At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.
Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.
You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.
Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.
More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.
And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”
There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.
At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans. Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.
In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole. Rarely are students absent.
Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser. You can read about it here. While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.
Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony? Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience? Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours? After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?
As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.
Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”
This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year. This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5. In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships. If you are interested in helping, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.
What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?
Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously. Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.
I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.
If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.
Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever. I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”
Back to School that is.
Ahhh, back to school. A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike. Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th. Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.
We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.
This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares. These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc. In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!
Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year. Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:
Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,
Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,
Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,
Even the air was redolent with exuberance — full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.
This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:
The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,
The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,
The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,
The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.
That classroom was waiting for you. Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.
It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:
“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school? I’m the VP of our union. Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts. Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”
“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.
“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.
I have always been a fiercely proud union member. I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career. But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.
To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state. I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with. I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.
What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.
I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared. A classroom where materials are still in boxes. A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.
A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.
Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.
Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this. Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways. Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.
There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits. A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom. This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.
The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.
Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low. Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space. Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.
Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier. The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.
Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.
And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.
Is this fair? No, of course not. But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us. Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom. Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours. Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.
As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space: 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design. It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.
The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.
As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”
I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space. Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”
Consider your classroom. Which corner do you want to start with?
Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went. Is there an area in your room that felt congested? Or cluttered? A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends? Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.
Begin with one of these spaces.
Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options. If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.
There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional. Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.
(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)
A place for everything and everything in its place
If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.
Materials to support classroom procedures
If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.
Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion
If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.
Nontraditional student work areas
If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.
There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning. However, to do so takes significant time. Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.
So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom. Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year. Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space. (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)
But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure. Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead. Quite frankly, so are most teachers. It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.
Your students are worth it. So are you.
 Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.
An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.
My students made that happen, and they did so much more.
As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes. Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.
But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …
And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.
originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17
by Krista Taylor
Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.
During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.
My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?
Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.
My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.
Originally published May 16, 2016. Updated June 2, 2017.
It is commencement season, and our Facebook feeds and conversations with friends are filled with celebrations: hard-won degrees earned, and lifelong goals met. It is a joyous time of year.
Every commencement is special, but some years and in some locations, there is magic. In 2014 Gamble Montessori senior Michael Tucker reached a personal milestone as he crossed the stage and received his diploma. Michael was not just graduating from high school. He was confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy – or at least he had been. Though this was his situation during his entire time at Gamble, he had expressed to his teacher and mother that he wanted to walk across the stage at graduation. For more than a year, he regularly left school twice a week to get physical therapy that was at times painful for him, but he had a goal. He had knee surgery to extend his tendons so he could stand upright enough to walk, and he engaged in extensive recovery therapy. He even started walking to different places around the classroom, practicing the commencement walk tirelessly.
On commencement day, we had a lift available to get him on and off the stage. This was a precaution, in case fatigue or the excitement got in the way of his plans. At our rehearsal he stumbled a bit, but assured us through sign language and his determined look that he would be fine for the big event. That afternoon, when his name was called, he started confidently across the stage … and did exactly what he said he would, walking independently toward me to get his diploma. Michael’s mother reported that, behind her, another woman exclaimed loudly, “It’s a miracle!” Certainly it was. We were crying at the celebration of a goal visibly achieved through hard work and pain over an extended time. It was better than a miracle: it was a hard-won victory.
This celebration of personal and individual triumph is, of course, why we were crying and applauding for every child. For each graduate, the obstacles are very real, if not as dramatic or as visible.
Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar. There is no more powerful reminder of the importance of a teacher’s work, and the value of our time spent in conversations with students about quality of work and matters of integrity and timeliness. I remind my students that this particular ceremony is an important gateway into society. Their diplomas, already earned, wield the real power to their post-secondary future. The ceremony, however, remains an emotional symbolic transition into adulthood.
