an experience for my students and for me! It started with a sweet looking little girl who, when I asked her to please take a seat, yelled at me that she didn't have to do "nothin' but stay black and die!". And we were off...

Many years later, sitting behind this computer screen as a recently (How long will I continue to say recently - third year on the outside now!) retired teacher, I do have some thoughts about how race has been a factor in both teaching and learning throughout my career. I hope to make you squirm just a little, and think about how race is present in your classroom, and how it is addressed. Although science has proven that race doesn't exist, just a difference in levels of melanin in our skin, hair, and eyes, humans have continued to find ways to group and classify and label each other for various purposes (not always for good).

Day One of my career definitely made me squirm, think, and retool. I had arrived at work in my most teacherish (IMO) dress, heels, and pearls. (Yes pearls. Cue Donna Reed. Look her up!) That prepared me for what I thought teaching was: standing before a sea of lovely little faces, and sharing the knowledge. Ha! You know! I went home, put the pearls away, got out my flat shoes and sneakers, and invented a teacher uniform. We had no yoga pants in those days, and female teachers were not permitted to wear pants to work, sooo.... I created outfits of dresses (all my dresses at the time were mini and could easily identify as tunics) and pants worn together with flat shoes. This combination allowed me to move freely about the room, squat or sit on the floor, and forget about my appearance in general. When challenged by administration about the pants, I simply offered to remove them. (No thank you. Uh, I guess they're ok.) I began to see myself as a facilitator rather than an entertainer.

I made it my mission in those early days to do whatever it took to get close to and reach my students. Each day after school, you could find me in the projects knocking on doors and inviting myself in for a chat. (I did always try to call first, making those calls upon returning home after each day's visit.) Most parents, even those who would not come to school for conferences, invited me in, and served me tea and snacks or whatever they had to offer. Yeah, I used to be thin. Sigh.... The point is that they were for the most part welcoming and anxious to discuss their child.

As I began to understand the baggage that each child brought to my class, I found that I could reach each one and help them to learn. This certainly did not happen overnight. It was a slow and ongoing process. I did have to recognize that my students were of a cultural group different from my own, with different traditions, speech patterns, family organization, and as so many of them lived in poverty, had that also to bear as they came to school each day. I brought Black History to them throughout the year, in the form of historical leaders and examples from literature. Even as a novice teacher, it seemed important to me that children see themselves in the material that they study.

I continued my career after moving to Michigan in a private Jewish Day School, where I taught third grade secular subjects and Art to grades K-6. As a conservative Jew, teaching in an Orthodox school was again a cultural difference that I couldn't help but be aware of. I now know that males and females worship separately in Orthodox Judaism, the females often on the other side of a curtain called a mechitza. I caused quite a stir that first week when I led my class to morning prayers. The girls went behind the curtain while I was trying to get everyone in and seated. I went in after them and tried to get them to sit with their class (aka the boys). Giant embarrassment for sure! During the three years I spent in that learning environment, I absorbed so much that I didn't know about my own religion, and tried to weave those beliefs and ideas into the lessons I planned, especially in Art. We studied Jewish artists among the usual ones in every art curriculum, and created some art for each holiday celebration.

On to public school in the suburbs of Detroit for the final 28 years of my career. I went from being one of several Conservative Jewish teachers in an Orthodox Jewish school to being the only Jewish teacher in my school for most of 24 years. The only one. Asked to explain everything Jewish whenever a situation arose because we did have quite a few Jewish students in our building. What an awesome responsibility! I was not up to that, I assure you! My solution was to ask a friend who was a very observant practicing Jew. I would then share her answers. As my Jewish students were observant at about the same level as my own, we all learned something each time a question was asked.

My students in public school were diverse. Parents came to our neighborhood from far and wide for so many reasons: marriage to a family who had lived here for years, families from Japan, Korea, China, Germany, and France working in the auto industry (many for 4-6 year assignments and some for forever), military families on the move, immigrant Catholic Iraqis escaping war and persecution, Muslim families from Lebanon, Afghanistan, and even Canada, all here for reasons of their own.  We had single parent families, two parent families, adoptive families, foster children, and some wards of the government. All in one class, many skin tones, many cultural backgrounds, many types of unique baggage, and many different needs. Something to embrace, not try to ignore.

