The Beautiful Disaster

When the 2018/2019 school year began, there was an uneasy feeling that accompanied it.  After 17 years in the teaching business, I should know better than to listen to the few that could often be heard warning the 5th grade team of the level of patience that would be required to get through the year.  With the random act of kindness flash mob in it’s 6th year, I couldn’t help but wonder if the rumblings were true and even more so, would these kids even buy in? After all, it is a year-long process that requires acts of kindness to unlock the flashmob song, 30 separate 8-counts of dance moves, and costume items.

On the first day of school, I recall looking out and seeing students who were eager, attentive, and ready to learn.  I also remember seeing students who were argumentative about seating, unfocused, distracted, and restless.   I didn’t have that good feeling in my heart that I usually do on the first day of school.

I was scared.

Could this year really be a disaster and make all rumblings of a few people come true?They were 25 kids strong.  Despite my first thoughts, I looked each and every one of them in the eye and made a promise – one that I never took lightly.  I said that I would treat each of them like my very own child and that I’d protect this “family”.  I also directed them to my mother’s painting of a quote from Henry James:

“There are three important things in human life: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

img_2176I explained that in order for everyone to officially buy in to the flashmob act of kindness, we had to first learn to be kind to ourselves and to our classroom family if we were going to be able to seek out a fellow fifth grade student in need to deliver this grand act of kindness to.  Most were into it, but a few boys were uneasy about the prospect of dancing in front of others.  They said, “no”.

As weeks and months went by, I started to notice that the class was changing a bit.  There were less arguments and uncooperative instances.  I even noticed kids who weren’t normally normally associating with each other forming small groups to help with certain difficult dance moves.  Also, messages from parents were coming in about random acts of kindness that were completed out of nowhere, and without direction! Maybe this wasn’t going to be a disaster!

As the costumes began to arrive, it was time to get serious about the routine and picking our flashmob target.  As of March, there still were two boys who were not participating, but that all changed when one random day, BV got up to practice in our 5 minute a day window and knew all the moves.  I was blown away! He actually was one of the best at the routine.  I remember going home that day with a full heart as BV was coming out of his shell.  One more boy to go!

With almost the whole class involved, we sat down to narrow down a “target”.  This is always an eye opening experience as the students by this time are invested and honest about why some students in the other classes would deserve to be picked.  Reasons for nominating a students ranged from dealing with divorce, lack of friends, to being a victim of cyber bullying. We settled on KH and the reasons students gave were astounding.  After some thought, one student suggested we pick KH because of all the kids,  he was quiet, isolating himself, and often stares out of the bus window and said, “Sometimes it’s the quiet ones that need the most help.”

Enough said….

With the target in our sights, we set out to raise money to buy some of KH’s favorite things.  Students raised around $200 of their own money and with some help from me, we got a Harry Potter Lego accessory set, two Harry potter shirts, a Stan Lee ring, restaurant gift cards, Snickers, Coke, and a customized #inspirechange hat to match the ones I bought the class.  We changed into our costumes, sent some students to grab KH from his class, and flashmobbed him in epic style in the central pod area.  When it was over, he was led to our classroom, where he received his gifts.  I remember the look in his eyes when he saw the Stan Lee ring, which was something he wanted for Christmas and didn’t get.  I also remember seeing the look of pure joy in my students eyes from the act of giving.  It was amazing.


There was one show left to do: the end of the year assembly.  All the hard work was going to be on full display for the whole school to see.  We still had one student left to join, and it wasn’t looking good.  I even resorted to piling up large bags of salt and vinegar Lays chips to bribe him to join. RH finally said he would try, but in the week before the show, when we staged the whole show and had more involved rehearsals, he went on vacation.  I was disappointed, but I fully understand that performing is not for everyone and we moved on.

In the hour leading up to the assembly, we were busy getting ready.  In what would normally seem like a chaotic endeavor, kids were helping each other button shirts, roll sleeves, and tie ties.  With 15 minutes to go, I got the surprise of the year.  RH agreed to try! We quickly got him a costume, dressed, and headed for the stage for the show.  My heart was beating with excitement for the show, and happiness that we will have a full show with everyone participating.  This was going to be beautiful!


As the assembly program transitioned to our show, I briefly made some comments about the history of the #inspirechange flashmob, plugged into the sound system, and started the music.  Game time! Almost immediately, I noticed the volume of the sound system must have been too high and a bit of distortion was coming from the speakers.  I looked to around to see if anyone else noticed and hoped someone could turn it down a bit.  Then it happened.  The speaker blew and there was nothing left but the faint sound of my iPhone playing our song “Believer” by Imagine Dragons. I always have those thoughts at night that something will go wrong with the flash mob at the assembly and did it ever go wrong this time! When the music stopped, I thought of the student’s hard work. I thought of their parents taking time off from work to come.  I thought about the teachers and students who have been waiting to see our show.  I was too busy thinking these negative things to even stop dancing.  The next thing I knew, they were still with me and the crowd was singing.  What could have been a disaster turned into something truly memorable and beautiful. RH danced. Nobody gave up.

It was a beautiful disaster that I’ll never forget.


As I sit here in the summer reflecting on the whole experience, I am one proud “dad” of the classroom.  I know we were not the perfect class, where kindness ruled one hundred percent of the time.  I know things went wrong a lot more than I’d like to admit.  However, with the strength of 26 hearts, we learned that we can make a difference in the life of one of their peers by letting him know he matters and can always have someone to call a friend. We learned that true beauty can rise up from a disaster and that life give you some tough blows.  I leave them this summer knowing that when life gets stormy, they will dance through the rain like the true champions they are.

