School Year Launched – Rocks and Hopes Build Community


Woo-hoo! Day One begins tomorrow at my school! It’s a time filled with anticipation and enjoy, as well as a bit of untethered energy.  Capture and channel that energy by building community but also with a careful eye on your long and short-term goals – your rock and hopes.
Short term, the primary goals are to build a sense of belonging and significance, while learning routines and having some fun.  Long term, that’s a more complicated story, but you have the whole year to dive into content. Start off slow, getting to know each other and what aspirations each person, as well as the community, hold.  And don’t forget to play outside. Invest in some time playing games, learning names,  having fun.  Remember, it’s often a physically exhausting transition back to school and some exercise and fresh air might be what your group needs to make it through the long school day.

With an understanding of child development and the mission of your school, you should be able to articulate your own philosophy, ideas and hopes for the school year. If you haven’t  already sat down to ponder these long-range plans, they step away from your device, go for a walk or sit in silence for a bit and do so. (I’ll wait while you ponder.)

  • What kind of environment to you see?
  • What time of relationships do you hope these students develop? what skills will they need to do the work?
  • How will this work evolve?
  • How will your tribe communicate?
  • How will they be supported and nourished?
  • How will YOU be supported and nourished?
  • How will you and your students know you are making progress along this path?

Once you have this vision, write yourself some specific, actionable goals.  Remember the old rocks/sand story (don’t know it? Click here if you don’t.) Consider writing down a  few “rocks” or big picture goals you want to achieve each week. Be sure these are realistic and manageable.   All the other “stuff” in life can then fit in around these priorities.  As teachers, that jar often gets shaken up a bit, but keep those big rock in place. I was skeptical of this process at first, being one of those type-A, over-planning, overly zealous kind of folks. But I learned it’s far more satisfying to prioritize and celebrate what gets done – and somehow along the way, the other “stuff” that really matters slips in and is an added bonus.

In the first week or so of school, perhaps some of your “big rocks” might be:

  • I will know each students’ name and two significant facts or interest about them by day 10.
  • I will contact each family to introduce myself by day 7.
  • I will plan an activity I enjoy for the sake of enjoyment during the first weekend to celebrate my efforts.

Then consider your hopes for the class.  Be realistic, but raise the bar.  If you use the Responsive Classroom approach, you know that building a positive community, providing engaging academics and effective management  mean deep and authentic learning are  possible.  Articulate your hopes and then engage your class in doing the same individually.  I’ve written before on in Easing Back into the Next Chapter and Babs Freeman-Loftis writes eloquently about similar themes in Teachers’ Hopes and Goals.This process can really cement your class community and will provide a frame-work for your guidelines and community. To read more, check out “Our Hopes and Dreams School.”

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All the best for a fantastic start to the school year!


Lisa Dewey Wells


Slipping, Re-gripping and Laughing

The week before Thanksgiving, a colleague passed me  with the kind of eye-roll that experienced teachers reveal only when things are truly out-of-sorts.  The teacher who shared this expression did so with a characteristic smile and exhale that told me she understood where the misdirected behavior was coming from.  Even if she didn’t feel like it was under control, most of the world believed she had things masterfully balanced to unfold and expand learning just the way it should, because she did.

Later I stopped to ask her how things were going.  Her reply was, “Ya know… I was thinking about my class and this time of year, and actually, it was the Responsive Classroom newsletter, that made it make sense.  We need the break. Until then, I’m just going to….”  I chuckled along with her and applauded her detective efforts.  Her ability to put solid strategies in place to help everyone not just survive, but thrive, in the lingering days until the week-long break was clear.

I also secretly thought, “Gosh, my guys aren’t like that now. Pretty lucky for us…” But any teacher can tell you, we all have those days. And my “day” arrived the week after our vacation.  By day three, I was in diagnostic-mode.

