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 you collectively sought out someone who had been treated unfairly for years, raised over $145 of your own money, and put on the show of a lifetime to let David know he matters 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 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.

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

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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.

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

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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
#inspirechange

The Greatest Love of All

I love looping.  In my 13 years as a classroom teacher, I’ve looped with a class three times and have enjoyed each experience.  While there are many benefits such as established relationships, knowledge of student strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to reference teaching from the previous year to build on new concepts, there are certainly some down sides.   Students tend to get more comfortable the second year around, looking to test boundaries.  You often find yourself trying to “repackage” similar lessons from the previous year under the veil of new vocabulary.  There is also that one student who, as much as you may try to deny it, grates on your every nerve and of course, is never absent unless you really need them there.

These kids would let me embarrass myself  all day long!
These kids would let me embarrass myself all day long!

This year’s crew is no different.  But now that I reflect on recent days, I’m starting to think they are. As summer approaches, I’ve heard the countdown numbers of days remaining: 22 student days to be exact.  In years past, including last year, kids were already mailing it in at this time and they were hard to motivate and keep on task.  You could tell that adults had a foot out the door as well.  This year, while attention spans are certainly narrowed, I’m noticing something different in my room.  I’ve made comments about the remaining days to the kids and there are more melancholy reactions than I am accustomed to getting.  Students are hanging out on the rug together and I have to beg them to line up before they miss their buses.

Look what I've created!
Look what I’ve created!
There is no rush for the door at 3:30.
There is no rush for the door at 3:30.
“Please don’t sing to me!”
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Breaking it down at the end of the day!
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America’s Got Talent???

I’ve been pretty demanding of this class.  I’ve pushed their thinking in all core subjects.  Answers were never accepted without explicit justification.  There has been frustration, evil looks, and tears at times.  There were large spans of days with no recess or free time, not because I didn’t want to give it to them, but because I was cramming New York State’s and my agenda down their throats at quite a pace.In recent days, while noticing the change in my students, I’ve removed my foot from the gas and rewrote my agenda.  In reading, we’ve been studying Kwame Alexander’s book “Crossover” and have loved every minute releasing my students into groups to just simply talk about the theories they have been growing about the character’s relationships and Kwame’s use of metaphor to reveal more about each family member.  The freedom hasn’t been taken for granted as it may have been in years past.  The depth of the conversations and annotation of text without my assistance has been remarkable.  Mr. Alexander, upon hearing a YouTube clip I posted to him on Twitter, replied “Okay this is awesome!”  The kids were so thrilled with that little reward of recognition from an award winning author.  They deserved it.  Here is a link to the discussion and some photos of annotated text.

A former struggler gets it!!!
A former struggler gets it!!!

To make things even better, we were using Kwame’s poetic style to write poems in writer’s workshop.  One day, a former reluctant writer came up with an idea to link his poems like a continuing story like Kwame.  From there, an idea of stringing memories of our two years together and calling it “Crossover: Room 109 Style”  was born.  I asked the kids to create an evolving Google doc list of possible memories to write poems about, then when the list was complete, highlight the topic you are writing about so we know it has been covered.  I have never seen the class so engaged! In just one thirty minute session, a list of 83 memories was crafted.  In two subsequent periods, all poems were written.  I was truly amazed and in awe with the memories they chose to write about.   The smallest moments from when I wrapped up a picture of myself and gave it to a student for Christmas and how I killed a bee with a student’s epi pen box, to big moments such as our flash mobs and how we turned our classroom into a coffeehouse.   I’ve never seen 23 kids work so earnestly on a project together.

We’ve thrown aside the science books and engineered bridges out of popsicle sticks, towers out of spaghetti, boats out of aluminum foil, and most recently egg protection systems with a final drop from the school roof, with a 52% success rate (hat tip to Twitter PLN MVPs @theweirdteacher and @tritonkory).

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Here are a few creative “Egg Protective Systems”

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Finally, aside from practicing from our final flashmob together, I’ve allowed for a lot of down time where I let them talk, be kids, and have fun with me being a part of it, rather than rifling through my stuff to get the next lesson ready.  I don’t get annoyed at the little stuff, the corny jokes, or the borderline obnoxious comments.  I’m letting them be kids, as I know they won’t have this opportunity for very much longer, perhaps only 22 more days before they are off to Middle School.

I guess as I sit back and reflect on this post and how I go about my business as a classroom teacher, I need to be mindful of how important it is to slow down, put my priorities aside, step out of their way and just allow my kids to enjoy being exactly what they are: kids.  Let them take the lead for once.  Last year as fourth graders, I had this RTI group do a close read of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All.  

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.

I can’t think of a greater philosophy to have.

I’m going to miss these guys…and now I’m reaching for the tissues…

Lighten the Load

If you are active on social media, I’m sure you come across and click on many links that lead you to Pinterest-y type activities that seem to go viral. You may even share an idea or two with your PLN, but most seem to be forgotten as soon as the next cute story breaks out, never to be revisited again, let alone see the light of day in your own classroom.  However, one such link lingered in my head for longer than normal, and for that I am pretty thankful. More about that will come in a minute.

