Letters of Love for State Testing

Letters of Love

Next week is our state math exam.  In total, the students participate in three days of ELA exams and three days of math exams.  It’s a time that can be stressful for students but I’d like to share a great way to quickly reduce the students’ stress…. Letters of Love!

About two weeks prior to the exams, I write to the families of my students asking them to send in anywhere between one and six letters.  It’s completely their choice whether they send one letter that can be reread every day, a handful of letters that can be read and reread or six different letters for each day.  The instructions are simple.  Write a letter of encouragement to your student.  I add a few suggestions that are listed below.

  • It doesn’t have to be long.
  • Keep it positive! 🙂
  • Feel free to include drawings, pictures or photographs.
  • Use your creativity.
  • Last year we even had notes written from students’ pets.  These letters definitely made the kids smile!

We all know the families give our students extra big hugs and take the time to encourage the kids before they run out the door to catch the bus on the days of the exams.  But, by the time the students ride the bus to school (for some of our students it’s close to an hour), see their friends, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom and return to their seats for the day, they aren’t thinking about the giant hug they received.  I wanted my students to take a deep breath and hear that they are loved from the people who matter most to them right before they started each exam.

Here are three important pointers about Letters of Love…

  • Set a due date for the letters a few days before the exam. That way you’ll know which students didn’t get a letter.  Make sure to write letters of encouragement to all of the students who didn’t receive a letter from home.  Every student has to have a letter on his/her desk on the day of each exam.  If letters trickle in after the due date, replace the letter you wrote with the one from home.
  • Do not leave the letters on the desks during the exam. My kids read the letters in the morning while they are eating breakfast and coloring (another stress reliever) before announcements.  Well before I begin reading test directions, I collect the letters.  I guess this one depends on the state you are in, but we would not be allowed to keep the letters on the students’ desks during actual testing.
  • Let the students keep their letters once all of the exams are over.

This has been the easiest thing to implement.  The families love it and so do the kids.  It gives students a chance to relax and take a deep breath before each exam which is exactly what I need them to do.  And yes, I really do have pets write letters.  Families are so creative!  How cool is it to come in on the day of an exam and read a letter of encouragement from your horse, cat or dog?  It’s a guaranteed smile on the child’s face, instant giggling from all of the friends sitting nearby and most importantly, the perfect opportunity to relax!


Reading is Supposed to be Quiet, Right? Wrong!

Partner Reading Final

In our classroom, I utilize a reading workshop model.  A mini-lesson followed by independent reading and guided reading.  I’ve always wondered how I could make independent reading more robust.  I love the “why” of independent reading but there were always a few students who weren’t totally into it.  Given that so much time is spent independent reading each day, I needed to make sure students were getting a ton out of it.  Last year I had the opportunity to see Ellin Keene model a guided reading lesson with some students from our school and a light bulb went off as she was teaching.  So, at the end of last year, my class and I started partner reading.  The basic premise goes like this… as long as you are not meeting for guided reading on a given day, you may read with a partner.  Easy, right?  Want to get started?  Here’s how we did it.


Keep It Simple

  • Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
    • I didn’t want the kids to have to read with someone in their guided reading group.  So I asked the kids before we started, “What will we do if your partner is in guided reading one day and you get called to guided reading on a different day?”  Their response, “We’ll read a different book until our partner is available.”  Problem solved.  Kids are the best, aren’t they?
    • If you don’t have two copies of the same book for each partner, the kids will read out of one copy.
    • Let the kids decide how they read. They can alternate reading aloud by paragraph, page, chapter or section.  Some prefer to read a chunk silently then talk.  Others assign roles and alternate by characters, narrator etc (more on this to come).
    • Don’t think about reading levels. Don’t choose the book for the kids.  Let them pick by interest only.  They’ll abandon the book if they aren’t getting anything out of it.
  • Let it be fluid. When they finish, they can read another book with the same partner or wait for a new partner to become available.  While they wait, they read independently.  It doesn’t need to be complicated.  No rotating charts.  Leave it to the kids to figure out.
  • Make sure there is some variety in reading partners.  I really don’t monitor this much because the partners have changed naturally but just make sure the same two kids aren’t always reading together.  They’ll learn different things from different partners.
  • Embrace the noise! Reading time is supposed to be quiet, right? Wrong!  The room will be louder than you’re probably used to during independent reading time but as you listen in, you’ll hear amazing things.  I like a loud classroom but still found I noticed the noise initially.  I would look up from my guided reading group to scan the room.  After a quick scan I realized I was the only one who noticed the noise.  Seeing the benefits, I quickly embraced the noise.


