Building the Classroom… From the Ground Up

AustraliaI once read about a school in Australia that helped introduce a new classroom to students by letting them take charge of organizing the classroom.  They left all of the materials out, so that the kids could sort through them, find homes for them, and put them there.  It was intended to help them invest themselves in the classroom, and it was intended to help them feel empowered by the classroom.

Well, we decided to take it one step further, and we decided to let them design the classroom.

To answer your first question, yes, we are crazy, and to answer your second question, we’re still not quite sure how or if it’s going to work either, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned through working in a start-up, it’s that you need to fail faster, so that you can learn faster.

And “learning,” we most certainly are.

The biggest challenges, you ask?  Well, first and foremost, we have a wide range of ages, and that makes for difficulty in making sure all students are challenged at their commensurate levels.  It’s also hard to balance all of the interests and needs in the classroom.  One of our students, in particular, wants her own desk, which is different than what most students want.

But the other day, we had a short period of time, where things seemed to be magically coming together, and the beginning of the project was actually coming to life.  Don’t get me wrong, it was chaotic, I was sweating, and at the end I considered retreating into a long and never-ending slumber. 

But it was still cool.

We decided that we’d need a map of the classroom in order to actually start plotting out where things would be and what sorts of structures they should build to fit in those places, so we watched a quick BrainPop! video on Map Skills, and jumped right into map scale, where we began creating a to-scale map of our classroom on the wall.  The first order of business was, of course, to actually measure the room, and somehow, miraculously, the project managed to differentiate learning all on its own.

Our older group of students, with strong measurement skills were able to work together collaboratively, with just a bit of redirection from me, while my teaching partner was able to work in a small group with two of our younger guys who need a great deal of support in remaining engaged and on-task.  They explored converting between inches and feet in an extremely authentic and relevant manner–totally inquiry-based, and totally awesome.  Meanwhile, I worked with four of our youngest girls, who I found out, needed to very concretely line up rulers on the floor next to the wall to truly understand what measuring in feet meant.  It was nice to be able to help provide such an authentic, relevant, and purposeful experience, at a level commensurate with all of their needs.

Our first product—our classroom map—turned out rather nicely, don’t you think?

photo (11)

When we finished, we practice using a map for navigation by going to various symbols on the map.

Standing on Your Head

Standing on your head isn’t an easy thing to do.

In fact, it wasn’t until this week that I thought I actually could do it.  I was doing handstands against the wall after work one day in an effort to ease some of my stress, when my friend decided she wanted to join me.  Pretty soon after, she decided to show me a trick of her own.  She got down on her hands and knees, placed her elbows on the floor, cradled her head in her hands, and began to creep her feet forward, slowly lifting them off the ground and inverting herself, pointing her toes high into the air.

photo (1)It looked impossible, but she encouraged me to do it.  And I followed suit.

Slowly, I tried to mimic her form, creeping my toes forward and slowly lifting my body off the ground.  With her encouragement, a little bit of spotting, and some core strength, I managed to sit just as she had minutes before, standing on my head, looking at the world upside-down–even though I thought I couldn’t do it in the first place.

In fact, I’ve had a bit of a “can’t-do” attitude the past few days.  Perhaps it’s stemming from fear of failure or fear of “not being enough,” or perhaps I’m just in the midst of a hormonal “man period.”  Regardless, the “can’t-do” attitude isn’t really getting me anywhere; in fact, it’s probably only making things worse.

But how does one get out of the “can’t-do” attitude?  How does one go from feeling a sense of defeat and low self-esteem to a sense of triumph and high self-efficacy?

Well, I’m not quite sure how to answer that question fully, but maybe sometimes, one way to help us get out of the “can’t-do” attitude is to admit that we need a bit of a reboot.  We need to tell ourselves to invert our attitude, look at the world from a new perspective, and simply believe that, if we try to stand on our heads, we will, and if we can’t right away, to get a spotter, lean on a friend, and then work on achieving it independently, without the supports in place.

Here’s to working on achieving a new can-do perspective. And to doing it independently. Cheers.

Coloring the Present

My new students are wiggly, to say the least, but one thing that really seems to calm them down is a good read aloud. It also brings out the best in them.

Yesterday’s read aloud was City Green by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan, a charming story about a newly vacant lot that’s turned into a beautiful city garden.  While this story doesn’t really have a villain or an antagonist, there is Old Man Hammer, the grumpy old man who recurs throughout the story, unwilling to help build the city garden.  One evening, though, the main character, Marcy, sees Old Man Hammer go into the vacant lot and plant some seeds.  He thinks that no one sees him, but all along Marcy had seen him.  By the end of the story, Old Man Hammer’s seeds sprout into beautiful sunflowers, even though he never told anyone he planted them.

