My favorite movie of all time is “You’ve Got Mail.” One of the best scenes in the movie is when Meg Ryan’s character is sick and at home just after her store has closed, aka put out of business, by Tom Hanks’ character. He tries to cheer her up and says, “It wasn’t personal,” to which Meg launches into how it was personal to her and “Whatever anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” While I realize it wasn’t her purpose in the movie, truer words were never spoken about a classroom. And I am making it my mission to help transform classrooms into more personal spaces for children. This one is personal to me, so fair warning this post is a bit longer than normal, but I hope you will hang with me to the end. I promise it is worth it. (Alternatively, you can watch the Facebook Live I did on this topic here.)

“Personal spaces” can have many different meanings, but for this discussion, I mean making classrooms a place where students feel heard and are recognized as individual people, with all their unique abilities, quirks, and needs. This philosophy stems from events in my own life, both as a teacher and a parent. I have a daughter that has struggled in school since she started. She was diagnosed with ADHD in the second grade. This was also the year I met my husband and we married when she was in fourth grade, so from third to fourth, I blamed the school struggle on the changes with our family. Immediately after we got married, I began a second and then a third job, so then I blamed it on being busy. I knew there was more I could be doing, but I just didn’t have the time. Plus, as a teacher I know how much is already on a teacher’s plate, and I definitely didn’t want to be THAT parent. I talked with the principal of the school as she was transitioning to junior high, and she felt like that was the missing piece—our effort. She also stated as a private, parochial school, there was a bit more leeway on the accommodations that could be given without a formal plan if they were truly needed. This appeased me for the moment, because I felt my daughter could still receive support at school and I wouldn’t have to be Ms. Bad Guy adding more work to the overstressed teachers. I was spending at least 60 hours a week in my own classroom in a high poverty school which was an extremely stressful environment, so I felt very strongly about not making more work for her teachers. So that was sixth and seventh grade.

At the beginning of eighth grade, I changed jobs. I left the classroom to teach at a local university. My work hours were cut by almost half that first semester, and she started off fairly strong. She knew herself that effort on her part was going to be a huge component, and I was proud of the gains she was making. However, it wasn’t very long into the school year that she started slipping again. This time though, I really felt like we were doing what we could, and I was getting very nervous about high school which was looming large at only a few short months away. Her pediatrician had always advised me to get a 504 plan for her, but again, I knew it would be adding to a teacher’s workload and so I always hesitated. I knew if she was going to have any chance of success in high school, we NEEDED one, so I called for a meeting with the new principal (her school has had five principals in her time there). She and the one resource teacher for the school (K-8) and I sat down to talk about my concerns and how to move forward. Again, the issue of Ellie’s efforts came up. I explained that while I definitely felt that was an issue, there was more to the story. It was late in the day, so we agreed for the resource teacher to do some more investigating and then we’d go from there.

In the meantime, I got more confused. On the one hand, my daughter would forget things, not turn in homework and need a million reminders. On the other, there were subjects that we studied, studied some more and then a little more after that, but she still couldn’t get her grades up. To me, it made the situation all the more confusing, because like most people, I was trying to figure out who’s “fault” all these things were. Somebody had to be the one responsible, right?

Several weeks passed, and I finally get an email from the resource teacher. It was fairly lengthy but boils down to “We aren’t doing anything else here on our end until she shows more responsibility and effort.” I about lost my mind. I was absolutely at my wit’s end at what to do! So, I did what every mom does—locked myself in the bathroom for a few minutes to gather my thoughts in peace. I was really trying to put myself in her shoes and understand what might be going on in her mind; what could be the explanation for these issues. And that is when I remembered when my father used to question me about things, I would just get nervous and say, “I don’t know,” because I was afraid of him being angry with me. And, as much as I am ashamed to admit, plenty of that anger was now bubbling up inside of me. Thank goodness I had the presence of mind not to give in to that emotion, but instead have her come sit with me, in a private conversation, to get to the bottom of things. Since her go-to answer was always “I don’t know” I told her that no matter what she said, she wouldn’t be in trouble for being honest. Then I proceed to ask her why specific issues were happening. And for every. single. one. she had a completely plausible answer. She just never thought she could tell her teachers about these things. It was an extremely tearful, but enlightening experience.

