Fostering Lasting Relationships

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I consider myself to be one very lucky teacher. Every year I get a new crew of kids and I think I’ll never love them the way I loved my previous class, and every year I learn that (much like being a mother) your heart can expand to fit more and more kids within it.  I love my students, I call them my kids, and my kids they will always be.

Those two girls were both former first graders of mine and both have kept in contact with me since they were in my class. These pictures represent times that these girls wanted to include me in their lives outside the classroom long after they were in my class; as a speaker at her Bharatanatyam Arangetram, and visiting another while she worked. Both events made me so proud of how these two have grown, evolved, and changed since they were in my class.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many relationships last long beyond their tenure in my classroom. On the first day of school this year I had emails from 12 former students, ranging from high school seniors to sixth graders I had last year. When I think about what makes these relationships last, what makes these kids still see our classroom as a place they can call home, I think it’s a combination of a few things… all of which are so small, but add up to a lasting impact.

1- “Relationships First” is not just a cute phrase or hashtag on Twitter. It’s the driving force behind my teaching. There are definitely teachers out there who are more talented than I in the craft of teaching, who have better anchor charts and flipcharts, better lessons and assignments, but I know my kids always know that to me they are #1.

2- I show that I’m human. I admit my faults and my wrongs, I apologize if I overreact, I check back in if I think I hurt a kid’s feelings, and I write private notes to kids who maybe need to know that I’m here. I share stories about my kids and my husband, I show videos of my kids and their silly antics, I read books that were my actual physical books when I was a child and share the pages that made me swoon. I tell them about my dreams and fears and I model my beliefs every day.

3- I respond. If a child reaches out to me in email, I respond immediately. If they write me a note, I write back. If they draw me a picture, I hang it up. I’m also human and sometimes I forget. Then see #2- I say I’m sorry and fix my errors.

4- I use humor. Everyone is different, but my kids get to know me and my humor. I can be silly and dramatic, I overemphasize and act out my feelings, and we all laugh… every day. Kids like to laugh. I like to laugh. It works!

5- I like them. I have never met a kid I don’t like. The most challenging kids I’ve ever had are the kids who carve their way into my soul. They keep me up at night years later wondering where they are and how they’re doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, that there aren’t kids who bring me to my personal brink, but when that happens I step back, often turn to humor, and also give space. A whisper of “I care about you and know you are better than this behavior. Let’s take a breather and come back when you’re ready” can solve more problems than I can count. Even with the toughest kids.

There is no magic formula that leads to lasting relationships, but if at the base of all of your interactions is a belief in mutual respect you will be golden. Respect kids time, respect kids space, respect kids lives. They don’t all come to us with Brady Bunch parents, three well-balanced meals, and a fully stocked library in their homes. Some of them come to us from chaos and school is their safety. Some of them come to us having it all but still need just a little bit more. You don’t have to be a superhero to create lasting bonds- you just have to care. Every day. No matter what. Kids can tell, and kids deserve it.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

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One of the greatest truths in life is that we all, regardless of age, want to feel accepted. Accepted by peers, accepted by those in authority, accepted by our communities. The need for acceptance can often make us give up on parts of who we are that we feel are “less than” or “not as good” as those around us. As a child myself I never felt as good as my peers. I often made up stories to try to fit in, knowing that what I was saying was untrue, but desperately wanting the acceptance of others.

In The Name Jar we meet Unhei, a lovable little girl who has just immigrated to America from Korea. As she enters her American classroom she realizes that her peers cannot say her name, so she chooses to pretend she doesn’t have a name yet. Her classmates begin a voyage to choose a name for her, while she internally struggles with wanting to fit in and wanting to stay true to herself.

As I read this book to my class my heart tugged in a few directions. I loved that this story showed the struggle that children face when they are in a new land, with new people, and want to fit in, while also not wanting to give up on who they are. I also loved that ultimately the act of kindness that helped Unhei to be true to herself and her name was a friend taking the time to extend a gesture of acceptance. Her friend took the time to learn a little bit about her culture and show his appreciation for her differences, and this made all the difference.