December arrived with  stormy winds and rain, and threw a wrench into our field trip plans. So as we met with teachers and administrators to make last a minute decision on whether or not to transport children 30 miles away into a storm, my brain was also processing how this unexpected glitch would further interfere with the difficulties we were having with transitions and remembering to “do the rules.”  It clearly wasn’t going to help, or would it?

I had been noticing and journaling the deviations, searching for patterns or triggers. Not surprisingly, transitions were our downfall. When a class has trouble making a transition, there’s a domino effect. Signals are unheeded. Reminders ignored. We’re  late. Or unprepared (physically and mentally). Conflicts arise. Stress increases. The rules seem to erode.

As I noticed these changes, I began to comment more on what I noticed, careful to articulate precisely what I saw them remembering to do well, but not offering hollow praise (“Good job!“).  When children hear you noticing (“I see that you remembered to put all of  your writing materials away. Now you are ready to wash up for lunch.”), that also has a domino effect.  When it was hard (or impossible) to see what was working well, I reminded individuals that I had faith in their abilities and knew they could do better. I asked what they thought was interfering with the normal tenor or quality of work and play.  Not surprisingly, they often knew and were then empowered to make the changes themselves.

So on the morning we had to re-group and re-plan the day, I rifled through Susan Lattanzi Roser’s book Energizers! 88 Quick movement Activities That Refresh and Refocus.  earlier in the week, I had read about her game “The Laughing Handkerchief.” That was going to be our saving grace on this wet, wet morning.

I taught my third graders this game at our Morning Meeting,  They giggled, and cackled and roared and howled, and accepted that the much-anticipated field trip would happen in the new year.  I asked if they could guess why I picked that particular  new game.  The usual answers came up – “It’s fun!” “It’s new!”   But one deep-thinking almost-nine-year-old said, “well, in the game you have to know when to stop and do something else like the transitions we were practicing.”  He really was not a plant!

So here it was – defined simply but clearly.  Laughing like a clown (or Santa or mice or whatever) while the scarf floats but watching carefully so you know to stop once it hits the floor, is a lot like making transitions happen smoothly.  Another child pointed out it’s “like changing your energy from high energy stuff to quiet energy.  Like (deep)  breathing (exercises) and yoga stuff we do.” Yeah, yeah…they got it!

The connection between observing what’s slipping, practicing rules and routines and then engaging children so that they want to do their best was nestled in the “Laughing Scarf.”  We practiced the game for a few more days and have been pulling it out intermittently since then.  We even had a few other folks join us as we took a break from our holiday concert rehearsals last week.

The next several days will surely bring an increase in excitement and energy as the holidays and vacation approach. Similarly, the transition in January is likely to resemble a mini version of the first six weeks of school. But I know we can remind ourselves and practice the routines and expectations we’ve established, and that we can re-grip and move forward.

Besides being a good lesson in changing energy, voice volume, and tasks, the Laughing Handkerchief (Roser’s title) is hilarious opportunity to just let a solid belly laugh rip. And often, laughter is the best medicine.

For other ideas and energizers, check out these resources and ideas:

Energizers! 88 Quick Movement Activities That Refresh and Refocus

Handling the Holidays (Part 1)

Seeing It All Come Together

Keeping Routines Crisp

Sammy and His Behavior Problems – a book review

This week’s blog falls loosely under the heading of “love of learning” as it pertains to the passion for learning most teachers possess. Specifically, I’ve been reading Caltha Crowe’s new book Sammy and his Behavior Problems, a book which chronicles a year in third grade punctuated by a teacher’s passion to know each child, her propensity to examine her own feelings and teaching, and her steadfast desire to give her children the best opportunities for learning.

For those of you familiar with the Responsive Classroom approach, many of the strategies will be obvious.  However, it’s in Crowe’s powerful storytelling and thoughtful reflections (in the form of journal entries) that strategies come to life. If you are new to the RC approach, this book will surely motivate you to read and do more.

