Utilizing Morning Circles to Help Strengthen Classroom Communities

By: Jeff Hogan, Principal

I have always considered myself a very passionate and enthusiastic educator. However, one facet of this amazing profession I have grown more passionately to pursue is the need to address the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of school communities. You certainly do not have to look far to recognize the “instabilities” in our global society. It is without hesitation I choose to view these “instabilities” as an opportunity on campus to reclaim civility hoping the learning experiences of our youth transfer into broader communities. I am so proud that the Elmwood school community stands united in this expressive endeavor and has warmly embraced the opportunity to build our restorative practices capacity.

One very advantageous first step was the implementation of classroom morning circles on a daily basis. A circle where each day the entire class says “good morning” to every child within the circle. A circle where all opinions count, tears are embraced, and empathy and sympathy are nurtured through the rich experience. A circle where discussions among children consist of deep and profound topics such as, but not limited to, bullying, role-models, forces of nature and its devastation, race, and even equity. A morning circle where virtues are discussed at length, and grit and growth mindsets are cultivated. A circle where some children arrive on-time simply to ensure they will be a part of the morning discourse.

Through this novel experience I determined expeditiously that children exhibit almost an innate ability to share their truth with more ease than most adults. This simple morning circle, when done with purpose and daily, can serve as a game-changer in and out of the classroom. This morning circle can help ensure the classroom experience feels more like an opportunity to the school staff to address the needs of every child’s social, emotional, behavioral, and academic well-being. Acknowledging as a staff our students’ basic needs and social-emotional welfare must be addressed first or simultaneously with academic rigor and standards is paramount.

Why…because life is better when surrounded by those who choose to support you, embrace you and love you because of your imperfections. Knowing that perfection comes with time and communities are strengthened as members are more thoroughly known and celebrated for their individualism.

So, no, I never believed my space in education would look like this 19 years in. Where character education is more vital now more than ever before and could be the remedy for “instabilities” in society. Without the consideration of educating the whole child it is obvious that communities will remain, at best, mediocre.

The invaluable truth to this restorative journey is that the children are making me more mindful of my emotions, my actions, my thoughts, and my true propose. Undeniably, it’s a journey worth continuing to travel.

 

Advertisements

Supporting the Whole Child

By: Jennifer Pilarski, STAT Teacher

Weekly Experiences

Restorative Practices are a way of life at Norwood Elementary and this year we are expanding our practices to include mindfulness and social-emotional support; even our School Progress Plan includes Mindfulness. Our Behavior Interventionist, Mike Gorecki, has taken a more proactive role in becoming a weekly “special” for our students in what we call SMILE. Each week the students engage in lessons about Social thinking, Mindfulness, Imagination, Leadership, and Emotions and they are able to practice those skills in our brand new sensory room. The room is also available for any student, or teacher, who needs a sensory break or mindful moment. This week the students were developing their skills around whole body listening and then were able to visit the sensory room to practice breathing and calming strategies.

Daily Experiences

Norwood’s classroom teachers are also supporting and developing our student’ social-emotional learning through mindfulness areas, journal entries, and lessons. Mindfulness folded in seamlessly with our existing program of Restorative Practices. The daily community circles, problem solving circles, and consistent use of virtues language that we have always done has been enhanced by our new focus on mindfulness. In mindfulness, we have found a new way to support our students’ social-emotional health. Each day our students begin with a community circle where they can share their successes and challenges, both academic and personal, in a safe and secure environment. At least once a week the students also write in their journals to express their feelings, demonstrate understanding of virtues, and share mindfulness strategies. Norwood teachers come from a place of support, so we are trying to ensure that our students have the skills they need to deal with their emotions, make positive choices, and build empathy towards others.

Factories of Learning

We also completed our first round of Problem Solving Factories at each grade level and we are proud to share that we were honored at Stevenson University’s Center for Character Education for this initiative. Each grade level comes to the gym and participates in four stations; two role plays, one team building, and one focused on exploring virtues. The classes come to the gym and sit in circles to go through prompts with their homeroom teachers. This provides the class a special opportunity to get to know each other and work through potential problems when the emotions are not running high. One of my favorite prompts was about touching things that belong to others; the kindergartners talk about asking permission and the rules of sharing, but our third graders really got into a discussion about stealing. We believe that if the students have worked through some of these problems when they were not emotionally invested that when they are faced with the real situation and they are feeling intense anger, frustration, and/or sadness, they will have the language and skills developed in the role play to fall back on. The highlight of this particular round of Factories, was the compliment circle. A student was put in the center of the circle and his or her classmates took turns giving virtues based compliments; for instance, I like the way you showed perseverance on the math tests or I like the way you showed kindness when you shared materials with me. The smiles could not have been bigger on their little faces!