I have a pretty awesome class with a variety of characters.  Each day, boys and girls approach me with stories to tell about this and that, and I am lucky to sneak time in to hear a few before our busy day begins.   This is a typical group of kids: some are vocal and will tell a story to anyone who will listen, and some are introverted and tend to keep their business to themselves.

Then there is one of my more unique characters, Chris (name changed to protect identity).  Chris is the quiet, intelligent kid who has a ridiculous ability to make me laugh with the witty comments that come out of his mouth.  He is often imitated by his massive following, but never equaled.  Most boys get in trouble trying to imitate him because they don’t have his sense of when is right and when is wrong to drop a one liner in class.

Anyway, about halfway through this school year, Chris became less funny, and more irritating. He’d begin to play aggressively with classmates and lost his sense on when he was crossing the line that was intuitively drawn between him and I.  He’d make careless errors in work that he normally dominated. I’d become concerned and contacted his father and we’d agreed to stay in contact for frequent updates.  Most importantly, I was concerned by this sharp contrast in Chris’ usual behavior and wanted to get to the root of it.  Unfortunately, this is where his introverted tendencies built a road block as Chris was determined to hold his cards close to his chest.  The classic 5th grade shoulder shrug came into play, but I was determined to break down this wall that Chris was building.

This is where the lingering social media idea came into play.  On Twitter and on the news, there was a third grade teacher who had her students write on index cards “I wish my teacher knew….”.  The results yielded some incredible responses that would make anyone with a heart well up with tears.   I toyed with the idea of replicating this activity with my class, not to be self-serving to see how much my kids LOOOOOVVVVVE me, but to simply see if an index card was the key to unlocking the root of Chris’ behavior change.

After trying to convince myself that I wasn’t being corny or copying this idea for attention, I decided to give it a go, but with a twist.  First, on the morning of a wonderful NYS ELA assessment, I randomly posted index cards that had “I wish my students knew…” all around the classroom.   I wanted to model this activity without directly discussing it, or letting them know that I was going to ask them to do the same.  As the clock struck 9:00AM, the first student walked into the room and walked right into a bright orange index card.  I watched her read it, pause, then move to another one near by.  Pretty soon she was traveling in a pack of six curious students and they were eagerly looking for the next card.  Pretty soon, Chris was in the middle of a group, who found a card in the bathroom. IMG_5502_2 As you may have guessed, he was appreciative of my location choice and even cracked a small joke with his masterful comedic timing about making sure the rest of the cards were clean enough to touch.  After about 15 minutes, I was sure the whole class had read my cards, and even a few students came up to me and asked if I really went through some if the issues that I mentioned.   Then it was time for testing and all discussion was put on the back burner.

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The next day, students found new index cards and were quick to see what else I had to tell them. This is where I sat them down and told them how hard it was for me to be completely honest and leave myself vulnerable to the truth of my life, childhood, and goals.  I told them how relieved I felt that I told some things that bothered me for a long time.  I also apologized for never seeming to have the time to listen to 23 different stories each day and that I sometime feel like I don’t know them as well as I should after a full year of fourth grade and the majority of fifth grade.  I told them that there was a basket of index cards on the table and that at any moment, they’d be able to tell me their concerns, truths, and goals and I’d write back to them.  To keep things private, they could just identify themselves with their number and put the card in our private “Talking Box”, which is a shoebox with a slot cut out for private communication.

After about a day, the first card was placed in the box, then a few more, but none from Chris.  I was beginning to wonder if he was going to take the bait when I noticed that he snuck three cards into his book bag.  In fact, I noticed the pile was rather low and the next day, the box was jammed packed. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

After school, before heading to coach our high school’s boys tennis match, I gathered up the cards and put them in my work bag to read later.  When I got home, I picked up the stack and began to read one card, and then another.  Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face as card after card yielded things I never would have guessed.  The honesty of goals, friend and family difficulties, and pure and utter heart ache that these 10 and 11 year olds carry on their back was tough to overcome.  Every card I touched tugged at my heart.

Every. Single. Card.

Finally, I reached the end of the stack, where Chris had obviously hid his.  I didn’t get past the first few words about him missing his mom before I just lost it yet again.  He wrote that he’s trying to get better in school, but it’s hard for him because he’s getting yelled at a lot at home. He also expressed how missed his mom, and only seems to have limited communication with her.   It all made sense now.  I remembered how his writing had this theme in our personal narrative and poetry genres as well.   Writing was his vehicle, and it took a link on social media for me to figure it out.IMG_5579_2

As I put myself back together, I began to answer 51 cards, in hopes to keep the lines of communication for open to help ease the mental burdens that face these kids.  It may be late in the year, but I know I must make a greater effort to designate more time to hear the stories my students are willing to share with me.  I also know that writing for multiple audiences and purposes will forever be a mainstay in my classroom.

I’ve come to realize that these kids are carrying around much more than their book bags, laptops, and band instruments when they walk into my door.   I also realize how messy and emotional June will be for all of us.  I owe it to them to help lighten their load.

Here are a bunch of the other cards, each worthy of a post of their own…..

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