On Flexible Seating

Our classroom, room 235D, is an open door classroom.  Anyone is allowed in to see us learn together at any time.  Our classroom is nothing fancy.  We have tables covered in whiteboard paper, that has seen better days.  We have chairs.  We have yoga balls.  We have ratty old beanbags that are definitely on their last leg.  A few pillows of varying sizes.  And we have books, many, many books.

That’s what you might see, but if you stayed awhile, you may notice something else; freedom.  Shared control.  Freedom to sit where we would like.  Freedom to choose who we work with.  Freedom to move the furniture around.  A sense of shared control over our shared space so that we all can feel comfortable together.  It is nothing much but is ours and you would think that the students would realize just how unfancy it is.  And yet, every year when I ask my students how I could change our classroom, the answers are similar, “It’s fine, Mrs. Ripp. Perhaps a few more pillows. We like it the way it is…”

While I have a milelong wish list of furniture I wish we could get, I find comfort in their answer.  The room is working for us, as well as it can.  The control that they have over what the room looks like is working for them.  The flexible seating that has been a part of our learning for years, works for us.

And I see it spread across the globe; the push for more innovative seating.  For yoga balls and wiggle chairs, pillows, and getting rid of desks.  On Pinterest I drool over classrooms I will never be able to recreate, and yet, I wonder; how often does the furniture actually match the teaching?  How often does the furniture match the educational philosophy that needs to be in place for this to truly be flexible?

Because the reality is that while many districts are gladly spending money on new furniture in order to promote innovation, the educational philosophy in many of those same districts is not changing. The students are still sitting through a scripted curriculum, where teachers have limited choice in how to teach and the students are expected to learn through the same process.

This is the problem in education; we so gladly throw money at new educational initiatives that look great, but then do little to think about our thinking.  And yet, our educational philosophy is what really determines the experience that everyone has within our schools, not the fancy new chairs.  Buying new furniture is easy, changing the way we educate is not, and then we wonder why the furniture ends up being used in the exact same way as the furniture was before.

So I wonder; what good is flexible seating if we don’t also have flexible thinking?

One of the central questions of our year together is for my students to explore how they learn best.  This includes the room manipulation and where in the classroom they need to be to access the learning.  They cannot do this if I am constantly telling them where to sit, how to sit, and also with whom to sit by.  There has to be room for experimentation, bad decisions, and reflection on what works best for them.

So before we invest more of our already limited funds into newfangled furniture, let’s look at what flexible seating should really encompass, here are a few questions to help.

Can the kids move the furniture?

Flexible seating should be flexible both in function but also in where it is used.  If students need to explore how they learn best then deciding where to sit is just as important, if not more so, than what to sit on.   Do they need to move tables into a corner so they can think or will being in the middle of the classroom work better for them?  Will they learn best sitting on the floor in the front or pacing in the back?  Where in the classroom can they access the learning best?

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Do they always need permission?

When permission is tied into flexible seating, we often tend to say “no” to the same kids; the kids who may have made poor decisions in the past.  And while there certainly can be different guidelines at times for some kids, they need to, at some point, go back to having the same blanket permission as everyone else.  Schools are meant to be safe places for kids to experiment with learning, to try new things, to learn about who they are and what they need.  If we constantly limit that for some kids, think of what will happen to their self-advocacy and also their sense of belonging.

Is it choice for all or just for some?

Are kids earning their way into the flexible seating or is it an automatic yes to all?  While there are times I have doubt about some of the choices my students are making, I will tell them to prove it to me.  If they do, then great, if they don’t, then we discuss further.  We have to be careful that flexible seating choices do not become one more way to segregate the kids.  After all, it is often some of my most challenging learners that benefit the most from having a different way to work in the classroom, but we won’t know that if they don’t get a chance to choose.

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Does it encourage new ways of working?

I have seen beautiful classrooms with lots of flexible seating where students work through traditional lessons; teacher-centered, and one process for all.  Where is the innovation in that?  One of the things I love the most is how my students move around the classroom and try new configurations when needed.  Not at all times by any means, but when they need to.  They know they have the tools at hand to move their group onto the floor or a table in the team area.  They know they can make the furniture support their learning rather than work around its limitation. They know to use each other as writing peers, reading partners, or project collaborators because they know that with their choices in seating also comes the choice in who to work with most of the time.  They think about how to work, rather than always look to me to make all of the decisions, thus growing their independence and once again their knowledge of how they learn best.