The photos and stories in our Facebook feed reveal that, over time, every school develops its own traditions and ways of taking care of the important business of sending students out into the world. Some have mechanical, no-nonsense commencement ceremonies, appropriate especially for schools with large graduating classes, while others have developed odd traditions, like the Smith College Diploma Circle, where students are handed someone else’s diploma and seek their own in a method described here: http://www.smith.edu/events/commencement_traditions.php . Almost all feature a speech by a student in the class, a dignitary or two, and representatives of the Board that oversees the school. Many feature music by the school’s choir, band, or orchestra, perhaps performing the processional and/or recessional.
In the spring of 2010, Gamble Montessori, in just our fifth year of formal existence, celebrated our first commencement, and faced a bit of a challenge. The Board of Education provided an outline of required events in a certain sequence (pledge of allegiance, conferring of diplomas, etc.) but these were not a graduation ceremony in themselves. There was no personality there, no recognition of what made us unique. So we turned to ourselves –a graduation committee consisting of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, students and myself – to create an event worthy of our students.
Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar.
For our first commencement, Janice Dale, a paraprofessional who had worked with our students for years, and who our students intermittently addressed as Mrs. Dale and “Grandma,” offered a bold proposal: in addition to focusing on the achievements and development of the individuals, we would have a series of 3 commencements that would served to place Gamble appropriately in the timeline of public Montessori schools. Our school was the 7th public Montessori school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, and the second high school. There is no public Montessori system like it anywhere in the world, but we often took it for granted. She wanted to give our faculty, students, and families a remarkable gift. She suggested we should honor those who made our school possible, in order to remind ourselves how we were special. More importantly, with Mrs. Dale’s help, we made sure that our commencement was a space for our students to celebrate their individual talents, whether it was reciting poetry, dancing, or singing.
[Author’s note: We followed her plan. Our first 3 years we honored: the beginnings of Montessori in Cincinnati including those who worked to create the first public Montessori elementary schools here, then the more recent past including those who broadened the number of Montessori elementary openings in Cincinnati, and finally we recognized those individuals who were directly responsible for the creation of Gamble Montessori 12 years after the opening of the first public Montessori high school, Clark Montessori.]
Commencement is best when the focus is a celebration of students’ talents and interests, and those define the ceremony to make it unique. It is crucial to honor the individual student, and to honor each and every individual. Just as a conscientious teacher builds choice into classwork and tailors assignments to match the strengths and interests of individual students, a conscientious administrator understands that to truly celebrate community, we must celebrate each of our individuals at commencement. We understand that when we share the responsibility and share the limelight, we make our community stronger. For this reason, students can be entrusted with several opportunities to make the ceremony theirs.:
Allow students to pick their student speaker, instead of having this determined by a GPA or by a committee. Many believe the valedictorian to be the student with the best grades at the completion of school, and that this person is required / entitled to give the main student speech at commencement. However, the accurate definition of valedictorian is less specific, simply the student chosen to give the main address at commencement. Rather than a formula or a committee deciding, our seniors choose this person internally. Often, as it was in 2017, students will choose the valedictorian, as this person has typically exemplified herself as a capable student who responds well to adversity and can be depended on to deliver a strong speech.
Allow seniors to invite to the keynote speaker of their choice. Given enough lead time, local politicians and activists, and even celebrities, are honored to be asked to speak at a commencement. Our students have historically chosen favorite teachers from their younger years at Gamble. This year they chose two current teachers to share the responsibility. In each case, they have selected teachers who were storytellers and who both loved and frustrated them.
Allow students to choose their graduation gown color from one of the school colors, instead of assigning them by gender. It creates an attractive and varied group picture, and avoids the discomfort and frustration that can come from mandating gown colors.
Have student videos featuring pictures and quotes, or even baby pictures. Another option is to have posters featuring seniors’ favorite photos of themselves. Finding a different way to honor the students, rather than merely having their name read aloud the moment they cross the stage, makes for a more engaging ceremony for the crowd of family members who might only know one of the graduates and will be pleased to see their familiar face in more than one place.
