Why I stopped asking “How was your summer?” on the first day of school (and other great lessons I learned about choosing my words carefully)

Last year a teacher shared a touching blog post about not asking how your summer was as many of her students did not have those story worthy summers. It struck a cord but I never really thought as I wasn’t teaching in a classroom and didn’t have a homeroom. I smiled while my students worked on their independent modules in my office told me about their summers and the things they’ve done. The year before I didn’t even have independent workers in my office, and another year further back, I simply forgot because I was too excited to share all of my activities I had planned. The gravitas of the question never really hit me until this year when we started our year with a reminder about how unique the lives of each of our students might be.

This year I bought the book The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and I re-read that post from last year and I cried. I cried because I know that my students don’t have the kind of holidays that I had at their age. I cried because my students tell me how the school is their favourite place. I cried because for so long I asked: “How was your weekend/Christmas/break?” when I now know that wasn’t the question that needed to be asked.

This past year I stopped asking my kids “how was your [insert whatever time frame]?” and now ask “Is there something you’d like to share with the class?”. One of my kids shared a joke each week, another told me a useless fact (Did you know the difference between graveyards and cemeteries are that graveyards are attached to churches and cemeteries are standalone plots of land? I sure didn’t!) Some kids chose to share about their weekends, other told their classmates something new and some never did participate.

I talk about choosing my words carefully because this isn’t the only time I have had to look back on the words I chose to say to my kids.  A while back I wrote about how a student told me I had to stop making things personal.  Sometimes I forget the importance of how my words affect the classroom.

This year my goal is to remove the phrase “you guys” from my vocabulary. A friend of mine is writing their thesis about feminism and linguistics and send me an interesting article from The Atlantic about how American English needs “Y’all”. While I can’t say that “Y’all” is going to be my new term, I can say that I realized language affect every person differently.  Maybe this year I can be just slightly more cognizant of the words I choose with my students.

 

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The Un-Classroom – Leaving the Formal Setting Behind

Recently I had a chance to really reflect on my  physical classroom and the learning that happens in my classroom. Everything I like about how things are run in the classroom are the things that aren’t “mine” or aren’t a “classroom”. This will likely be the last time this blog post that I refer to it as “my classroom”

The class itself is a group of students, each with a different story, home, journey, and path.  Each one faces a different challenge: be it academic, social, family, and/or systemic. The thing that they all have in common is that they all have the ability to learn and be successful – they just need the tools and supports to do so. For me, the most important aspect is to know that it is my job as the teacher of the room to ensure that this is possible.

When I walked into the  classroom this summer to set up, the room was very traditional and structured as a classroom. There is a whiteboard, chalkboard, SMARTboard, shelves and cupboards, a TV and VCR, a supply closet. There was a teacher’s desk and a file cabinet as well. It was a stuffy and sterile room. This was the first thing that had to go.  I have a strong belief that individual desks create barriers in learning and force students into their own spaces. My first goal was to create a warm and welcoming space that would be conducive to creating and sustaining a community of learners with ties to their community and world. Through out the year, the desks have gone along with many of the chairs and in has come various tables different sizes, shapes and heights, pillows, a couch, comfortable lounge chairs, yoga balls, wobble stools,  and a yoga mat. Each student has choice in what will open it up for what will help them learn.  I have a student desk in the corner by the SMART board for my laptop dock and document camera – though I often squish onto the couch with the students to work alongside with them if they haven’t pulled me into a learning circle they have created on the floor. The students move the furniture around to support their needs as they learn.

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A recent classroom arrangement of the students to facilitate a Socratic Circle on a new classroom schedule

That is just the physical classroom. To quote a student describing our class to our deputy superintendent, “Our class isn’t run the way a normal class is. We do things differently around here”. That is quite true. Paper helps guide the general direction of our learning but our curiosity, exploration and passions ultimately drive our learning forward.  We look for ways to makes sense of what we are learning and why we are learning it. The point is to have an educational journey that meets the individual needs of everyone. One of the things I have tried to pass on to my students is the importance of growth based on reflection, feedback from our community and refinement of skills. We share responsibility for our learning by making the learning student-centered and striving for a deeper understanding of the knowledge and skills we are learning.

Many students come to school each day and this is their safe place to be. The lives of the students reflect the impact of their reality. The students live with and through mental health challenges, poverty, social exclusion, amongst many other challenges. They may not have supportive families, positive support systems or stable living environments to give them the same opportunities as others may have but each student who comes into the classroom has made the choice to be there that day. My job is to help them gain the skills, knowledge and values that will allow them to find success and thrive in our society.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I realize how important it is to have a well rounded and focused support team in place to give these students the greatest chance at success. I am also reminded that despite the fact I am teaching grade 5, these students face increasing challenges as their reality begins to solidify around them. A formal learning environment is not what students need. Students need to see value in themselves before they can see value in their learning. That is what my goal is – to educate the whole child and give them the best support system to allow them to develop the skills and knowledge they require.

In someways, there will always be a degree of formality that is expected of myself and our class – we are in the school system after all. However, if I can minimize the formality and give students the opportunity to show their knowledge, understanding and value of what they are learning in their own way while ensuring they are physically, emotional and mentally safe and comfortable – that is my goal.