Growing up in the South Bronx, one of the five boroughs which make up New York City, poverty and I were very intimate. My mom was a single parent raising three kids and did an excellent job meeting our needs. However, that certainly did not come easily for her, nor did it come without the need of support.
I was able to experience all the joy one experiences when walking into a neighborhood bodega with several food stamp bills stuffed inside my torn blue jeans. And although everyone in my neighborhood, an area roughly few miles long but supporting over 80,000 people, were in similar situations as my family, I still found it embarrassing using food stamps. I remember the feeling of shame and humiliation course through my body as I readied myself for the monetary transaction. Truth be told, I hated that our family needed help. Yet, like anyone living in poverty can tell you, the worst part is asking for it.
Several years ago I had the pleasure of speaking to a parent volunteer, Donna Greason. She had told me that if there were ever any student needs, she would be happy to help. I informed her that our school actually had a resource room for students who had clothing or food needs. The only issue was that it was only accessible by walking through a teacher’s personal office and, to top it off, a key was needed. Not many students knew about the room and those who did were required to ask a staff member to open it.
Basically, if I thought using food stamps was embarrassing, I could only imagine how it must feel to be a high school adolescent having to find an adult to open a room so I may pick out food for my family while inadvertently being gawked at by the same person who opened the room up for me. But like many of us are very well aware, space is limited in just about all of our school buildings. And, as is often spoken in my household, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”
Yet, when I brought Mrs. Greason to the 7’ x 7’ Support Our Spartans Resource Room, S.O.S. Room, she had other thoughts. She too had financial difficulties growing up and started questioning whether our school could provide a more appealing space. Being the only school social worker for over 1,700 students, honestly, the S.O.S. Room was not particularly on my radar…at all. It had been established well before I ever stepped foot into the building and was a group effort, mostly stocked by the generosity of other Mayo High School staff members.
Her idea was to move out of the space we were currently in and be more centrally located. The other portion of her idea was to be more selective in terms of the items we were taking in, and lastly, “make it look like Target.”
I heard Mrs. Greason’s idea and had two main competing thoughts. Thought number one went a little something like: Sure lady, if you’re willing to do all the work, I’m all for it. Thought number two was: Could we actually destigmatize poverty by changing our delivery?
Growing up surrounded by poverty, many of my classmates would still manage to come to school with new Jordan sneakers, Guess Jeans, and Hilfiger sweatshirts, although they too were living in the same poverty stricken neighborhood as I was. So, it was difficult for me to imagine students embracing walking into a resource room to grab a pair of pants and walk out with little shame. And yet, it was so much the opposite of everything most of us were brought up to believe that it might actually work!
With support from our administration, we were provided a larger room right across from the lunchroom. The room is left open, unlocked, and largely unstaffed throughout the entire school day. Meaning, students can simply walk in and out of the room at their leisure. No more hiding in a small space, no more needing to ask for an adult to unlock the room, and no permission needed. Although we have no prior data to compare how many items are coming and going, I can gladly say we estimate it to be about a thousand items every month. We count empty clothing hangers to provide us with a base number of how many clothing items are taken from the room. The difficult part of keeping track of everything is that we offer more than just clothing: we also have school supplies, hygiene products, college readiness information, shoes, water bottles, books, and--to top it off--we also have a food pantry room for our weekly backpack program.
I have come to the realization this generation of young people have come a long way since I was a kid. Students seem far more open speaking about their sexual orientation, engaging in open dialogue about different faiths, and acknowledging the importance of mental health. So, I’m not sure why it still strikes me to see just how well Mayo High School has embraced this room.
Within a year of implanting the new strategy, our room was so successful that we expanded into the hallway. Many of our school supplies are now located outside of our room and regularly stocked. Three clothing racks are also located in the hallway where students can grab a winter coat when needed. This model has opened the room up not only to those who are impoverished, but to any and all of our 1,700 students here at Mayo High School. It has really helped me reframe my initial position of what a student in need looks like. Because regardless of how much money your parents have, if you rip your jeans in gym class during 2nd hour, straight down the crack, you’re now in need – true story.
The initial planning took more than simply receiving a centralized location. In order to make the room look the part, it was going to take money. We enlisted the help of several Mayo students who were able to write grants for our room and generated about $2,000. The money was used to purchase shelving, clothing rods, hangers, etc.. Recruiting Mayo students to write grants took the burden off of my shoulders and provided students with an opportunity to give back to their community as well as provided them with a life learning experience and an additional item to add to their resume.
The next step was finding students who could be in charge of the daily maintenance and upkeep of the room. This was accomplished by soliciting the help of two student aides per semester. Simply put, there is no way any one person is going to be able to perform their job and effectively maintain a room of this nature. The last piece of the puzzle was to create a club that would be responsible for all of the behind the scenes operations involving the room.
