Friday, March 16, 2018

A brave new thing

Day 16 of 31 at TWT!
"How do you envision your classroom culture? On the best days, what does it feel like?"

It's late in the afternoon on the day before winter break, but my brain is on fire.

I'm tired of seeing kids flounder because they don't have the necessary academic skills to be successful. I've stepped up my work with goal-setting and reflection every year, and something is still missing. More kids with more problematic backgrounds are muddling their way through school, weighed down by innumerable challenges combined with a concerning lack of work ethic.

Sparks that have been smoldering through months of Tuesday morning R-Factor sessions are blazing bright as I sit in my new colleague's office, furiously typing a blend of notes and my own fluttering ideas.

"I want it to be like a family, where we're all working together to learn and grow. I hope my kids could all tell you our motto is 'Be Your Best Self'," I answer him.

"When it feels that way, what's happening?"

I try to describe my favorite times of the year: Global Cafe, the March Challenge, some of our goal-setting and reflection work. I wish he knew my teaching better... this is not what I came here to talk about. I'm a little annoyed to be finding myself trying to prove that I'm a good teacher. I work so hard to create so many authentic learning experiences, and the kids respond well to them. But it's not good enough!

"How many of your kids do you think are actively working to be the best version of themselves?"

I start counting on my fingers, naming them in my head. "Um, like 20%?"

"That's pretty good! Better than 10-80-10!"

Yeah, but it's more like 20-60-20, or even worse on the bottom end too... I want so badly to make more of a difference, to find a way to reach those struggling kids better. And to not have them ruin things for everyone else!

"How can you leverage them to lift everyone else?" He tells me how Urban Meyer stopped letting one of his hardest working linemen come in to lift weights early in the morning until he brought a teammate with him. "What if you created groups in your classes, with your elite kids as group leaders? The power of the unit?"

Ummm. That sounds like a daunting shift. But I really want to truly create that classroom family focused on learning and mutual support that I've always dreamed of. Something starts to awaken in the part of me that was a five-year member of The Best Damn Band in the Land.

By the time pretty much everyone else in the building has zoomed off to enjoy their breaks, he's convinced me to try it. A Brave New Thing. I will dig back out my TBDBITL squad leader self and implement a "squad" group structure in my classroom. My hardest-working students will be MY "squad leaders", responsible for leading and inspiring their classmates.

As I spend winter break wrangling a toddler and grading exams, my brain is spinning. I haven't been this pumped up since I was head squad leader of my row my last year in band. I get my head into gear, knowing that our class culture is fully my responsibility, and I need to establish the line better and hold it better. I am determined to RISE and take my kids with me.

I come back from break, begin typing a frighteningly long email to my colleague with way too many questions and thoughts, delete it, and ask instead if we can check in soon. We get snowed out. I almost talk myself out of rescheduling because I'm afraid to take up more of his time. I pour over his R-Factor slides and his notes from Urban Meyer's Above the Line, order the book even though I've always been way too loyal to Jim Tressel to be much of a Meyer fan, and end up devouring it in less than a week once it arrives.

I choose my squad leaders and approach them individually, explaining what I want to try, why I've picked them, and what their responsibilities would be. 2 of the 9, natural leaders in the traditional sense, are excited, honored, and raring to go. The other 7, the kind of quietly hardworking students who sneak through their school day being awesome without sticking out, look at me like I'm completely insane, shake their heads, and try to refuse, firmly convinced that they won't be good enough. "Come on," I cajole. "You can do this!" I talk about leading by example and explain how I was fairly shy and timid, and how I never would have taken on leadership roles that eventually lead me to teaching if people hadn't believed in me. "It'll be good for you." After varying amounts of gentle nudging, they all agree to give it a try.

I plan to pull them all in for a meeting one morning before school with doughnuts. We get snowed out. I scramble to grab them the next day during homeroom instead, feed them the day-old doughnuts, give them my best TBDBITL-esque speech, and introduce the idea to my whole classes later that day. It's hard. There's heavy resistance from the bottom. The middle are disappointed to lose their comfort. The squad leaders need training. I have to create all kinds of new materials to get it all going. Two weeks into the new semester, I'm running on empty and winter break is a distant memory.

But something amazing is happening. And my classroom, my kids, and I will never be the same again.


  1. Oh my gosh... I'm right there with you... you're doing this, and you're making a change that sounds so good for kids. I want to hug you & tell you "Keep at it, keep at it!" Thank you for sharing this story and reminding us of the good that comes from naming our challenges, talking to colleagues, taking risks -- being BRAVE!

  2. Jenn, this sounds so amazing. If I was still teaching, this would be something I try. (Although I laughed at your resisting Meyer's book because of your loyalty to Tressel. I understand it, but still made me chuckle). DO NOT give up on this. I can't wait to read more about it

  3. I am so intrigued and excited for you. I have been trying out pineapple charts with my students and working to encourage individuals to step into leadership roles based on their strengths, it could be they are strong in a skill two grade levels behind, and they can teach students in that grade level their skill. It's been tricky to navigate but inspiring to watch. It's motivating. I am anxious to hear more about what you are doing. It's always so difficult to cultivate real community when students struggle, when a majority struggle.

  4. The motivating factor is you. You have convinced these kids to take a chance because you demonstrate what happens when you take a chance. This is so powerful!


Comments make me happy and I'd love to hear from YOU! :-)