Agreements & Who We Are

I’ve spent a lot of time reading everything that Tom Drummond and Teacher Tom have written and I simply love the way they honor children and view them as capable human beings. I’ve paid close attention to how they use language in everything, but especially in creating boundaries and expectations for the class community. This year I decided to try something new surrounding creating rules, or agreements as we call them, as we create a community together in our kindergarten class.

We started the year by having a conversation to negotiate what we need to do in order for us to have a safe and fun space to learn together. I shared my non-negotiable rules first: No hurting each other or putting someone in danger with your voice or body. No destroying property. Then I opened up the conversation for our negotiable rules. As Tom Drummond says, “negotiable rules are goals for harmonious community interactions”. We started by talking about what kind of class we want to have. As we talked, I asked the kids, “how do you think we can do that here?” I was curious as to what children with little to no school experience might say. What their idea of “rules” might be. In the past, I haven’t spent much time on this with kindergarteners until later in the year. But I wanted to start the conversation early, and have the kids begin generating the expectations for our year together. I wanted to hear their voices, what mattered to them and have them own the class we were creating together. One of the first conversations was had when I noticed that everyone seemed to have a need to RUN FULL SPEED anywhere they wanted to go. Now, I love to run, I know kids need to run (and that’s a big reason we have 2 recess times) and I wish we could run all day, but the reality of 20 kids running full speed in a crowded classroom means that an accident is inevitable – and that was a good opening for our conversation. I reminded the kids that a non-negotiable for me is that no one can hurt or put someone else in danger, and when kids are running in the classroom someone will get hurt. Then I asked them, “so what can we do about that?” This is the language I come back to over and over as issues arise, and as we need to revise our agreements. The chart below shows how our chart looks at this point in the year – a work in progress.

As we created the list, and continued to have conversations around it, I asked the kids for their agreement before I wrote each one. The item needed to have full agreement by everyone in the class, including me, before going on the chart. If we couldn’t agree, then it didn’t get written down. This list became known as “Our Agreements”. We refer back to the list often – at first with my guidance (“I want to remind you that you and friends agreed to…”) and eventually with kids generating the conversation and talking to friends about the agreements on their own. If someone throws something, we remind each other that we have an agreement not to throw. If a friend is being mean, you might hear someone say, “that was mean and we have an agreement not to be mean, please stop”. As problems or issues come up throughout the year, we decide together if a new “agreement” needs to be added or revised. Looking at this chart you might be thinking, “wait, I’ve always been told never to write down “rules” in the negative – we should write what we want kids to do, not behaviors that we don’t want to see”. But here’s the thing – this chart was generated by the kids. I wrote their exact words. They own it – and therefore, they are accountable to these agreements. If I had suggested “let’s write ‘keep hands to ourselves’ instead of ‘no kicking, no hitting, no scratching’…” it would then become MY agreements. Kids would happily say “yes, keep hands to ourselves”, but would they really own it? I’ve seen firsthand a list that was “kind of” generated with kids (but with a heavy teacher hand) be completely ignored, and how there is great power in the agreements being owned by the children – not by me. So I’m completely okay with this list of “no” things, because the kids own it, it reflects what matters to them, they refer to it, and most importantly – they hold each other accountable if agreements are broken because these are the promises they’ve made to each other.

In December, I felt that we were ready to take the agreements to a new level, so we started a conversation about who we are as a class – and what kind of class we want to be. I recorded their thinking and we continue to add to this chart. It’s still a work in progress. I’ve written about this process here. When we came back to school after winter break, I pulled out this chart and we started doing some deep thinking and reflecting on our school year so far – and focusing on what kind of future we want for our class. We revisited our agreements and had some conversations about favorite books and characters and how they connect to who we are as a class and as individuals. We will continue to engage in this conversation for the next week or so, adding and revising our chart, and then we will create our own co-constructed chart that speaks to who we are as a class – creating our future together. There is great power in speaking things into being. By setting goals and ideals, opening up a conversation about how we can get there, declaring who we are, making agreements, holding each other accountable, and talking together when things aren’t working – children take on ownership, responsibility and love for each other as human beings.