Most people don’t know the S.O.S. Room is actually run by a student club. They meet every Tuesday morning for 40 minutes to discuss current and future needs, donations, monthly newsletters, and social media pertaining to the S.O.S. Room. The last several meetings, however, have not been about our room but were spent discussing ways of establishing a resource room in every school across our district. They are willing to write grants, organize food drives, and donate clothing resources in order to help any school get up and running, or anything else that a school might find beneficial to establishing their own resource room.
There are many myths surrounding a resource room that I would like debunked. The most important one in my opinion is that we need to secure the room behind a locked door. If I were to provide one bit of advice, it would be to make it easily accessible to any and all students. Throughout the past several years I can easily recount only three instances where students disrespected the work put into the room. When weighed against the thousands of times students have appropriately utilized the room...there is no contest.
Some of my tips would include:
Outside of those three suggestions, any of the S.O.S. club members will be happy to do whatever it takes to help out another school because they all share the same common belief that all students can be more successful academically when their basic needs are met.
In the last month or two your principal has probably shared some information about the direction we are going with regard to grading for learning in the district. By school year 2020, we will be making some systemic shifts in how we provide feedback to students and families about their academic progress. Many teachers have already started this journey and have some great feedback and lessons they’ve learned.
As you walk down the path toward Grading for Learning, I encourage you to connect with teachers at your site that might already be implementing some of the practices. We can learn together.
This post brought to you by Heather Willman, POSA overseeing Secondary Curriculum, Instructional Coaching, & Staff Development
When teachers are in these situations, stress hormones course through the body. When these hormones stay elevated for long periods of time, the result can be teacher exhaustion and burnout.
That has certainly been true for me. I've been a teacher for 25 years and I love the profession. But at different points in my career, I have felt intense stress and exhaustion from the demands of the job. It usually hasn't been the heavy workload that gets to me. Rather, it's the emotional labor of the work that I have found to be particularly draining. We all have students coming to our classrooms with high levels of stress, trauma, and mental health needs. These issues affect our ability to teach our content material.
I finally realized what might seem obvious. I could only control myself- my reactions- the way I perceived these challenges and the way I managed my stress. And, so I turned to a practice that I thought might provide some relief- mindfulness. Not only did it make a difference in how I handled stress in the classroom, it helped me slow down and rediscover my happiness in being a teacher. Mindfulness is not a panacea, but it can be an incredibly useful tool for teachers.
Here is the classic definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat Zinn: "Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." He also says, "The real practice is living your life as if it really mattered-moment to moment."
Here is a video that I think sums up mindfulness in a fun, perfect way:
Students cannot learn unless they're emotionally regulated, and it follows that they won't learn from a teacher who isn't emotionally regulated. This is why a mindfulness practice has the power to be transformational for teachers. Mindful Schools teaches, "Children and youth reflect the nervous systems of adults around them. Your nervous system is the intervention." When students feel secure physically in your classroom and experience an emotionally safe relationship with you as a teacher, learning is most achievable. A mindful teacher can bring out the best in a student's ability.
We all feel stress, and it can get the best of us in the classroom. Learning how to notice strong emotions, pause before reacting, and calming down our own nervous systems can be hugely beneficial to teachers. You don't need any special cushions, bells, or clothes to learn mindfulness. All that is required is an open mind and a little time every day. Teachers deserve rest, relaxation, and renewal, and mindfulness might just be the tool to help.
Here are a few tips and resources for beginning to learn about, and experiment with, mindfulness:
Start small and go easy.
Start with 1-2 minutes a day of mindfulness practice. Or focus on taking 5 deep breaths when you're feeling stressed.
Don't go it alone.
There are a ton of resources out there. We all need guidance and support when learning a new skill. You are not alone.
Instant gratification is the enemy.
Mindfulness practice is not Candy Crush or Instagram. You're not going to have a huge hit of dopamine every time you practice or become instantly calm. So, take the long view and be patient with yourself. Over time you'll notice a difference.
Bring your mindfulness practice into your daily life.
Formal mindfulness practice (where you sit and pay attention to the breath) is the practice, the training, the bicep curl for real life. The idea is for this training to transfer to your daily life and kick in when you need it. So, the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, your brain can remember to take a deep breath instead of going into a state of road rage (as depicted in the video above).
My journey with mindfulness started with committing to a personal practice to reduce stress. Then, I noticed how much it was helping me in my professional life. The students were just as challenging; the systems were just as difficult, but I was different. Then, I took the next step and began training through Mindful Schools to learn how to bring these techniques to students to help them with focus and emotional regulation.