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Is there choice throughout?

Flexible seating should truly just be the outward indicator of the choice-driven learning that should be happening.  We operate under the five tenets of choice at all times, meaning that I try to give my students as much control and power over how they learn, what they learn, who they learn it with, and how they are assessed.  This is what matters most to me.  Not the yoga balls, not the pillows, not how they can move things around, but that the students feel like they have a shared power and responsibility for what happens in our classroom.  It is a work in progress every single year, yet, at the end of the year, I am always amazed at how far we have come.

So as a new year begins, it is time for us to really reflect on the educational innovation we are pursuing.  If we are looking at adding more flexible seating to our schools, are we also having the educational discussions that need to go with it?  Are we asking ourselves how this will change the way we teach?  The way our students learn?  Are we asking ourselves how this will be better?  Or is it just an outward show of supposed innovation that does not really change the educational experience our students have?

The choice is ours; it is not enough to have great new furniture if we don’t also have new ideas.

PS:  If you are wondering what the research says, here are a few great articles to get you started.  One that discusses the need for our classrooms to match the type of learning experiences we would like to have, so once more focusing on intentionality within our environment.  And another that is a conglomeration of research that discusses the need for students to feel empowered within our classrooms.  And here is another that while lengthy discusses how the way we have students sit can help them learn deeper depending on the activity they are engaged in.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

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He Was an Angry Child, You Know

He was an angry child, you know.

The clenched fists.  The stare that could take you down.  The raised voice with the yells of unfairness.

“It wasn’t me…” traveled down the hall, always emanating from our classroom.

He was the angry child.

The kicked-back chairs and the tossed desk told his story loudly.

The playground fights, the raised fists told it as well.

So did the suspensions.

The missed assignments.

The checklist and the endless meetings.

He was an angry child, or so they said.

At least, that is all you would see if that was all you noticed.

If you didn’t look further or take the time, you would have missed everything else that he was.

Because did you know, he was a dancer?  That he could play ball with the best of them?

That he could hold a tiny baby and surround it with love, thanking you for the chance to say hello.

That he was funny, his smile would light up the room, his jokes would crack us all up, even when I tried to teach.

That he liked to read when he found the right book.

That while his life was far from easy, he still had love?  He wanted to give love.

It would have been so easy to only see the angry.  After all, how often do we only see a child for their loudest quality?  How often do we so easily dismiss everything else they are as we try to fix their problem, as we try to fix them?  How often does their story reach us before they do and already we have prepared everything we think we need without knowing if they need it.  We get stuck in our thought patterns and only see the flaws, the areas of growth, and not everything else that makes them the person they are.

How easily we compartmentalize children to only be one story, while we speak of growth mindset and embracing differences.  To only have one facet and let that become the only thing we see in every interaction, in every discussion?  Do we ever stop to consider how the narrative we dictate becomes the story that unfolds?  Do we ever wonder if the children we teach can see the labels we have for them?  (I think they do). And while some may fight with everything they have to not be who we think they are, others may simply shrug their shoulders and accept the destiny we have had a part in designing and become the kid that they think we see.

It would have been so easy to only see the angry.  To only discuss the fights.  To only share the bad, the areas needed for growth.  But we didn’t.  We couldn’t.  Because he deserved more than what he had gotten before.

Because sure, he was an angry child, but he grew up to be a college student.  A football player on a scholarship, telling you he is going to be a PE teacher some day.  One who checks in once in a while, showing of his GPA (3.36 baby!) that may have just made you cry.  Who may not be at the end of his journey just yet but has come so far already.

He was an angry child, you know, but he was also a child who needed more love than he had gotten before.  More understanding than I had ever given before.  More patience than I thought possible.  And he grew up and he becomes something more.  Not because of us, but despite us at times.

