Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Power of Building Empathy and Gratitude in the Classroom



“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
 – HARPER LEE


It was the time of year when I sat in front of my instructional coach and the TalentEd Perform tab trying to decide what my school and personal goals were going to be for the year. I reflected on the year prior and kind of knew the direction I wanted to go, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to go about it. I needed more time to process what I truly felt would be beneficial for me as far as growth, as well as what would work the best for my incoming students.

Last year was a unique year. My students had wonderful and funny personalities individually, however, when it came to working together as a cohesive unit, many times my class struggled to function. We had obstacles of getting along, name calling, and bullying, etc. My class felt like one big sibling argument all year long. In our small neighborhood school, most of these kids have been together since kindergarten and were pretty much ready to branch out to middle school where they would find more kids that shared their interests and personalities. So when it came time to figure out what I would like to take on as a goal for this year, an idea hit me.

I wanted to build a strong classroom community with my group this year. I wanted to find a way to have my students accept one another’s differences, appreciate the good things in their lives, empathize, and to just simply be a kind human being. Easy task, right?

 In order to take on such a task, I have to promote and model every single day what kindness and empathy look like. I have an entire bulletin board dedicated to “witnessed acts of kindness.” I have a specific job where it is a kid’s duty to spend their week “sprinkling” kind words to people. I have an “Appreciation Circle” at the closing of everyday where we recognize things we are appreciative of. I have a morning greeter that welcomes everyone into the classroom and a “goodbye wisher” that gives each student a special high five on the way out- myself included!

Another way for me to easily promote kindness and empathy are my morning meetings! I have been utilizing a morning meeting routine for a few years, but I wanted to bump it up and make it more meaningful for my students. I wanted something engaging that would bring my kids together and initiate deep conversation. I found an amazing morning meeting curriculum that complements our Second Step curriculum nicely. This morning meeting curriculum addresses topics of belonging, kindness, compassion, conflict, perseverance, integrity, and more! So much of what we are talking about in our Second Step curriculum is brought to life by this morning meeting curriculum. I use music videos, quotes, song lyrics, clips from Youtube, and read alouds that address these community-building themes. Kids have a journal where they are able to reflect on themselves, set goals, analyze quotes, and are given a chance to respond to the themes presented for the week. Each day, we gather together in a circle and discuss these various topics in depth. We have such rich conversations about the need to feel like they belong, the power of a compliment, how to stand up to a bully, and persevering when things get difficult. As we progress through the year, I get to know more about my students through our conversations with one another. During these morning meetings, I have been able to connect with my students and build relationships more than I ever have in years prior. One lesson in particular stands out as a lesson that solidifies my need to continue this type of social/emotional instruction.  

 As I mentioned earlier, at the end of each day, my students stand in a circle and provide either an appreciation, apology, or an “aha” moment. One day, I told them that I watched a TedTalk that explained that we (as Americans) have more than 75% of the world population. This could mean something as simple as having clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet, or a free public education.  Instead of our typical Appreciation Circle, I wanted them to reflect and think of things that they could be grateful for. I explained that it had to be something beyond, “I am grateful for Fortnite,” or “I am grateful that school is done.” There always seems to be that one kid…

My kids had beautiful responses.

“I am grateful to have friends that support me.”

“I am grateful that I have a mom and a dad.”

“I am grateful to have a fun school.”

“I am grateful that I have a roof over my head and food to eat.”

With such an amazing response, I wanted to extend this activity further. The next day, I showed a One Republic music video- I Lived. In this video, a young man is living with Cystic Fibrosis (CP). Although he has this debilitating disease, he insists on living his life to the fullest. He runs, plays hockey, enjoys summers on the lake, and participates in cycling events. There are many times the videos shows him hooked up to numerous monitors and breathing machines. He compares CP as trying to breathe through a straw. After the video, I took my kids upstairs to our gym to run around to get their heart rate up. They were so confused as to what my plan was. When I had them stop, I gave them each a straw and asked them to try and breathe through it like it was the only way they could breathe. Obviously this was a struggle and something they couldn’t do. When the lesson was over and it was time for them to go to Phy. Ed, I told them, “Remember, we have more than 75% of the global population. Today, I am grateful for my health and my opportunity to share this moment with you.”

