Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Birthdays and Building

Do you recognize your students' birthdays? Do you wish them a happy birthday during class? Do you let the class sing or have cupcakes? In elementary school, at least since I've been a parent, kids still celebrate birthdays. I've sent in Yoda cakes, Rabid Rabbits--homemade has meaning in my family. Cupcakes, cookies, treats--time is taken to pause, sing and eat sweets. Even if the singing embarrasses the birthday kids, he or she grins. Smiles abound.

Rabid Rabbits were all the rage when my son was 9. 
This week is birthday week. My birthday is Saturday. I share my actual birthday with a student and 2 colleagues. Three girl friends, two children of friends, one cousin and a former next-door neighbor have birthdays this week. We celebrate, often together.

My principal sends out birthday cards. I got my card from her today. The hand written note made me cry--luckily it's allergy season and I haven't managed mascara this week. The kids didn't notice. Her note buoyed by spirit.

In high school sometimes connections gets lost. The curriculum or latest mandate takes over or scatters the flock. We think, I've got Shakespeare to read or main idea strategies to teach, essays to plan, a test to grade, a field trip to organize--the list never ends.  Taking the time to acknowledge our students as people and to celebrate their lives with them, even in small seemingly insignificant ways, makes a world of difference.

I haven't always been good about keeping track of students' birthdays. When I know or remember, I make a point of reaching out, sometimes I sing (solo even) . I've gotten much better since the school district adopted a newer grading program and since I started using a social network (Bear English Ning)  with students. Both the Ning and our grading program remind users of members' birthdays. I love that feature and so do students. They beam when I am the first to wish them happy birthday in class. They notice who is having a birthday online and they post to greetings to them or greet them grinning in class. Sometimes we have cake (shhh... don't

This afternoon's faculty meeting at my school focused on building relationships with students. One thing my grade level group talked about was birthdays. We had a good conversation that went well beyond birthdays and into the reality of building strong relationships with sometimes reluctant students.

I'm still thinking about it. I believe in community building. I've written about it before here and here. I make time to build relationships with students. Doing so forms bonds and attachments between my students and me and between students in the same class. Building relationships is an instructional routine, a habit, part of my classroom culture. It paves the way for learning and some believe that without such attachments, students have difficulty learning (Jensen, Payne, Noddings, etc.). We had good conversation in our meetings this afternoon. We weren't lectured. There wasn't a flurry of handouts. We got to write, reflect, move about the learning cabin and talk to each other about students.

Prior to the meeting we were asked to prepare by reading Cris Crutcher's "Flying Blind" (the article version from a recent Family Circle magazine was excerpted from the chapter of the same title which appears in Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice edited by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. When I got to the meeting space I was struck by the set up. The room was wall papered in student photos from the yearbook.

My school is divided into "colleges": iAM (arts and media), HPA (health and public affairs), STEM (science technology, engineering and math) and IB (International Baccalaureate). Each college has a team of teachers across grades and subjects--more than 30 teachers per college is my rough estimate. One of our leaders had photocopied all of the students enrolled in my house and posted their pictures around the room by grade level. I could see all of the ninth graders. In truth I could see all of the 500+ (give or take) students in STEM. It was the first time students had attended such a meeting--even virtually.

The meeting began with bellwork: think about a teacher who made education "real" for you and write about how the teacher did it. We shared our stories and then discussed in grade-level groups how we build relationships with kids. Then we were given stickers and directed to walk the room putting stickers on students with whom we have positive, meaningful relationships. I edited one of the chart pages of pictures so that it showed just students I have (my students sign release forms each fall, so that I can write about them and post their work or pictures).

These are 12 of my 100 ninth graders.  Of these 12 students, 1 has been suspended for drugs on campus, another broke his wrist skateboarding (twice and required surgery), another is a Nerdfighter. One of these 12 has straight As. One takes medication for a mental illness. Six are reading far below grade level. Many get free lunch. There are many things I could tell you about these kids. I could tell you about sharing breakfast or talking books. I could tell you about the divorce or the foreclosure or the day the dog died.

As teachers walked the room putting small dots on students' pictures we talked. We talked about the Billys and Johns, about the Shakishas and Lisas. We shared and tried to problem solve. Some of the stickers on you can see, some were too pale a color to show up in this picture taken with my iPad. Some students didn't get any of stickers during the activity. No teacher in our college feels connected to the stickerless. The stickerless have not positive, meaningful relationships with an adult on campus. We need to do something about that.

I want to spend my time in meetings at school like this. I want to spend my time talking about real kids and real ways to solve problems that kids face. Our meeting today gave us time to begin those conversations. Thank you to the planners--the support folks, the teacher leaders, the keepers of the vision, my college administrator and my Principal, my instructional leader--this afternoon was time well spent.

This is slice #21of 31. I am participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers


Jensen, E. (2011). Teaching with povery in mind: What being poor does to kids' brains and what schools can do about it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 

Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people. New York: Teachers College Press.

Payne. R. (April 2008). "Nine powerful practices." Educational Leadership.


  1. I love this post! If I forget a birthday, it's TRAGIC!! I bought a birthday hat several years ago at Party City, and the lucky birthday boy or girl gets to wear it as the class sings, and I take a picture. I post the pics on my school's teacher page and the kids love seeing them again at my end-of-year slideshow. I wish I could remember to decorate their desk with wrapping paper and a bow -- it's what I used to do when I taught elementary kids in Special Education classes. The way their little faces lit up was priceless. But even my sophomores, now, can't wait until it's their day!


  2. I'm glad you liked it and it went well in your college. It did in ours and it reminded me how beautiful all our students are and they deserve to have a connection to more than one adult in school. The next step is to examine those who don't and figure out why.

  3. This is powerful, and another reminder that we need to "pay attention" to our kids as people as much as students.

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  5. Great ideas---went through and read your other posts also. Will definitely pass this on!