So what do you see when you see that child?  Who do you think they will become?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

 

 

Using Picture Books in the Middle School Classroom

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We have hundreds of picture books in our classroom.  Ranging from board books, yes, books meant to be handled by babies, to beautifully illustrated picture book versions of classic stories; ours is a picture book classroom.  And while I have written extensively about the power of picture books and how it can be used to hook resistant readers, to build a reading community, and all of the other incredible benefits of having them as part of our reading community, I have not really written about the usage of picture books as mentor texts.  That is, until now, so here you are, some of the ways we use picture books to teach different concepts.

Thematic statements

Using a picture book as an example, see my list here, we read one aloud and work through the example together.  While many of my students can easily pick up on the theme “word” (Death, love, freedom), they have a much harder stretching that into an actual thematic statement.  So rather than just death, they have to write something along the lines of “In the picture book, Ida Always, the text is used to illustrate that the fear of death should not stand in the way of creating lasting bonds.”  While this may seem hard at first, the idea of doing this work with a picture book, rather than a longer book, alleviates some of the stress that my students have with the analytical work being done.  After we write our thematic statement and turn it into a full paragraph, the students are then given a stack of picture books to choose from to practice on their own.  This is, therefore, a way to assess their understanding without having to use a common text.  Students can then either hand in their thoughts as a written piece of work or choose to discuss it with me or record it using their device.

Writers Craft

The writing skills used in a great picture book are worthy of our close analysis.  I love finding a stack of small moment picture books and then having students really take the writing apart.  How did the author move the story along with such few pages?  If we were to remove the images would the story still stand on its own?  Why?  Other questions can be:

  • How does the author transition time or setting?
  • How the author situates us?
  • How is the character described?
  • How are the words further explained through the illustrations?

These are just a few examples of separate lessons that can be done through a lense of writer’s craft.

Non-Fiction Focus

We have written nonfiction picture books in the past and one of my greatest joys is to get students read some of the incredible nonfiction picture books we have in our collection.  I think of books like Pink is for Blobfish, Growing Up Pedro, Gorillas, Giant Squid, or How to Be an Elephant.  These authors breathe life into their nonfiction texts and so I ask my students to study their craft.  How did they take all of this research and create something so accessible yet information-filled?  It is wondrous to see the lightbulb go off for my students when they can see what I mean right in the text.

Fluency and Expression

One of our favorite units of the year is when all of our students perform plays based on Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggie books.  It is incredible to see these sometimes very cool 7th graders, truly connect with their silly side and go for it in their performance.  Reading aloud picture books, performing them, and putting your heart into it helps with all public speaking skills.

Introductory texts. 

In order for us to go deeper with text analysis and discussion, I need my students to sometimes gain some confidence.  Picture books are not scary.  They are inviting to kids.  So as we begin the year with an introduction or reminder of the signposts as discussed in the book Notice and Note, I use picture books to introduce every single signpost.  (To see the lists go here).  It helps me break it down simply for kids, to give them confidence, and then also to be able to transfer it into their own reading.

Inferring.

One of my biggest tools for boosting inference skills is to use wordless picture books.  After all, it is hard to read books like Unspoken or The Whale and not have an opinion on what just happened.  Another reason I love wordless picture books is that it levels the playing field for a lot of our kids.  They don’t have to decode the words to get to the story but instead have to decode the images.  I have found that some of my most vulnerable readers are incredibly good at this as this is one of the reading survival strategies they use daily.

As you can see, picture books are not just for show, and yet, even if they were, I would be ok with that.  After all, how many times does a child just need to fall into the pages of a picture book to remember the magic that reading itself?  What an incredible gift all of these authors and illustrators give us when they decide to spill their ideas into a picture book.

To see all of our favorite picture books, go here or follow me on Instagram for “live” recommendations of books.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Debate Boxing – A Way to Get Kids Thinking Fast

December is a fun month to teach if you know how to use the inevitable energy that the students bring in.  While I may long for my fireplace and a good book, my students are eagerly awaiting snow, break, and perhaps even Christmas.  To say that our classroom is loud in the afternoon is an understatement.  Knowing the energy level of the kids, my smart colleague Reidun, therefore, proposed doing debate during the month of December, and boy was she right.  The energy is infectious, the kids are committed, and the engagement is high.

While the students have successfully completed their practice unit, we are now gearing up for the big one; the summative debate where they must find their own articles, research reliability and also try to prep for whatever their opposing team will throw at them.  This is why thinking on their feet is so important, as well as being able to listen to what is actually being said and then formulating a response.