2019 Flashmob Performance (with technical difficulties)

Flashmob 2019: Take 2 redo for a small audience


Links to previous #inspirechange moments:

2014 Paying it Forward

2015 Synergize: Together is Better

2016 Flashmob Routine 

2017: The Year of 29

2018 Flashmob


Flashmob 2018

With the 2018 school year winding down, it is time to sit back and reflect on the year that was.  Many teachers take this time to reflect on test scores, student academic growth, and instructional practice around this time of year, as they seem to be easily measured and tracked as the calendar goes on.  I, on the other hand, choose to reflect on what has become an annual year-long project that also measures student growth: my student’s ability to have empathy for others, the ability to put other’s needs before their own, the ability to leave their comfort zone for a greater good, and to seek out a peer in need of love and raise them up to let them know they matter.  This growth and more was evident in flashmob 2018 and the #inspirechange movement.

Before I go on, here are some snippets from previous blog posts to highlight the genesis and evolution of the #inspirechange movement via flashmobbing.  Click the links to be brought to those blog posts for full stories and links to videos of flashmob performances.

For those who don’t know, my classes have taken on an identity of a class that flash mobs as a way to inspire random acts of kindness, positive atmosphere in the building, and most importantly, bring smiles to those who need it most.  In a nutshell, 4 years ago, a student gave my class a random act of kindness in the form of a nice card and asked us to pay it forward.  We did so by creating a small dance for a student who was devastated after breaking a prized wooden owl and presented her with a new stuffed owl puppet via a flashmob performance.  You can read about that tear-jerking moment, and view the simple genesis of the flashmob dance #inspirechange movement here:

Paying it Forward

The following year, I looped with the same group of kids and they wanted to continue the flashmob tradition so we upped our game, added costumes that I bought, acquired custom t-shirts from a group of colleagues, and upped the difficulty of the dance, requiring us to start working on day one of school.  Shortly into the school year, the boy, who started the whole thing with the random act of kindness suffered the loss of his father.  Naturally, we had our next target.  This time students raised their own money and I matched it to get him a nice basketball, a gift card to Game Stop, and some treats. You can read about this uplifting chain of events and watch the routine here:

Synergize: Together is Better

The following year, the tradition continued with another heartfelt case and an even fancier routine that can be seen here:

Flashmob Routine 2016

The 2017 routine of all routines featured stripped down jazz performance of Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Love Never Felt So Good to open the show.  I recruited some teacher friends of mine to form the band and two brave boys sang the melody.  The dance version followed the live musical performance.  This action can be seen in this blog post:

Flashmob 2017: The Year of 29

That brings us to 2018.  It is now a part of my first day activity set to review the history to the #inspirechange movement.  After 5 years of routines, the cat is already out of the bag and purring loudly as the new group of students arrive in September so I feel it is pointless to keep any secrets about the mission.  In fact, I actively recruit them to be active stakeholders in the majority of decisions that need to be made throughout the process, which establishes instant engagement.

After watching videos and revisiting the history of #inspirechange, I drew attention to a painting of a quote in our room that reads:

“Three things in human life are important:  The first is to be kind; The second is to be kind; And the third is to be kind.”      

-Henry James

We first learn to show ourselves kindness by being proactive and controlling what we can control.  Once we work on that, we learn to treat our classroom family members with respect and kindness.  I model this from day one as I make a formal promise to my class that I’d treat them like my very own child.  From there, we learn to search outside the classroom family to notice and spread kindness.  That is when we take stock and notice someone who is in need of our flashmob act of kindness.

When we sat down to discuss potential targets for our kindness, one girl stood out amongst the others. Despite the nearly 30-item list of reasons she could use some kindness, there was a girl who would give the shirt off her back no matter what people say or do to her.  Mayher was an obvious choice.

Here is where the little twist comes in.  Normally, we do a little research on our flashmob target to uncover things she likes so we can purchase some surprise gifts.  Students chip in money and I always promise to match their donation.  Once we had $100 in hand, we sent a representative to ask Mayher (and some other kids so we wouldn’t look too suspicious) what she would do if she had that kind of money.  Her response was amazing.  Rather than have material things, she would prefer to rescue a pet and give money to homeless.  While we all nearly melted upon hearing this, we quickly decided that we would still get her some loot, but also raise a bit more money to donate $100 to the Niagara County SPCA to go towards homeless pets.  What an amazing lesson of selflessness!  The students, once again, picked an amazing recipient.

On the day of the big surprise, we planted a candy bar and a bottle of ginger ale in Mayher’s locker with a note saying that it was going to be a great day.


We piled up all the gifts and a check to the SPCA on the reading table in the classroom.IMG_2721

With the gifts ready, it was game time.  Here are some pictures as we pulled Mayher out of class to give her a surprise that she’d never forget.


Following the performance for Mayher, we took our act to a 7 Habits assembly, where we told the story of #inspirechange and performed for the school.  The video can be seen here: Flashmob2018

As the dust settles on another amazing story and school year, I sit back and reflect with pride.  I’m proud of how my kids were able to be open and honest about how others are treated.  I’m proud of how my kids were able to know who the perfect flashmob target would be.  I’m proud of all the personal money they donated to make Mayher’s wishes come true.  I’m proud of all those kids who said they would never dance but did anyway.  I’m proud of the student who wouldn’t ever practice with the class, but ended up performing time after time for the good of the cause.  I’m proud of all the academic growth, with a healthy dose of empathy, compassion, selflessness, and bravery on top of it.  I’m one lucky classroom “dad”. IMG_2883


Flashmob 2017: The Year of 29

I have a confession to make.  It’s that kind of confession that you’ve been holding on to until the last minute and then that moment arrives and you are afraid to admit things.  Well here goes nothing….

