Bonus Points! presents inspiring educators with a list of 10 questions on varying educational topics and lets them choose which they want to respond to. Through this process, we uncover and demystify some of the hidden realities that happen in all classrooms and gain some wisdom from some really amazing and inspiring educators.
What is something about your classroom that makes it a special space where you and your students want to spend time?
Students call my classroom library “The Garden. In the garden, we have a futon, a HUGE memory foam bean bag chair, this wacky egg chair, and a bunch of throw pillows. What I love most about this area of my room is that it has been created and molded each year by the families of my students. We have created this inviting and comforting space that makes my students feel so comfortable in my room that they beg to stay in (especially during recess).
My students and I love this area. It feels like a hybrid between a treehouse and the inside of an incredible fort. Surrounding the garden is our classroom library books with our “Student Recommended Reads” bin and my personal favorite fourth grade books.
As a class, we discuss how special a classroom library is because of all that we can learn from books and how there’s an adventure in every book. That’s why we call it “The Garden”, because it’s where great readers and leaders grow. This area is also where I do a lot of my instruction and we have some of our deepest and most vulnerable conversations and moments as a class there. My students associate this part of our room as a welcoming and comforting place where all are accepted to be who they are and everyone is invited to be vulnerable and to ask tough questions.
What is something you want to learn or get better at? What is a tool that you would like to add to your teaching toolbox?
I really want to get better about finding time, at least once every week, to spend getting to know my students better and to show them I care about them both as a student and as a person. I have been trying to have informal mini-conferences where I ask my students about what’s going on in their life and they can ask me about mine to help start building deeper, meaningful relationships. These mini-conferences often start with me asking a question such as “How was your weekend?”, “What do you have going on this week that you’re super excited about?”, or “Is there anything going on that you’d like to talk about with me?”. I hope to get to know my students more as kids and hear about their lives outside of school rather than just knowing them as students and their academic goals.
I also try to join them in activities outside of our classroom. I will play a couple rounds of tetherball with a student who is often alone at recess. I’ll teach my kids a new version of freeze tag and playing a couple rounds with them. I’ll go to the science lab with my group of girls who like to hold the hamsters. Or sometimes I will invite a student who loves to read to stay in the classroom at recess so we can talk about our favorite stories together and or just sit together and read our stories side by side.
Through these conversations with my students, I hope to build trust between my students and show them they can trust me and that I care about them. It is my hope that these relationships that have been built will help us have more courageous conversations together where students feel that they can be vulnerable and honest.
What is a book that every teacher should have in their read aloud library?
How can I choose just one?!
Right now, I am really into the book- What Would She Do? by Kay Woodward, which tells the true stories of 25 trailblazing women from the past and present that kids can look up to. Everyone from Cleopatra and Amelia Earhart, to Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, and Emma Watson are included in the book. I have found that this has helped empower and encourage my students to defy stereotypes and look at breaking down barriers. I skip around in this book to focus on different women depending on who I want my kids to learn about at that moment, so it’s not a typical read aloud session. It’s truly an incredible book filled with the stories of women that anyone can look up to.
I LOVE the book A Bike Like Sergios, by Maribeth Boelts. In this book, it talks about doing the right thing even when it’s not easy. In the story, the main character, Ruben, really wants a bike for his birthday, just like the one his friend Sergio got. But Ruben’s family only has enough money to buy the things they truly need. One day while at the grocery store getting groceries for his family, Ruben finds a hundred dollar bill on the floor! The boy is then torn between buying the bike or doing the right thing and turning the money in. Students really get into this book and they all almost always find a way to relate and connect to the main character from a time in their life when they had to choose to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t easy. Reading this book with my class is often humbling for my students to realize that some kids know not to ask for birthday presents because they know their families cannot afford them.
I am currently obsessed with the book Love, by Matt de la Pena and Loren Long. This book touches on how the world can be a pretty scary place with everything that is happening lately and how we can draw close to the love we have in our lives to help remind ourselves of the good in the world. What I really love about this book is that all different races, family make-ups, and types of homes are shown throughout the story. Almost every child can find "a love" that they can relate to. Every time I read this book I have to choke back tears because of how beautiful it is.
How do you recognize students for their hard work or good decisions? How do you reward your class when they are doing well?
My class LIVES for ClassDojo. ClassDojo is more than just a behavior management system, it’s a way to keep communication open from school to home, and it is packed with growth mindset videos and lessons. I use it to build classroom community all the while keeping the parents, the principal, and prep teachers in the loop of what’s going down in our classroom.
I use ClassDojo to celebrate and recognize awesome behaviors like when a student shows leadership by helping someone out. I also love that I can share my class with the principal and prep teachers on campus so that they too can give out points to my kids when they catch someone doing something awesome.
Here’s the buy in - through ClassDojo, students earn positive points for being awesome and doing great things. As a class, we track the total amount of positive points each student has earned throughout the year and at each 50 points gained, the students get a new karate belt on their Dojo icon. Our goal is to all become black belt “Dojo Ninjas” by the end of the year. We celebrate student success along the way.
We also have class rewards that students can purchase using their points. For ten points, students can get small prizes that don’t cost me much but mean the world to them. Things like being class president for the day, or getting to use a special chair or pillow for the day. Or they can read a favorite story to the class. And then there is the Stinky Feet Award where they can take their shoes off in class for the day.
Once students hit 20 or 25 points, they can purchase a Mystery or a Super Mystery Award. These are super special rewards that students pull out of a box without looking. Some mystery rewards include having lunch in the classroom with me, or being excused from homework for the night, or getting to read to the principal. The student’s favorite reward, as well as mine, is the lunch in the classroom- I offer up one lunch a month for students who have won this award and we hang out, talk, and we’ll even watch a G-rated movie in class together. Students who win this award are allowed to invite friends with them so that at least once during our year together everyone will have had a lunch in the classroom with me.
When you begin to feel disillusioned about your work as an educator, what do you do to bring yourself back and find the joy?
It sounds silly, but when I feel like I’m starting to pull my hair out, I find one of my favorite picture books, such as B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures and, in the moment, I schedule a quick break in our day to read it to the class as we sit together in our garden. I do this because I want to recenter myself, laugh with my students, and remind myself why I chose this career- for the students. I focus back on building those connections with the kids and stepping back from the stress of teaching the standards and curriculum for a brief moment.
We spend about thirty minutes just listening to the story to recenter ourselves, to lose ourselves in the story, and to let the story speak to us. It might sound like a lot of time, to drop everything and dive unexpectedly into a 30 minute read aloud, but it allows me to collect myself. My students love these unscripted conversations we end up having based on the books. Sometimes we’ll all go off and write a poem anonymously based on the ideas the book gave us on our school’s blacktop in sidewalk chalk to spread a message of love.
Of course, there’s also moments where I simply need some silence to collect myself and step out of the teacher spotlight- in which case I throw on a GoNoodle empower video and for four minutes or so, my class and I will do yoga together. Sometimes you just need to take some deep breaths paired with a solid tree pose with your kiddos.
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