During my years in this diverse and ever-changing public school classroom, I tried to give each student a sense of unique importance while still being a part of our Rainbow City classroom community. Again, this can only be achieved through getting to know the families and each child personally. What a rare pleasure that was, with memories to last a lifetime for me. I just wished Happy Birthday this morning to a grownup young woman in Japan just because I knew her delightful mother and her sister and her for just two short years. We have kept in touch. I can tell this same story over and over. My life has been enriched a thousand fold by seeing the race and culture of all my students. They are all "citizens" of Rainbow City, but all member of families, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, and many of them now wives and husbands.

It was always part of my practice to welcome the cultures and world views of my students in their writing, discussions, reading, and celebrations throughout the year. We had a Cultural Carousel at holiday time each year, blogged about here, a "Rainbow City Cafe" community service project which included storytelling in several languages (blogged about here), and a "Coming to America" project on immigration (found here). For many years, each student published an autobiography or original story as well as contributing to a class book project. We always used student (before and since they were a dot com!) with beautiful results!

My thoughts on race and culture in our classrooms today are that we should appreciate the race and culture of each student and share that appreciation with our class. Children learn what they see and hear. A few suggestions:
  • Close your door and make your classroom a safe place to celebrate who you are - each of you. Tell your own personal stories (as you can see here, I sometimes overkill that one!), and welcome the personal stories of each of your students. 
  • Select literature to read for Guided Reading and Book Clubs that reflect the demographics of your class. Make sure that your students see faces that look like them in the works they study. 
  • Invite speakers and read-alouders from your community to your classroom. They can add so much and are almost always more than happy to be invited.
  • Celebrate diverse cultural holidays whenever possible, inviting parents in to share the photos, symbols, foods, and crafts of their families' celebrations.
  • Don't be afraid to open the discussion in your staff lounge of staff meetings. Ask your colleagues how they think you all are doing where race is considered in your classrooms. Ask each other how you might do better. Don't be afraid to grow. Even a tiny step is better than closing your eyes.

I have a free resource created just for you and two more resource suggestions to give you a start if you are interested:

This "Walk in the Shoes of" page will give your students a chance to learn a little more about a classmate or book character of another culture. They can add skin color, features, clothing, and accessories, and then add words/phrases telling some unique characteristics of that person's culture.
Just click on the cute blank character for your free copy!

Here is Todd Parr reading aloud his amazing book "It's OK to be Different"
This book is perfect for getting the conversation started with teachers/kids of any age, I think!

And from the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater!),  H. Richard Milner IV has written a book that just might help you to get a school or district wide PD going, or just make some small but significant changes in your own classroom.
Don't miss this amazing book with practical suggestions for recognizing and appreciating the differences in your kids, and for making a better plan to serve them.

For more this month from the 3 E's Blogging Collaborative, don't miss these posts!

Zen Classroom

Full Moon ahead? Major school break coming up? Too much excitement for students in the class before yours, or on the bus ride to school? Yikes! That could mean that your day is set up for major headaches, much waiting for quiet and attention, and a constant struggle to get through the lesson plan.

But what if you could bring an atmosphere of calm and peace to your classroom each and every day, no matter what may be happening just outside your door? Welcome to the Zen Classroom! Here are some easy-peasy ways to bring back the calm and get on with the learning:

Of course, we all have heard of brain breaks, and many teachers are already making great use of brain breaks and brain gym activities on a regular basis. I'm wondering if you've tried just breathing at the start of a lesson, after a transition, or when things get a little out of control. You can bring your class right back to center and focus with just a minute or two of focused breathing. Have a sign ready that says, "Breathe". Have a pre-agreed posture that kids automatically get into because they've learned it. It can be sitting up straight in their chair, criss-cross applesauce on desktops, or on a pre-designated spot on the floor. My students often enjoyed taking a seat on the floor under their desks to find a quiet personal spot.

When the sign is displayed, students can engage in one of several types of breathing. Simple and slow  in through the nose and out through the mouth, one of many yoga breaths than can be learned and at the ready for these moments, or whatever breath helps each child to slow down and get calm. Different kids will have their favorites, and one or two that will work best for them.

Just a minute or two spent breathing in this way will restore peace and calm to each student in your class. Because I love you, and because I really want you to try this, here's a free poster for you! Just click, download and print!