Allow students to choose which talented students will display their artistry at commencement. In five short years we have had singers, a praise dancer, and poetry readings. In 2017, our own band was able, for the first time, to perform Pomp and Circumstance.
Allow students the chance to – tastefully and within appropriate boundaries – decorate some part of their gown or mortarboard.
In 2014 students asked if they could decorate their mortarboards, those flat-topped square hats that graduates wear. The traditionalists among us initially rejected the idea, but again, respect for the individual won out. We quickly created three simple rules for the mortarboard decoration and a new tradition was born: it had to be two-dimensional, it had to fit completely on the board, and it had to be school appropriate. What followed were dozens of decorations that compared their journey from kindergarten to commencement to a popular video game, touted their college choices and majors, and touchingly celebrated their friendships.
Certain parts of the ceremony have remained steadfastly the same, in place to make sure we honor each student individually. First, we remind our families early in the ceremony how important it is that we honor each student fully, but within the time provided. Many of our students have invited distant family relatives to this milestone ceremony, and they take the occasion of commencement to loudly exclaim their pride and love. Rather than suggest that it is not appropriate to applaud and cheer loudly (of course it is! This is a time of celebration!), we remind our parents that the child being introduced after their child is equally deserving of praise and applause. Then, as a cushion, we have built in a little extra time for each student. When a child’s name is called, she steps onto the stage to shake my hand, accept her diploma, get our picture taken together, and shake the hands of the Board member and other dignitaries. Rather than immediately calling the next name and being frustrated by continuing applause, we allow the student their full moment, only calling the next name when she reaches the top of the stairs to descend at the other side of the stage.
Gamble’s graduation has never been interrupted by cheering extending into another student’s introduction, or marred by silence as a graduate’s name was called and his small family’s applause was lost in the crowd and reaches of the conference center. Each year our families have honored every graduate, and demonstrated the sense of community we seek to instill in each of our students.
One year, the students asked Tara to sing a solo with the choir. She worked with the teacher to select the appropriate song, “Dare to Dream” by John Legend. Weeks of practice got her fully prepared, vocally, for commencement. Nothing had prepared her emotionally for singing in front of such a large crowd and – more importantly – singing to friends she was just starting to realize she might not ever see all together again. We cried with Tara as she stumbled through her solo, singing a prayer of hope as a gift to her classmates: “Hold on when hope is gone / Race may not belong to the swift or the strong / It’s given to the ones who can endure for long / I know we care.”
One year we laughed as teacher Jason Banks pulled the microphone free from the podium, jumped off the stage, and urged the graduates to leave their seats and sit Montessori-style in a circle on the floor. He reminded them of their marine biology study in Pigeon Key, Florida, and their whitewater rafting trip where they woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow. He prompted them with, “Always leave a place …” and they finished, “Better than you found it!” Then he read them key excerpts from Oh! The Places You’ll Go.
The best commencements are the ones where the crowd can feel just a little bit lost, but each student feels completely found.
Between our rehearsal and the actual ceremony, some time is carved out for students to be in community with one another. One year teacher Josh Vogt used the opportunity to read a short story to the seniors, one that challenged them to think about their relationships with one another an with the community. This year we used that time to open our gratitude box, filled over the past several years from various ceremonies around gratitude, and reflect on the people and circumstances that helped get us to this point. What is important is that you can take a minute to be, again, one last time, in community.
Each year, as we gather for graduation practice, I remind my students that commencement is an important ritual, yes, but also just a grand show. The hard work has been done. They have earned their diplomas with nights of hard work and days of concentration. They have raised and spent hundreds of dollars, and invested thousands of hours over 12 or more years of their lives. The big work of their lives so far has been completed, and everyone has gathered to honor them. They have earned this celebration, and we are so proud of them.
This is the time to pay close attention to each other, be patient, and be in love with the moment and with our students. We follow the child, hit our marks, and let the miracles happen.