My Room: Accepting the Mantle of Classroom Culture
I am a room
I have no walls
But I contain the world.
I am a room
I am constant
But I am never the same.
I am a room
I come and go
But I never leave
I am a room
I am isolated
But I am never alone
I am a room.
Okay, I am not literally a room. But sometimes, I feel as such. I am a teacher. I am filled with kids, my capacity stretched by the worlds they bring. I am changed by kids, my walls a chameleon to learn their sheen. I am caught by kids, my space spirited by ghosts past and present.
I am a teacher. I am a room. I am a space to fill. I am a culture to create. I am a world to shape.
We are teachers. We are rooms. We are spaces to fill. We are cultures to create. We are worlds to shape.
Fanciful imaginings aside, we are. We create culture; we shape worlds, whether we want to or not. We have the power to build. We have the power to destroy. When kids enter our rooms, they enter our worlds. And while we cannot always control what happens without, we are always responsible for what happens within. For we are immeasurably in charge of how kids feel in our rooms.
How kids feel in our rooms. It is the beginning and the end of classroom culture. It is the beginning and end of all culture. It is the beginning and end of humanity. We are connected and divided by feeling. Our kids’ connections to us and each other will constitute the culture in our classrooms. Thus, I push the notion to build culture we must consider how we want kids to feel in our classrooms. And so, to this end, I am guided by the question, “How do I want kids to feel in my room?”
In My Room
In my room, I want kids to feel connected, empowered, valued, respected, challenged, and supported. These are my standards. These are the expectations and aspirations to which I hold myself as I live and learn with the young humans who fill my room. They are my first and last considerations in all I do. Here’s a glimpse of how I do it, a snapshot of the culture I create.
In my room, I want you to feel connected.
In my room, this is where it all begins and ends. I believe my success and failure hinges on the connections we make with each other. So, I make it priority one with an activity I call Smiles and Frowns. Here’s how it works.
Every day, we begin each period by going around the room sharing a smile (something positive from our lives) and/or a frown (something negative from our lives). Each has an opportunity to share, and importantly each has the right to pass. I never make kids share. Of course, I always hope they share, but if they don’t, it’s all good. I even pass on occasion to reinforce that it’s okay. It’s as much about listening as it is sharing. Let kids pass.
How much time does it take? Most days, it takes five minutes. Some days it may take a bit longer. It depends. Either way, I tend to give it the necessary time. It’s a priority. We do it every day. No matter what. We even do it on assessment days. I want my kids to know that their feeling connected matters, so I make it matter by giving it priority.
Last year, I invested roughly a thousand minutes in this activity. It’s the best classroom investment I have ever made. It created magic as barriers vanished and bonds formed.
When we feel connected, we feel like we matter. I want my kids to feel connected.
In my room, I want you to feel empowered.
In my room, I hand the kids the power, the power to choose. This takes many forms, ranging from the books they read to the papers they write, but I believe the most empowering thing I do for my kids is to give them an opportunity to select their grades. Of course, teaching in a gradeless classroom opens a door, and to an end, I use what I call Select-and-Support grading.
Basically, at the end of the term, kids come to the table to present their grade selection and supporting evidence. Our goal is to come to an agreement, a grade we can both live with. In most instances, an agreement is readily made. In other instances, we may not immediately come to an agreement, so we keep negotiating, returning to the evidence until we are both comfortable with the final decision.
I want my kids to feel like school is something being done with them, not to them. So I try to make them equal partners in their learning. I want them to take responsibility, so I have to give them the power to do so. I want my kids to feel empowered.
In my room, I want you to feel valued
In my room, I tell the kids I value them–directly and indirectly, with classroom ritual and our Mindset Mantra. The premise: hear it, say it, believe it. For the first two weeks, I say it at the outset of our daily work (left column). For the next two weeks, each individual says it (middle column). And, then, for the rest of the year, we say it together (right column).
Yes, it’s a little corny. And, yes, it takes a while for the kids to warm up to it, but it helps create the community I want for my kids. We use such sayings and mantras in athletics all the time, and they work. Why not use them in the classroom, too?
Another ritual designed to make kids feel valued is my Sappy Sy Rhyme. I end each period with a new, short–usually sappy–rhyme to let my kids know I value them. I want this to be the last thing they remember from our day, so it’s literally the last word.
In my room, I want kids to feel valued. I want them to hear it, say it, and believe it. I also want them to know when one is valued, they add value to those around them. They add value to my life. Every day.
In my room, I want you to feel respected.
Nothing fancy or overt here. I just simply give my kids respect. Yes, I to them. I give it to them.
I know some cling to the old adage, “Respect is earned, not given,” but why can’t it be given? Why can’t respect be something we “gift” instead of something we hold in reserve, granting it only to those we deem worthy? We deem worthy. Where does this list begin and end, and what implications might such a list have on our community? My kids come to me in many sizes, shapes, and colors. They come to me with various beliefs, convictions, and values. Such diversity makes for dizzying considerations when it comes to a list, and if I am not careful my own biases become the filter for who’s worthy of my respect. So, I don’t make such a list. I make a different roster. A human roster. Of all the diverse things my kids bring to the room, they share one thing in common: they are all human. And all humans are worthy of respect. And so I give it. Freely but not blindly.
That which can be given can also be taken away. When we “give” our respect, we create a foundation; we create opportunity, we create possibility. We may not agree with or even “like” the person to whom we gift our respect, but that’s the whole point of respect. It is respect which transcends bias and feeling. It can bridge divides. And as we look out on our broader community that’s become so polarized, so divided, it seems we could benefit from a foundation of respect, rooted in our shared humanity.
And so, it is this foundation I seek to establish in my classroom community. I blink first. I don’t wait for my kids to earn my respect. And I certainly don’t demand their respect. I wait for them to give it, and once they do, I work earnestly to keep it. I want my kids to feel respected.
In my room, I want you to feel challenged/supported
High expectations without high support become impossible standards. I choose to deal in possibility. So, I present my high expectations with high support. In truth, I feel like support should exceed expectation. I am not “protecting the standard.” I am supporting the kid. That’s my job, and if I can’t support it–amply, I shouldn’t expect it.
I want kids to journey forth in their learning. When they believe things are possible, they are more likely to take risks and thrive. The practical side to? I offer endless retake/redo opportunities. More work for me? To a degree. But what other work would I do? If a kid wants to continue down the path, and I am the one with the map, why wouldn’t I continue helping them navigate their learning? I have found the only difference between impossible and possible in the classroom is the choice of the teacher. I choose possible. In my room, I seek to create a culture of possibility. In my room, anything is possible.
Culture happens. With or without us. Without us, or left to chance, it takes on many forms which might be not only inconsiderate of but also unhealthy for kids. Wanna take the temp of a classroom’s culture? Ask the kids how they feel.
See, I believe we can regulate the temperature. With us, approached with intention, a classroom culture, based on how kids feel can be a happy, healthy, productive environment. And to this, we are responsible. We are.
Some may wonder, here at the end, why I don’t push “our room” (including the kids) instead of “my room.” Undeniably, kids help shape the culture in myriad ways, and in that sense, it is in effect “our room.” That aspect of the culture “happens,” too. But here, I am advocating that teachers wear the mantle which makes us the most important thing in our young humans’ educational experiences. We are rooms in which our kids dwell forever. They will likely forget what we taught them. But they will never forget how we made them feel in our rooms. Our rooms.