Sunday, October 30, 2016

Building a Global Community

One Upstander at a Time

Dear Readers,

One of the most influential books I have read in the past year would have to be Upstanders by Sara Ahmed and Harvey Daniels. I would highly recommend it to any educator.

We live in a global community in which we want our students to be empathetic, caring, innovative, thinking and knowledgeable individuals. That is just the tip of the iceberg. 

As educators, we need to teach our young people skills and strategies to navigate a complex social networking world. It does not just "happen". Ahmed and Daniels offer fantastic lessons that can be integrated into any curriculum or instruction.

Roles in Society

After finding this incredible resource, I know start the year with lessons on roles in society. I love this lesson and it really encourages students to think about how actions, words and thoughts by characters and people help us make inferences regarding their beliefs, values and/or perspectives. It is always an enlightening and engaging discussion. It is so powerful as we continue to use the vocabulary throughout the year.


What makes an identity? How do we define ourselves? How do other people define us? Can identity ever be taken away? 

I was talking to my 7th graders about how they might identify me as a teacher more often than a learner. They were surprised to learn, I actually consider myself a learner first. They only see me in one environment, that as the primary role of instructor (although I am trying to change this mindset), whereas I believe I spend more time being a student than I do a teacher. I love creating identity posters with them and see how they view themselves. It helps me to build relationships and get to know the whole child. 

While reading about history and topics such as genocide, slavery, refugees, civil wars, etc. we discuss the horrific conditions that violate many basic human rights. I pose the question and ask them to reflect on, can identity be taken away? Do we have to internalize what others might "label" us or see us as? It's conversations like these that must be had.


Following those ideas, we move into lessons on anti-bullying and becoming "upstanders". These include reflection on:
  • What is your definition of a bully?
  • Why do you think people bully?
  • Why do you think people get bullied?
  • How can bullying be prevented?
  • What can you do if you witness bullying?
  • How can bullying impact our local community? National community? Global community?
These always lead into natural topics of conversations regarding where/when bullying occurs, cyber-bullying and the effects of bullying such as suicide in extreme cases. 

This year, I even had a few amazingly courageous students who shared their own experience of being bullied. I was so proud of them for giving us their perspective. My hope is to always create a safe environment where they feel they can empower others to stand up for themselves by sharing their own personal stories.


Empathy can be difficult for adults to feel, let alone our teens whose entire worlds are based around their social circles! However, if given the language and resources, our teens are amazing individuals who can be incredibly empathetic towards others.

Last year I had a group of students in my room for lunch and all of a sudden another student burst into the room just sobbing. I watched them interact with her. They asked her if she was okay, what was wrong and put their hands out to comfort her with a touch on the arm/shoulder/back. An interesting detail to note was they were actually in a bit of a conflict with one another. Despite the fact that they were having some "social challenges", it still bothered them to see someone so upset.

When we provide students the opportunities to feel things from another's perspective, they can be very reflective. I have witnessed students almost stop in their tracks and have an "aha" moment of what it might be like to face hardships and life challenges they do not experience on a daily basis, if ever.

Final Thoughts

I have always taught with the whole child in mind, but Upstanders has really pushed and challenged my thinking to go above and beyond.  Sara, you are an absolute delight to share ideas with and I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all that I have learned from you. You have impacted my students in ways that you will never know. 


Sunday, October 23, 2016

The World's Most Valuable Resources

Our Precious Students

Dear Readers,

I recently attended the National Character Conference in Washington, DC and was moved by a breakout session facilitated by Scarlett Lewis. Scarlett lost her son Jesse in the Sandy Hook tragedy. She was such a courageous, inspiring and positive individual. I learned so much from her about forgiveness and the ability to move forward. 

It was a reminder to me that when families send their children to us, they are entrusting us with their children's lives and to keep them safe.  Being a co-facilitator of the Building Safety Team has been one of the most fulfilling and important committees I have ever had the pleasure of serving on. 

Creating a safe learning environment is a huge passion of mine. It includes not only the physical environment, but the social, mental, emotional, academic, etc. needs of our students as well. Always getting to know the whole child and building relationships.


I have always given 100% to my role as a teacher because I know it is what my kids deserve. When I discovered the book, Kids Deserve It, by Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, I just fell in love with the message.