Do you love to read?

I am an avid reader. I’ll admit, it’s bordering on an obsession. There are stacks of books throughout my house, my office at school, and quite often, in boxes waiting for me on my front porch. I am passionate about books and reading and I love to share this passion with the kids I teach. Many former students have come back to visit and say the thing they remembered most was how much I loved books, and how I helped them learn to love books and reading.
But what if you’re a teacher who doesn’t love books? One who doesn’t read much beyond magazines, newspapers or articles on the web? One who doesn’t call herself or himself a “reader”? Can you still help foster a love of reading in the kids you teach?
One of my grad students recently shared that she really isn’t a reader. She recognized that this might be a problem since she’s expected to teach kids how to read and that she wants the students in her class to love reading. She decided to join a book club at her school, and shared with the class that it was the first novel she’s read since high school. I admire her honesty and willingness to be a learner alongside her students. I was thrilled when this same student came to class on the day we were doing our Young Adult literature book clubs saying that she was hooked on these kinds of books. She couldn’t wait to read the rest of the suggested books on our list and she was amazed at how quickly she had read her book. She discovered the hidden reader inside of her, and couldn’t wait to continue finding more good books to read.
I’ve always loved reading. It came easy for me, and I’ve always seen it as a huge part of who I am.  Perhaps teachers who don’t consider themselves readers just haven’t found the right book or motivation. So what if this grad student found her way in to the reading world by starting with Young Adult novels.  How we get there doesn’t matter.  It’s finding that porthole that counts — a porthole that we can slip through to begin our life as a reader. Being a reader makes being a teacher of reading easier – it really does. When we “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” our kids notice. And that reading bug of ours eventually bites them and they become kids who love to read too.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what brings me joy in my teaching life. Joy, by definition, is a source or cause of delight. I think back to my favorite teachers as a child, and it was clear that they found joy in teaching. I’m sure they had many of the same stressors that teachers today have, and yet, they remained joyful in spite of it all. Today, teachers are challenged daily with a zillion things that don’t hold a lot of joy, and in fact, some can be downright spirit crushing. But it’s up to us to create joy in our teaching lives, and share that joy with our kids and our colleagues.

Here are five things that bring joy to my teaching life.

  1. Sharing a new book with kids. I love books, and I love sharing books with kids. This week I shared a Piggie and Elephant book (We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems) with a class of first graders. Their laughter and excitement as I read the book was fabulous. They had such a hard time staying “criss-cross applesauce” on the rug – they wanted to stand up and get closer to the book.  And when I said they could find more of this series in the library they cheered. Seeing kids this excited about books and familiar authors is truly joyful!
  2. Inquiry. As a learner, I am most engaged when following a topic that I am passionate about and have a personal interest in. Inquiry projects with kids encourage questioning and allow them to pursue learning that directly relates to their lives. There is much joy in seeing a class constantly questioning and experiencing learning by co-constructing an evolving curriculum.
  3. Writing with kids. Teaching within a Writer’s Workshop is an amazing thing. I love how excited kids get when I share a new writer’s technique with them or when we discover something together about an author’s piece. I’m always impressed with how bravely and fearlessly young writers try on a new technique and play with it in their own writing. Sitting side-by-side with a writer gives me an opportunity to connect with that child and his or her writing and see the possibilities that hide within each writer. A child’s writing is something to celebrate and find joy in.
  4. Play. I believe in the importance of play. Through play we can learn so much about each other, the curriculum and ourselves. When we are playful, it is difficult to get upset, stressed out or cynical. Play should infiltrate our teaching lives (as well as our personal lives!).
  5. Kids. Kids bring joy to my life. The hugs, the funny things they say, the way they light up when they figure out a tricky part in a book or publish a story or solve a challenging math problem or discover a spider web on the playground.  My life wouldn’t be complete without a daily dose of kid joy.

What brings joy to your teaching life? 

