Vital > Inclusive

As we build our classroom communities, one word keeps ringing in our ears. Inclusive. The Inclusive Classroom. It’s probably a book or a paper or an article on some blog that has a billion and a half views. While I’m all for inclusiveness, I’m just not for it in an elementary (or any, really) classroom.

The implication of inclusiveness is that all are welcome and while that’s a lovely sentiment, it’s simply not the type of classroom that we should be building. The fact that someone is welcome at a place and accepted for who they are at that moment in time is great but maintains tenuous ties to their desire to actually be in the classroom and contributing in a way that is both meaningful to them and their community.

It matters that you’re here. Of course it matters that you’re here.

We tell children “it matters that you’re here.” Of course it matters that you’re here. You matter, I matter, we all matter. Those sentiments are beautiful but when we imagine building spaces and places that children are tripping over themselves to get to every day, feeling welcome simply isn’t enough. Nor is feeling accepted and included. Just because I feel welcome at the International Society of Wood Grain Examiners doesn’t mean I really want to be a part of that group.[1] While I have the choice to be a part of that group or not, students do not really have the choice whether or not to be expected in the classroom. That is the law.

I have been working to shift my mindset away from making students feel included or welcome. That’s a base assumption that anyone who sets foot into a building that I am in gets, it’s not up for discussion. No matter what. The students in my classroom, however, are vital. Most importantly, they know that they are vital.

I never sought out to make sure that every student felt included in my classroom because that was never good enough for me. The way to build a formidable and inclusive community within the confines of our classrooms is to make sure that every student knows without a doubt that they are vital to our community. Without them, our community would cease to function in the meaningful way that it currently does. Not only does this embolden students to embrace their own uniqueness and identity and cultural upbringings, but also instills in them a sense of urgency and pride knowing that they are the reason things are as awesome as they are.

One of the ways that I go about creating this sense of vital-ness is my end of the day routine. For the first two weeks of school (and often long after that) I stand at the door as students are leaving and see them off one by one following a Notice, Name, and Frame protocol. During the day I notice something that they did that should be pointed out. As we are standing at the door together, I tell them what I noticed, then I name it and frame it in context of our classroom community. That’s it.

It might sound something like this: “Denis, today I noticed that you came into the classroom with a huge smile on your face and before you even put any of your things away, you made sure that you went around and enthusiastically greeted everyone else in the classroom. That is putting others before yourself and sharing your precious joy with us so we can start our day together excited and knowing that someone cares about us. Without doing what you did today, our day would have been nowhere near as dynamic and safe. You made others feel comfortable taking risks.”

This example is verbatim though I’ve changed Denis’ name. Every single student gets a farewell like this every afternoon no exceptions. Notice, Name, and Frame. It becomes a bit of an addiction for us teachers. Try it.

  1. though let’s not kid ourselves, I would love to be a part of that group

Discussing Data

Teaching has to be one of the most human professions – responsive yet passionate, caring and simultaneously joyful. Humans were designed to adapt and there aren’t many other crafts that require the fine tuned sense for when and how to adapt that require adaptation to happen so quickly and concretely.

I got into teaching because I love crunching numbers and interpreting data.

Over my years of teaching, I have conducted numerous informal interviews/discussions about the craft of teaching with colleagues.1 Why did you get into teaching? Why are you still teaching? Without fail, everyone has had a story to tell that was driven by the heart. They were compassionate, determined to change things for the better, and emotionally driven.2 I have not heard from a single teacher, “I got into teaching because I love crunching numbers and interpreting data…” We know that, as teachers, we should be making data driven decisions about instruction but we might not feel that we should be making data driven decisions. The language and mandates regarding assessment suggest that we make our instructional decisions by looking at numbers, trends, and intervention progress… none of that has any emotion or feeling to it and yet emotion is at the root of why an overwhelmingly large number of teachers decided to become teachers.

Therein lies the discrepancy.

During CLTs, staff meetings, PD, and planning, the language that we use to describe out teaching and the language that we use to guide our instructional decision making is, to be blunt, exceedingly dull and without heart. We’re currently struggling, as an educational community, connecting those dots and bridging the gap between our hearts and our data. As leaders, schools, and admin, must reform the way that we discuss data with teachers so that it connects with what makes them excited and passionate. Data discussions must be driven by story that connects to a teacher’s heart – their “why”. Making data driven decisions is vitally important as a teacher, but behind every piece of data there is a child. A human that has a specific set of needs. That is story.

Most teachers I know are worn down. Making the number of decisions each day that is required from the craft is absolutely exhausting. Add to that some of us aren’t comfortable analyzing and visualizing data and the fact that there’s no story attached to our data during these discussions and teachers drift (are dragged?) away from their passion and heart. We’re guided by the principle that assessment drives instruction. Perhaps we might also think about something like the story drives the data when we’re thinking about how to have discussions about data with teachers. Disillusionment and unexpected realities are two hugely important factors in the current rate of teacher burnout. Teachers will continue teaching if it fills their heart. So let’s fill our hearts.