 

Pikesville High School Reads Together

Jennifer Meltzer, Library Media Specialist

This past spring our school seized an opportunity to embark on a new journey pertaining to summer reading at Pikesville High School.  With the collaborative efforts of our English Department Chair, Erin Haroth and our Principal, Mrs. Sandra Reid we decided to implement a school-wide read.  We had approached this idea in the past, but this time, we took deliberate steps to have a deep and meaningful impact for our students.  We decided to select the One Maryland, One Book title, which is a book identified by Maryland Humanities for exceptional literary quality.  Additionally, the title must be one that connects with high school students as well as adults and be one that can sustain long term discussions.  This year’s theme of “home and belonging” led their selection committee to the novel, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie.
In order to have a large number of copies of this book readily available for our students we applied to participate in the One Maryland, One Book program which provides 30 free copies of the book along with educational resources.  This provided us with a jumpstart, so to speak, to get us moving in the right direction.  Our principal provided additional school funds to purchase 50 more copies of the book.  Almost all of our local copies of this novel went into circulation.  Over 50 percent of our staff read the novel, spanning content areas and positions.  From secretaries to science teachers, our staff was involved!  We are unable to count the number of students who read the novel by acquiring it by their own means, but we know from completed summer reading assignments, that they are numerous.
In order to draw our students into this school wide read, we coupled the mass quantity of books on hand with a marketing campaign.  I personally delivered numerous televised morning announcements showcasing the book.  We sought out the expertise of our incredibly gifted interactive media production students to help us design posters and assignment papers that would advertise the novel and the program we were offering.  The program consisted of five suggested assignments to be completed such a student created playlist to go along with the novel or a character interview.  We also offered a summer reading celebration for all students who participated.  This event took place last Thursday, the 28th of September.  I reached out to Dominos Pizza of Pikesville and Wegmans of Owing Mills and both businesses donated enough food for our entire luncheon.  During the celebration, students shared their projects, engaged in “dice discussions” and listened to staff member’s reactions to the book.  I shared my personal family story (which paralleled the book in so many remarkable ways) using the Pecha Kucha story-telling strategy coupled with Voice Thread, one of the digital tools offered in BCPSOne.
What our school experienced as a result of this school-wide read was a one-ness that was palpable.  Our STAT teacher, Mrs. Theresa Bates, commented on how wonderful it was to visit classrooms and hear students refer to the book in multiple class discussions and activities.  The novel became a reference for many in providing examples of various themes, such abuse, political power and religious fanaticism.
For me personally, this experience was life changing, both personally and professionally.  I have reconnected with the foundational pedagogical practice of making connections with students and finding ways to connect students’ learning to their personal lives continues to stay at the forefront of my practice.  When I asked one of my students what she saw as the benefits of a school wide read she responded, “It allows students to perceive different views of other cultures and traditions and see that people are more than what people see them as.  It unifies different groups of people together and doing a school wide read encourages people to express and understand, or interpret a piece of literature to broaden their mindset.”  What I witnessed at our summer reading celebration, where students of all different groups and grade levels came together, was evidence that students did just that.

 

Happiness at Hebbville

Kristy Toney, Physical Education Teacher

The overall climate at Hebbville Elementary School is new and exciting this year as The Language of Virtues and Restorative Practice have taken over!  In addition to C & I, each grade level has introduced meaningful lessons, along with the assistance of our new school counselor, to incorporate the Virtues.

Kindergarten has been completing lessons on how to be a good friend and get along with new friends.

The second grade team has been encouraging the children to work in cooperative groups and has been using sign language to lessen teacher talk. Second grade teachers are also using a gum ball as a class incentive for students to earn rewards at the end of each week for hallway behavior and team work, as well as showing the virtue of respect. Students in second grade have also been working with the counselor on the steps to take when someone is bothering or teasing them.

The third grade team is working their rotations in math! Students have been enjoying rotating from independent practice, i-Ready, a Math Fluency station, and a game station. Along with the school counselor, the students in third grade have been discussing the role of the school counselor and learning the difference between small and big problems.