When I was told in August that there would be 28 students, I was not happy.  I didn’t want all of them.  I didn’t even know them.  If anyone would listen, I’d mention how hard 28 would be and ask how I’d fit them all, teach everyone, and stay sane this year.  When people would walk by, they’d say how sorry they were for me, how unfair it was to me and the class, and how 4th grade was so lucky that they were building a new class by shuffling up the list and building new class lists.

 I was jealous.

And then came number 29.

As I sit here in June, with this being at least my 100th time trying to type this while fighting back tears, I realize just how wrong I was at the beginning of the year.  I was wrong in so many ways.

I was wrong because with all the hate in the world on the news, it’s with the strength of 29 voices in our conversations and research about tough issues in our world that made me look forward to coming to work every day.  I proudly watched each student stand up for each other, for people they didn’t know, and stood proudly as they spoke out for those voices that weren’t being heard or defended.

I was wrong because it’s with the strength of 29 hands, that we were able to use our writing to ask for change when we realized that something needed to be done to make our world and community a better place.  Each student proudly spoke up in front of parents, Mr. Mong, and anyone who would listen to them. They have found out that their voice matters.

I was wrong because it’s with the strength of 29 hearts that they collectively sought out someone who had been treated unfairly for years, raised over $145 of their own money, and put on the show of a lifetime to let a student named David know he mattered and will always have someone to call a friend.  

Speaking of that show of a lifetime, for those who don’t know, my classes have taken on an identity of a class that flash mobs as a way to inspire random acts of kindness, positive atmosphere in the building, and most importantly, bring smiles to those who need it most.  In a nutshell, 4 years ago, a student gave my class a random act of kindness in the form of a nice card and asked us to pay it forward.  We did so by creating a small dance for a student who was devastated after breaking a prized wooden owl and presented her with a new stuffed owl puppet via a flashmob performance.  You can read about that tear-jerking moment, and view the simple genesis of the flashmob dance #inspirechange movement here:

Paying it Forward

The following year, I looped with the same group of kids and they wanted to continue the flashmob tradition so we upped our game, added costumes that I bought, acquired custom t-shirts from a group of colleagues, and upped the difficulty of the dance, requiring us to start working on day one of school.  Shortly into the school year, the boy, who started the whole thing with the random act of kindness suffered the loss of his father.  Naturally, we had our next target.  This time students raised their own money and I matched it to get him a nice basketball, a gift card to Game Stop, and some treats. You can read about this uplifting chain of events and watch the routine here:

Synergize: Together is Better

The following year, the tradition continued with another heartfelt case and an even fancier routine that can be seen here:

Flashmob Routine 2016

That brings us to this year.  The year of 29.  I had researched a routine that was more than difficult and was stressed that I’d never find enough time to teach it, along with the core academic subjects I was accountable for.

The 29 proved me wrong.

They learned all 128 counts by December.  Even the new kids that joined mid year picked up the moves quickly!

When it came time to pick a target for the gift and surprise flash mob performance, I figured that since this class was so far removed from the initial reason we started this tradition, they’d pick one of their friends.

The 29 proved me wrong again.

Not only did they seek out a boy who had been picked on, left alone, pushed aside, and treated poorly for many of his school years, they befriended him, asked if he could join our class lunch table, found out what he liked, raised over $145, and we presented him with 4 bags that included a snow cone maker, 6 bottles of flavor, straws, cones, ice cube trays, 6 packs of watermelon gum, Cherry Pepsi, Minecraft watch, towel, sunglasses, and wallet.

On the day of the surprise flash mob, this was waiting on David’s desk.
This was waiting all wrapped up in the classroom!!!!
Surprise, David!!!!
Gift reveal…priceless!

The look on his face was priceless when we presented the gifts. On top of it, reports from colleagues and parents were flooding my inbox about random acts of kindness that were happening just because of the culture that was created.  One student repurposed trophies to give to his grandma, who battled cancer.  Another student included names of students who she felt never got invited to birthday parties and made sure they were invited to hers this year.  You can’t make this stuff up and I could go on and on….

Finally, it was time to spread our message to the school school and perform for an assembly. We got so into it that I enlisted a few musically inclined teacher friends to help me form a band to deconstruct the dance song, Love Never Felt So Good by Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake into a jazzy lounge version of the song with two brave boys to sing solo for the first time along with me playing piano for the first time in public since quitting at age 10.  I thought there was a chance the boys would have second thoughts (me too) and we’d have to abandon the song.

Once again, they proved me wrong.

Not only did they perform with confidence, they were less nervous than I was! It was difficult fighting back the tears while playing the keys as I was bursting with pride.

You can watch the song here: Love Never Felt So Good – jazz version 

and the dance here: Staged Flash Mob


When I look back at all we have done together, I have to laugh at myself for every thinking that this would be a tough year! With 29 kids like this crew, there was nothing that could have held us back.   Some might think the school year is only for reading, writing, science, social studies, math, a bunch of tests, and two state assessments.  I’m sure it didn’t take long for them or anyone else involved to figure out that while those things need to be done, it was more important that we learned to come together as a classroom family to learn how to take care of ourselves, others, and show the world what kindness really looks like.  I’m just glad that it didn’t take me very long to figure out how this year wouldn’t have been possible without each and every one of them.  All 29 of them.  It was so sad to send them on their way….

I’m glad I was wrong.

Playing for the students as they entered on the final day of school.

When You’re Nine

When you’re nine,

You know very little about the world that awaits you.

When you’re nine,

You come to school expecting fun, games, friends, and learning.

When you’re nine,

You don’t expect your teacher to have such strict rules, and to make you feel uneasy and sometimes sick to your stomach.

When you’re nine,

You don’t know that those rules were the high expectations that helped you earn respect from others and helped you negotiate some sticky situations many years later.