Caltha Crowe’s is a skilled, master teacher who’s clearly in a place to teach  teachers by example and story.  She has generously shared her craft and  knowledge  in this touching tale that weaves her experiences and observations with the proven  Responsive Classroom approach. Her book offers readers so many gifts that honor children and our profession, but I’d like to highlight several which can be categorized under three broad headers: teaching strategies, the role of a teacher, and the commitment to life-long learning.

Teaching Strategies:

There are many strategies from the Responsive Classroom that Crowe describes with keen, succinct detail.  Her narrative style and ability to illustrate how her classroom community grows support such strategies as the first six weeks, rules and logical consequences, problem solving conferences, holding a successful class meeting, guided discovery and working with families.  The appendix lists resources by each of the strategies, all of which are available through the Responsive Classroom bookstore. by clicking here.   If you’re new to the RC approach, choose one area to focus on (language or child development would be my suggestion to get your feet wet). If you already know the RC approach, the resources here will let you refine what you know or revisit areas that may have gotten a bit rusty. As I read Sammy, I’ve listened to myself speak to children, re-phrased what I might have said, and generally just put the magnifying glass on my own interactions as I consider, “How might Caltha have done that?” or “What’s really going on here?”

Role of Teacher:
Crowe reminds us that even the most masterful teachers (she’s banked nearly forty years!), can always learn from children, from reflection and from colleagues.  Before the school year begins, Crowe does some recon to gather intelligence on her new students. The experiences and reflections colleagues share and school files to do not define these children in her mind, but rather help Crowe shape her plans for the class and the questions she seeks to answer as she gets to know each child.  While the book focuses primarily on her relationship and strategies with Sammy, she is clear that her role is to be a “teacher to everyone” and while she views each child as an individual learner, she is also cognizant of the interwoven relationships that shape the fabric of her class community.  We are reminded that teachers’ jobs are to facilitate, model, explore and learn along side, not simply to impart knowledge.  Her description of their “passion” study beautifully illustrate how she helps each child tap what s/he is passionate about and turn that topic into rich, authentic research.

Crowe also shares several of her  journal entries which pose questions, problems or reflections on how things went during the day.  These entries are followed by a narrative that reveal how Crowe gets to know  Sammy and others and then masterfully tries strategies that allow the class or grow into a community of learner, all while her goals for each individual child are defined and subsequently met. The intricate juggling of the many demands of teaching are written about with honesty and clarity. Without placing blame or succumbing to anger, Crowe identifies her feelings and finds constructive ways to resolve external and internal conflicts.  She raising questions about both the behavior she observes and her teaching and then illustrates what works and what requires more work.

It’s through her reflections on what she sees and what she knows as a Responsive Classroom educator that Crowe can draw on the strategies that help Sammy gain self-control, build relationships, maximize his learning and feel positive about himself.  Readers know how much she cares for all of her students, even Sammy and his behavior problems.

Commitment to Life-Long Learning:

Crowe reminds us that teaching is both an art and a science which requires ongoing work to both sustain us and to employ current best practices. At different points in the book, Crowe expresses her frustration matter-of-factly, “….On days like that, by the time the children leave for the day, I have a headache.” No blame, no shame. Just the hard truth that there are days that wear us out!  She acknowledges her short comings and failure, but also the victories she and her students experience.  Taking time to converse with trusted colleagues and to get some physical exercise at the end of long days illustrate how this re-energizes her work and often sheds new light on a persistent problem.  While the book doesn’t specifically address the practice of journal writing, the journal entries reveal how Crowe was propelled  to think and act more deeply and to refine her practice in order to help Sammy be successful.  This is life-long learning in action in the most practical and personal way – quiet solitude to be honest, reflective and proactive in ways that refine the craft of teaching and affirm the life-changing work teachers do each day.

This compelling narrative shows us that any teacher’s commitment to learning and that teaching is often a dance – give and take between participants, where one leads but also compliments and allows the other to shine.