SunflowerAnd so yesterday, we discussed this change in Old Man Hammer as we read the story aloud, and I was taken aback, once again, by how insightful children can be, and how, by being a teacher, I cannot only watch them grow and learn, but I can watch myself grow and learn in tandem.

“Well, maybe he was afraid to help with the garden,” one of our students said.

“Oh, really? What makes you think that?” I replied.

“Well, the building was knocked down, and then they put the garden in.  Maybe he was sad that the building was knocked down.  And maybe he’s worried that something will happen to the garden, too,” he speculated.

While there was absolutely no evidence in the text for this, his thought was quite profound, in my opinion.  At the prime age of seven, this student recognized something that I am only beginning to learn–something with which I am still learning to cope.

Our past colors our present and may assist us in projecting into our future, whether we ask for its help or not.  From this student’s perspective, Old Man Hammer clearly had some sort of struggle helping with the garden, perhaps due to a fear or latent sadness. But Old Man Hammer used the community–he used the people around him–to help recolor his future in the form of beautiful and radiant sunflowers.

And so yesterday, one of my students reminded me that we need not rely on the past to color our present.  Instead, we may rely on the people around us to color the present… and to help our futures bloom, just as Old Man Hammer’s sunflowers shone for all to see.

5 Ways to Foster a Can-Do Attitude

It’s a fine, fine line between coddling a kid and being too hard on them.  At least I’ve always thought so.

When I first started, I was too caught up in getting my kids to like me, and not caught up enough in creating structure in my room.  While my heart was in the right place, it didn’t create the culture that I had hoped to.  In fact, it created something quite the opposite of what I wanted. It created a room where I was the sole authority figure, and it created a place where children were not resilient enough to help themselves.  What I realized, though, was that I could have created the classroom I envisioned, without having to worry about whether the kids liked me or not.

Instead, I’ve realized that it is important to foster a “can-do” attitude in students.  Not only will this help them to be independent and resilient problem-solvers, but it will also help them to respect you for that same independence, resilience, and structure that they so desperately crave.  Check out a couple ways I’ve fostered a can-do attitude in my classroom over the past few years.

photo (8)(1) Build routines.  Kids find safety in structure. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, if you give them structure, you’ll give them freedom.  They will find themselves able to make mistakes, not because they’re doing so frivolously; rather, they’ll make mistakes because they know they’re in a safe space.

(2) Make assessment transparent.  Assessment should be empowering, not defeating.  Helping kids see the path to learning through assessment helps them see that we’re providing feedback to help them, not hurt them.  Show them your intention and your rationale behind giving a “grade” or giving “feedback,” and they’ll be grateful for it.  Trust me.

(3) Teach strategies and learning practices.  While it’s tempting (and honestly, sometimes easier) to just show them how to get the right answer, teachers who do so are doing a disservice to students.  To empower kids, it’s important to give them the strategies and tools necessary to solve problems in the future, not just get the right answers on a test.  Strategies allow for the cross-cutting ability that fosters creativity and innovation in students, and after all, isn’t that what we want for them?

(4) Help them use each other.  Kids have the capacity to be each other’s most valuable resources, and denying them the chance to experience this isn’t helpful for them.  Refer them to buddies, encourage them to turn and talk (ALL THE TIME!), and create projects where they are simultaneously allowed to utilize their strengths, but also put some work into their challenges.

photo (7)(5) Let them know you don’t know everything.  It’s important to level the playing field in order to empower kids.  In the Modern Classroom, students are the primary producers of knowledge–not the teachers.  Because of this, Modern Teachers need to know how to teach kids to access resources on their own, instead of providing them resources.  This mentality is extremely empowering for kids and begins to teach them to advocate for themselves and their learning.  In fact, one of my favorite discussions to have as the year starts is to ask the children what they expect from me, as their teacher.  Having this discussion helps to, once again, level the playing the field, allowing students to feel like they have a stake in the classroom.

Of course, fostering a “can-do” attitude doesn’t stop here.  Keeping this going requires constantly monitoring attitudes and feelings and constantly reminding students about the routines and strategies you’ve built into your classroom.  Above all, though, it takes a modeling of this behavior by the teacher.  Our students watch our every move, and if we show that we think they “can,” then they most certainly “will.”

