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The Magic of the Good Table


Another group of my fourth graders from the "good table" have started high school this week. I've kept in touch with many of them and their parents, so my social media feeds have been filled with the beautiful photos of happy kids off to the next great adventure that life offers. It's always hard to let them go. Year after year, I would watch them walk away in June, sobbing so hard that I couldn't catch my breath. (I'm sure many of you know the feeling!) Wise words always followed from my friend Joannie, a more seasoned and reasonable teacher. "Don't cry. They're making more. And when they're ready, they'll send them!" They always did. They kept on sending them. Most of them were even ready! But it somehow never made me miss the ones who had left any less. I still miss them.

A few weeks ago, one special mom who has become a friend, posted a nursery school picture of her child with a few friends, and then some photos along the way of this group about to enter high school.  It made me smile through the tears. I responded, "There are the kids from the good table. Still together! Love it!" Immediately, other moms chimed in with questions about the good table. Were their kids seated at the good table in fourth grade? What is the good table? Is that even a thing?

Yes, friends, the good table is definitely a thing. It's real and it's alive in your classroom even if it is still unnamed. What is the good table? Simply put, it's where the "good" kids sit. It's the table that the teacher smiles at a lot. It's a table where happy and smiling kids are always (Well - almost always. They're kids!) on task. It's your own little Lake Woebegone. (You may need to look this one up!) Kids at the good table feel super comfortable with each other and with you. They don't mind taking risks with their learning and trying out new ideas. They know their friends at the good table will be cheering them on. They exude a confidence that apparently only sitting at the good table can offer!

Through the years, I noticed aspects of the good table showing up, but never really stopped to figure it out. You know how that goes - if things are running smoothly, you don't usually question them. It's when management careens out of control that it gets your attention and desire to analyze it! The year that the good table really made itself known was when this  year's shiny new high school freshmen were in fourth grade.

I had always made it a practice to let kids choose their own seats and to stay there for the report card period unless there was an immediate and pressing need to change seats. We had arrived at the end of the first marking period, and I asked for all who wanted a change of seats to stand. My usual practice was that they would then stand behind the seat that they were hoping to move to. If the student in that seat also wanted to move, they would stand and move to another location. It always worked great. No pressure really. If the person in your desired seat didn't stand, you would simply move on to another location. There were usually enough kids seeking a change that the system worked pretty smoothly. When all movement stopped, kids would go back to their former desks and get their supplies to complete the move.

This fourth grade year was different. I should have seen it coming, but it took me by surprise! When the seat-changing movement began, the group of kids at the "good table" formed what looked for all the world like a prayer circle. They held hands and squeezed their eyes shut tightly. They were still doing this when movement stopped. Some were even shaking a little. I didn't count, but I'd say that 3/4 of the remaining students were gathered around the little prayer circle at the good table.

This was the first time I heard the term. When no one was moving, and I explained that they were not compelled to move, the complaints began. "I want to sit at the good table!" "It's not fair that they always get to sit at the good table." And worse. Time for a town meeting.

At the town meeting, it became clear that my students were seeing something very clearly in their own perception that I had failed to see at all. In their unanimous opinion, we had a very specific group of "good" kids in our class and it was their seating opportunity at the "good" table that made them that way. I asked for some clarification on why they thought that a particular furniture setting was such a desirable place to be.
  • All the good kids sit there.
  • No one bothers them.
  • They can get their work done.
  • Everyone at their table likes them.
  • The teacher likes them best. (That one really hurt, but when you ask for honesty from kids, it's best to be prepared for whatever it is. They tell you exactly how it feels to them.)
We talked a little longer, and came to a sort of agreement. We had a U shaped setup of desks arranged in three "tables", giving us a large meeting space in the center of the room for town meetings and minilessons. I was willing to change that to make all of my students (all of whom I truly believed were the "good" kids) happy. I announced that everyone who wanted to sit at the good table could join it, and all who wanted to remain there also could remain. All agreed that was fair, so we went back to standing where we wished to sit. The "good table became two full sides of the U, connected and flowing in an "L" formation. the few who really preferred to sit by themselves or in smaller groups were able to move their desks wherever they wished. The one rule agreed upon at our town meeting was that anyone who sat at the good table who interfered with the learning or well-being of anyone else would be invited by me to leave the table.