Big Fans

I sat down to work with three fifth graders the other day, all three being struggling readers. They’ve been placed in my intervention group because they are reading more than three years behind grade level. It’s safe to say they are not big fans of reading. It was our first day meeting together, and I was nervous. I hoped my lesson would capture their attention enough that they’d enjoy coming to read with me in the future. I want so much for these readers. I want their learning to accelerate rapidly, I want them to see themselves as readers, and, in truth, I want them to become fans of reading.

I chose a nonfiction text that I thought might interest them. Being close to Halloween, I thought a book on bats might spark some curiosity, and hopefully hook them on a book. We talked about the book together first, then each child read the book by themselves. They were each reading at their own pace, but they stopped often to talk, wonder or comment on the bat facts the author was telling us. They flipped back and forth in the book as they read and talked about what they read. They shared common experiences and expressed disgust at some of the photos. Before we knew it, our half hour was over. And these fifth graders were begging for more books on bats! They couldn’t wait to take the book home to share with their families, and even wanted me to give them poster board so they could look up their questions on the internet and make bat posters to share with their class.

I was thrilled that this book was able to hook these reluctant readers. It reminds me of how important it is to carefully choose the texts we use with all of our readers – but especially our most struggling. I am also reminded of how important it is to interact with texts alongside our struggling readers. They need to see how books can be exciting, how books can make us wonder, think, question, get grossed out, and pull us in. They need to experience that sense of time passing quickly when you’re totally hooked into a book. As one of my fifth graders said, “no way! We can’t be done yet!!”

In Catching Readers, Pat and I often refer to engaging our readers by choosing high interest books, incorporating LOTS of talk and working in that child’s Zone of Proximal Development so they can feel successful and build upon prior knowledge. Take a minute today to reflect on those kids who are struggling in your classroom.  Are you choosing high-interest books for small group work? Are they choosing books that interest them for independent reading? Do they have lots of books available to them that are at a “just-right” level for them? Are they having multiple opportunities to talk about what they are reading? Are they seeing themselves as readers? Are they seeing all that books can offer?

How are you helping your readers become “Big Fans” of reading?

What’s RIGHT with education?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about education in the news. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lot of talk about what’s wrong with education and how we can fix it. We’d like to take a minute to share our list of what’s right with education. What does it look like when things are going well? What are the signs that a school or a classroom doesn’t need to be “fixed?”

Here are a few of our thoughts.

1.  Teachers are smiling.

We’re not just talking about the “nice to meet you smiles,” but the genuine “I love my job” smiles. Those authentic smiles to kids, parents and colleagues in the hallways, classrooms and teacher’s lounges are signs that teachers love what they do. Teachers smile a lot more when they are respected, trusted, encouraged and celebrated.  A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when the teachers are happy.

2.  Kids are smiling.

We want our kids to love learning, love school, enjoy what they are doing, and feel valued as contributing members of the classroom community. It’s our job as teachers to make sure we’ve created the environment for this to happen.  Kids smile when they have choice in what they read and write, when they are listened to and respected, and when they are encouraged to do their best. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when the kids are happy.

3.  Kids are reading and writing daily and growing as literate beings.

A school that is working well has kids engaged in daily, meaningful literacy work. Kids have ownership of their reading and writing and are given sufficient time each day to practice.  Kids aren’t doing mindless worksheets or isolated activities just to have something to turn in to the teacher.  Rather, they are being treated as real readers and writers in the world.  Their teachers are supporting them and helping them grow into proficient readers and writers.  That growth is measured in multiple ways, not just with test scores. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when kids are engaged in meaningful literacy work.

4.  It is noisy.

We’re not talking about just random noise, but purposeful, meaningful literacy talk. Kids should be talking about their reading and writing daily. Literacy is social and kids (and adults) need time to talk in order to construct meaning and see the purpose that literacy has in their lives. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when kids are talking about their thinking, their learning and their literate lives.

5 .  More teaching than testing is going on.

Teachers need to be interacting with and responding to the students in their classrooms.  Time is spent constructing the curriculum, choosing the read alouds, planning instruction, meeting with children to talk about their reading and writing, and assessing students based on their specific needs as learners.  A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when teachers are teaching and not just testing.

What else is happening in schools and classrooms that don’t need to be fixed?  We look forward to your thoughts!