Before I left the gym, I observed their reactions. For most, they were stunned and quiet. For others, they made comments like, “Wow. That is how he breathes? How does he do that?” “If I had to breathe like that, I wouldn’t be able to do sports like he did.” “That is what my asthma feels like.”

Empathy. For some of these kids (and maybe even adults), experiences like this are needed for them to realize how to be empathic human beings. It takes more than just reading and responding. In that moment, my kids needed to experience something that they probably take for granted every single day.  What does it mean to have more than 75% of the global population? Our school is right next to our local homeless shelter! Even students that consider the shelter a home needed a moment to realize that they still have more than others and they can still have appreciation and empathy. There are moments and experiences that we can offer our students to help them build empathy. I got to witness something great that day. I got to experience that “lightbulb moment” ten-fold. Isn’t that what brings us, as educators, the most joy? To see our students realize and get something for the first time? I know it does for me.


Q1: How do you promote empathy & kindness within your classroom?
Q2: How can we encourage more kindness and empathy within our current state in the nation?
Q3: What are your favorite community builders in your room?




Thursday, January 24, 2019

Meaningful Work


Picture this: a sea of children’s faces that are beaming with excitement, so happy they are literally running around; kids helping each other out, even if they don't know each other; students rushing home to get help from their parents with something they cannot wait to turn in the next day, even if it isn’t due for another week. Any ideas what it may be that has elementary-aged students so enthusiastic? It is the opportunity to help out their very own school! That’s right! Students at Pioneer have been given the chance to take some ownership and pride in their school, and they can hardly wait to get started. Let me tell you about our new adventure!


My teaching partner, Arlene Wolf, and I are part of the district’s Teacher Leader Academy. Throughout this journey, we are responsible for finding ways to enrich our schools and district as a whole. We wanted to find a way to increase pride within our school community. Reflecting on the school year so far, I thought back to the beginning of the year when we had students in fourth and fifth grades apply for student council. We only have so many positions to fill and always way more applicants than spots. It’s always hard to turn away students who want to do great things for their school. After doing some brainstorming with Arlene and our building principal, Mr. Jeske, we came up with the idea of finding other ways that students could help. After checking into Meaningful Work: Changing Student Behavior with School Jobs through Safe and Civil Schools, our small-scale idea quickly snowballed into something much bigger. This book had inspiring ideas, and we were ready to get started on some “meaningful work.”

We used Meaningful Work for ideas but really focused on the needs of Pioneer. We asked teachers what help they needed within their classrooms and wrote down days and times of the week they requested. We also had them fill out a form letting us know what times throughout the week their students would be able to leave the classroom to “work”, if hired. We hit the halls and asked other staff members what jobs they envisioned students carrying out. When we had a list of student jobs, we created fliers to advertise the different positions.

The concept was to have the whole process be as authentic as possible, and Meaningful Work does just that. We put together student applications that reflected those from the book. We created interview questions to ask applicants. Yes, the students will not only fill out and turn in an application, but they will sit down with adults and take part in a mock interview. Then, at such an early age, they will either be accepted for the job…or not. That may seem a bit callous for this age group. I mean, imagine telling a kindergartner who’s jumping for joy at the thought of helping hand out birthday pencils, “Thank you for applying, but someone else is better for the job.”

Hold up! Just kidding! Obviously that is not how it will be handled, but it is a situation we’ll come across. We simply don’t have enough jobs available for all the students who apply. But think of what good teaching moments those will be when we can have conversations about perseverance, sportsmanship, and positive self-talk.