Last spring, I found myself speaking to a group of 343 high school students about mindfulness at the SE MN Student Government Conference at Century High School. I had been presenting on mindfulness quite a bit at that point, but this gig was slightly terrifying to me. Not only was it a huge group, but they were all high-achieving teenagers. They had invited me, but I was worried about the message resonating with them. They were the best audience I had have ever had. Not only were they responsive to the concepts and practice of mindfulness, they were hungry for it.
At the end of the session during the Q and A, one student pointedly asked me, "Why aren't we all learning this?!" I didn't really have a good or satisfying answer for that question, but I told him I was working on it.
What I am confident about is that the first step in bringing mindfulness to our students is for teachers to bring mindfulness to their own lives and the way they teach and relate to students. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in the title of his book, "Happy teachers change the world."
This past September, I had the opportunity to work with and hear Mark Perna speak about "Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations" as he addressed Career and Technical Education staff from all over southeastern Minnesota. Since then I have had the opportunity to read his new book Answering Why, and I continue to be amazed at the connection between what he talks about in his book, the Rochester Public Schools Graduate Profile, and the opportunities that students at CTECH have each and every day.
As a staff at CTECH we are still working hard to establish, develop, and communicate who and what we are to students, colleagues, parents, and the community. After working with Mr. Perna and reflecting upon our primary goals, it became clear that our curriculum and our instruction focus on three main areas:
I talk at length about these three areas of focus each time I lead a tour of our facility and programs and over the course of this year it has become very clear to me the connection between our focus and RPS Graduate Profile. Specifically, I see direct correlation to the following domains:
We are very proud of the progress we have made in promoting not only Career and College Readiness, but Purpose, Professional Skills, and Competitive Advantage and we are grateful that these efforts are reflected in the qualities of a graduate that our community has identified as the most important.
This post brought to you by Brandon Macrafic, POSA focusing on Career & College Readiness and administrator at CTECH
We’ve all been a part of an environment that pushed us to critically think and question. I remember a class I took as a part of my principal training. It was taught by a practicing principal and although it was challenging, it pushed me to reflect and grow as a learner. One class session we had 30 minutes to plan a staff meeting or professional development session with whatever resources we could find within that time limit. The professor set up the task but purposefully let us struggle with the process. She asked probing questions but did not give us a step by step recipe for completing the task. I remember being a little stressed at the time but I learned a lot about myself as a leader from that activity.
In his book Creating Cultures of Thinking Ron Richhart, a senior researcher from Harvard’s Project Zero, shares some of the common characteristics that people share when thinking about cultures of thinking they have experienced. Some of these are:
I asked some teachers from Rochester Public Schools for their tips on creating cultures of thinking in their classrooms.
The 10-minute essay
When our community members identified traits that they wanted to see in graduates one of the top characteristics was that students are ethical contributors. It is impossible to go to any of our high schools in the month of December and not notice the focus on contributing to others. Each of our high schools engages in fundraising for the following organizations in our community: Christmas Anonymous, Santa Anonymous, Bear Creek Services, Brighter Tomorrows, Dorothy Day Hospitality House, and the Women’s Shelter of Rochester. You will find students and teachers selling homemade baked goods, students paying money to stop the annoying passing music, and events like 'Breakfast with Santa' and a joint Drumline Showcase. While the competition is fierce among the three high schools, the goal is the same: contributing to the larger community. I am so proud that this is a focus for our students and staff.
Critical thinking was another characteristic our community wanted to see in our graduates. Here are ways I saw students demonstrating critical thinking skills in their classrooms.
In every classroom I observed students were asked to effectively communicate with their peers as part of their learning process. Some highlights included:
Many of the classrooms asked students to collaborate with one another as a part of their learning process. Employers agree with the RPS community about this being an essential skill for our graduates. I saw collaboration happening in the following contexts:
Another one of our hopes for our RPS graduates is that they are resilient learners. I saw evidence of this resiliency in classes in the following ways:
And then I had an AHA! moment: perhaps learning styles are not completely bogus, but more likely, we haven’t looked at them through a cultural lens.
- She comes to school every day talking a mile a minute about everything from the latest episode of her favorite show to who was sitting next to whom at lunch yesterday. She is bubbly and bright and loves school.
- First hour she walks into a classroom where there are opportunities for her to verbalize her thinking and to work in small groups and talk with her friends about her ideas.
- Second hour, she heads to a different classroom where she is expected to sit quietly and work independently.
When it comes to students like Fazia, how often do we ask ourselves why a particular student is a verbal learner?
- What does her home culture value about orality and verbal expressiveness?
- What does her gender group or age group value about it?
- What experiences has this student had that have informed her approach to learning and being in the world?
