Why Culture is Everything

I was so worried at the start of this year that the interruptions by fires would burn down the community I was trying to create.  I didn’t know if our chance to bond had been erased by the school closures.  I was sad and disappointed, but each new “first day of school”, I started over. I learned that it doesn’t take a certain number of consecutive days. It takes a consistent heart.

A funny and sweet thing happened on Friday. One of my favorite books to read is There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar. My students “get” this story about a fifth grade boy, Bradley Chalkers, who is “the bad kid” at school, has no friends, is comfortable with failure, etc.  In this story, with the help of a new kid who doesn’t buy into Bradley’s version of himself and a new school counselor, Bradley begins to change how he views himself and takes the risk of changing his persona.  We are in the last pages now, and Bradley has to face the heartache of losing the counselor due to school politics.  It is devastating to Bradley and to the readers who have come to love him and root for him.  So I warn my students – this is the part that makes me cry EVERY TIME. Sure enough, as I’m reading, the tears start to flow down my face and the faces of several students. At this point, one of my boys goes to the tissue box and dispenses tissue to me and his classmates. Then he came to my side and started gently patting my back as I read.  He was so sweet and caring.

Previously, as I gathered them from the cafeteria, he told me his stomach hurt after he ate.  He didn’t want to see the nurse. He was going to wait and see how he felt later.  When I inquired later he said, “No, the question is ‘Do YOU feel better’?” Well, I most certainly did. (He did as well.) When I read his blog post (I will write about that another time.) at the end of the day he had written, “Mrs. G. is very kind. It is our time to be the same.”

Through this story, my interactions with my students and the reminders around our classroom that “Kindness Matters” and The Golden Rule, they are learning the most important lessons of all.  We are not defined by our past mistakes; we are all worthy of love; and being kind can make a difference in the lives of the people around us.

I see the kindness in my students every day, throughout the day, in how they support and interact with one another. It starts with our Celebrations and Concerns time in the morning and ripples throughout the day. We don’t spend time reciting and reviewing the rules, because we are invested in each other’s success and happiness. Following the rules is a natural consequence.

With this is in place, we are ready to take on all the challenges learning brings to us. It doesn’t take clip charts or points, treasure boxes or threats. It just takes kindness. We have it at our disposal. It is free. It requires no storage. It is transformational. Just be kind.



That “Rudy” Moment

I am warning you right now that a brag is coming. My students are the best. There, I said it. A member of our classroom family has been struggling for the past year with severe anxiety and issues with self-worth. Extreme. She cannot see mistakes or failure as a viable option (yet).  To be “out” in Four Square or Dodgeball can be the catalyst for anguish. (While she is not adept at either, eagerly joins in on both.)  Her peers know this, and each game holds tension.  For the purpose of storytelling, I will call her “Sarah”. So here’s her “Rudy” moment:

The game of Dodgeball is down to three people. Sarah is still in. Another student leans into me and says, “When she gets out, Mrs.G., I’m on it. I will go get her when she runs away. I know what to say.”  I reply, “She won’t run today.” Now the game is down to two, the ball comes bouncing past and hits Sarah’s ankles. She drops in despair with  a piercing wail.  The other player steps out the circle.  A classmate notices that the only one still “in” is Sarah.  She says, “Sarah, I think you won!” Instead of questioning or challenging the notion, her classroom family begins to chant, “Sarah! Sarah!”

At this point, I have gone to her and am holding her against me to keep her safe. The other students come charging in for hugs and high-fives.  I turn Sarah around to see and hear and feel the love. She is so shocked and confused, that I take her hand and place in the air for her so she can receive the high-fives.  She finally “came to”, embraced me tightly and whispered, “This has never happened to me before.”  Then I could see all the tension release from her body.

As I stepped away, the other student who had stepped out of the circle approaches me and says, “I was really still in. I was the winner, but it’s okay. I won’t say anything.”  I hug her and say, “You are a winner, and thank you.”

This story isn’t about winning. This story is about working to change one of Sarah’s fundamental truths about herself. Her goal for this year is to feel safe and loved at school. Our classroom family knows she needs this, and we are on a mission to make it happen. And I never had to say a word. Intrinsic Empathy on our 8th day of school. It’s gonna be a great year.



Surviving VS Thriving

So here it is. The truth is about to be spoken: I fear I may get stuck in survival mode and forget all that I have read and thought and planned.  My students will walk in the door on Monday, and I will panic at all that must be accomplished to make up for the five days lost to fire. PANIC! It keeps rushing in.