When you’re nine,

You don’t know that the reason you didn’t cause trouble in line, or cause her to turn back and scold you was because you now knew how to make good choices.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that she never had to turn her head with those oversized, dangly earrings because she trusted you to act with integrity with the others you walked with.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that the fact she never wore the same outfit twice and was on the cutting edge of fashion helped model how to have pride in yourself and self-worth.

When you’re nine,

And you are sitting in the corner with the dunce cap on during Colonial Day for rolling your eyes during an activity, and you are thinking you’ll soon need some new underwear as she may let you have it AND call home, you don’t realize that you should be accepting of the passions of others and be thankful that you weren’t learning from a textbook.

When you are nine,

You don’t realize that she never intended to call home at all, and that you learned your lesson by being anxious about it for days.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that the ex-registered nurse teacher of yours, who sent you home with pinkeye, and caused you to lose your perfect attendance, did it because she cared for your health and the health of others.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that your premature wishes for a new teacher because she was “hard on you” and because you thought she “hated kids” were the wrong way to handle higher expectations.

When you’re nine,

And you are finally free, you don’t realize that 12 years later, the teacher who was so hard on you and hated you, who walked in on your student teaching lesson as principal just to “say hi”, actually had a big genuine smile, and not just a stern look.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that the person responsible for giving you your first full-time teaching position after a few agonizing failed attempts at interviewing would be that very same teacher.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that when you’re walking your first class of students by the office of your former teacher, now principal, that you STILL pray that she won’t turn around and give you “the look”…and she did.  And that you would be scared just like you were 13 years ago.

When you’re nine,

You don’t realize that this teacher will come to your classroom after you have written up a student for saying the most awful things and throwing a chair to help you reconsider your harsh word choice in the discipline referral and to consider how you managed the situation….and it has changed how you relate to students forever.

When you’re nine,

You have no idea the garbage people would give her until the day she retired because she was a strong, African-American woman in education.

When you’re nine,

You don’t think that you’ll often think fondly of this teacher and how her high expectations shaped you, how she taught you the true meaning of integrity, how she would affect your relationships with your future students, and how she would teach you to hold your head up high with pride and self-worth.

When you’re nine,

You don’t think that this trailblazing teacher would be the one you wanted to make proud for doing what is right for your own kids.

When you’re nine,

You don’t think that you would never get a chance to say a simple “thank you” for all that she had done for you, for trusting you, for giving you a chance, and for helping you to affect classes of your own kids for years to come.

When you’re nine,

You just don’t realize the power that a teacher actually has…and that is the best lesson you will ever learn.

Thank you, Mrs. Holder.  May you rest in peace.


It Can’t Be About Me All the Time – Part 2

I have to apologize.  When I first started blogging, I spent a whole lot of time thinking of catchy titles and creative ways to engage readers.  Then I realized that this blog was mostly for me to reflect on my teaching and not a whole lot of people even read it.  So with that, I will apologize if I’m more right to the point and less creative.  This will be true in this post.  While the situation is different, it’s related to a post I wrote almost 2 years ago about it not being all about me all the time in my classroom.  You can read that creatively written post Here.

Anyway, unlike the last time I posted on this subject, the day was going just fine.  There have been tough moments as I’ve been adjusting to the literacy program that my district purchased and is requiring us to follow on a daily basis.  So maybe things aren’t as fine as I’m letting on.

So, after another cheer filled my room when I announced that textbooks wouldn’t be used on that day, I had to make a decision.  Reading was becoming a chore and less and less enjoyable.

It was noticeable. It couldn’t be ignored.

So I decided to take a little break, which was allowable during the shortened Thanksgiving week as the 5th grade team agreed during our initial planning session.  Well maybe I’d take a little longer break.  In short, I decided to make a play on the March Madness NCAA basketball playoff “March Book Madness” that usually makes its way around Twitter in the spring.  Instead of simply voting on titles, I needed to make this activity more academically challenging if I was going to break from the basal.   I selected 8 of the most popular books last year and drafted a rating sheet, which featured text dependent questions that included queries about the authors craft and it’s affect on the reader within the first chapter, inferences on character motivations and personality based on their actions, etc.  We’d read the first chapters of each book, look into the character and author’s craft, and rate the book on a scale of 1-10.  We’d do this first with my full support and end with the students completing these activities  in small groups, pairs, and ultimately with independence.  The winning book will emerge as our next class read aloud.
After promoting this activity for a week, I finally unveiled the playoff board and procedures on Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  The kids were buzzing with excitement! My initial plan was to walk through the voting form and questions together for the first book, One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and allow students to briefly talk about their thoughts  before heading off to read independently while I gathered a group of students who I knew needed help making inferences from earlier assessment data.

I made my way over to the guided reading table to gather my plans and summoned my group to meet me with their pencil and journals.  Before I could sit down, I was tapped on the shoulder.

“Mr U, can I see that book and read the next chapter?”

That was followed up by another small group of students coming up to me and asking me if they could go to the library to get a copy of the next book in the playoff bracket, Fish in a Tree (also by Hunt) so they could get a head start on the first chapter.

I looked at the reading table and we were still waiting for a few more students to arrive for reading group.  That’s when I noticed a few more students approaching me with hopeful eyes.

“Mr U, do you have any pairs of books that the two of us can read the backs and first chapters so we can partner read?  We want to be sure the book grabs our attention and has characters we can relate to.”

At this point, I knew what I had to do.  I motioned to the reading group to go enjoy their independent reading books and that we’d meet another time.  I’ve been here before.  It can’t be about me all the time.  It has to be about them. The kids.  The ones dying for good books in their hands.