Why My Students Call Me “Paul”

I never asked to be called Mr. France. In fact, no one ever asked me if that’s what I wanted to be called, either.  Regardless, that’s the name by which I have been known for the past four years now, but it’s not necessarily the name by which I feel I should have been known for those four years.

Teachers won’t admit it, but they fear children. In fact, I remember my first year, fearing the children more than they feared me. Will they like me? I asked myself. Will I be able to keep control of them? Will they respect me?

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 10.34.43 PMLuckily, they did end up respecting me, but I don’t think it’s because they called me “Mr. France.”

This year, I decided I wanted to change things.  I decided that my students would no longer call me “Mr. France.” Instead, they’d call me Paul, and this decision was both intentional and purposeful.  In my opinion, being called by a title and a last name only exacerbated the stigma that comes with being a teacher, an antiquated standard that requires us to separate from our children and hold ourselves above them, all in an effort to harness a greater sense of respect from them.

What we don’t realize, though, is that by creating these rules and regulations around simple things like names, we are not actually gaining respect.  Rather, we are imposing restrictions to gain compliance, and this only places a wedge between our students and us.

At the end of the day, our students do not respect us due to the formality of our names.  Instead, our students respect us because of the relationships we forge with them.  Calling us by our first names does not threaten that relationship; in fact, calling us by our first names has the potential to strengthen it.  It represents a leveling of the playing field, and it becomes a symbol of mutual trust and respect.

In essence, our students’ respect comes as a result of the relationships we build because of the structure, support, and care that we provide every day.  Not to be redundant, but our names are nothing but nominal aspects of ourselves, and by breaking down the barrier between formality and colloquialism, we invite our students to connect with us on a personal level, trust us to do what’s best for them, and create an environment where connection is valued over status.

And that’s the kind of environment I want to be in.

Unexpected Behaviors

I was sitting at the library yesterday, reading Play With Me to one of my students, when all of a sudden, another came up to me.

“Paul,” she said, and tapped me on the arm.

I did my best to keep my gaze on the book, as I did not want to reinforce or give attention to her interrupting behavior.

“Paul,” she said again, continuing to tap me.

Within a few seconds, he bright eyes came into my periphery, her smile beaming across her face.

I turned to her, reflecting her smile.  “Hi, sweetie. I wasn’t responding to you because I wasn’t expecting you to come up and say my name so many times.  I was reading a story with [Natalie], and I wanted to finish before talking with you.  Would you like to finish this book with us first?”

“Oh, sure!” she said in her perky tone.

In that moment, this child learned two things: (1) Interrupting isn’t a preferred behavior, and (2) Interrupting is not going to get a problem solved faster.  But I didn’t do it by raising my voice, I didn’t do it by saying “don’t interrupt me,” and I didn’t do it by making her feel bad.  Instead, I framed it through the lens of “expected behaviors.”  Eventually, I got to her question, but not until I had finished the story with [Natalie] first.

10448666_10202894955912099_3454987711805408728_oExpected and Unexpected Behaviors

This is something I learned the past two years in Chicago with the help of the school psychologist and social worker when working with a student with significant behavioral needs.  The terms “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors helped make his behavior choices concrete, while also giving me framework to apply to all settings.  There are “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors in all contexts and situations; it’s just a matter of identifying those behaviors.

So yesterday morning, as the topic for our morning meeting, we made a list of “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors for the morning meeting.  While we did this, we role-played, had some laughs, and discussed how some of the unexpected behaviors make us feel.  At one point, as all of the kids were talking and reflecting, I let out a high-pitched scream, rattling the windows and probably their eardrums, too.

All of the children erupted in giggles.

“Interesting,” I said.  “Do you see what happens when someone does something ‘unexpected?'”

“It made us giggle!” one of the kids said.

Teaching kids how to behave is really difficult.  The last thing teachers want to do is be authoritarian figures in the classroom, but authority is a part of our jobs.  So how do we strike that balance between being a dictator and being a leader?  Well, I don’t think I’ve fully figured that out yet, but I will say that being open with students and telling them how you feel about their unexpected behaviors is a great first step.

26 Lessons I Wish I Could Teach My Students

It was May 7, towards the end of first grade, I believe, and my friend was turning 7.  I remember it vividly.  He walked in with a smile on his face and came to sit at the small table near the back of the room.

“Happy Birthday!” the teacher said.

I echoed these sentiments, and then right after, he excitedly told me it was his “golden” birthday.


Circa 1990. Check out those shorts.

