Be Kinder, Love Biggest

I am a huge fan of Wonder by R.J Palacio and an equally huge fan of Mr. Tushman, the principal of Beecher Prep who encourages us all to:

…always try to be a little kinder than necessary.

I was therefore intrigued when a friend went to pick her (fabulously awesome) daughter up from a month of summer camp and described the address given by the camp director as “Mr Tushman-esque”.  I had to know more.  I looked up the camp website to find out who the director was, read his bio, and didn’t really think much more than how fortunate these kids were who had experienced a little piece of Wonder in real life.

That was about a month ago.  Yesterday, a story jumped out of my news feed inviting me to join the Teton Valley Ranch Camp in farewelling their director (the “real-life Mr. Tushman”) and provided a link to his parting words.  I read them and could immediately ‘get’ the Tushman reference.  Smart, kind, funny, and thoughtful.  Mr. Holland recounts a story in which a camper shared with her group that the greatest lesson she had learned at camp was “to love biggest”. Putting aside the grammar, he held on to her sentiment and went on to say:

To love with all you have, with a child-like sense of magic and wonder, this is the true spirit of TVRC. People have often commented to me that I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and I think in the end, I am proud of this.  I am proud of this because I try to not just lead with my head, but also my heart.  To pour my heart and love into everything I do daily – this, I believe will lead to a life fulfilled.

– Tom Holland, Teton Valley Ranch Camp

And right there is the connection to Mr. Tushman.  Mr. Tushman and Mr. Holland are leaders who both use their leadership position for good. They hold positions in which children and adults look to them for leadership and guidance and they choose to focus on things that matter: being kinder, loving biggest.

I don’t know Mr. Holland but I am certainly grateful to know that 15 years of campers, counsellors, parents, and families have had the good fortune to see a leader who takes a stand on qualities he believes are important, speaking not only for himself, but for his organization and emphasizing the values his community finds significant.

A few weeks back, I posted a quote from one of our first faculty meetings.  Part of that quote reads:

It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.

Haim G. Ginott

I don’t think it is hard to imagine anything but clear skies and warm sunshine at the Teton Valley Ranch Camp under Mr. Holland’s leadership.  Can you say the same for your style of leadership?

After reading all this, I went to my mailbox and inside was a package.  Inside the package, my own little piece of TVRC.  When I wear it, I won’t only be reminded of the awesome kid who sent me the shirt, but to choose to be kinder, choose to love biggest.


Learning, Play, Reflection

Empathy Inside Us


I have a (gorgeous/beautiful/smart/funny/amazing) 12 week old baby girl. She is awesome.  It is hard being back at work while she is so young, but easier knowing she gets to stay home with her dog and her dad. Most days, she comes and visits me at school and on those days, she will sometimes still be in the classroom when my kids come back from one of their single subject classes, before they go out to recess.

It is fascinating to watch the way they interact with her.

  • They are so loving and gentle and kind – even (especially!) the boys.
  • They look for nice things to say about her: complimenting her smile, her strength when she grips their fingers, her awesome hair, her clothes, how awake she is, how curious she is, how cute she is when she is sleeping – or awake – …pretty much anything.
  • They want her to be comfortable – they try not to crowd her, they want to hold her or tuck her blanket around her or get her a toy.
  • Their sole purpose in those few minutes is to make a connection with her.

After seeing this happen a couple of times, I decided to bring it up to the kids – my observations.  I told them what I had seen (the list above) and then I asked them to think about not when they first met Elisabeth, but when they first met each other.  Did they treat each other the same way they were treating Elisabeth: with the sole purpose of making a connection?

It was interesting and a little sad to hear their reaction.  The overall consensus was that she was a little baby and would be cute and nice no matter what they did (within reason) whereas they didn’t know when they met each other if they would be kind to each other or if the other person would make fun of them or ignore them or tease them.

This sentiment is mirrored by my hero Auggie, from the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  When thinking about meeting new people, Auggie says:

The thing is, when I was little I never minded meeting new kids because all the kids I met were really little, too. What’s cool about really little kids is that they don’t say stuff to try to hurt your feelings, even though sometimes they do say stuff that hurts your feelings.  But they don’t actually know what they’re saying.  Big kids, though: they know what they’re saying. And that is definitely not fun for me.


Having Elisabeth at school reminded me of a program our friend Kate and her baby Eli had participated in at a school in Canada: Roots of Empathy.  The premise of this program is to help children become more empathetic by engaging them in a series of ‘lessons’ with a parent and child in which they observe the interaction between the two, the way needs are met and communicated, and how the bonds are created. For more information on this program, take a look at the slideshow of photos from Kate and Eli’s year or read this article on her experience.