As I weaved my way through a maze of readers to the classroom library with two eager girls behind me, I noticed a few boys lingering as I made brief book talks about the novels I picked out.  As the girls took them and subsequently returned them because the characters weren’t adventurous enough, they were quickly snatched up by the boys in waiting.  As I made my way over to another section of the library to drum up interest in two more novels for the reading partners, more lingering ears were turned in our direction.

From a nearby table, a voice from behind a book rang out and said, “Hey Mr U, they may like the Everest series by Gordon Korman.  There are both boys and girls in the book and they are the type to not give up since they have to earn their way to try to climb Mount Everest through a boot camp with climbing competitions.”

Another voice from against the window on the top of the built-in shelves chimed in with, “Yeah, take the Everest books. You won’t want to put them down. The end isn’t what you think!!!”

The minute the girls ran off to give Everest a try, I spun around to see another student with two books in his hands, Code Talker and The Green Glass Sea.  He told me that he knew they both were about WWII, with Code Talker being about the Navajo Native American’s Role in the WWII victory and The Green Glass Sea being about the life of a girl, whose father was involved in the development of the atomic bombs used on Japan in WWII.  I told him my preference to read Code Talker first and prepared him to be annoyed with the way characters are treated in the book.

By the time I could catch my breath, we had already blown through our Reader’s Workshop “work time” and “closing meeting time”.  This time, I had a different feeling.  A full feeling of gratification, a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time while teaching out of a textbook.  This time I was glad that I wasn’t worried about it being about me.  I know better.

Will I go back to the textbook?  Yes.  I’m a team player and I am not one to go against what I am asked to do.  However, I will not compromise my mission of matching kids to books and lighting the fire of reading within them.  If that means I have to break here and there or abandon small group plans once in a while, so be it. It’s not about me. Not even close.

I teach kids; not a program.img_2587

Three Important Things

This has been quite the election week.  Social media has been an eye-opening spectacle.  Comments and posts from friends on both side of the aisle have been shocking.  The memes….don’t get me started! In real life, away from the electronic screens, there have been even more disgusting behaviors on display.  From all sides.

There have been a variety of reactions from friends near and far.  Some have remained silent; choosing to remain neutral and/or deciding it’s not worth the aggravation to add to the conversation.  Some have chosen to gloat, while others have chosen cry and worry about their rights, livelihood, and safety.  Some have chosen to comfort those who are upset or have been outspoken toward those putting forth negativity.  Some have chosen to fight back with fiery comments to combat what’s been said to them.  Because we are blessed with the freedom of speech, each reaction is an indisputable right.

I have quite a unique situation.  While I am active in social media and have witnessed quite the variety of reactions, I am also a 5th grade teacher.  The hallway locker area, buses, and cafeteria, have been buzzing quite loudly these last few days.  Talks about walls, tax returns, poor treatment of women, emails, hitmen, Benghazi, etc were all within earshot from the mouths of students, most of which can be traced back to overhearing grown-up conversations, news, and social media posts.

One in my position has to be careful in how I react to these cases, especially at work.  I could get mad, I could take sides, I could punish, I could ignore, I could go home and cry.  While thoughts of how I would deal with my students ran circles around my head for quite some time on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it didn’t take long to make a decision once I walked into my classroom and glanced at the first bulletin board in my room, along with a painting my mother painted, which is prominently displayed and clearly visible as you walk into the room.

If you’ve been following along with my blog, you’ll recall the efforts I’ve made to create a caring classroom family atmosphere.   I’ve continuously modeled how and have encouraged our “family”to deliver random acts of kindness in all ways, shapes, and forms to those who seem like they need it.  We even cap off the year with an elaborate flashmob designed to bring chear to a student we feel needs it. Read about flashmob 2015 here.

This year, we’ve created a “Leave a Note of Kindness” bulletin board, where kids can drop a note to someone to either make their day, or to recognize how others have made their day.  The board is positioned in a way students can see the notes and the wonderful painting my mother created for our classroom.

It was when I walked past this very bulletin board, sat in front of it, and read the words of ten/eleven-year-olds from my classroom “family”, I realized how I needed to react to the current events: With kindness. With hope. With empathy.  And then I realized….

I’m already doing that.  And so are my kids.

Here are a few of the notes that I’ve walked past daily and hadn’t quite noticed until this week:

Then there was this on my desk:


At the end of the day, there is still social media ugliness, there is hate, there is fear, there is discrimination of all shapes of colors.  I know my rights are going to be challenged.  I know my some friends are going to face similar issues.  I know there are people worse off than me.  Instead of joining the cycle, I’m chosing to control what I can and that’s me.  It’s who I choose to surround myself with.  It’s the message of #inspirechange I share with my class.  It’s kindness.

Join me.  We’ll be ok.

Three things in human life are important:

the first is to be kind;

the second is to be kind;

and the third is to be kind.

-Henry James

One Red Apple

I know it has been quite some time since I last posted on my blog.  It wasn’t that I had a bad year and wasn’t inspired to write.  Sometimes life happens and you can’t find the time to go through the writing process….that is until something truly inspiring happens and you find yourself sitting down on borrowed time to capture the moment.

For me, teaching year 15 approached with many signs pointing to a rough start.  Class lists soaring up to 29, a new literacy program featuring an anthology that I can’t say I’m a fan of, technology failures and long lines for support, 90+ degree temps for the first 2 weeks, a new classroom (although the moving angst was offset by the extra size and storage).  Somehow, all of that negativity found a way out the window like it always does the moment the kids arrived.  It seems when you surround yourself with what really matters, things have a miraculous way of turning around.

This post is not about me turning the start to the year around. It’s not about “my kids”.  It’s about someone I am grateful to be surrounded by. It’s about someone who had the power to transform the start to this year.  It’s about someone who’s kind and genuine act of caring was so simple and powerful at the same time and I didn’t want it to go unnoticed or unappreciated.

