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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!



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:
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ttDUGM-1mU

Here it is on SchoolTube, in case your district blocks Youtube:
https://www.schooltube.com/video/30fe71faf01449b28d06/Neil%20Diamond%20Coming%20to%20America

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.
Example:
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! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAPBxkfjivc


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!





Mean Girls


Whenever I was about to begin a new chapter in my life, my dad would always remind me that there was an easy escape back to the safety and security of my childhood home. When I went off to elementary and middle school, he made sure that I knew that I was a quality kid and that if I encountered anyone who might seem not to like me, it was their issue, not mine. If I was uncomfortable, I should just come back home and talk about it. The only time I remember using that escape plan was when the eighth grade girls decided that the only way that the seventh grade girls could be in their club was to sing an embarrassing song on the bus, and to allow the eighth graders to roll them down a hill in our playground inside of a (somewhat) empty trash can. I opted to quietly walk home for lunch every day for two weeks rather than subject myself to that insanity. My mom was not wearing pearls and heels when I got there, but she made great lunches and reminded me that I was a pretty great kid. They still asked me to be in their club. I declined and started a new one.

The escape plan was offered to me once more on the eve of my first day in high school. Remember, if you meet someone who doesn't like you, that's their problem and their loss. Find another friend. This way of thinking served me so well through high school and college. I made lots of friends, have many great memories, and never walked home for lunch again. My parents never had to engage in problem solving or conflict escalation because of another kid who was treating me unfairly. This plan extended to the eve of my wedding day. Daddy reminded me once more that if it didn't work out, I could always go home. Many years, two children, and six grandchildren later, we're still together. I guess it worked out!

A keen observer of people and what they do, I acquired enough undergrad credits for majors in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. I then went on to earn my graduate degree in education, where I thought that all I already knew about people and how they behave in groups and individually would be a great resource to draw upon. Imagine my surprise when I encountered the chaos of a first year teacher who was handed the key to an overcrowded and out of control group of kids. They were not only mean to each other, but some of them were mean to their teacher too. They sure weren't even all girls, but the term "mean girls" seems to work for me as I try to make sense of behaviors that aren't exclusive to girls. The behaviors that I call mean girl stuff are exhibited at all ages and all walks of life.

From a nursery school boy who prompts other kids to do things that he has calculated will get them in trouble with the teacher to a group of 80 year old women in a retirement home who tell the 90 year old that there is no room at the dinner table for her, mean girls are all around us. We can't control them or change what they do, but we can control our reaction to them. They can't hurt us if we refuse to internalize the hate.

I kind of encountered a mean girl today. It made me think about my reaction, at first stormy, and then much more controlled and peaceful. The storm never reached her, and she'll never know. It wouldn't have changed anything or hurt her at all anyway, but the anger surely would have changed me. I chose not to engage and moved on. Can't return to my childhood home, but I don't need to. I have built in safeguards in place now for life. This is the gift that I choose to bring to my students. They need to truly believe that the bad behavior of another really has nothing to do with them. They can chill and move on.

My thoughts today wandered to the toltec philosophy of the indigenous people of long ago Mexico. This philosophy is summed up so beautifully in the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I fell in love with this book in 2003, so much so that I bought a pile of them and gave them to everyone in my school as a holiday gift. Some adored it and still refer to its lessons today. I'm sure  that some were not as thrilled, but I can't let that take away from the joy I felt in giving it. My experience today sent me in search of a review of this ancient wisdom.

The four agreements (that each of makes with ourself) are:

1. Be impeccable with your word.
     Say what you mean. Words have so much power. Use that power in the direction of truth and love.
2. Don't take anything personally. This is the lesson my dad taught me so long ago.
    The things others do and say are all about them, and actually have nothing to do with you. When  
    you realize this, the words and actions of others can't hurt you. You give them no power over you.
3. Don't make assumptions.
    Listen. Ask questions. Make sure you truly understand what the other person is trying to              
    communicate. This one can eliminate needless drama and save so much time!
4. Always do your best.
    If you have truly done your best in every situation, the judgments of others can't touch you, and    
    you won't second guess and over judge yourself.

Pretty simple, and yet potentially life-changing. These are challenging times that we live in. Mean girls may show up any time. How to communicate these four simple agreements to our kids? How can we build the kind of self-talk and self-healing strategies that will serve our students in life? In my opinion, this stuff is more important than sight words and the multiplication tables. Life skills. Don't leave school with out them. Please.