Try setting up a yoga poster or two at each of the stations (math, writing, etc.) in your class. Set up a routine with kids that before attempting each academic station, they will practice a pose and/or a breath. Kids and you will see a definite upswing in success, I promise! It's just a great way to clear your head and to save a space in your brain for the learning to sink in. Try it with those dreaded times tables or even a passage from Shakespeare! You just may be surprised!

The most wonderful benefit of starting some of these practices with your kids is that they are truly life practices. Kids will remember and even automatically start breathing or assuming certain positions in stressful or difficult situations or even when preparing for a test, first date, or job interview in the future. You will have given your students a gift for a lifetime by starting some of these habits now in your classroom.

Here's another great use for those yoga posters or yoga cards!
Set up a series of yoga mats, or bath/beach towels, or just areas marked off by tape around your room (or playground!). Place a yoga card/poster at each area. connect the course with yoga straps stretched out (or tape) or yoga blocks laid in a row (can also be stepping stones from the garden or paper stepping stones). I love to use paper stepping stones with messages written on them like, "Just Breathe!" or "Find Your Focus!" or "Be Calm!" or even "Chill!" Laminate them and tape to the floor or ground. Instruct students to follow the paths you have set up from station to station where they will  spend from three to five minutes practicing the postures and/or breaths posted there.

If you make setting up the obstacle course a class job, it will be a very easy and short setup for you, and a yoga obstacle course can be done as frequently and easily as a brain break. Definitely try it outdoors in the Spring for a calm and organized recess with a purpose!
Individual sets of yoga pose and breath cards in each student's desk make it possible for individuals to use these relaxation techniques whenever the need arises. That might not be at the same time for every student! When students have quick access to visual cues, they can try out some new or trusted poses or breaths whenever they need them. A new way of redirecting behavior for you just might become, "Try a card!"

Try hole-punching and adding a "ring-it" to individual decks. Kids can cut out the cards, hole-punch, and assemble themselves in third grade and above. Don't make more work for yourself by creating all the decks yourself when kids can give some zen back to you by doing it themselves. (Of course, cutting and assembling does have its rewards. Try binging on Netflix while cutting!)

 In my classroom, a very popular volunteer position was "CPA Parents". These wonderful (usually full-time working) parents would check their kids' backpacks each night for bags of materials from me to "Cut, Paste, Assemble" (CPA). All the work would usually be completed that evening and returned to school the next day. It's like having a team of fairy godmothers and godfathers just waiting for you to make a wish! Bibbidy-bobbidy-boo! It's an easy way for parents who must work, but want to volunteer in the classroom to take part.

Coloring books and zentangles of all kinds have been increasing in popularity for several years now, and it's no wonder! Focusing in on coloring changes your breathing and is a calming and restorative practice for kids and grownups alike. Using different colored pencils, crayons, markers, and even touches of watercolor adds to the experience. I love using coloring pages with a message. Kids will internalize the message as their fingers make strokes inside and outside the lines. Try printing posters (your choice - make them yourself or make it easy and purchase some) in black/white or grayscale for kids to color in. You can add to your classroom decor with posters personalized by your students. A win for all!

I hope that some or all of these suggestions will help you to create the kind of space in your classroom that will make you feel peaceful and happy while traveling to work to each day, looking forward to teaching and learning as you have always hoped it would be!

You might find some of the resources in these two bundles helpful in your journey to zen:

For more Spring classroom ideas, don't miss these great posts:

Coming to America

When I was in school, America was often referred to as a melting pot - a giant stew in which people from many lands marinated together and all came out as Americans. In more recent years, our beautiful land has more often been seen as a giant glistening crisp salad - a mixture of unique individuals of many cultures who bring a clarity and a richness to who we are as Americans.

As a fourth and fifth grade teacher of Social Studies (among many other subjects, of course, because that's what we do as elementary teachers), I enjoyed studying the waves of immigration with my students (a beautiful salad all on their own), and finding a project-based way to expand upon our learning. Although I began this project long before the Standards became so uniform, I found that it fits so well into six of the themes of Social Studies. That gives it much legitimacy, in my opinion, in the time necessary to complete any level of this project.

From NCSS Themes of Social Studies:
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the past and its legacy.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of individual development and identity.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create, interact with, and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

Inspired by Neil Diamond's song from 1980, "Coming to America", I got my students involved in historical research, drama, art, and music, and most importantly, walking in the shoes of an immigrant. Project based learning takes a little more time and advance prep, but the lasting learning that comes from it is immeasurable. I'd like to suggest three levels of projects that you can select for your study of immigration if the idea appeals to you.