It all started with a text.  A good friend of mine, Michelle, also known as my “work wife”, sent me a message about a reluctant writer.  This student said repeatedly that he didn’t go anywhere, do anything, or have an idea worth writing about.

We all know that kid.  The one looking for an out for writing.  The one who is scared to display messy hand writing or poor spelling because it has been stressed to him that the way writing looks matters more than the ideas from the heart.  The one used to only writing from textbook-based prompts. The one who was up way too late and on such a hot crayon-melting day, and was making excuses to avoid the work.  Or maybe it’s something else…

So like any insightful teacher, Michelle pushed a little bit more.  A big topic of interests for kids these days seem to be amusement parks and restaurants.  Upon asking the student if he went to any favorite places to eat, he said that he hadn’t, that his favorite food is tacos (good choice), and that he always asks for apples from the grocery store but never gets them.

These conversations with kids can be heartbreaking. But if you know Michelle, she had a plan.

The next day, the reluctant writer was greeted at his desk by a huge, shiny, red apple.  It didn’t take long for the apple to be down to the core.  He even asked to eat the seeds! Sure enough, once writer’s workshop rolled around, this young writer was full of ideas, including a story idea about a trip to Fantasy Island.

img_2615-1One. red. apple.

That’s all.  A teacher who listens and performs a simple act of kindness had the power of opening a blocked writer’s door.  It’s no surprise that Michelle is loved each one of her students.  It goes to show how much power an act of listening and kindness can breed a trusting relationship between teacher and student, which ultimately opens the door of endless possibilities.  I’m privileged to have Michelle as a friend, colleague….and “work wife”!
I’m glad I had the opportunity to know about this simple act.  It inspires me to be a better listener and to keep building positive relationships with my own students.

Here’s to a great start to the 2016-2017 school year!


Powerful Lessons…from a Cupcake?

I’m sure it’s happened to all teachers at some point in time.  A complicated math lesson is underway.  You are about to illuminate a class full of light bulbs as you bridge from the concrete manipulative examples to the more abstract algorithm.  Right before you put the finishing touches on the problem and you’re about to flip that switch of deeper understanding, there is the knock on the door.  All eyes shift from your wonderfully crafted Smartboard examples to the door as another knock echoes through the now restless room.  As the door slowly opens, you see two kids, whom you barely recognize only in passing: one holding an armload of cupcakes and the other wearing a birthday crown.

“Do you want a cupcake??” They eagerly call out over the noise of shuffling papers and light chatting.

Instead of shouting how you really feel about them so rudely interrupting and causing the lesson to short circuit, you politely decide to take the high road and say, “No, thanks! I’m on a diet.  But have a happy birthday anyway.”  That way you can feel better about yourself as you scramble to shoo them out the door in attempt to plug the learning back in after the interruption.   You are so busy redirecting all eyes back to the Smartboard that you don’t notice the disappointed looks of the birthday boy and his helper as they close the door and move down the hall to the next teacher.

When I started teaching, this always seemed to happen, and I always responded the same way.  It was a mere five or so years ago when I complained to a veteran colleague about the very situation to which she replied, “Just take the cupcake.”  There was no more explanation needed.  The look on her face and the pace of her words said it all.

Perhaps there was a higher road.

Ever since that complaint and 14 years into my teaching career, I’ve come to realize that this cupcake situation has actually turned on my own light bulb to how much power a cupcake can have, and to be honest, it happened mostly with unintended but pleasant results.  While I still get SLIGHTLY annoyed by inopportune distractions, I now take a cupcake, and now notice the joy it brings to the face of the birthday child.

But that’s not all.  I know there is a higher road….one that involves a greater lesson than math.

In days, weeks and months after I made the decision to just take a cupcake, when presented with another interruption, I made it a point to say, “I’ll take the UGLIEST cupcake you have.”  This would get me some strange looks and furrowed eyebrows most of the time.  I would just simply explain that it tastes just as good as the others.   Each subsequent birthday visitor would get an evolved response.  I would say things like, “I’m sure that cupcake is good on the inside despite its looks, just like people.” or “That cupcake sure looks lonely and I’m sure it deserves to be enjoyed as much as it’s nicer looking friends.” or “I’ll take that ugly cupcake because it’s not its fault it has flaws.  Its strength is on the inside.” More funny looks ensued but behind my back, a bunch of light bulbs were turning on without me realizing it. Unintentionally.

Nowadays, when cupcakes are passed around, I often hear similar comments from my students about which cupcakes they want.  Instead of fighting over the pretty ones, there are comments about the sad looking cupcakes and how they need love too.  While this is nice to hear, the payoff is what I hear about while discussing the following books:


“Ruby deserves to have a friend.  Her mother may be in jail but she has a good heart on the inside.”

-Ruby on the Outside


Carmen may have been poor and dressed in rags but she taught important lessons to Esperanza about caring for others.”

-Esperanza Rising


“Ally has a disability but deep down she has a lot of good going on for her.”

-Fish in a Tree


Then there is the interaction amongst my students.  While they have their moments of insensitivity, and that’s to be expected once in a while at the 5th grade level, I’ve noticed that more students are making an effort to include those who have lower self-esteem or are very introverted.   In fact, as our class has been on a mission to #spreadkindness and #inspirechange in others in our school, a recent note card was put into a student’s locker from our own class by a classmate than simply said, “You have a lot of smarts and are a good person inside.”

Could this all be a result of the power of a cupcake?  I don’t know for sure but there is one thing I’m sure I want:  Keep ‘em coming!  We have more powerful lessons to learn.

