Shoutouts & Celebration.

I have always been a person who has valued words of affirmation. When we use our words to encourage others and to affirm their choices, powerful things can happen.

When I taught third grade, students engaged in a Compliment Circle. Everyone sat in a circle on the carpet and had the opportunity to give or receive a compliment (they were also allowed to pass). At the beginning of the year, most students wanted to either pass or receive compliments. After the first couple weeks of setting up our routine for Compliment Circle, a domino effect would occur — once one student started choosing to GIVE compliments, all the other kids wanted to as well.

This was the perfect way to end class each day: reflecting on kindness that you displayed to others or that others displayed to you.

Because of the nature of middle school, the time I have with students is significantly shorter than what I had with my third graders. Sadly, this doesn’t really allow for a 10-15 minute window for Compliment Circle at the end of each period as I’m already desperately pushing copious amounts of content into a 66 minute block.

Enter “Shoutout Sheets.”

A few months ago, I started using these handmade sheets to acknowledge students regularly in class. They’re created so that both myself and other students can give one another shoutouts.

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The Shoutout Sheet!

Because I started implementing this in the middle of a quarter, my consistency wasn’t the greatest. I would either run out of time at the end of class or — well, usually I would just run out of time. Let’s be honest, time flies when you’re having fun and learning in the lab. 😉

I started making these motivator sheets a priority toward the end of third quarter and the kids started getting really interested (again, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy being recognized for good work?).

As we kicked off fourth quarter three weeks ago (?!?!?! HOW DID THAT HAPPEN!? — will answer this question in a different blog post I’m certain), I made a concerted effort to ensure that a student in every one of my classes was being recognized every day.

One day last week, I completely forgot to stop class a few minutes early to give my shoutout. A few kids had left the classroom already but I stopped everyone else, saying, “WAAAIIIT! TODAY’S SHOUTOUT!” I scrambled to my desk to get my paper and saw students standing in my doorway (presumably my third period). I told the students to line up outside the door since second period hadn’t gotten out yet, but I quickly realized it was the rest of my second period standing there.

Well, we heard you had a shoutout, so…we came back!

As my heart grew about three more sizes in that moment, it dawned on me that these kids really care for one another and want to see each other excel.

With each shoutout given, the kids applaud and high five.

This notion was reinforced as I passed back post-assessments for our last unit two weeks ago. I told the students how much growth they made collectively and how some students quadrupled their scores from the pre-assessment they took so many weeks ago. A student raised her hand and asked if some of those kids who made a lot of growth could have their names called; the class was completely on board, so I rolled with it.

With each name called, the kids cheered for each other.

…and we’re talking legitimate hoops and hollers and claps and “good jobs!” ringing in the air.

It amazes me that I get to work with kids and watch them grow developmentally to understand that the world is larger than they are alone. It’s a beautiful thing to see students so invested in one another. Just another echo of the importance of building a strong classroom community that fosters trust and compassion.

Y’all, this is what it’s all about. Kindness. Helping one another. Showing genuine interest in the lives of others. There’s good everywhere — in our classrooms, in our students, in ourselves and each other — so let’s start recognizing it.

How do you recognize students (and even your coworkers!) for all the totally awesome things they do!?

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On How We Should Close the Achievement Gap.

This is a tall order: closing the achievement gap.

You hear about it all the time, and it’s actually something I’m really interested in discussing with others. One of my education professors from UNC posted a Washington Post article about the topic (which I encourage you to read) and it got me thinking (and a little riled up).

Yes, it is vital to know how to read and do math to be successful in society, but what happens when there are other, more pertinent things, keeping a child from mastering content? Hunger? Exhaustion? Abusive family members? Students cannot be expected to learn and be deemed “proficient” on standardized assessments when we haven’t addressed these very serious, very real issues that students face every single day.

I teach eight-year-olds. Some of the eight-year-olds I’ve taught in the last two and a half years were homeless, came from single-parent homes (where that parent worked multiple jobs), took care of their younger siblings (yes, eight-year-olds caring for toddlers), watched their fathers get deported, lived in fear of immigration services taking them, lost parents to prison and death, and I even had a child this year get kidnapped by his own father and taken to Mexico.

That child didn’t even get to start the school year with us; his mom is still in court trying to find him and get him and his brother back to the States.

Do you think those kids have the capacity to learn how to multiply right now?

These kids don’t need more homework or another negative presence in their lives. These kids just need to be loved. We must meet students where they are and show compassion; teaching is a profession that must be rooted in love and trust. We must be champions for our students, advocating for them and showing them how to stand up for themselves. Their lives are important, and they’re the ones who will shape the future.

I promise that I understand the need to perform well on tests; I see that side of the argument. Students need to know how to decode words and add numbers, but don’t they need to know so much more?

To close the achievement gap, I think we need to take a step back and refocus our curriculum. Common Core has a lot of pros in my opinion, coming from an elementary perspective at least — the spiraling standards lend itself to strong vertical alignment, and I appreciate the depth of the standards. It’s a nice concept that there are College and Career Readiness standards, but I still think we need something more.