Well, of course, I immediately wanted my birthday to be golden, too. I soon fantasized about a party, littered in sparkly and shiny colors, with all of my friends wearing gold things, a yellow birthday cake with sparklers spouting joy atop a cloud of sunflower frosting.

Clearly, my grandiose child expectations have not been manifested, and I’ll admit, I’m a little disappointed.  I’m not quite sure why I’m putting so much weight into being away from all of my comfort people for my golden birthday and all of the festivities that would have most likely ensued.  After all, it is just another day.  I suppose, though, when our realities do not meet our expectations, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

But maybe, as we grow older, those birthday parties–all the golden frills and the colorful bows–become less important.  Instead, it’s the lessons we’ve learned and the trail we’ve blazed that make those gifts rather meaningless, even if our loved ones aren’t around to shower us with gifts.  Hell, maybe those people are the gifts themselves.  After all, without them, the lessons wouldn’t be there either, and as a result, we would be nothing.

So here are 26 gifts, in honor of 26 golden years, that have been given to me over time–ones that I could only ever wish to teach to my students.


1. In darkness there is light, and in light there is darkness.  It is what we choose to look for that guides us. So be grateful for the bad, because the bad helps us to appreciate the good.


2. Allow yourself to feel.  Lean into all of your emotions–even the bad ones–and really let yourself feel them.  Without doing so, you don’t allow yourself the beauty of recovery.

3. Tell yourself the hard stuff so someone else doesn’t have to.

4. Tell yourself you’re doing the best you can.  And believe it.  Because you are.  You always are.

5. Find your life.  Go on the adventures that scare the crap out of you.  They most certainly won’t be looking for you.


6. Honesty and transparency are the best ways to maintain positive relationships, and one cannot be loved if one cannot be seen honestly and truthfully.  All of us are perfectly imperfect.


7. Dream big, but don’t fantasize too much.  Your reality will almost never meet your expectations.  And this isn’t always a bad thing.

8. Children are incredible human beings, and we don’t give them nearly enough credit.  You can take care of them by helping them see themselves in the world.  If this isn’t happening, they won’t learn anything.

9. You can never do anything by yourself.  Your experiences are shaped by your environment, and the people in our lives are naturally a part of that environment. Be grateful, and show that gratitude whenever you can.


10. Sh** happens, and then you get over it. If someone lies to you or hurts you, it’s on them, and their guilt will be longer lasting than your pain or disappointment.


11. People do what they want to do.  It’s better to assume the best and read their actions at face value. Likewise, people don’t do what they don’t want to do.  Don’t feel bad accepting help.  Just shut up and say thank you.

12. Be grateful for the villains in your story.  They challenged your morals and helped you to see a part of yourself you didn’t know existed.  But never forget that you, too, had a hand in creating those villains.

13. Conflict arises from fear and misunderstanding.  This can be shattered with the courage to be vulnerable and daring to let yourself be seen as is.


14. Actions speak louder than words. Way louder.  Lead by example, and show more than you tell.


15. It is statistically impossible to please everyone.  Stand up for what you think is right for the world, even if a crowd of people is telling you to stand down.  You’re the one who needs to live with your decisions, and if you can sleep at night, you’re doing alright.  Unless you’re a sociopath, of course.

16. People project their problems, their fears, and their insecurities onto others.  It’s best to not take everything so personally.

17. As a result, “be kinder than necessary, for everyone is fighting their own personal battle.”


18. Empathy starts from within.  You need to know and love yourself before you can truly know and love someone else.


19. Learning allows us not only to get to know the world better, but it allows us to get to know ourselves better, too.

20. Structure can be limiting, but it can also be liberating.


21. We are eternally stuck in the present, so we might as well not fight it.  Dwelling on the past is neither healthy nor helpful, and worrying about the future robs the present of its beauty.


22. It’s always going to feel like the next best thing is out there waiting for you.  But we don’t need a “next” best thing, when we have the best thing right in front of us.

23. There is peace, presence, and happiness that comes from letting go.  Letting go of something and watching it come back to you is more gratifying than holding on to it at all costs.

24. Love is not an expectation or a mandate; love is an appreciation of someone or something as is. No exceptions.

25. We are merely a manifestation of our previous experiences, both the ones labeled as good and as bad.  It is essential to love all of those parts of ourselves–and of others.


26. Love yourself.  Always.  All of these things are way easier said than done, but getting to this last one is the most important.  It’s something that we all continue to struggle with on a daily basis, and that’s okay.  However, it’s important to remember that you are the only thing you will bring into every phase of your life, and an appreciation for yourself is the only thing that is truly yours.


It’s the only thing that can never be taken from you.