Here is one quote that really resonated with me:

"We live in a world where we can no longer claim ignorance-only an unwillingness to learn." 
(page 24)

We are all members of a global community and are educating students to be empathetic, knowledgeable, caring citizens. In order to do that, we must also be empathetic, knowledgeable and caring individuals.  It is our responsibility to seek out and understand different perspectives, current events and world wide issues including social injustices to best instruct our students and prepare them for the future.

"We have the power to tear down or build up the children who walk into our lives every day." 
(page 83)

By seeing the world through various lenses, it allows us to gain the perspective of people different than us. Students feel social, emotional and mental stresses that some of us could not even begin to imagine. However, being a role model and showing empathy can make a world of difference in a child's day, week, month or even life. All of our students are unique and precious in their own way. It is part of our job as educators to let them know, feel and believe that. Our words, actions and body language can speak volumes. They can raise a child to great heights or plummet them to ultimate lows.

"Strong relationships must be at the forefront of what you do each day on your campus." 
(page 117)

Our learning environments should feel as safe and secure as possible. Building relationships inside and outside the classroom can have an incredible impact on young people. Whether it be spending lunch with them, going to a sporting event, attending a chorus concert or chaperoning a weekend field trip. For some students, these are the moments they crave and look forward to, having an adult that shows an interest, cares about them and supports them.

"We chose to become educators so we could change lives and impact future generations." 
(page 124)

"Reading to classes is hands down the most influential action I do as a principal." 
(page 179)

As a literacy teacher and former speech therapist, books have always had a special and profound place in my heart. Connecting students to themes, characters, conflicts, cultures, communities, etc. using literature is a powerful tool. It was one of my favorite parts of the book. Everyone loves to hear a good story. Thank you Adam and Todd for embracing the power of reading.

Final Thoughts

If you have not had the pleasure of reading Kids Deserve It, I highly recommend it. It is a resource packed with ideas to take into the classroom as soon as possible. The message it sends is that our kids deserve the best from us. They deserve to be cared for, loved and prepared for a future global society that does not exist yet.

Thank you to Scarlett Lewis for sharing her story. I will be forever changed by it.

To my students, I love and care for ALL of you!

(one of my classes)


Sunday, October 16, 2016

My Students are S.H.I.N.E.tastic!

LaVonna Roth's S.H.I.N.E. Message Empowers Students

Dear Readers,

One of my priorities is to always empower my students to believe in themselves, recognize their strengths and encourage them to imagine the endless possibilities available to them.

In my classroom, we have many discussions on what makes us unique, special and how we can inspire others. Often, this is a difficult task for many of my middle school students. They struggle in finding how they inspire others, impact our school/classroom community and internalizing what incredible individuals they truly are!

I have always wanted to incorporate LaVonna Roth's (@LaVonnaRoth) S.H.I.N.E. message and philosophy. This year, I am making it a priority to integrate it into lessons.

I met LaVonna at AMLE2015 when I attended her session. She was so inspiring and positive, you could not help but be in a good mood around her! LaVonna is sincerely one of the sweetest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. She is incredible!

After hearing about S.H.I.N.E. I started doing some research and found her website and bracelet. I promptly purchased one for me and my mom. Much to my delight, she sells earrings as well!


Since I received it, I wear it every day and am always reminded to S.H.I.N.E.

I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my classroom this year. I created the poster above and painted the vase below.

Now, how would I integrate the S.H.I.N.E. philosophy into my classroom? The first thing I did was include it in my 7th grade Language and Literature Syllabus. I introduced the concept to one of my classes. I wanted the students to interact with it, so I decided to incorporate it into Anti-Bullying Lessons. Here is the anchor poster I created. (Apologies for the typo, it is fixed now.)

I asked a group of 7th graders to participate in the task. What I discovered was they were able to identify traits, name important parts of their lives and verbalize how they navigate their complex world called "teenage life". However, identifying what makes them exceptional and recognizing how they inspire others was challenging for several of them. My students are amazing individuals who inspire me daily, it made me sad that they did not see that. After some coaching, guiding, support and encouragement, they were able to dig deep and find something.