This book also opened the floor to a discussion about the meaning behind our names. The kids were all eager to share what their names mean and why their families chose them. We discussed how when we say our names wrong, not only is it not our name, but it’s also no longer a word with meaning. So, on day 3 of the school year, while I still struggle to learn names and say them correctly, I continue to try because I do not want to rob kids of their meaning, their identity, and who they are. The Name Jar allowed us to have such rich conversations about our identity, the feelings of acceptance, and the struggle of wanting to be true to yourself as well as fit in with peers.

My Name is Sangoel by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed

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Before I even begin, I must tell you that when I read this book today TWO classes of 5th graders clapped at the end. I’ve been teaching 5th grade for a long time and I can’t recall many times kids clapped at the end of a book, but this book literally brought the house down- TWICE IN ONE DAY!

When I think about why… why was this the book that made them clap, the book that so deeply resonated with two separate classes- I think the answer is two-folds. On one hand my kids can so relate to Sangoel, but also Sangoel is just such a lovely character. He is composed and calm at times when he is frustrated, he doesn’t give up on who he is, and in the end he gets his whole class to say his name properly- he’s winning!

Most of my students are from India and have traditional Indian names. When I asked them today to raise their hand if someone has ever said their name wrong most hands went up. I then asked them to keep their hand up if they have ever gone a whole year in school with their name being said wrong every single day. Most of the hands stayed up. When I asked why the answers were as I expected- they felt too shy to tell the teacher, they didn’t want to be disrespectful, they tried to tell them but the teacher still didn’t say it right, and more.

What I find with my students is that most say, “It’s ok, say it the way you said it, that’s the American way.” But when we do that, when we accept the American way as “good enough” because the kids told you to, you are robbing them of their identity. I’m not going to pretend I can say all their names right- I have a few I’m totally butchering, but I told them that their job is to help me, daily, until I get it right. I go over to them quietly and have them help me. I practice and practice, at home looking at my roster, and in the classroom next to them. I am not going to rob them of their identity by accepting their permission to call them their “American name” when I know it’s not their real name.

What made Sangoel so incredible was that he held strong. He thought outside the box and found a way to show his classmates and teacher how to say his name. He also opened a door for deep, rich conversation with my students as we discussed the importance of our names. Sangoel provided my students with a safe place to discuss a topic that they often are too shy or embarrassed to discuss because they don’t want to correct their teacher, but when we discussed this concept through Sangoel, they were so incredibly comfortable sharing their stories.

And that, my friends, is the power of diverse children’s literature and why it matters. Not only does it show representation, but it allows conversations to naturally occur in a safe space. Kids deserve it.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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This summer I created a Donors Choose project to try to get more diverse picture books into my classroom. As the supplies came in last week I sat there, surrounded by all of these beautifully illustrated masterpieces, and thumbed through the pages. The first one I decided to read was The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson. Something about the cover called to me.

As I read the story I immediately knew this would be my first day of school read aloud. The story shares the tale of a first day of school for kids who are perhaps not just like everyone else in their class. We meet characters who face kids that laugh at their name, their lunches, or something else about their identity. As I read this I saw my students. Most of my kids aren’t named Nancy or Tom, with peanut butter and jelly in their lunch box. My kids come from all over the world, their names and lunches reflecting them. I just knew this story had to greet them on their very first day.

However, the part that pulled on my heartstrings the most was when the one character feels “less than” her classmates because she doesn’t have exciting stories to share about her summer, stories filled with travel and far away places. When I read this I felt like the author was reaching into my classroom, touching my students who are just like this character, and reminding them that does not make their story any “less than” their peers. While many of my students spend their summer in far away lands, many also spend it at home. With family. Reading books, playing outside, and living their life much the same as they do during the school year. Seeing a character embrace this and learn to be proud of her story was so inspirational that I knew it had to be shared immediately.

Both of my classes loved this story. They saw the beauty in diversity but also saw the underlying sameness, that we all just want to feel included and part of the whole.

A New School Year

Tomorrow is the start of a new school year. I have lunches to make, bags to pack, and yet I’m sitting here watching clips of soccer drills for 6 year-old kids. Why, you ask? Well… it’s a bit of a funny story.

I have never played an organized sport. In fact, I’ve spent the majority of my life avoiding any situation where my lack of athletic prowess would be witnessed by others. I was often picked last in gym, I missed many balls in volleyball when my team was counting on me, and I’ve never played soccer. But this Saturday I will be coaching my son’s soccer team at the first game of this season.