True Colors

The final days of the 2014-2015 school year are approaching, signifying the end of a two year stint with my now soon to be middle schoolers.  These final weeks of the school year are usually tough with the curriculum already being covered, the kids getting squirrelly, and the days too numbered to start any longer activities.  While most people, including myself, struggle with what to do with these waning hours, I have often found that the last minute activities I’ve come up with oftentimes are the most meaningful.  That theory has held true again this year, as I looked to hit home the #inspirechange mantra we’ve adopted this year to try to put the finishing touches of my mark on the character of my twenty three kids.

As I basked in the afterglow of a successful flashmob, I stumbled upon a video of a Cindi Lauper performance in 1986 of a tune entitled True Colors on YouTube.   Being the sappy sentimental type at the end of the school year, the lyrics immediately engaged me and I immediately thought of my students.   What better way to #inspirechange than to center an activity around this song! The wheels began to turn.

I started to think about what I wanted my kids to get out of this song.  After batting around a few ideas, I figured that it would be a great way to send my students off to the uncertain and often cruel world known as Middle School knowing that they are special in their own way, and that they should not be afraid to show who they are.   I printed the lyrics and headed to school.

Upon my arrival to school, I thought that it would be a bit more powerful to show the video of Cindi singing the song in 1986, complete with crimped yellow hair, rainbow eyelashes and makeup, and unique clothes that did not match.  I also found a recent, with the same song, with Cindi sporting more conservative clothing along with her spiky white hair.  I wondered what my kids would think of these videos?

I summoned the students to the carpet area and instead of speaking, I turned off the lights, and played the 1986 version of True Colors.  After about a minute, I hit the pause button and asked what they thought.

“Look at that weird hair, OMG”

“Her voice is too weird!”

“Is she for real? Her makeup is crazy.”

“I’ve never heard of her before. I wonder why (sarcastic voice).”

I must admit, I was a bit disappointed in what I heard.  After all, we have been hitting the character ed. pretty hard and I thought I left a pretty empathetic and compassionate mark on these kids over the span of two years through our studies of various literature.  I actually felt myself get a little defensive and a bit mad as the comments became a bit more negative and sarcastic.  Did they not hear the words? Did they not feel their power? Then I remembered.  They are kids.  This isn’t over.

I turned the lights back on and handed out the lyrics, again not saying anything or hinting that it was the song they had just listened to.  Before I even instructed them to follow a close read procedure to determine the theme or life lesson of the text before them, I saw all I needed to see. I saw cheeks turning red, eyes looking down, and sheepish smiles on their faces.  I asked them to turn and meet with their triad groups and talk about the text, which by now, most realized it was the song they just heard.

Instead of calling for the students attention to have a closing discussion, I interrupted the conversations with the recent video of Cindi Lauper singing true colors with just a few musicians by her side.  What I saw and heard happen next was way more than I had expected.  Instead of the giggling and sarcastic comments, you could hear a pin drop in the room.  All eyes were on the screen, some getting a bit glassy with emotion, and some singing the words in the most beautiful way that I cannot adequately describe.  I asked what they thought now after reading and watching the second performance:

“I think this is about standing up for yourself.”

“She’s trying to help out a friend who doesn’t see the person they really are.”

“This song reminds me of that one song we flashmob to, “Everybody’s Got Their Something.”

“Her voice stands out, maybe that’s why she’s lasted this long.”

“Could this be that she wrote this song to help herself out? Look at her, she’s still performing this song after all these years.”

Wait, WHAT????? Did that last comment come out of the mouth of a ten year old boy?

I was honestly blown away by this activity.  The range of emotions from the beginning to the end of this session were as far away from each other as they could have possibly been.  I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  This class has a heart of gold and I knew that coming into this day.

Up next is an extension activity to this song, which has yet to be completed.  When one of my students mentioned the song, Everybody’s Got Their Something by Nikka Costa, the wheels began to turn again.  A 5th grade colleague, Deb, from another district building showed me an activity she does with her students.  She creates an online Kahoot quiz where she gives clues about something special about each one of her students.  Students login top their 1:1 device and as each question is revealed, they choose from the four choices of student names for their answers.  From there, students are given a matrix where they write something special about each of their classmates, whether it was a memory of how helpful they were, a talent they have, or something nice to compliment them.  No “you’re funny” would be accepted unless it was specific. After that, students would cut up the matrix and deliver little squares to each student, who would then compile a list of compliments on a google doc to add graphics, illustrate, print, and laminate to serve as a reminder of their impact on their classmates. I can’t think of a better extension and will blog about what happens next!

After saying how difficult these end days are, I must say I have to take it back.  I now see how powerful these “random” activities really are and how important and inspirational they really are, as they help expose the true colors in all of us.

Synergize: Together is Better

Our school is a Leader in Me school, which promotes Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Happy Kids.  This past Friday, June 5, 2015, my class was called to take an active role in a student-led assembly that promoted habit number 6: Synergize – Together is Better.   If you scroll back a few posts, you will stumble upon a post entitled “Pay it Forward”, where you will see why my class was a good pick to help in this assembly as we have been known to flashmob the school from time to time.  Here is the story of Flashmob 2015:

Please allow me to briefly summarize how the flashmob originated.  Last year, while teaching two classrooms worth of fourth graders science, a young man from my colleague’s class walked in with a card with candy stuck on it that simply said, “Thank you for teaching me science and social studies so well.” Now these kids know that my heart can be won easily with candy and sweet words so I wondered what he was up to.  He simply said that it was a random act of kindness and to pay it forward…and pay it forward we did.  We decided to learn some dance moves and flashmob his classmate, who was having more bad days than good lately, and present her with a gift of a stuffed owl puppet, which she adored.  Rumor of our dance prowess didn’t go unnoticed and before we knew it, we were asked to perform at our school talent show, where my kids brought the house down!  Finally, to pay it forward for receiving an owl puppet, my girls were taught some extra special moves this year, which left us back in the pay it forward role.