This past week, I found another ideal opportunity to implement S.H.I.N.E. We are a Leader in Me middle school. Our Lighthouse Team consists of students who facilitate monthly leadership lessons on Covey's Habits. Our lesson was writing personal mission statements. 

I always spend quality time writing mission statements whenever possible. It's so important to me for students to develop a sense of self and see how they can be amazing change makers in the world. I shared my mission statement and the components I thought about in creating it.

Many of my students used S.H.I.N.E. for reflection in writing their mission statements. They continue to be a work in progress and I am so proud of them for processing and sincerely considering what they want their place in the world to possibly be.

Thank you LaVonna for inspiring me and therefore reaching my students with your incredible message. You are an amazing mentor and role model. You touch more people's lives than you could ever imagine!

Visit LaVonna's website at:

Follow her on twitter: @LavonnaRoth #igniteyourSHINE 

May all your students recognize what incredible individuals they are and what a difference they make in our world. 


Sunday, October 9, 2016

Missouri "Pirate" Principal Impacts NY Student

Reading Recommendations Cross State Lines

Dear Readers,

I am always looking for YA book recommendations. For any of you who work with Middle School students, you probably know it can be difficult to find just right books for that age group. Some of the books are too elementary and others are too mature. Let's be honest, particularly in 7th and 8th grade, their social life is more important than anything else. We need to recognize that, accept that and love them for who they are. Reading is not always at the top of their priority list.

Connecting readers to books takes time, patience and knowledge. Once the school year begins, my reading time is almost 100% devoted to young adult literature. Building relationships is near and dear to my heart, so I integrate getting to know the whole child as much as possible into instruction. Getting to know my students personally and reading YA Lit on a regular basis helps me to be a coach in building their reading lives. They begin to trust and respect my recommendations. Additionally, I never have just one, I can usually recommend at least 4-5. I love sitting in front of my classroom library and just pulling books off to share with students. My biggest reward is when they cannot decide so I encourage them to take 2 or 3 and bring back what they do not want yet.

Twitter has been invaluable in connecting me to other educators who also live and breathe literacy. I frequently take recommendations from people and ultimately many of those books end up in my personal library. The #Read4Fun Voxer group and Sunday night chat have been incredible resources, just as an example. Thank you to all of you who have helped build up choices that I now offer students.

Beth Houf

One principal I would like to recognize is Beth Houf (@BethHouf) an amazing middle school principal at Fulton Middle School in Missouri.

Whatcha Reading?

Beth has created a broadcast called "Whatcha Reading?" and in it she highlights books that she would personally recommend to students. Luckily, I was fortunate to be tagged in her pilot episode and was introduced to a book titled eleven by Tom Rogers. 

Of course I ran out to the library, had it reserved and read it as soon as it came in. I promptly bought it for my classroom library. When I buy new books, I introduce them to my students so they can see what additions I am making.

One of my students was having a difficult time settling on a book. He chose his initial independent reading book and asked to abandon it because a book another student was reading seemed to spark his interest. I always allow students to abandon books if they can tell me why. This student chose to read Fuzzy Mud

Knowing he would finish that quickly, I recommended a graphic novel to him called The Lost Boy. As he was finishing that, one of the books I showed him, to think about as his next read, was eleven. 

This past Friday, he arrived at school early so I invited him up to my room to help me do some classroom jobs and it was the perfect time to discuss books. I recommended War Child to him as an option.  To my surprise, he kept going back to eleven, remember that book you showed me about 9/11?  He was really caught between the two. I encouraged him to take them both and decide. In addition, we are reading A Long Walk to Water

I was ecstatic when he left my room with three books in his bag that morning! When we take the time to get to know our students, really get to know them, we help build their reading lives. I was so incredibly proud of him for settling into books that seemed to interest him. A sincere and heart felt thank you to Beth for introducing that title to me and ultimately reaching a reader in my classroom in New York State. 

Check out that video clip here: Whatcha Reading: The Pilot 

Ironically, I shared a text I was reading called I Will Always Write Back and it ended up on her second broadcast! I was absolutely thrilled as it is one of my new favorites from the summer.

Check out that video clip here: Whatcha Reading? Sept 6th Edition 

I am reading.........