Enter debate boxing.  Not my idea, nor the idea of my colleague, but definitely an idea that needs to be shared (If you know where it came from please let me know so I can link it!).

The concept is simple:

Pick something for the students to debate.  We used this podcast from NPR’s More Perfect because it does not give a black and white answer.  We use the podcast to discuss how our perspective changes as we uncover more facts.  This took us about two days as the students took notes throughout and we stopped and discussed.

Then, using their notes, have students draft an opening statement.  I only gave them ten minutes to do so, because I don’t want them to get hung up on this.  They know they need to have an opinion, evidence for it as well as explain why their evidence proves their claim.

Then, split the class into two teams based on their opinion.  Have each team select a team member to start off their match.

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Either, create a ring in your classroom or have the two students debating stand on a table or a chair.  Either way; have where they are stand out.  Then with their notes in hand, one team reads their opening statement.  Their opponent then gets 45 seconds to give their rebuttals based on what they heard and what they know and off they go.  The rebuttals go back and forth at a fast pace.

At any point, the member can “tap out” and have someone else take over or we also said that the team can switch them out.

After a few minutes, the round is over, the team members both switch and the other team reads their opening statement.

You can go for as long as the kids have something valuable to say.

For a twist toward the end, I had the teams switch opinions and argue opposite of what they had.  This was amazing as they had gotten rather intense about their opinion and now had to debate for the opposing claim.

Today we debrief, we discuss what they learned from the experience, and also why thinking on your feet and listening is so vital when we discuss.  While our classroom may have been loud yesterday and just a tad bit crazy, it was the best kind of crazy there is.

On Student Talk and What to Look For

I am struck by the noise that surrounds us.  As I walk through my school, Oregon Middle, the voices of kids float through the open doors.  Sure, the teachers can be heard as well, but over and over, again and again, there the kids are.  Asking questions, discussing, getting passionate.  We are carried forward by the voices of the very kids we serve.  It makes me even prouder to be a teacher here.

And yet.  I think back to the days where I thought silence meant learning.

Where I thought deep engagement was almost always quiet.  Punctuated by brief answers facilitated by me to check for understanding.

Where I thought that if only I could get them to listen, then they would learn.

If only they would stop talking then they would really understand.

If only one child answered then surely that was engagement.

If only they turned and talked when I asked them that meant we were doing student talk right.

And while we still savor the quiet hush that surrounds us when we reach the zone with our books or with our thinking or with our writing, we also relish the noise that comes from student engagement.

But not just any type of noise, the productive kind.  The one that goes deeper.  The one that isn’t just because the kids are being compliant but because they actually care.  That is when student engagement is done right.  So what can we look for when we evaluate the types of noise our kids are making?

Who is making the noise? 

Is it you or is it them?  While there is much to be said for teacher-led discussion, at some point we have to turn it over so the kids can do the probing, the analyzing, and the digging deeper.  What if we didn’t give them all of the questions, but instead gave them the time to discuss?  What if we modeled it but then truly let them take the reigns, not just once in a while but almost always?  What if students came up with the discussion questions as well as moderated the flow?

How much noise is it?  

Is the noise contained to brief periods of time in your class or is it throughout?  Are students engaged outside of the questions we ask?  Are the teaching points inspiring them to care more?  To ask more?  To push their thinking?  Or is just having them discuss one thing and then lapsing into silence as they wait for the next direction?

Who controls the noise?

While I see many teachers embrace the “turn and talk,” I wonder how often that’s it for student talk.  I am guilty of this thinking;  as long as they turn and talk then surely there is student engagement.  Yet I have found that in my eagerness to get to the next thing, I have often cut off the kids from going deeper into their conversations.  That my desire to ask the next question has stopped their further inquiry.  That my casual discomfort with student silence means they are not getting time to just think.  I am working on seeing where it goes and following along when we can.

What emotions lie behind the noise?

I loved the discussion unfolding in our classroom today as students discussed “Who should get the baby?” after listening to an NPR podcast.  They were so upset, not with each other, but with the facts of the case, how it wasn’t black and white, and also how others were not agreeing with them.  To see this passion for a podcast as we discuss uncovering facts to change our perspective is exactly what I hope for; that they care about it.  That they speak up because they cannot imagine staying quiet.  That it matters enough for them to actually bother with adding their voice.