I want to breathe in peace and envelop my students with it on my exhale. I want to take it all in stride. I want to be the laid-back adult I planned to be. But alas, I am Type A. I am inwardly hysterical at the loss of the miniscule amount of control I thought I had garnered. I will smile and speak slowly and calmly, but the eye-twitch will give me away.

“Snow Days”, I tell myself.  Teachers in places that experience weather survive unplanned snow days.  BUT NO! Not in the first ten days of school! Not when they are trying to build a culture, establish routines and become a family!

I must find my chill, as my own beloved children would say, so that I can thrive. I need to calm the heck down and be the teacher my students need me to be in order for them to thrive. I will. I will.

Do you panic? What is your mantra that cancels out the cacophony of chaos? Whisper it to me so that I too may become a zen master.

Roasting Hillsides and Marshmallows


The first day of school was like Christmas downgraded to Groundhog Day.  We were in the locale of the Pilot Fire.  The sky was orange; the air was smoke-filled; the children were scared; we were locked inside except to go get lunch and use the restroom. And yet, we began as best we could. Big chunks of my plans were cancelled. No problem. They hadn’t read my plans.  We got to know each other. We created. We did some GoNoodle so we wouldn’t lose ours. Then we went home. For two days.

Ultimately what that means is that we had the first day of school all over again on Thursday, which was also Back to School Night. Does that make me cry? Nope. I broke out The Marshmallow Challenge I had intended to do on the first day.  It was fun and the best tool I have ever used to get to know my students. I saw immediately who my “leaders” were, who was quietly thoughtful, who cooperates naturally and who does not, and so on and so forth.  All of that information is very helpful, but that is not the best part.

When time was up on the challenge, we had zero towers standing. Zero. One student said, “We didn’t make it, but we had fun!” But wait, there’s more! We came together to talk about the experience, and create a circle map about group work. Beforehand, we watched the TED talk about the Marshmallow Challenge. Some of it didn’t apply to them, but the main concepts did.  Reflecting on the talk and their own experiences, they came up with some ideas. They told me they learned that to be successful they needed to listen to each other, to try every person’s idea with no one trying to be the boss, they needed to persevere (word of the day), and they needed to be kind to each other. I was a happy teacher. We celebrated our failure at towers and success in learning by eating marshmallows, of course.



To Blog or Not to Blog: A Willingness to Be Crap

The encouragement to start a blog (or simply to write and share) has come from a few different parts of my life. I had tried before, but I gave up quickly after one or two posts – I couldn’t take the pressure to not be crap. I couldn’t let go of the feeling that no one cared what I had to say or that sharing a success seemed like humble bragging or sharing a defeat felt like a pity party people were forced to attend.  I have also seen how “haters” are out there and thrive on attacking by seeing the “comments” my daughter received on her blog about growing up and living with Sensory Processing Disorder.  She too, ultimately took a step back from sharing.

The irony is, I love reading blogs. I don’t judge the writer with the same criticism I throw at myself.  What is actually arrogant is assuming that my readers will be less kind or less gracious than I am.  There will be some detractors, but overall, people do want to love and support one another.  I am confident in this position because one of my greatest accomplishments this summer has been reaching out to other educators through Twitter and professional development opportunities – starting to build a Professional Learning Network, PLN, outside of my school site and friends. What I have discovered outside my bubble is a community of passionate, inspired and inspiring educators eager to share, learn, celebrate and grieve together.

Aside from becoming part of a larger network of educators, my second goal is become publicly reflective about my teaching practice. Steve Wyborney, author the book The Writing on the Classroom Wall, includes this practice as part of being a public learner. To be honest, being vulnerable in public is not something most people will sign up for – including me.  Our social media lives are generally our times of family unity and meals not obtained through a drive-thru window. The airing of “dirty laundry” is frowned upon even though it is in the fertile valleys, in the shadows, where the most growth occurs and deepest ties are bound among us.

Ultimately, it is about growth. Blogging is a time to be introspective of my practices, process intentions and outcomes to evaluate if they match, attain support and guidance for flops, share successes for the benefit of others, and demonstrate to my students that I will not ask them to take risks I am not willing to take. Bono (from U2 for younger people) says “The fear of being crap is what makes you great.”  Well, if it an actual algorithm, I’m off to a fabulous start.