Beth also inspired me to post the following outside my door. 

I saw an example of her staff members doing this and modified it so my entire 7th grade Language & Literature class has a "sign". 

I wanted a way to display our reading lives and Beth's signs inspired me to make these.

I then created a bulletin board for us to build our reading lives as a classroom community. 

I love that we have a space to consistently update our current reads, while also having a space to see our reading loves grow throughout the year. Another sincere thank you to Beth for your inspiring ideas.

Please check out her blog, The Principal's Page" here: The Principal's Page 

May everyone be inspired to promote literacy and help build our students' reading lives.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Scary Situations & Threatening Environments

Students Need to Feel Safe & Cared For

Dear Readers,

Tomorrow begins Anti-Bullying Week 2016. Our Middle School has planned some critically important activities and presentations. As I was walking today, I reflected on two experiences and their relationship to creating safe, comfortable learning environments. 

These experiences involve my favorite pet, dogs. I have always loved large dogs. In fact, small dogs make me anxious because they often run around and bark at my ankles. It is not often that I feel threatened by big dogs either. I always ask the owner before petting one, but am not afraid to interact with them given the green light. 

Scenario #1: I went to a friend's house and her family has two Rottweilers. One of them I have heard about for years, that she can be unfriendly. When I arrived, the dog was out in the backyard. My friend brought me outside to show me her deck. She then proceeded to open the gate so they could come in and said, "Let's find out if she likes you!" (WHAT????) Luckily she seemed to. My friend then handed me treats to give her. (WHAT?????) It turns out her dog took a liking to me and actually spent most of the evening by my feet under the table. Despite the fact that I knew in advance she might not be friendly, my friend created a safe environment for me to interact with her.

Scenario #2: I am an avid walker and my route consists of two ways to get home. One is to walk a short trail through some woods and the other to pass through fields of a middle school. One day I chose to walk through the field of the middle school. I had my ear buds on and as I turned onto the fields, I heard a growl. Upon turning around, a dog was standing behind me that had clearly gotten out of its enclosure and was extremely angry. I walked slowly away as a police officer drove in and asked me if I was the one who called about the dog. After replying no, he drove his car closer, but I noticed he did not get out right away. I am incredibly thankful I was not attacked or bitten by the dog. Perhaps having my ear buds in, and not hearing him approach, kept my body calm enough that he did not sense fear in me. To this day, I avoid that area of my walk.

How does this connect to students? If students feel their environment is safe and they are cared for, such as at my friend's house, they are more likely to connect with us as educators and take risks. However, if they feel threatened, as I did by the dog in the fields, they could continue to feel that anxiety and want to avoid the area that causes that. Why would we want to purposely go to an environment that makes us anxious, uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe? 

As educators, we should always remember that our actions, words, tone of voice and body language can have an enormous impact (both positive or negative) on our students. Once they feel uncomfortable, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to build a meaningful relationship with them.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Caring About Ms. Gross

Students Showing Empathy

Dear Readers,

I have spent the past month building relationships and getting to know my students. Just a few of the activities we have connected through include:

  • Setting up our classroom.
  • Building our class playlist.
  • Recording a "Carpool Karaoke" episode.
  • Painting a "sign" for our browsing books collection.
  • Reading outside on the bleachers.
  • Tons of discussions and conversations.

I believe my work and modeling is paying off....

A few weeks ago, I was sick and unfortunately missed Open House. A 7th grade student in my Language and Literature class asked me the next day how my ears were feeling because she knew that was the problem. How kind of her, to come up to me in the hall to "check on me".

This past week, I had the "fall cold" and was extremely tired by Friday. My 1st period 7th grade intervention students were coming in and one of them approached my front lab table and sat down. She then leaned in and whispered, "Ms. Gross, are you alright?" I said, "Yes, why?" She said, "You sounded sad when you said hi to me this morning." I responded, "I am fine, just a little tired." Another student said, "I said hi, but you did not say hi back." Of course I apologized profusely.

What did I learn from this?

  • When we care about our students, they care about us.
  • When we model empathy, our students are empathetic.
  • When we greet students, they notice if we do not.
  • When students know us well, they can sense when something does not seem right.

I thank my students for caring about me and making me feel so loved.