That’s right. Me. The girl who has never played. You see, in April when I signed my son up I clicked the box that said I’d be willing to “help.” There was also a box for coach, but I didn’t click that one. I assumed I’d cut up some orange slices or maybe help organize picture day. Instead, I’ll be on the field, coaching. Me. The girl who has never even worn cleats.

When I got the email saying I was the coach my first reaction was ABSOLUTELY NOT. Sure, I can teach kids, but to coach 6-7 year old boys one would assume I should have at least played this game before. But the league was desperate, there were no coaches, and I was needed. I will not disappoint my son, or other kids, who want a chance to play, so I’ll research the heck out of this and I will go out on that field and act like I know what I’m doing.

I’ve spent the majority of my life hiding from fear or failure. As a child I didn’t raise my hand for fear of not knowing the answer. As a teenager I didn’t try out for teams or activities for fear of losing. As a young adult I didn’t run for president of my sorority (even though I REALLY wanted to) because I was scared I’d lose. I’ve spent my whole life hiding from opportunities because I didn’t want to learn I wasn’t good enough.

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As an adult I was a finalist for State Teacher of the Year in NJ in 2015. The process was long, with many essays, videos of me teaching, and a panel interview at the end. I ended up not winning, but it was the first time I put myself out there, lost, and learned the world kept turning.

Last year I put myself out there for a few opportunities I didn’t get. And it crushed me. I spent most of the year sinking into a hole of self-doubt. I told myself that this was why I don’t try, that it’s better to wonder “what if” than to learn you just weren’t good enough. I did the exact opposite of what I’d tell my own kids, or my students, to do. I believed that these situations of failure meant that I was a failure.

When my superintendents back to school letter came into my inbox this year she asked us to think about what we will try this year and all I could think of was that this year I will try to let go of my fear of failure and the limitations that imposes, and instead focus on modeling for my students that there is so much possibility in stepping outside your comfort zone. Sure, sometimes you won’t win, you won’t succeed, but you will learn. You’ll learn what didn’t work, you’ll learn a new way to try something, and maybe you’ll learn a little something about yourself.

So tonight, the night before a new school year, I am committing to letting go of my fear of failure and embracing the possibility of trying something new. I am committing to creating a classroom environment for my students where they’re not scared to raise their hands because it’s OK to not be right. It’s OK to try something you’ve never done before because that simple act of trying is a success. It’s OK to not get something you really want because you may learn you have something else more to give.

Oh, and I’m also going to be a soccer coach. A good one at that!

Save Me a Seat

When I decided to buy my own domain and expand my vision for my blog I knew I wanted a focus of my writing to be on “reviews” of diverse books. Not reviews in the sense of giving a book a rating, but more so an explanation of how this book approaches diversity and how my students have responded to it. It was natural that the first book I’d focus on was Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks.

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It’s shameful to admit but prior to a few years ago I never really thought about the (lack of) diversity in the books I exposed my students to. Sure, there were books with diverse characters, but it was by chance- not a result of conscious effort to have all my students represented in the books they read.

Two summers ago I was browsing Twitter when someone mentioned the book Save Me a Seat and I was immediately intrigued. My students are largely South Asian (about 85%) with the majority being from India. It’s rare to find books with Indian main characters so I immediately picked it up, thinking, “Oh, this will be nice!” Little did I know that this one small gesture would revolutionize my teaching, my philosophy on education, and the way I structure my library.

I opened my school year with Save Me a Seat, setting aside my usual choice of Wonder for the first read aloud of the year. My kids were entranced. They corrected how I pronounced the words (which I still get wrong- but I try, boy do I try!), they shared ways their family structure was similar to Ravi’s, and above all else they enjoyed the story for what it is- an amazing tale about friendship, feeling like an outsider, and the struggles of being yourself in a world that often pushes us to be someone else.

I was so enthralled with this book that I connected with the authors who graciously participated in a Twitter chat with my class. A year later we had the opportunity to have Gita Varadarajan come to our school and share with us her writing, her story, and her experience of immigrating to America from India.

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(That photo is of Gita and I reading the beginning of the story, she is reading the part of Ravi while I read as Joe).