For any and all of these project levels, I'd like to suggest using an illustrated video of the lyrics as an introduction.

You tube video with a beautiful slide show illustrating the meaning of the lyrics:

Here it is on SchoolTube, in case your district blocks Youtube:

Level 1
Collaborative Book
This is a simple and fun project that can easily be done as a station or center activity. Simply create a book of blank pages or a slide show for students to illustrate. Each page has one line of the lyrics on it.
Although I used a slide show similar to the youtube one I linked up here to introduce the project to
my students, I always used the book of their images with the Neil Diamond song playing in the background to introduce our presentation to our school, family, and friends. It made for a meaningful and enjoyable assembly!

For a link to a free editable Google Slide Show that you can use for your own book or slide show, click here: Coming to America Slide Show

Level 2
Wax Museum or Stage Presentation
Inspired by  the rich stories of  their own families or a voice that inspired them in research, each student selects an immigrant to portray and tells the story of their journey. I made a simple "interview" page for this, and students either interviewed a family member who was an immigrant, or supplied the information on their own, based on reading and research. The student would also assemble a costume to wear  that day which showed how a person who immigrated to America from that particular country and time period might have dressed.

For a wax museum, each student will need a display. (Trifold display boards or poster board will do, but the limits are those of your students' imaginations!) You also need to set up a time to hold the wax museum and arrange for a place. If a space such as the media center, cafeteria,  or large group room is not available, it can be set up in your classroom and out into the hall. Invite visitors.
As the visitors step up to each "wax figure", they can press a button (student created) and hear about the immigration journey of the character represented.

Art, dance, storytelling, and food stations can add so much to the festivities of this activity! These can be added as part of the wax museum or the stage presentation, and especially to Level 3 - coming up!

When done as a stage presentation, you can simply have each character step to the microphone and tell their story, or you can set up scenarios where groups of immigrants meet in America and interact, telling their stories to each other, finding similarities and differences. Video production of this would also be amazing, and could be shared with parents on your website.

Level 3
Ellis Island Simulation
After researching various immigrant groups who entered through Ellis Island (could also include Angel Island as well as the northern and southern borders of the US), students could take roles in the presentation and the entire school community could be invited. If you choose this option, you will want to be very sensitive to the cultural makeup of your school community in deciding where your focus will be. Enlist your parent organization to help in volunteering, as this is an ambitious event. Community members who dress in costumes of their family's country of origin and tell their stories add so much to this learning experience. Parents are also usually more than happy to provide artifacts for display, photographs for display boards, and foods for sampling. (At least I've always found that to be true. The first step is to reach out and ask!)

Ask classes to form "family groups" before the event. Your students will be the costumed presenters, posing as immigrants, and the classes visiting the experience will be given the roles of families of immigrants entering the US. In a large gathering place, such as the cafeteria or gym, students must pass through  a checkpoint where their name will be changed (premade name tags) and they will be separated from their families. As they are guided from presentation to presentation, they will hear stories of immigrants who have done the research and prepared their stories.

Each class attending your simulation might have studied a particular country of origin and have a note card in hand with some facts about the immigrants coming from that country. (Example: Ireland, and the people who faced a dangerous voyage during the potato famine.) It will definitely add to the learning experience for those students.

Students attending might be given the option of also dressing in costume as an immigrant from their own family's country of origin or the one that their class studied. The students in my school enjoyed making heritage clothespin dolls to display as guests entered our building. Families helped with these and they were always spectacular! We created these before youtube and Pinterest, but you don't have to! Yay! Here's a video where an upper elementary age girl shows you how to make the dolls!

Resources to help you get started:

One of the favorite books that we used was this one. Just click on the cover page and read about it!

When I was researching things I'd like to share with you in this post, I could not believe the number of books on the voices of immigrants now available. A great topping to the rich history of our American salad! Here are two links for you:
Stories from Ellis Island
Immigrants' Voices
I've also been collecting some more book collection ideas on one of my Pinterest boards for you.
Learning With Books

I hope these ideas will help you to build empathy within your class,  empower your students to discover their roots as Americans, and to enable them to see how equity looks in the sparkling tossed salad of our amazing country!

For more ideas about presenting these topics in your classroom, please visit the posts of these amazing bloggers!