Years ago, an administrator in my school suggested I adopt the practice of journal writing at the end each day. I stopped short of laughing at this challenge, citing the frenetic end-of-the day clean up/prep, the transition between busy teacher and busy parent, and the pressure of having to write every day.  But intellectually, it seemed like a good idea. Just not practical for me.  What I know now, after months of weekly writing and the inspiration gained from Sammy and Caltha, is that frequent writing strengths teaching practice – it’s in the quite reflection we can ask the hard questions, shamelessly document our pride in a job well done, and hash out thoughts on how to accomplish small and large goals. As the school year winds down, make a commitment to write in a journal several times a week. It just might become habit-forming once you see what a powerful tool for professional development it can be!

Sammy and his Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from Teacher’s Year is truly one of those must reads for all teachers. If you’re a teacher, put it on the top of your summer reading pile. If you’re a parent, this book (especially paired with a Starbucks gift card!) makes the ideal end of the year teacher gift.  It’s uplifting and inspiring in many, many ways.

To learn more about Caltha Crowe, click here to read an interview with her or here to see video of her in action.

Resource Edition

As I wind my way down the list of “10 Desirable Traits  to Foster in Young Children,” I frequently get requests for resources and ideas.  As a result, this week’s blog is just that – a list of resources listed by the first five desirable traits.  I hope that this list is useful to readers. I also hope that it’s a living, breathing document that others contribute to and share.

How to do that, you ask?  Simple. Click on “Comments” and list those resources. Or write to me. Or forward the newsletter to friends who might add to the list. Or post to Facebook or Twitter.  possibilities are endless. Sharing is the goal, because, as the saying goes, “it takes a village.”

Trait 1  – Empathy and Service to Others

  • Eyler, J. & D. E. Giles, Jr.  (1999). Where’s the Service in Service Learning.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • McCarty, M.  ( 2006). Little Big Minds.  New York: Penguin Books.
  • Little Big Minds

Trait 2 – Love of Literature

  • Calkins, L. (1998): Raising Life Long Learners. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Chamber, A.  (1996). Tell Me: Children, Reading, and Talking. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
  • Fox, M. and J. Horacek.  (2008).  Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever.  Sydney : Pan Macmillan
  • Wilson, E.  L. and S.S. Macaulay. (2002).  Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children’s Literature. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Trait 3 – Self Reliance and Confidence

  • Carter, C. (2010). Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps For More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. New York:  Balantine Books.
  • Elkind, D.  (2007).  The Power of Play.  Philadelphia, PA:  DeCapo Press.
  • McCloud, C.  (2006) Fill a Bucket: A Guide to Daily Happiness for the Young Child. Oconomowoc, WI:  Ferne Press.
  • Gurian, M. (2007).  Nurture the Nature.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Trait 4 – Resiliency and Faith

  • Bronson, P. & A. Merryman.  (2009).  Nurture Shock.  New York:  Twelve.
  • Skanzay, E. (2010). Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Had Without  Going Nuts With Worry.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Trait 5 – Problem Solving

  • Stipek, D. and K. Seal.  (2001).  Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning. New York: Holt Paperback.
  • Child Development from Piaget
  • Family Matters (the family problem-solving game)

General Child Development & Gender

  • Bering, S.& A. Goldberg. (2009). It’s a Baby Boy! San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bering, S. & A. Goldberg. (2009). It’s a baby Girl! San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Crowder, C. (2002).  Eating, Sleeping, and Getting Up.  New York: Broadway Books.
  • Gurian, M. & K. Stevens.  (2005). The Minds of Boys.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Gurian, M.  (1997).  The Wonder of Boys. New York: Tarcher Books.
  • Gurian, M. (2002).  The Wonder of Girls: Understanding the Hidden Nature of Girls. New York: Atria Books.
  • Michael Gurian
  • Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the Classrooms Ages 4-14, 3rd edition. Greenfield, MA:  Northeast Foundation for Children
  • Yardsticks
  • Gessell Institute
  • Daughters

Feel free to share your favorites and check back for additions to the list!