As I wandered into the rabbit hole of research on this topic, I found so many articles and studies. (If you want to have a few cups of coffee and talk about it all, give me a call! This stuff is my jam!) But, then I came back to the foundations of the work we are doing with Dr. Hollie. He explains, “Notably, the teacher has to know what is cultural and what is not. Fortunately, research provides ample data…about the commonly accepted cultural behaviors of many underserved students” (103). The chart below helps illustrate those particular behaviors.**
Yet, we don’t stop there. This work recognizes the importance of teaching all students in all styles so they can practice modes of learning that may not be as comfortable for them, but that they will need to be successful in both the classroom and the world beyond the classroom walls. The power of this work lies in our intentionality and the moments when we see our students as bearers of cultures that may not be validated in traditional school culture. When we come up against those moments of struggles and can say to our students, “I see you and I honor you, and I care about you enough to give you the tools you need to be successful.”
And so, as we continue on our CLR journey, we continue to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Is this behavior cultural or not?
- What experiences have my students had that inform their learning styles?
- Similarly, how do my own cultural experiences impact the way I view my students and their learning styles?
- How can I validate and affirm my students’ learning styles and am I providing opportunities for them to practice other learning styles so they can build up their cultural dexterity?
If you have any questions or want to talk more about how culture impacts students’ learning, give me call or email me!
** I want to acknowledge that culture is much more fluid than this particular chart shows, and there is a mountain of research on various ways to consider this fluidity, but for our purposes here, it is helpful to consider cultural behavior in this simplified way.
When students hear the words 'journal entry', 'essay', 'research paper', or 'written response' the reaction that follows is typically not a positive one. They tend to elicit groans rather than celebrations.
For many students, large writing assignments are daunting and overwhelming. (In truth, even for me—an adult with an English degree—large writing assignments are daunting and overwhelming.) But writing assignments don’t have to be large to have a big impact.
I'm reminded of a quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Lysander explains, "though she be but little, she is fierce." That, in a nutshell, is micro-writing.
Micro-writing, defined as short bursts of writing that take only 2-10 minutes to complete, is a little-yet-fierce tool in our classrooms.
- Helps students activate background knowledge
- Enables students to reflect on and transfer knowledge
- Encourages self-explanation
- Incorporates creativity and draws on images
- Builds critical thinking skills
- Uses helpful frames and structures
As a bonus, the benefit extends beyond our EL students. For all learners—not just EL learners—the above bulleted list still applies. Plus, the recently published Ed Surge article “Micro-Writing is having a Macro Impact on Identity Development,” Bryan Christopher notes that micro-writing can be used as a check for understanding, a pre-write for what will later be shared aloud, or even as a vocabulary builder. Moreover, he notes that, “the value of micro-writing goes beyond academics, addressing social and emotional needs like self-perception and confidence.”
Personally, I love that micro-writing often pushes students to the highest level of Bloom’s, but without taking up large periods of valuable class time. When students write, even just for a small amount of time, they hit the “Creating” stage (level 6) of Bloom’s Taxonomy because they are generating something new with their knowledge. As a bonus, in getting to level 6 of Bloom’s, students often cross through the “Evaluating” stage (level 5) as they create an argument, make a value judgement, or evaluate a problem.
If you would like to try micro-writing in your own classroom, here are three strategies to help you get started:
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Six Word Compositions
- Q: How was the first week of school? A: Overwhelming, but I like my teachers
- Q: What was the theme of the novel? A: Love, when blind, can cause catastrophe
- Q: How did you approach the problem? A: Divided within brackets, multiplied by X
In her recent blog post, Kim Eversman explains how to use Six Word Compositions in memoir form; while Bryan Christopher, in his article, breaks down how they might be used in even more ways.
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If you want to explore the use of online Twitter Chats, check out the following articles:
- “Facilitating a Class Twitter Chat” by Jennifer Davis Bowman, published on Edutopia (December 2017)
- “Hosting a Class Twitter Chat in your Classroom” by Matthew Lynch, published on The Tech Edvocate (March 2018)
However, if you wish to try a low-tech version by using the worksheet shown below, access a copy of the handout, along with instructions, here (remember to first log in to your ‘@isd535.org’ Gmail account).
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So, the next time it comes time to write in your classroom, consider trying something short and sweet. If you would like to explore any of these ideas further, or have micro-writing ideas of your own to share, please reach out to me. I'd love to collaborate with you.
Enjoy our Blog!
Members of the Secondary C&I team weekly post useful tools, tips, and tricks to help you help students.
Analysis & Inquiry
Grading For Learning
Instructional Learning Formats
Planning For A Sub
Quality Of Feedback
Regard For S's Perspective