Maybe I can help. I've created a set of posters for big and little kids too that I believe will help us as teachers to start some conversations around the wisdom of the four agreements. You can find them here:


For people who understand the power of the four agreements, the mean girls have no power. We carry our spiritual home inside of each of us.









For more posts like this one on Empathy, Equity, and Empowerment, be sure to check out this new blogging collaborative with lots of lesson ideas, free resources, and ideas to ponder.




Kindness in the Classroom


I happened to be in Michael's yesterday, feeding my insatiable craft addiction. This week my search was for the perfect colored pencils (found 'em!) I hadn't traveled more than 10 steps into the store when I was surrounded by an explosion of Valentine crafting materials. Rather than feeling as if the season had been rushed, I was instead filled with warm fuzzies, remembering all the Valentine's Days in my life, both inside and outside of the classroom. Sigh....Valentine's Day....when even the air seems tinged with pink and silver, when our hearts are filled to bursting with warm thoughts for others. And, because most thoughts lead me back to the classroom, I recalled many pleasant memories of students filling my desk with candy and valentines, and eagerly checking their own mailboxes for kind thoughts and affirmations that their classmates care about them.

"Why can't we have those same warm fuzzies floating around our classrooms every day?" I thought. "Well, why not?" I answered. (Yeah, it happens all the time. I talk to myself and I answer.) But truly teachers, why not?  As I continued my trek to the fine arts section (Yes, I was interested in serious colored pencils - suitable for me and my favorite five year old artist to test out!), I brainstormed some ways that the infusion of kindness and warm fuzzy thoughts might be a part of our classrooms every day. I could not wait to get back here and share some of them with you!

Work Hard. Play Hard. Keep Kindnessin' Like It's Your Job!

Borrowing lyrics again here, and not even sure where I heard this one, but kids will often party like it's their job. Sometimes right in the middle of that amazing lesson on finding common denominators in fractions. What if they saw being kind and becoming role models of kindness as their job? What if it really was a job in your classroom? A job with as much importance attached as line leader or lunch counter? Starting here, because this is my number one idea! I fairly danced into the fine art section, singing (probably not too softly) to myself, "Work hard, play hard, keep kindnessin' like it's your job!" over and over. Ha! The aisles cleared for me! Sometimes I wonder why they even let me shop there anymore! I did notice that people were smiling as I passed by. The mention of the word kindness seems to make most people pretty darn happy!

As a teacher, I've had a positive response to kids having classroom jobs. Kids respond well on all levels when they feel that they have a voice, when they feel that things are happening WITH them, rather than TO them. People in general appreciate having a voice in matters that affect them.

Try this: Assign one to four students per day or per week to act as “Kindness Ambassadors”, “The Kindness Crew” or even “Captains of Kindness”. Create a title together for students whose job it will be to spread kindness throughout your school day. 

Your Kindness Crew can model kindness all day long: greeting visitors to your room, sitting with a classmate who seems to be struggling with something, just offering a smile wherever needed, including others at lunch/recess. The kindness will be contagious. After a few rounds, try offering the badges to a few kindness-challenged kids and watch them change before your eyes!

If you'd like your kids to try kindnessin' like it's their job with this free badge, click below:


Contemplating Kindness

Reflection can be very helpful when we are about to try something new. Have we ever tried anything like this before? Did we learn anything? If acts of kindness have been more random so far in your classroom, and you are thinking of making them more intentional, a kindness journal might  be a helpful and fun tool tool for your students to try. 

Try focusing on kindness for a week in your classroom, using one of these prompts as a quick write each day. You may also print lots of pretty pages and assemble some fun art/writing materials at a center and let kids create their own kindness journals as a center activity. Either way, reflecting on what kindness is, and how each student has experienced kindness will take your classroom community a little farther down the road to a group of people who are kind to each other every day.

Try this forever free journal to get the reflection started:



Thanks for stopping by, and considering kindness as lesson-worthy! For many more amazing forever free resources to share with your class, be sure to search TpT with the hashtags #kindnessnation and #weholdthesetruths. I'm sure you'll find several new lessons or support materials to love. I know I did! And for more resources and blog posts about kindness and justice, be sure to check out the blog linky posted below!







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