After we talked, it hit me that I had probably done the same things as a teacher. I’d just assumed a kid was unmotivated or more interested in other things besides school. While I firmly believe there are people out there that are lazy and unmotivated, I think it is definitely the exception and not the rule. Far more often, it is that they are like my daughter—a kid who stopped trying when it just became too difficult to keep it up.

I have never wanted a magic wand to go back in time more in my life than I did in that moment—not just for my daughter but for all the kids I hadn’t tried hard enough for. But that is impossible, and I am now left to do what is possible—make a plan to move forward. I have a plan for my daughter and will be bringing it to her school when the time is right, but what about everyone else? I can’t go back and reteach those students I slighted, but I can use that experience to help new teachers (and even ones who have been at it as long as me—I’m proof that it is never too late) not fall into the same traps. Taking my cue from Meg’s character in “You’ve Got Mail” again, and believing that whatever else our classrooms are, they ought to begin by being personal, I am going to share every tip, strategy and idea I can to help teachers get to know their students as real people, not just another body in a seat that needs a grade assigned to them at the end of the term. What makes them tick? What do they like? What do they dislike? What fires them up? What drags them down? I want classroom environments to be a place where every student feels heard and welcome. That instead of labelling or writing off a child, we take the time to dig a little deeper, go a little further and truly understand that child.

To that end, I am proposing three strategies you can take into your classroom tomorrow that don’t require any prep, and the only materials you truly need are two listening ears, but will pay huge dividends in building the community that facilitates learning and growth for all children.

Tip #1—Morning Meeting/Class Wrap-up. I am a huge proponent of starting every day with a morning meeting. I tried to be as diligent with a class wrap-up but wasn’t as successful. If I were still in the classroom, I would definitely be making time for it knowing what I know now. My morning meeting consisted of some type of greeting, sharing time, an activity, and then going over our schedule/learning targets for the day. If you are truly starting this tomorrow and that feels overwhelming to you, just start with share time. As I mentioned before, all you really need for this activity is two listening ears. If you don’t feel like you have time for everyone to share, pick a few volunteers each day or create a schedule. I will be doing more blog posts on morning meetings in the future, but this is a great place to start.

Tip #2—Rose, Thorn, Bud. This is an activity I first saw on Edutopia, which is a fantastic website for teachers. It was just the rose and thorn in that article, however. A “rose” is something that makes you happy, that you are proud of, a celebration, etc. A “thorn” is something that is bothering you, or went wrong, or is upsetting you. This is a whole class discussion, and usually the teacher starts by modelling this with her own comments. So, for me, I might say, “My rose is that I got all the green lights on the way to work today and then a front row parking spot when I pulled up. My thorn is that it is super cold outside, and I don’t like winter.” Then each student in turn would share their rose and their thorn. At first, they will likely be superficial things like my sample, but over time, if this is done regularly, you will be amazed at what kids will open up to you about. When I did this with my college students, I had one student tell me that she did a similar activity as a camp counselor, but they added a “bud,” which is what are you most looking forward to tomorrow (they would do this at night, just before lights out), and they added the rule that you could do them in any order except to end with the thorn, so that they end on a positive note. I loved this addition and will use it this way going forward. I also loved that I learned it from a student. I think being open to suggestion and treating them as equals in this regard goes a long way to foster community as well, which in turn will lead to kids being more comfortable to share more personal things.

Tip #3—2 x 10 strategy. In this strategy, you pick a student and spend 10 minutes a day for 2 weeks just getting to know them. Talk about anything not school related—their hobbies, their interests, their extracurricular activities, whatever helps you to get to know that particular child. Ideally, you would do this with each student in their own turn, but if that seems overwhelming, start with the kiddo that is a tough nut to crack, so to speak—that kiddo that seems to be having a hard time, but you just can’t put your finger on why.

Hopefully, these strategies will put you well on your way to establishing and maintaining a “personal” classroom. I’ll be sharing a different strategy to #makeitpersonal every weekday in March on my social media channels, and I would love for you to join the conversation, because kids deserve it!

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