While we pondered our next move, we decided early on this year, the second year of a grade 4 to 5 loop, that we wanted to do a bigger and better flashmob, complete with complex moves and costumes.  Who am I to say no to that? So I enlisted the help of a friend, who directed me to a video of the MJ Slide, a dance created by Shawn Powell to the song You’re My Star, by Tank.

Now for someone like me who doesn’t dance, this was going to be quite a task.  I spent endless hours in front of the bathroom mirror trying to learn this routine to the point where I could teach it and not embarrass myself…. too much.

It was very early on in the school year, when I unveiled the new song and routine.  After morning announcements were complete,  I turned on the music and danced without explanation.  I received a lot of laughs that morning, but this scene would become a daily routine.  As the announcements ended, I’d grab my fedora, sunglasses, and dance my way to the stage before teaching math each day.  Can you think of a better way to start the day?

It didn’t take long before I had some imitators in the back of the room each morning, which I allowed to happen. Before long, I was getting emails from parents about how boys were sleeping over each other’s houses, borrowing their sibling’s or parent’s iPads to find the song to practice.  That’s when I knew I had them hooked.

After a few weeks, I started to teach students who weren’t in chorus or band the moves, little by little.  In the matter of days, I had some experts trained, and I passed the baton to them to get the others up to speed on their own time.

These three took the lead and were the first to perfect the moves.
These three took the lead and were the first to perfect the moves.

As we entered the winter months, most of the class had the basic moves mastered and I had a lot of company dancing each morning  before math.  Those who weren’t comfortable dancing yet were placed by the door as “look out” specialists in case an “intruder” was lurking outside for any unannounced visits.  Kids were requesting the final 5 minutes before dismissal for practice time and some were even asking to practice in place of free time!  Even our Halloween and Christmas parties featured the MJ Slide! I couldn’t possibly say no to that either!

Ever see a hotdog dance?
Ever see a hotdog dance?
Some students used their free time to practice.  Even those die-hard readers were into it!
Some students used their free time to practice. Even those die-hard readers were into it!

While the dance was happening on a daily basis, it still had little to no effect on instructional time and since they were so into it, I thought it would be time to order some costumes.  Twenty-five fedoras, sunglasses, and t-shirts soon made their way into the classroom, where students were told they must earn each item with their behavior, effort, and teamwork.   Before you know it, leaders emerged from the pack and were pulling the shy, less motivated students aside for private dance lessons in line for dismissal, lunch, and on the way to the bus.  Videos of students practicing in their homes were beginning to make their way onto YouTube! The synergy was happening and these kids were hooked!

IMG_5525 IMG_5450As the spring months arrived, it was time to pick a target for the flashmob.  Unfortunately, the boy who started the random act of kindness lost his father this year.  It was very difficult for me to watch him go through that, so what better way to help cheer him up and to pay it forward to him! The class was on board, we raised some money for some gifts, and went into final rehearsal mode.  With June on the horizon, we took some recess time and started practice together in class and on the stage.  Believe it or not, by this time, we only needed a quick run through each time and that was it.  We were ready.

IMG_5843 IMG_5852

IMG_5833We made arrangements for our “target” to be in the computer lab with his class.  We hid in the library, all dressed up, and were ready to spring into action.  After a few technical difficulties the deed was done, with a boy in awe, and a class of stunned onlookers left in our wake.  Unfortunately, the video was blurry so I’ve added some still photos in its place.IMG_6099 IMG_6101 IMG_6107 IMG_6110 IMG_6112 IMG_6114 IMG_6144

Finally, it was time to perform for the school.  Upon being called to the stage, I rehashed the history of the flashmob, why we engaged in such an activity, and how it represents habit number 6: Synergy.  The music began softly at first, and a few students and I pretended to be reading together on the stage.  As the tempo changed, we spring into action and the flashmob was on.  Here is a rather shaky video of our efforts!

At the conclusion of the assembly, we stayed on stage and danced as students were filing out into the hallway on their way back to class.  Parents and teachers were treating the class like the stars they were with photos and videos left and right.  Little did my stars know that they may miss the bus if they kept it up much longer!

As we made it back to our classroom, I sat they students down on the carpet.  There were a lot of things I wanted to say.  I wanted to tell them how happy I saw our flashmob target and it was great it was to see him smile after having dealt with the death of his father. I couldn’t get the words out.  I wanted to tell them that I’ve never seen such caring students as they helped each other gain the courage to learn these moves and to get on stage in front of 500 plus people.  I couldn’t get the words out.  I wanted to tell them I was going to miss our daily dance next year, but I just couldn’t.  My eyes were filling up with tears right in front of twenty-three exhausted faces and I couldn’t say anything except, “I’m REALLY proud of you guys.”  I think they got the message.

This year and class will hold a special place in my heart.  At the beginning of the year, we adopted the hashtag #inspirechange as our class motto and pledged to incorporate it into every genre we wrote in Writer’s Workshop. Little did I know that it went a whole lot further than that.  As a teacher, I have been inspired to put down the books every now and then and to sprinkle a little more fun into the day.  As a person, I’ve been inspired to try to put a smile on to as many faces as possible, as there are people who are truly suffering physically and emotionally, and don’t always show it.  This hashtag adorns the back of our flashmob shirts and it is my sincerest hope that if my students remember one thing I’ve taught them these two years, it’s to be kind to others.  That, my friends, is how I measure my success as a teacher.

Flashmob 2015 Mr. Udy's Class #inspirechange
Flashmob 2015
Mr. Udy’s Class