Roots of Empath


I am fascinated by how my kids react to my baby.  And even more intrigued when I shine a mirror back to them of their behaviors and then sit back and observe their reaction.  How do kids lose this innocence and how can we help them keep it even a little bit longer?


Oozing With Love For the Printed Word

Yesterday, I was outside in my reading hammock, with my dog at my feet, and a cool drink resting nearby and I polished off Sharon M. Draper’s “Out of My Mind” in just under two hours. 295 pages. Loved it. By contrast, I spent about half that time on the short stories and bubble format questions of the benchmark assessment my kids are given at the beginning of the year (I took the test too – if they have to, I figure I should too) and even I was questioning my love of reading at the end of it. But I digress…I have been thinking a lot about Reading.  In particular, in establishing a classroom environment that oozes with love for the printed word.

In setting up my reading classroom, I want to build on what seems to be a fairly well established love of books amongst my students.  They are very well read, very reflective of what they have read and very keen to read more.  I know…I am super lucky.  I also have the author of the fabulous book blog One Page To The Next as a parent in my class.  On Friday, we met to throw around ideas for growing a class of readers and writers.  Last year, all of my kids kept blogs as a way of sharing their reading reflections.  This year, I want to open things up.  Here are some ideas we plan on pursuing:

Book Time Line

I came across My Life Through Books via my Twitter network.  Developed by Phil Sharp, it is a very cool visual way to share what you have read. This is hot off the press and not ready for public consumption just yet – which is a shame because when you go to the site and check it out, it is slick and cool and just the ticket for showcasing your reading prowess.  Until it becomes avaliable, I like the idea and think it could be transferred to a platform like Dipity by students so that they can track their reading history from the beginning to the end of fifth grade. If you like the look of seeing “________ (insert your name) Life Through Books”, be sure to let Phil know!

Newberry (or Other Award Winning Books) Challenges

Mr. Shu, a pretty awesome librarian and mega-lover of literature, is on a quest to read award winning books (among the million other books he reads – seriously, this guy is a machine!).  We loved the way he was sharing his progress with his students via posters of award winning books that he then gives a gold sticker to, upon reading.  A great way to introduce a selection of books and to share your own reading with the students or to encourage them to challenge themselves in their own reading. There are lots of lists of top books you could do this with.  I like the look of the NPR Top 100 Teen Books – despite the fact that Wonder doesn’t feature 😦

Here is Mr. Shu explaining why he decided to do this challenge:

Wonder Wall

Wonder by RJ Palacio was the only book I assigned as summer reading for my incoming class. Starting tomorrow we are going to take a leaf out of the book – or more accurately Mr. Browne, the English teacher’s book – and begin with precepts.  On the first day of school, Mr. Browne writes the word PRECEPTS on the board and asks if anyone knows what it means. Among his 5th graders, the answer is crickets. (I am curious to hear what my kids will say!) So he writes on the board “Precepts = Rules About Really Important Things!” After asking the children what some really important things might be (he gets “rules,” “homework,” “schoolwork,” “parents,” “family,” “pets,” “friends,” “sharks” — that sort of thing), he writes on the board “WHO WE ARE!”

“Who we are,” he said, underlining each word as he said it. “Who we are! Us! Right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? ‘What kind of person am I?’” (47)

From here, Mr. Browne launches into his yearly ritual. It starts with one final inscription on the chalkboard: “Mr Browne’s September Precept: When Given the Choice Between Being Right or Being Kind, Choose Kind.” From there, the instructions unfold like so:

  1. Students create a section in their English notebooks dedicated to monthly precepts.
  2. At the beginning of each month, the teacher will write a new precept on the board for students to copy.
  3. Students will then discuss the precept and what it means.
  4. At the end of the month, students will write a brief essay on that month’s precept, what it means to them personally, and how they managed in their attempts to “live it out” over the past four weeks.
  5. Students will have these precepts to take home in June. In the summer, they are required to mail the teacher a precept of their own on a postcard.

Today, I made a space for the precept of the month.  I wanted there to be somewhere for the kids to focus their attention on with regard to this idea from the book.  I hope to see them add to it with quotes along the same theme, examples of “choose kind” in their lives or around the world, other books that share a similar theme to the precept…or anything!