But what made this experience so life altering for me was watching the kids react to Gita’s stories…. they laughed at jokes I didn’t understand, they ooohed and aaahed at mentions of foods I had never tried, and they connected in a way I didn’t know how to reach them. They saw themselves in her, and she in them. I sat there with literal tears in my eyes and thought, “THIS is the power of representation. THIS is what happens when kids read books and can relate.”

Save Me a Seat shows diversity by sharing with us the lives of two students in the course of one week in their 5th grade year. Joe, from a Caucasian American background, and Ravi, straight from India, are forced to face their bully, Dillon Samreen, another Indian student who is more “Americanized” than Ravi.  The dynamic between Dillon and Ravi was particularly interesting, with the aspect of being “more Indian” or “more American” bringing up interesting conversations with my students as they decided whom they related to more.

I will forever be thankful to Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan for creating such an incredible novel that captures my students in a way no other book I’ve read to them has. Representation matters, and Save Me a Seat was the first book to open my eyes to just how important that is.

“TEACHERS DON’T PICK GOOD BOOKS.”

I’ve always been a reader. My mom loves to joke about how when school would get out the first thing I’d want to do is buy my summer reading books and get started. Not shockingly, when I think back to my summers as a child my favorite memories involve my public library. I used to love going and picking out books, recording them on my chart, and taking said chart to the librarian to “check in.” I remember this with such fondness… it was truly a part of the summer that meant more to me than most other aspects of those 9 glorious weeks of freedom.

Now, as a parent, I try to recreate that with my own kids. I signed my son up for the summer reading program and we went religiously once a week. I can’t say he approached this with the same luster I once did…. but he enjoyed the weekly tradition.

Typically while we were at the library he’d grab some books and I’d grab some for him as well. He is reading now, but on a very primary level (he is entering first grade next week), so I’d choose some books on his level for him to practice his skills, while he’d choose some books for “fun.”

A few nights ago I very excitedly told him I had chosen a book I was excited to read to him. He groaned and said, “This won’t be good.” When I asked him why he said, “Because you’re a teacher. Teachers don’t pick good books.”

Well. I’m just going to let that set in for a minute. Reread that. Picture me, sitting on the bed, grasping my heart, and fainting…. because that’s what I felt like doing. Instead I composed myself and asked him why he said that. He said, “Because teachers always pick books to make you learn.”

Huh… what an insightful six year old I have on my hands. While I really wanted to yell, “NO! Teachers pick great books and you, my friend, are WRONG!” I calmly told him that he was right, but you can learn from any book. (Please note, this probably fed directly into his feelings that we are trying to make him learn and only further irritated him… just saying.)

But let’s think about this. When Landon is left to his own devices he picks a few things…. he chooses superhero books, Scooby Doo books, Fly Guy, and Avengers books. He chooses characters he feels comfortable with and that meet his interests. He really never walks down the “literature” aisles where traditional picture books are kept…. he bee lines for his section. At this point we have read every superhero book the library has… many we have read twice or three times.

So as teachers, when we cultivate our libraries, are we thinking through the lenses of kids like Landon? Kids who like the familiarity? Kids who want stuff that might be seen as “garbage” or not “real literature”? Are we trying to force a square peg into a round hole to meet our standard of what “good books” look like? Are we providing enough choice and opportunity for all of our readers?

I can remember being a new teacher and being told to keep the classics in my library. To shy away from the graphic novels/Diary of a Wimpy Kid/Captain Underpants of the world. I remember hearing people say those books were garbage and they weren’t “real” books. I guess I question then who decides what “real” is. How does one determine what book has value? Because to a kid like Landon, he is going to learn to read fluently by being allowed to explore Fly Guy and similar silly books.

Once again my son has taught me a lesson about teaching that I could never learn from my years in college, or even my years as a teacher without the inner insights of a child. He has taught me to see my job as the teacher as more of a provider of a buffet of books, and not a prix fixe menu. He has taught me to expand what options are presented to my students and see through the eyes of a child. He has reinforced to me the importance of taking time to ASK what they want to read rather than selecting it for them. He has reinforced that books aren’t just for learning… they’re also for fun…. and if we want to catch all of our readers, we need to find what they find fun.