One of the ways that we can help is by making sure that all teacher preparatory programs build in the expectation and facility for working with data. The earlier that data collection, analysis, and visualization are brought in to pedagogical training, the more it becomes an integrated piece of how, and most importantly, why, we teach. Teachers can learn to love it. I do! I love it because I love and believe in the power of stories… but that’s for another time.

  1. These interviews were prompted by an idea that I am going to figure out teacher burnout and how to solve it… that’s another story, but I am starting to think that it’s heading in the direction of making shifts away from teachers as generalists – I can do lots of things well – into specific, hyperfocussed and passionate specialists – I can do this one thing expertly… I don’t know if that’s good or bad or somewhere in the middle…
  2. Here’s a recent publication that confirms many of the same things I have found during my discussions:
    Rutten, L., & Badiali, B. (2020). Why They Teach: Professional Development School Teacher Candidates’ Initiating Motivations to Become Teachers. School-University Partnerships, 13(1), 12–21.

Where The Conversation Might Start

There is a lot of conversation about where the conversation might start.

This conversation is the conversation surrounding race in the elementary school classroom.

We approach these topics through a lens of inquiry and discovery — through a critical lens that allows the formation of opinions. Biases that are then examined and challenged through classroom discussion. When approached this way, students then have facts and observations to draw upon to justify their stances.

Maybe we take a note out of Making Thinking Visible 1 and attempt a routine placing two side by side primary sources, photographs, perhaps, and guide the students in identifying similarities and differences both in the content and technique of the images, charting their thoughts for the class to examine, consider, and debate. This is the example that I used in my fourth grade classroom the day following the death of George Floyd and surge in Black Lives Matter protests.

This is one of my biggest failings as a teacher. Following the death of George Floyd. One of any teacher’s greatest challenges is creating balance between the pacing of standards provided by the district, what is developmentally relevant for their students, and managing the classroom. It’s relatively easy to be reactive as a teacher. There are no shortage of incredible and rich learning experiences being designed by teachers. The sublime teacher figures out a path of guidance that that incorporates aspects from our nation’s dialogue before our nation experiences landmark events, not after. The sublime teacher is the proactive teacher.

Sublime teachers held conversations about xenophobia before 911. Sublime teachers examined the rate of change in civil rights before the death of George Floyd. Sublime teachers are currently teaching about _.

  1. Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners.

Experiential Learning

We can call it experiential learning, project based learning, inquiry driven explorations, the nomenclature almost doesn’t matter as much as what it represents.

Some of my favorite experiences with my students have been when we have broken free from the litany of mandates coming from the county and instead took a step back and said, “Yeah, but what if we could?” When we’re working on communication and clarity of thought, we are crafting podcasts and YouTube style videos that force us, by their very nature, to understand our material so deeply that we can now use our knowledge to persuade, inform, and entertain our audience in a meaningful way. When taught in isolation, we learn of these ideas of author’s purpose but have little way for them to take root in our systems, and we end up just regurgitating memorized ideas. When we’re working on researching, note-taking, and executive functioning/organization, we’re building websites, creating a Wiki, or, yes, trying to make a TikTok go viral by examining the systems that make it go. We have built social media profiles for planets, used our knowledge of the water cycle, erosion, and soil conservation to design (and build, of course) water collection systems and culverts around our school playground (and just like that, no more muddy classroom floors!)

That is what our work is all about. We place what we learn in the context of action and product. It is authentic, engaging, purposeful, and best of all, it reinforces the retention of acquired knowledge.

This all sounds wonderful, I hear you saying to yourself, but how does my elementary schooler get to take advantage of this while learning both online and remotely? Whenever we build and design these experiences, we start with two simple questions: What do we need to learn? and What tools do we have available to us? That frames our adventures in an appropriate context so we don’t spend all our time planning hypothetical projects. Virtually, we have never been in a better place with the tools we have available to us for creation. Blogging, video, audio, knowledge management – we’re swimming in them. But keep in mind that just because our work happens virtually, the student’s tasks might not always be in front of a computer. Maybe we’re working on persuasive writing and so decide to craft a flyer campaign to convince people in our neighborhood to be more deliberate with their recycling. Part of that is producing and distributing actual flyers. Maybe we’re studying poetry and writing a song that we hope to perform at a local talent night or kids coffee house. Maybe we’re even designing and (with your help, of course) building a brand New American Ninja Warrior training course in the back yard, using our in-depth knowledge of geometry, elapsed time, and measurement.

When our learning is inextricably tied to doing, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of wonder, experiments, informed risk-taking, and, best of all, joy.

Building a Ritual of Reflection

Use the summer to develop your systems so that you can spend your time focussing on the children this fall, not messing with your back end and data systems. Go reflect the hell out of it.

The Foundation

As an educator, I have always fundamentally believed that one of the major keys to effective, culturally responsive teaching is through the constant and immediate examination and adjusting of our practices. Try this: the foundation upon which a solid craft is built is reflection. This is not a diary. Though there’s nothing wrong with just talking through your day and your feelings as method for processing all the day’s events and examining the choices that you made, this is different. This is (and must be, to be effective) actionable and more data driven than emotional/instinctual.