Reading Graffiti Wall

Whilst I am still looking for a great title, I am pretty much in love with how the wall turned out.  I had read about graffiti walls for sharing about books and I think it could be fun.  I also want to experiment with a plain paper that can be written on, but I thought, given that I happened to have brick colored paper, that I would start there.  I can’t wait to see what ends up on it!  If you have a suggestion for a heading, I’m all ears!

Reading Square

As I mentioned, my kids last year had book blogs.  While my kids this year will soon also have blogs, I am interested in giving them a physical space to “sell” what they are reading from.  To that extent, I am leaving everything up to them.  My husband measured and taped off the board outside our room for me so that everyone has a space.  Starting tomorrow, how they decorate and display their reading will be up to them.  I look forward to seeing how thoughtfully creative they will be!

This is just the beginning to the development and transformation of reading in fifth grade! There are plans afoot for the incorporation of Book Trailers (viewing, sharing, creating and critiquing), possibilities for Author interactions via Skype or in person, Illustrator studies (starting with my personal all-time favorite, Peter H. Reynolds) and using QR codes  to link to digital content that we post on our blogs.

How do you develop a love for reading in your class?  What new ways of doing are you trying this year?

If you also have literary love for Peter H. Reynolds, join me in celebrating Dot Day – it’s going to be awesome!  I have some ideas to help your celebration here.

Creativity, Innovation, Play

Children At Play!

On my drive home today, I noticed a sign like the one above as I approached an intersection.  I have some bulletin board boarders in my classroom that say “Caution! Kids at Work”.  I got them because I thought they were cute.  I am now thinking of replacing them with a big sign like this on my door.  Why? As a reminder to myself as I begin the new year to make room for play.

I have posted on enabling creativity, the power of play,  and the idea that there is no purpose without play. I believe that play is positive, play promotes creativity, play unleashes ideas, curiosity, wonder and excitement – and isn’t that what school is for? So the sign will more than likely go up in some form or another.  But a sign in itself is not enough. I want my actions to reflect my beliefs.

We have had two days of school so far.  Teacher days.  No kids. But they are always on my mind.  The actual logistics are still in the making but here are some of the things I want to do in the first day/week of school:

SPOILER ALERT!  *If you are a parent of a child in my class and can promise you won’t share the following with your kids, you may keep reading – but don’t share! 🙂

The Marshmallow Challenge

The Marshmallow Challenge.  This is cool.  It is a TED talk, a challenge, a blog and just a fun, dynamic way to kick things off.  It has been done by CEO’s to Kindergartener’s and soon, by my fifth graders.  Why do it?  In the words of its creator, Tom Wujec:

The marshmallow challenge provides teams with a shared felt experience, a common language and a solid stance to find the right prototypes to build their real projects successfully, to avoid the oh-oh moments and have real ta-dah moments.

Exactly what I want this year: sharing, commonalities, inquiry, and aha moments.  I don’t actually mind if there are oh-oh moments.  They work for me too.  But honestly, what better way to kick off the year than with some spagetti and marshmallows?

Introductions via Voki

I was that kid who sat there, petrified that I was going to have to speak in front of the class.  I loathed it. I don’t know if any of my new kids dislike speaking in front of the class.  I do know that there are some options for getting around that – at least on the first day.  Cue Voki.  This is a fun, online tool that allows you to make an avatar and record a voice for it – your own, or a text-to-speech voice from the US, UK or Australia.  The challenge will be for kids to choose to either recreate themselves as closely as possible (with their own voice) or to create an alter ego avatar and have us guess who they are.  Here is my Voki that took me about six minutes to make:

Click to open Voki page

Voki has a classroom account for a fee.  I am going to start my free trial of the educator account and see after the two weeks if the kids and I think this is a useful tool to add to our belts.

Choose ???

The one assignment that I gave my incoming group of fifth graders was to read Wonder by RJ Palacio.  This book has launched the “Choose Kind” movement.  I want to ask my kids what they are going to choose for themselves this year.  If they have a choice between right and popular, hard and easy, challenge and status quo – what would they choose? These words will become our targets: the things we aim for throughout the year.  I want to incorporate these words into a large piece of group art: something beautiful and meaningful for the children to collaborate on together and make their mark as fifth graders.

I want to share this quote with my class to help them think about the word they will choose.

I am looking forward to combining their words with their images to make something magnificent for our wall.  I am toying with the idea of also sharing one of my favorite poems, “Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.  I love it. Love it. I think that also will have to be shared – it’s themes of bravery, dreams, hope, strength and courage are all traits I want to build in my kids this year.