And for me that’s it; when I think of true student engagement through student talk, I look for the emotions.  How students speak.  Why they speak.  What they say, but also how they say it.  Within this exchange, we can gauge their interest.  We can see whether they are simply going through the motions or whether our class, our learning exploration, actually matters to them.  And so this is where we start, where I start every time I evaluate our student talk; with the emotional investment or lack thereof.  It turns out that the truth can really be found in how they speak their words.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

To My Almost Nine-Year-Old Daughter

To my almost nine-year-old daughter,

It started with your long sleeves.  Do you remember that?  It was September and I couldn’t understand for the life of me why you insisted on every day wearing long sleeves too school even though it was 90 degrees out.  You finally told me it was because of them.  Those kids who had started calling you names, pointing to the hairs on your arms and making you feel ashamed.  I shook my head, reminisced about my own childhood and told you that kids could be mean.

I didn’t think about it further.

Not too long after, you were so mad.  I walked into the kitchen, home from work, and it was like the levees burst.  You told me about the shoving.  You told me about the names.  You told me how these kids kept finding you in the hallways, in the quiet moments in class, in the lunch line and told you, you were ugly.  That you were stupid.  That they wished you weren’t there.

We told your teacher, she spoke to you, to the kids, and we thought that was it.

One night you asked me what bitch meant.  Your dad and I sat there stunned.  Why do you ask?  You told us how during writing that day a girl had sat next to you and in her sparkly pink notebook she had written “Thea is a bitch” and then proudly showed it to you.  You knew it was bad.  You were so upset.

We told your teacher, we asked for a meeting.

But before then someone wrote on the bathroom walls.  Mean things about other kids and they signed your name.  Then told every child that wanted to hear it how you had done it.  You were so angry, I didn’t think you would ever calm down again.

We told the school, we got our meeting.

An investigation was started and yet it continued.

You learned to not bring anything special to school because it would be taken.

You learned to not walk by yourself in the hallways so that you would have a witness.

You learned to move when some kids sat by you.

You learned to calmly tell a child that you were not those things they said you were.

You learned to hold your tongue when all you wanted to do was lash out.

And yet, we felt your anger.  And also your fear; do I have to go to school, Mom?

Then one day, dad picked you up and you were in trouble.  Some kids had called you the “B word again” and this time you had had enough, you had pushed one of them.  Our sweet girl pushed another child.

We told you no way.  We told you that was not how to handle problems, and yet at the same time, we wondered, what could you do?  Because following the rules and being nice had done nothing.

And we waited for news from the school.  What did the investigation find?

Last night you told me that someone whispered to you during carpet time that you were an ugly fucking bitch.  At dinner, I had to tell you that no matter what another child says to you, you are not ugly.  You are smart, kind, beautiful and that we are so proud of you.

The school finally told us that there was a clear case of bullying and that there would be serious consequences.  And yet, does that really matter?  Because the same day as the kids were told to stop bullying you, one of them kicked you as you walked by.  “On accident.”  How many more on accidents incidents will you have to put up with?

This morning, you asked me to keep you home.  Please don’t send me to the mean kids.  I told you to keep your head up high.  To report anything that happened.  To interrupt the teacher if you had to.  That the adults know.  That they care.  That they are trying.

And yet as I sit at school, I wonder if I told you the truth?  Can we really stop it?

Your teacher is trying.  Your principal is trying.  We are trying.  And yet, is it enough?

So I write this to tell you again that those kids with those words don’t matter.  That you are perfect just the way you are.  That we will continue to fight for you just like you will fight for yourself.

So to my almost nine-year-old daughter; you are enough.  You are everything to us.  You are perfect just the way you are.  Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.

Love,

Mommy

PS:  So many people have sent their love and support to Thea since I wrote this.  Thank you, because as much as I want to say it has ended, it has not. If you would like to send her a note of encouragement, you can mail it to her through me.  My address at school is:

Pernille Ripp

Oregon Middle School

601 Pleasant Oak Drive

Oregon, WI 53575