Meanwhile, the fourth graders began a two part lesson with the counselor on what to do when someone “puts you down.”

In 5th grade, students are exploring chemical reactions, and are looking forward to their rocket launch that will take place at the end of the unit.  In math, these students are learning about place value and converting fractions to decimals.  In ELA, they are working on holding collaborative conversations that will benefit whole group and small group discussion.  Additionally, 5th grade has been learning about the virtue of respect, and how to portray this virtue in all aspects of their lives.  They take pride in being the leaders of the school and believe it is their responsibility to set a positive example to others.

The Specials’ Department, has also been incorporating virtuous language.  In P.E. students have been demonstrating how to be respectful in the gym while working cooperatively to complete fitness-based activities.  All physical education students are preparing to begin the NFL Play 60 challenge on Monday.  Furthermore, art classes have been working on pinwheels for peace.  Symbolic language is being utilized in order to create a school-wide collaborative project on the importance of peace, kindness, and compassion.  In addition, in library all grade levels are learning about Cybersafety and how to be respectful and responsible while online.

Overall, the enjoyment of learning is evident throughout Hebbville Elementary School as students and staff are engaged in instruction and relationship-building.

 

Campfield Early Learning Center

Alison Gray, Library Media Specialist

One of the things I really want this year is to offer library cards to all my parents. I spoke with all the teachers during a quick meeting the first week of school and made my proposal. My teachers were delighted with the idea and willing to help. At the beginning of the school year, parents fill out many forms and I included the parent library card sign up as one of those forms. My Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers spoke about it during conferences. My parents are very excited to know they can come to school to take out a book for their child. This is an invaluable tool when promoting literacy. I have already had requests from parents on our Twitter asking how they too can get a card. I found that best steps to take to expand access to our library are, involve teachers, use social media, and PROMOTE yourself and your school library. I sent in 100 applications the first week. When I came into work this morning I have 30 more applications waiting. I am so excited and can’t wait to get this program off the ground!!

Representation Matters

Dr. Renard Adams, Interim Senior Executive Director

In August, I had the opportunity to attend The Literacy Leaders Institute with our Interim Superintendent, Verletta White, and other district staff. This conference was designed to support district leaders in developing or refining their districtwide literacy plans and was packed with high-quality professional learning on a variety of literacy topics. As those of you who have attended professional learning conferences know well, some speakers and moments resonate more loudly and longer than do others. This conference was no different. For me, the most poignant moment happened during one of the professional learning sessions when our facilitator asked the audience to reflect upon our “literary lineage.”

A person’s literary lineage is the sum total of the varied texts she or he has read and the impact that those texts, individually and collectively, have on informing that person’s identity, schema, and worldview. Wow, I thought as I reflected on my own literary lineage and then, I took a long pause. I considered during those moments, which texts had had the most lasting impacts on me, which were most memorable, which still carried the most emotional resonance within me. And in those moments, I realized that none of those most impactful texts were texts that were assigned in school by my English or reading teachers. Another pause.

In discovering my literary lineage, I first considered those texts of which I did have some memory at all. I recalled being a strong reader; reading, and school overall, came easy to me. I can vividly recall breezing through the primary readers in my early years— A King on a Swing comes immediately to mind. Then, during middle school, I recalled being assigned books such as The Prince and the Pauper, Flowers for Algernon, and The Call of the Wild. Classics. Powerful stories for various reasons. In high school, there was as steady diet of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Macbeth, Hamlet), Camus’ The Stanger, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Again, I recalled that none of these texts were particularly difficult reading for me, and, in the same breath, I realized that none of them held any lasting emotional impact on me. I read them because they were assigned to me, but I didn’t love them. They didn’t bring me joy.

So, I next considered those texts that did bring me joy and I realized that those texts were comic books and graphic novels. As a young child, I would often ask my grandfather or great-grandmother to purchase the latest issue of The Amazing Spiderman or Superman. I would lose myself for hours within the pages of those books and often imagined myself within the wonder of their worlds, having my own fantastic adventures. Love of these comics lead me to discover others, including The Uncanny X-Men, which deeply resonated with me. The X-Men are mutants, humans who are born different—often with fabulous powers and abilities—and because of those differences, they were feared and hated my society. Some of the X-Men’s abilities caused them to have a unique outward appearance, so they couldn’t hide the fact that they were different. WOW! As a young Black male who often felt like an outsider who was treated differently, I had finally found my fellow outcasts! I was an X-man! YEAH! Collectively these heroes and their struggles helped shape my sense of self and wonder. Even if I could never be Superman or Spiderman, I could consider myself an X-Man because I, too, was different—I was Black. Black was a kind of different and the X-Men were full of different characters with unique differences.