Once things started coming together, we filled Mr. Jeske in on our progress and discussed how to kick-off  Meaningful Work and get everyone in the school excited about it. We wanted it to be BIG! Mr. Jeske suggested a job fair, so we picked a date (January 16th), took the idea, and ran with it. We purchased trifold posters where we hung the fliers, spotlighted the positions available, and thought of catchy phrases to include to draw students in. We enlisted the help of our fifth graders who traced the letters on the trifold posters to spell out the job names, colored them in with our school colors, and created large banners to hang in the gym the day of the fair and smaller posters to put around the school. We asked teachers to sign up for a twelve-minute time slot from 2:00-3:00 the day of the fair so we could get everyone in and give all students a chance to browse the different jobs. On Tuesday and Wednesday (the day of the event), Mr. Jeske made morning announcements about the job fair. So began the excited chatter around the school.




The day of the job fair our awesome fifth graders helped us get everything set up. We had tables around the gym to display the posters and had available staff members stand at each table to promote jobs and answer questions. Once the first class entered, the energy in the room skyrocketed! Students’ eyes were wide with curiosity and excitement. They ran from table to table, trying to find the jobs they wanted. I had so many kids run up to me, eager to share the jobs they took applications for. For me, it was a feeling of pure elation! The satisfaction of many hours of work that had come together with a successful outcome; the notion of students wanting to help adults out around the school, some even before school hours; the vivacity of adults and students alike. Bliss!


Students took home applications that night and started bringing them back the next day. I had one Kindergarten teacher ask if a fifth grader could help one of her students fill out his application. He didn’t get it done the night before and was beside himself. She wanted to help him, but he insisted on having a fifth grader walk him through it. What a great experience for both! This is part of our hope with Meaningful Work: building a stronger sense of community. Students working with others from different grade levels and students working with staff members will bring our small Pioneer family even closer together. Students will develop/enhance lifelong skills: responsibility, respect, communication, collaboration, and pride in their school.

Our job is far from over. The next step is to figure out a schedule for interviewing that meets everyone’s needs and then to actually hold the interviews. From there, we need to “train” students who are hired so they experience success within their positions. There will be a lot of communication between Arlene, myself, and Pioneer staff to check in on how things are going and what needs to be changed. It’s a lot of work and a little overwhelming at times, but bird by bird we will get it done, and it will be amazing!


Q1: What student jobs would be helpful within your school?
Q2: How would you keep the excitement levels up among students as time goes on and the idea is no longer “new”?
Q3: What issues do you see arising from student jobs?
Q4: How do you encourage students to take pride in their school?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Through exploration students drive their learning!


They say a big piece of work in a PBL is finding a real problem and weaving your standards through that problem to find a solution.  Well, what is a “real problem” for kindergartners in North Dakota?  My kindergartners at Liberty were faced with a pretty serious problem they are now working to solve.  They watched a video of a sled that just would not go down a snow hill on the playground.  We have put on our engineering hats and need to collaborate with our peers to design and build the best sled! How do kindergartners do this? Through exploring their science standard of push and pull, of course! We started by asking ourselves three important questions that all engineers ask themselves. 

1.     What is the problem that needs to be solved?
2.     Who has the problem that needs to be solved?
3.     Why is this problem important to solve?

My students answered these three questions by stating that the problem is that the sled will not work.  One of the teachers at Liberty has this problem.  It is important to solve this problem because sledding is a lot of fun!!

The students will be working in collaborative groups to design and build their own sled.  After the building process is through they will have the chance to go test their sled on our playground.  After their testing they will come in and communicate with their team about what they think they would change on their sled to get a better outcome.

As Georgia Heard & Jen McDonough say in A Place for Wonder “We need to think about creating classroom environments that give children the opportunity for wonder, mystery, and discovery; an environment that speaks to young children’s inherent curiosity and innate yearning for exploration is a classroom where children are passionate about learning.”

This is my second year doing this PBL, it is already very different from last year.  Asking my students two questions has driven this project discussion differently.  What do you know about sledding?  What do we need to know to build the best sled?  This right here is the powerful thing about giving your students the ability to drive the learning.  They are all in on this project and excited to do this work.  My students are using their curiosity and desire for exploration as they investigate, draft, develop, and test their sled designs.

Twitter Tuesday Questions
Q1: How do your students drive the learning in your classroom?
Q2: How do you record your student’s wonderings?
Q3: How do your students find the answers to their wonderings?
Q4: How do you make this learning happen during and outside of PBL?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Treats! Presents! Celebrations!