I don’t even know if we have any lego at school – but we should! I just read a really cool article about a 23 year old from Illinois who has become the fourth Lego Master Model Builder in the United States.  He now works at LegoLand. Here is the video application he sent out to Legoland in order to be considered for the job.  In the video, listen to him describe all the ways lego can be used to foster and strengthen imagination, creativity, passion, innovation and ideas:

I love it! I have done a quick look and in some places, universities and colleges will loan out kits of lego for schools for a 3 to 4 week time period with a refundable security deposit.  I don’t know if we have something like that in Boise, but I want to find out!

Ultimately, my goal is to start the first day and first week off the way I mean to continue: with challenge, collaboration, technology, innovation, thinking, creating, connecting and playing.  Lots and lots of playing.

How will you start the new school year?

Inspiration, PYP, Reading

Those Who Need It The Most

I have been have an interesting Twitter conversation with  a fifth grade teacher embarking on her sixth year of teaching.  The conversation has been on the topic of punishments, specifically taking away recess for ‘infringements’ such as not having parents sign notes, forgetting homework, behavior.  Five minutes.  Five minutes.  Five minutes.  A culture of subtraction has been established and now the question is, what are the alternatives and how can these be agreed upon by a team of teachers for whom this has been the norm?

This year, I am flying ‘solo’.  There is only one fifth grade. But there is a whole school of kids and whilst I don’t believe in the ‘one rule fits all’ mentality, I do believe in finding positive solutions for negative situations.  So what would I do?

My friend Marina Gijzen, a teacher, parent, colleague whilst at Bonn International School, taught me a lot about the family dynamic and the relationship between home and school.  She was the one who advised me to take up any issue such as no note, missing forms, and late arrivals with the parents first.  No kid “wants” to be the one walking into class late, all eyes on them, having missed what’s going on.  Take it up with parents and welcome the kid, warmly, genuinely.  I was teaching her daughter at the time, so I took the advice on board.  I have also been on the ‘late train’ myself as a teacher and I know what a difference “Mrs. terBorg, I am so happy to see you!” makes to what has probably been a stressful morning rather than, “Hey! Mrs.terBorg! You’re late!”.

So…do we punish kids by excluding them from recess, or not?

I say not.  Unless your school culture is one of exclusion, separatism, ostracizing and humiliation. If so, go right ahead. If not, if your school culture is built on developing a welcoming environment and nurturing the development of your children, you will need an alternative.  What about discussion? What about finding out what the root of the visible behavior is? I just read a fabulous article on the importance of inclusion and of being part of something bigger than yourself. Did you get that – being part of something bigger than yourself.  And for those who are a bit rubbish at it – they need twice as much.  Twice as much love, patience, practice, support, caring and kindness.

Schools are currently set up for the students who have good social skills to be given more opportunity to use and refine them, while those with poor social skills are left behind, only to get worse than others in their age group. Opportunity for winners — and exclusion for losers — is a recipe for disaster.

– Dr. Richard Curwin

It is said in sports and in war that the best offense is a good defense – same goes for a good year in your classroom.  Start the year strong.  Give your kids permission to choose a new path.  Establish a culture of respect and the idea of community.  Be relentless in your quest for this from day one.

Donalyn Millar, author of The Book Whisperer, has put out a book list of Books that Build CommunitiesCommunities of Readers and Writers, Communities Who Value All Members, Communities Who Have Fun, and Communities Who Care about the World. Being in community can mean many things and these books are a great way of sharing that with your students.

One of Donalyn’s suggestions is the book Wonder by RJ Palacio.  This was the only book on my summer reading list for my incoming fifth graders.

In addition to reading this book, we will be looking at the movement behind the book to “Choose Kind“.  We will also be partnering with other classes of 4th, 5th and 6th graders who are also reading Wonder as part of Wonder Schools.  In addition to Wonder, there are a number of picture books (another love!) that could be read in conjunction with this book (cue shopping excursion before next Monday!) Clearly, this is important to me – but why?  Because I don’t want to spend the next year subtracting things from the lives of my students.  I want to add to their lives.  I think we are going to have a  great year. An amazing year.  All the ingredients are right in front of us.  What will you choose?  Compassion? Love? Kind?

As I think about the teachers who will choose to revoke recess over missing parent signatures and late arrivals to school, I can’t help but think what would happen if the principal of their school treated them the way they are treating their students.  What would a teacher say to being given an extra recess duty because the lunch order form for a child in their class was late, or the school fees were overdue, or a parent from their class was yet to volunteer?  Ludicrous, right? So why treat our kids this way?

Always, always, choose kind.