As I examine my own growth and stumbling as a teacher, I hear a lot of people talking about building good habits and a habit of this or that… to be clear, I have no problem with habits. I think habits can be wonderful. By nature, however, habits are something formed to lighten your cognitive load. They are something that you do almost automatically so that your brain is freed up for processing something else. For example – you don’t need to think about going to the gym to workout – you’ve built a habit and every morning at 5am you wake up and go to the gym. It’s just what you do. there’s no negotiation and no decision making. You’re the type of person who goes to the gym every morning at 5 to work out.

What I am interested in is something a bit deeper. Yes, the act of beginning your reflection is a habit because it is tied to a specific time and place and every time I am in that place at that time I reflect. It’s what I do. The act of reflection, however, I like to think of as a ritual. Something that goes beyond automaticity and into a space of acute mindfulness. A ritual could be thought of as a step beyond a habit. It’s your Habit+ or Habit 2.0. It is present, thoughtful, and considered.

Building a ritual of reflection first begins by building the habit. Building a habit means developing a system. When we fall or slip, we fall back on the systems that we have created. If our system is a mess or (GASP) not developed well, we’re in trouble. So often, when we find that we struggle to build a habit it is because our systems are faulty. With a nod to some of the research of Clear (Atomic Habits), the major pieces of this process for me involve 4 pillars that I use as a foundation to build my practice upon.

  1. The reflection takes place at the same time and location every day
  2. The process is as frictionless as possible
  3. The reflection questions must prompt me for actionable answers
  4. This process must remain consistent to be effective

My Process

In addition to being unabashedly curious about pedagogy and examining the various roles a teacher might take on in the classroom, there’s something else you should know about me… I get annoyed quickly. Especially by repetitive tasks. I’m not joking. I’m that guy that if I have to push 5 buttons to do something on a computer or phone, I go from 0 to fuming in 1.2 seconds, or however long it takes to make all those clicks.

What I came up with was this: every day, I have a 35+ min commute home from work. When I get in the car, get buckled, and pull out of the parking lot, immediately out of my lips comes “Siri, it’s time to reflect.” My virtual assistant (which happens at this moment to be speaking in a terrible Irish accent) then asks me a series of questions. After each question, I answer and Siri transcribes. When I’m done, I have a note waiting for me as I look at planning for tomorrow and what adjustments I need to make to make sure the needs of my students are immediately met. I can pivot quickly and easily, because I know where I need to go – I, quite literally, have a list of what needs to happen tomorrow.

I am on iOS – you can probably do the same thing on the Android platform, but it’s been a while since I’ve been there so I can’t walk you through it… but you can use the link below with your iPhone or iPad. It uses a native app called Shortcuts. You don’t need to know about that app if you don’t already use it, but it’s basically a utility that allows you to automate a bunch of actions you might want to perform on your device without needing to know a whole lot about how to code. This Shortcut will add your reflection into Notes with a title of that day’s date. You can have it ask you any questions that you want, just go into Shortcuts and change the text.

How to do it Yourself

On your iPhone, make sure the following apps are installed, Notes and Shortcuts (These are both native, come with the phone apps, but just double check they are installed – if you don’t have one of them, just go to the App Store to download for free.) and you have updated your firmware to iOS 13 (settings->general->Software Update)

In order for this Shortcut to work, you fist need to go into Settings -> Shortcuts -> Allow Untrusted Shortcuts. (This allows you to use Shortcuts that were made by people other than Apple.)

Next, just click this link:

The rest should be pretty straight forward. I set it up so that when you initially install it, it will ask you what questions you’d like to reflect on (you can always change these later), so you can enter in whatever works for you. After you enter in your questions, the Shortcut is installed and whenever you run it (in the Shortcuts app) you can choose which of those questions you’d like to answer that day and Siri will ask you those questions, transcribe your responses, and then save your responses as a new note in the Notes app with the date in the title. When you finish responding to a question, just press the red stop button and it will go on to the next question.

This is made all the better by being able to trigger it with your voice. After all, I’m doing this on my commute home and have kids of my own… so safety first. “Hey Siri, it’s time to reflect.”

The questions that I used this past year:

  • What went well today in the classroom?
  • What needs improvement for tomorrow?
  • What evidence do you have that leaning happened?
  • What are your goals for tomorrow?

Voice dictation: there are a lot of different phrases you can use to make sure Siri types what you want it to type, but the most helpful…

  • “Period”

  • “New line”
  • “New paragraph”
  • “Question mark”

In Summary

Whenever I get a chance to work with and speak to pre-service teachers entering their year of internship, the best piece of advice that I always leave them with at the end of our chats – “Reflect the hell out of it.”

So go. Use the summer to develop your systems so that you can spend your time focussing on the children this fall, not messing with your back end and data systems. Go reflect the hell out of it.