Within a week, everyone had discovered the secrets of the life-changing magic of the good table.
  • Any table can be the good table.
  • The people in any group need to agree on how to treat each other.
  • The people in any group need to agree on how they will work together.
  • When you smile at someone, they will usually smile back. 
  • When you treat someone with respect and encouragement, they will usually treat you the same way.
Changing desks was never much of an issue for the rest of that year. All three tables were the good table. Kids chose to move in and out of them for many reasons at the next two report card period changes. Each one of them took that good table magic with them wherever they went.

Wishing each of you a year filled with kids from the good table, and wishing my former students a high school experience filled with good table magic!

As you create a little good table magic of your own, you might find these resources helpful:

       










For more ideas for the beginning of the school year, be sure to check out these posts from Teacher Talk!



Hurricane Harvey Relief: How Kids Can Help



In the devastating wake of Hurricane Harvey, as the rain continues and the flood waters in Texas continue to rise, so many of us are asking what we can do to help. There are many suggestions out there. Though we might want to dig in and help to rebuild and nurture, the honest answer for right now is money. Contributing dollars to the relief efforts is the surest way we have of making a difference. Teachers may have lost everything in the way of books, supplies, and furniture. Some very generous teacher-authors have suggested sending digital files to them. Of course, much farther down the road when schools are rebuilt and technology (even that of copy machines) is restored, that will probably be a welcome contribution. But for right now, helping = send money. I'm sure of it.

With school starting here in Michigan this week and next, I couldn't help thinking of how the kids in our classrooms might be able to help right now. There will be discussion and questions, and I'm sure that kids will also be looking to their teachers for suggestions on how to help. With the greatest and most immediate help being tied to money, I wondered how kids could raise some money in an authentic way to help other kids in the area facing hurricane devastation. Of course, they could ask their parents and grandparents for donations and even toss in their allowances. They might offer to do some chores. This will help, but won't really connect your students to the real world and current events unfolding in the news.

But what if? Here's a question we all must be asking ourselves often as we face those sweet faces in our classrooms. What if we could connect some PBL (Project Based Learning) to our efforts to raise money for those affected by Hurricane Harvey? What if we could take class time to develop these units without missing a beat in our attention to the standards we must meet?


Here's a link to my post about the PBL we used in my classroom for years to help families in our community with expenses around winter holiday time. The remainder of this post will suggest some ways that you might set up something similar in your room.



Getting started: Literature connections
For fourth through sixth graders, here are some literature connections tied to hurricanes. These are three that I would use with my fourth graders. I love to give kids a great story to hook their thoughts as they begin to brainstorm ways they can begin their own PBL experience. Searching your library or online bookstore will turn up lots of connected literature perfect for your own grade level and kids.




My idea for connecting PBL to aid for hurricane victims is simple enough. Get your kids involved in a project that then can be presented to the community in a way that will become a fundraiser. The fundraiser will bring in money authentically earned by your students that you can send together to relief efforts. 

If you are new to PBL, I thought these ideas from one of the PD trainings that I have taught on PBL might be helpful. If you are already familiar with PBL, I hope that some of the curricular connections might be helpful.






People will look at the current unprecedented natural disaster through their own individual lenses and will reach out to help in ways that make sense to them. That's human nature. Do what is in your heart and help in any way you can. This post is an attempt to give you a tool that you can use right now in your classroom, if a project based approach appeals to you.

Sending prayers for healing and hope to all in the path of Hurricane Harvey. 






























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!
When?
Anytime I remember my mom.
Because I am that
Library going,
Dancing school dropout,
Family and friends all around
Girl

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
CHORUS:
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 treasures.com (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"
https://www.facebook.com/ToddParrBooks/videos/10155036679343767/
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.
https://www.amazon.com/Rac-ing-Class-Confronting-Classrooms/dp/1612507867
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!