Sitting at the Literacy Leaders Institute, reflecting on the impact of my newly-realized literary lineage on identity, reflecting on the fact that none of the books I read in school lingered with me emotionally, I realized a haunting truth: I didn’t read about a Black male in a text outside of Black History Month until I was almost 11 years old. That text was a comic book. I further realized that those comic books that I loved most, those that I read and followed for decades, those whose plotlines I still follow via the awesomeness of the Internet, those comics had characters in them that looked like me—they had characters of African descent. They had Black characters. Powerful Black characters.

In the early 80s, Marvel Comics published Marvel Graphic Novel #4: The New Mutants. This graphic novel had been promoted in the pages of Uncanny X-Men and I wanted to read it and see if it would be as intriguing as The Uncanny X-Men. And am I so grateful I did. Marvel Comics had decided to publish a second X-Men book, with a new group of teenage mutants being recruited by Professor X as the original X-Men were now adults. As I read page after page of the graphic novel, I was mesmerized. Teen after teen was introduced, each with incredible powers heretofore unseen, and then, there he was: Sunspot. He was 13 1/2. He was super strong. And most notably to me, he was Black. Like me. He had decidedly brown skin and black hair.  Like me! It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in print. And so, for the next 100 months—nearly 8 ½ years—I bought each issue of the New Mutants because I craved stories that included Sunspot and his teenage friends, growing up differently. Like me.

I had discovered my love of reading. I simply hadn’t discovered it because of school. I began to live in the comic book store, searching the current publications and back issue bins for other stories of characters with whom I could identify and who I felt represented me. And in doing so, I discovered DC Comic’s New Teen Titans. What a fascinating group. It included Robin (of “Batman and…”), and various Justice League sidekicks like Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and, you guessed it, a Black male character code-named Cyborg. Cyborg was a high school athlete whose collegiate future was cut short when he was involved in a scientific accident involving an extraterrestrial substance while visiting his father at work (It’s a long story). Suffice to say that his father, an African American male astrophysicist (!), saved his life by replacing the parts of him that the extraterrestrial destroyed with cybernetic components. As one might imagine, these components gave him incredible abilities and another reason to have disagreements with his father. Here, in Cyborg, I found a second character with whom I deeply connected and through whom I felt represented. He was like me. He was a student and he liked sports. Like me. He wasn’t always happy with his father. Like me. Despite all that, he got to be a hero and so did I by reading his adventures. Like Sunspot had months before, Cyborg gave me a whole new level of literary escape and helped strengthen my growing sense of identity. While I could never truly be Superman or Spiderman, I could be Sunspot or Cyborg. They both had decidedly brown skin and dark hair. Like me.

Their adventures, their trials and experiences, they helped shape my understanding of how to approach challenges and be resilient. They were my escape from any real world issue I faced. They were my reminders that I could be a hero and that I might one day help others. And while I am grateful for them, and so indebted to the writers and artists who gave them life, I am saddened as I reflect upon my own literary lineage, specifically, the portion of my literary lineage that was directed by the schools I attended. None of the books I read in all my years in school included prominently featured or main characters that were Black males until I was well into high school.

I wonder now, how different my in-school literary experiences would have been had I been told to read Othello alongside MacBeth and Hamlet and then asked to compare the themes of jealously, love, and betrayal across texts. I wonder, has my 17 year old son read any texts in school which featured a Black male as the central figure. I wonder if he was assigned The Invisible Man as a junior as I was. I wonder if and to what extent the classroom libraries and curricular resources with which we surround students are representative of those students in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and more. I wonder if students feel as though they can see themselves in what they are asked to read. I wonder if each of our students feels represented. I wonder this because as I reflect on my literary lineage, I am reminded of the power of reading the narratives of people who are like you because their lived experiences are similar to your own. I am reminded that I didn’t feel represented in my assigned texts. And I am reminded that representation matters.

SunspotCyborg