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Character Education

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Digital Learning

Teaching the Importance of Belonging

The 90s called and they want me back! Back in my classroom, back with those amazing 90s kids in Rainbow City, and back to the warm and fuzzy classroom learning community that we all were back then. What?!? You didn't teach in the 90s? Well, good news! All you've missed is the big hair! You can bring that 90s feeling back to your classroom and to your students this year. Here's how:

My podcasting besties (We Teach So Hard) and I were recently talking about all kinds of belonging, and how to nurture feelings of belonging in our classrooms. I had a list of books that I wanted to suggest when I felt the strong and unavoidable pull of the 90s. The music in my head switched way back to Sheryl Crow's "It Takes All Kinds of People", the song that I found in The Marlo Thomas compilation of songs, stories, poems, and essays called Thanks and Giving. Marlo edited two other volumes as well, Free to Be You and Me and Free to be a Family. These books, published from the 70s through the 90s, informed my teaching practice during the 90s and right up until the day I retired several years ago. They were about all those qualities of character that teachers today are always saying that they are trying to instill in their students.

These three books (available dirt cheap on Amazon, Ebay, and used bookstores) are also available in your local libraries. But trust me, when you start to explore, you will want to own them. Get yours now! (But wait until I grab my backup copies please! 😏) I receive no associate benefits anywhere from telling you that you need these books. The only benefit to me is that I can feel that I've paid it forward to future students of yours.

There are all kinds of belonging. If I learned anything from my thirty - six years in the classroom, it was that strong, confident children who feel secure and safe in their environment are welcoming and inclusive to others. You can't make belonging happen without building those kids up from the inside first! Let Marlo Thomas be your guide in this process. You're welcome.

Before I get into the highlights of these amazing volumes, I want to recommend a little adult reading. Becoming by Michelle Obama is my current pick for a book about belonging. The most important takeaway for me from Becoming is the importance of telling your stories. Lucy Calkins does it. It's the piece that trips up many teachers. "How do I get through these voluminous 'mini-lessons'?" Easy. the voluminous part is her stories. Substitute your own stories and voila! Much easier to remember and teach.

Whenever I told my own stories in class (hopefully with a purpose), I used them to segue into nudging kids to tell their own. And, as I said earlier, kids who feel safe and secure in sharing their stories can welcome other kids into their circle. They are interested in hearing the stories of others as well. The Marlo Thomas collection serves that tell your stories function in bite size, easily digestible pieces. So much of it can be found on YouTube and Spotify, if you'd like to listen with your kids. I love owning the books.

A TV Special of Free to Be You and Me. Marlo discusses why she started to collect the stories, songs, poems, and essays. The title song by The New Seekers is awesome! "Take my hand, come with me where the children are free."

Panel discussion on 40th anniversary.

A classic is "The Day Dad Made Toast" (on You Tube!). I used that for years to encourage kids to write a "small moment" story. We would discuss ways families are different and all the ways different family members take different roles, but remain important members of the family.

"Boy Meets Girl" - all about gender identity. Sound pretty current? Two babies meet in the hospital nursery and discuss their futures.

"The Southpaw" Found this online. I used to cut this pdf up into separate notes, put on a baseball cap, and head into ALL the classrooms with another teacher dressed similarly in a baseball cap, for a little Reader's Theater demo. We were quite in demand as actors at all grade levels. Pretended we were actually writing and passing the notes! All about a note-passing frenzy between two "former" friends, Janet and Richard. Perfect for a discussion on collaboration and choosing teams. Also great for a writing prompt. Kids clamored for the chance to act out this Reader's Theater themselves, and any were inspired to write their own about other conflict situations.

My all-time favorite nugget from Marlo is the Sheryl Crow song mentioned above, "It Takes All Kinds of People". I bought this one from iTunes and loaded it on my classroom computer. When we played our weekly review game on Friday mornings, "Are You a Smart 4th Grader?", this was the "wait time" sound track while "contestants wrote their answers on their individual white boards. Semi techy, and semi old school. This was an activity kids looked forward to all week to earn those rainbow dollars (our class money). They really paid attention to lessons because the questions just might show up on our weekly game! I linked a science specific, but editable version for you in the link above, in case you want to try this game yourself. Change anything you like, but please don't change the master. Make a copy and then make it your own! Running the weekly game was actually a classroom job for three students. More about our class economy and jobs can be found in this resource that you might want to take a look at as you plan your year:

Teaching takeaways:

I used the Free to Be books as prompts for so many aspects of learning in my classroom. I used them mainly to encourage kids to tell their stories. To record those stories in their journals, to use those stories to keep building the kind of person they were becoming, and then to tell the new and changing stories. 
A favorite art project with pretty simple materials is a small moment picture.
  • Draw a "photo" of a small moment in your life. (Could be drawn using an actual photo as an example.) Use pencil and eraser at first.
  • Go over lines in "photo" with a fine point black sharpie.
  • Fill in background scene with watercolors.
I would love it if you send me photos of your "small moments" art, and I will come back to add them here as examples for future readers! You'll be famous, and you will win a free resource from Rainbow City Learning ($3.25 or less). Send photos to .

To win even more resources throughout the year, click and apply here to become a Brand Ambassador for Rainbow City Learning!

To hear more about belonging on our podcast "We Teach So Hard", click this image:
Wishing you the best teaching year ever, in a classroom where the children are free and where everyone feels that they belong!
To read the blog posts from my "We Teach So Hard" friends, click below!


  1. I just picked up my copy of Free to Be Me from the library! Loved the video (although dated! LOL) and I can't wait to use all your suggestions for teaching small moments. The Robin Williams "toast" essay was delightful!

  2. Retta, I love your back to the 80's and 90's ideas. I really hadn't thought about those. Just started reading Becoming, which also fits in so well with this months posts and podcast.

  3. You hit the nail on the head! It's always about our stories, isn't it? I think that listening to our students' stories is a great way to communicate acceptance, value, respect and belonging. I LOVE your post. I have to get the Marlo Thomas books now!