We need to teach kids how to be good, kind people, and there’s a lot of value in that! There needs to be a stronger character education piece in our curriculum, especially in elementary grades to lay a firm foundation of socialization and emotional understanding. We need to teach kids how to interact with others and how to be more than just book smart. I would much rather have a student be a caring member of our classroom community than be a master all of the Common Core reading standards by the end of third grade.

So I suppose the question remains: how do we close the achievement gap? Well, we should probably start focusing on the whole child and not just a smudged bubble sheet.

Empty.

Well, it’s taken me a week or so to process it all, but about ten days ago I experienced a day from hell in my classroom.

First of all, let me say this: student teaching did not prepare me for this crazy time in the lives of children. The few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are insane and the children are, for lack of better term, off the CHAIN. My student teaching finished right at the end of November, so I never saw this period of time at school — such an eye-opening experience.

Friday, November 30 is a day that will live on in my memory as my lowest teaching moment. 24 eight-year-olds made me cry in front of them and I just walked out of the room in my dismay.

Yes, you read that correctly my friends: I cried in front of my class because they were being so disrespectful and rude and then proceeded to just leave them.

I rearranged the whole afternoon so that I could help them with math. We’re behind in finishing our current chapter book read aloud, but I decided to push that to the side so that I could reinforce some math skills. Kids were playing around and crawling on the floor and one of them stepped outside in the hallway because he didn’t feel like finishing his work — seriously, I felt like the most incompetent person in the world. I told them to put everything away and go sit at their desks since they so obviously didn’t want any help with the assignment. There were still kids playing around the room and I was just fed up with their absurd behavior (“absurd” is a word that my students now know because I use it so often to describe the way they behave at the end of the day). It was like all of the disrespect and the little things just finally  made me explode into a rage of tears. I was fortunate enough to not start shedding uncontrollable amounts of tears in front of them, but my voice quaked and my eyes reddened with each word I tried to speak (read: yell). Then, I just walked out into the hallway.

To be completely honest, I had no idea what the heck I was doing. I couldn’t really believe any of it was happening. Did I just walk out of my classroom? As I was alone in my thoughts, I heard one student yell, “YOU MADE MISS STEWART CRY!!!” and I secretly in my heart hoped they all felt terrible.

Another adult saw me in the hallway and went into my room to tend to my class. This certain adult is a man sent from God as a behavior specialist in Durham who is able to tame uncontrollable behaviors. He’s magical.

As I cried in the bathroom alone, all I could think about was how weak I was — how I couldn’t even keep it together in front of my students. How unprofessional and inappropriate and, ultimately, embarrassing.

The students left and I was able to talk out my feelings with my coworkers (love my third grade team to the moon and back), and we came to the conclusion that maybe this isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe the kids needed to see that Miss Stewart has feelings like a real person, too (because let’s be serious, when you were a kid you didn’t think your teacher was a real person either).

I finally finished my sob-fest and told myself that Monday was the start of a new week. As I was cleaning up and getting things ready to go, I saw a key in one of my drawers across the room.

Friends, this key wasn’t just in any random drawer — it was in my confiscated toy drawer (yes, BeyBlades are the bane of my existence and I seize them upon witnessing their presence in my classroom).

This was funny to me, considering the fact that I did not confiscate any toys on that particular day.

I walked across the room to the unlocked drawer and opened it only to find a few of the toys missing. I felt so many things all at once: anger, violation, frustration, sadness. Where does a kid learn this stuff? Trying to analyze this predicament, I realized that this student first would have needed to get into my teacher cabinet where I keep the keys (in this teacher cabinet, I also keep my personal belongings, such as my phone, wallet/purse, and car keys). Then, he would have had to unlock the drawer and take the toys.

Essentially, this is a classic case of elementary breaking and entering.

Truly, I was furious, and yes, I did cry again. Why would a child steal from me? What kind of environment have I been fostering to make a child think it’s acceptable to behave that way? What could I have done differently?

In that moment, I had to pack up everything and leave. I couldn’t be in that building anymore. Driving home, I simply felt empty. That dull, empty feeling was like I got kicked in the stomach.

See, I work so hard in creating good lessons (and executing those lessons) for these kids. I want more than anything in the world for them to love learning and to really gain a positive school experience. I’m doing everything in my power to pretty much give these kids a brighter future and they disrespect me and steal from me. That really hurts, and to the point where words aren’t even really sufficient since it’s such a deeply pained emotion.

It took me a couple days to get back to my normal teaching self. Monday I was still pretty upset, even though I tried to mask my frustration with the situation. Tuesday was a little better, but when I discovered who the toy thief was I was pretty unhappy with that, too. It wasn’t until Wednesday I would say that I felt like I was back in my groove — and trust me, that’s a while for me to be off-kilter in a job where I normally feel very in my element.

My small group leader told me that when I was telling her about all of this (there were tears involved in just the retelling of this fiasco), it reminded her of the compassion that God has for all of us, even when we disrespect Him and steal from the toy drawer. Stepping back, I’m able to see more of how this is such a perfect opportunity to show God’s grace and love to these kids.

Even though I feel like I hit rock bottom that day, I’m confident that it can only go up from here. This time is just so difficult for my kids — the holidays are crazy for everyone, but I think the prospect of not really having holidays to celebrate is what makes it even harder for these kids.

A friend told me I wouldn’t be as upset as I was if I didn’t love these kids as much as I do. I think she’s right.