Stress. Routine. Dread.

“The mind and body affect each other. Unmanaged stress can affect children physically, socially and emotionally. It is worth exposing children to relaxation techniques.” 
Patricia Arcari, PhD, RN, Associate in Medicine, Harvard Medical School/Mind Body Medical Institute. 


 This is the time of the year when there is heightened excitement in the air.

Kids are excited and may not be as focused. It is important to remember that although this time of the year brings excitement, it also brings some hard feelings for many other students. Parents may be stressed and the kids are feeling this. Many of our kids have experienced trauma in Bismarck Schools, we are working closely with Trauma experts and learning about what to “look for”. Many students have experienced some type of trauma in their lives but this will not look the same for any individual. Just as every child has an individual learning style, each child will be affected differently by trauma. Children handle trauma in different ways. Some will shut down. Some will act out. For some students, we may not even know they are exposed to trauma because this is how they have lived their whole life.

According to an article “Stress and Your Child” published in 2009 by the American Academy of Pediatrics “many parents believe that their school-age children are unaware of the stresses around them and are somehow immune to them. Yet children are very sensitive to the changes around them.” As teachers, what can we look for? Behavior changes, tiredness, heightened sensitivities, unusual changes such as not having a snack, stomach aches, kids saying “I don’t feel good”, or issues with friends. As parents, we may notice more irritability, more whining, difficulty sleeping and even defiance. You may hear more “I wants” or “so and so gets to do this”.

To help manage stress during this time of the year, try to keep things simple. Do not overschedule your family.  It is important for us to stay consistent with our kids. Stay with routines that kids know. Kids do well with routines. It is important for us to keep as many things consistent as we can. Keep night time routines consistent. Keep bedtimes consistent. Keep routines during the school day consistent. We may be the only consistency that they have.

Let go of what is not needed. Keeping it simple can help this season be successful.


Twitter Questions:

Q1: What have you let go this season?
Q2: What are signs you are noticing in students affected by trauma?
Q3: How are you helping your students that are experiencing trauma or stress?
Q4: What are effective ways to keep consistency in the classroom?
Q5: How do you stay out of the “holiday trap” that society has set?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Lunch and Learn


            Over the past two years our 4th grade team has been working on creating and refining our concept map. We have spent several hours discussing important topics and ideas. Our discussions were based around what we thought our students needed to learn in order to be better citizens when they left our classrooms at the end of the school year. We decided to create a concept map centered on the topic of acceptance. As a team we wanted our students to recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of others. We believe it is a valuable lesson to teach students to respect similarities and differences.
            As our 4th grade team began the refining process on our concept map this year, we had the desire to dive even deeper into the topic of diversity. In 4th grade, students learn of cultural diversity in social studies, but we wanted to take it one step further. We decided to implement a two month lunch and learn book study centered on the topic of diversity.
            A lunch and learn book study is an opportunity for students to receive a valuable enrichment experience. Students participate in Socratic seminars, deep analysis of the text, and discuss important themes. The driving question for our lunch and learn book study is “How can we help others be accepting of diversity?”
To launch our lunch and learn book study, students participated in a “book tasting.” We set up our Blue Discovery Center as a book cafĂ©. Students rotated to different tables and read a few pages in several books to “get a taste” of the topics. Students then completed a Google survey on which books they would be interested in reading.


This is an optional learning experience that students can join at any time throughout the two month period. To date we have 34 students participating in our lunch and learn. Each 4th grade teacher is leading a book study. This gave students the opportunity to choose from a selection of 4 novels. Our building principal is also joining a book study to add to the novelty of this event and to lend her expertise. It will be exciting to see the impact this learning experience will have on our students.



Questions for Twitter Tuesday on December 4th:
  1. How can we teach students to celebrate diversity?
  2. How can we inspire students to dig deeper and take ownership of their learning?
  3. How do you provide enrichment activities for students in your classroom?
  4. What strategies do you use when guiding reading discussions?
  5. What are your concept map themes?