We Love Reading

  • Increase in on-task behavior during reading time. With an accountability partner, students are more engaged and they all read.
  • More questions are asked and predictions are shared as kids read. When you have a buddy to turn to, why not ask and share?
  • Word solving becomes more fun. The kids are more likely to stop and figure out words when they have a buddy to help.  They are also more likely to notice they’ve made a mistake in the first place.
  • Huge increase in fluency.  Students become the characters.  I mean, they really get into it!  They change their voices and take on roles as they read, just like a play.  Conversations can actually be read in a back and forth style.  I’m not sure this always happens when students read independently.
  • Book recommendations, galore! Students become more interested in what other people are reading because they overhear bits and pieces.  Plus, they are more into what they’re reading so they beg others to read the books when they’re done.
  • Interactions with multiple students in the class. Sometimes the partners they choose surprise me, in the best way.  It’s great to see students step out of their comfort zones and bond over a love for a certain type of book.
  • It’s enjoyable! They’ll be reading more accurately and fluently.  They understand better.  What’s not to enjoy?  I hear giggling and gasping, belly laughing and anger.  They run up to me when reading is over and grill me, “Why would the author do that?”
  • Did I mention how much they look forward to reading? When I call guided reading groups I hear a lot of, “Urgh! Now we have to wait until tomorrow to read together!” comments.  It’s not because they don’t like guided reading but rather that they’re dying to partner read.

We are social people.  When I read a book, I talk about it.  I join Twitter chats and Voxer groups so I can flesh out my thinking.  Let’s not deprive our students of this natural reading opportunity in the classroom.

It All Goes Back to Relationships!



Relationships are the essential element in our schools. The old adage, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is true especially in today’s society when kids are used to so much choice in their world. Also, in today’s busy world, it’s important for teachers and school staff to make positive connections with students. We must be intentional and taking time with these relationships must be purposeful.

Members of the Compelled Tribe have teamed up to share practical ways for educators to build relationships with students. As connected educators we also embrace the notion that it is the power of the team that drives much of what we do. How do you build relationships with those that you serve? See the list below for ideas to add to what you may be already doing in the buildings and districts in which you work.

  1. Greet students at the door. Smile and call them by name. Tell them you are glad to see them.
  2. Ask your students to share three things about themselves. Let them choose what they share. Keep them on index cards to help make connections throughout the year.
  3. Know your students families. As important as it is to know the students, make the connection to home. Great relationships with your kids starts where they kick off their day. As the year continues and both the good and bad arise, having that connection will be crucial to getting the results you are seeking.
  4. Journal writing is an activity to get to know your students well and give students a voice in the classroom.
  5. Make positive phone calls home especially within the first two weeks of the school year.
  6. Genius Hour/Passion Projects really give teachers an opportunity to learn about student passions.
  7. Have kids make something that represents them out of Play-dough and share.
  8. In the first couple of days of school, learn the first name of every student in your first class of the day, and something personal and unique about them that has nothing to do with your first class of the day.
  9. Be vulnerable!  Let your guard down and show your students that you are a learner, you make mistakes, and persevere.  They will see you as a person, opening the door for a relationship built on trust. Share stories about yourself as a learner or challenges you’ve faced when you were there age and help them see what it took to overcome it. It’s easy to forget how much a simple connection can make the difference.
  10. Eat together.  Have breakfast with a small group of kids or join them at the lunch table.  Gathering around meal time provides an informal way to have conversations and get to know your students.
  11. Hold Monday morning meetings (We call them “Weekend News Updates”).  Ask each student to share about their weekend – good or bad.  Ask questions.  Be sure to share about your weekend too!  Occasionally bring in breakfast or make hot chocolate.
  12. Laugh with them. Frequently. Show them that school, and your class, is just not about learning stuff. It is about sharing an experience. Tell them you missed them if they were out.
  13. Keep in touch with past students.  Show past students that you do not have a 1 year contract with them.  The ongoing relationship will also model to your current students the value of a positive classroom community.
  14. At the elementary level — hold morning meeting everyday as a class and stick to the routine of greeting, sharing, team building activity, and morning message.  This is a sacred time to build and maintain a culture of risk tasking and building relationships.
  15. Send positive postcards home to every child. Have them address it on the first day of the quarter, keep them and challenge yourself to find at least one thing each quarter to celebrate about your students, let them and their parents know.
  16. Find their interests and what motivates them! Sometimes it may take a bit to break down barriers and build trust, but through being genuine and authentic with them this will happen in no time.
  17. Make personal phone calls to parents. Find one good thing to say about the children in your class.  It can be how they contributed to a class discussion or how well mannered they are in class or in the halls. For older students it can be how diligent a student is at learning challenging content.
  18. Share something about yourself that they will find relevant or interesting to extend your relationships with students.
  19. Tell a story from a time you were their age. This approach allows students to see teachers as they once were and make connections easier to establish and maintain.
  20. Create a unique handshake or symbol for each of your students.  Use it when you greet them at the door or say goodbye.
  21. Eat lunch with a group of kids throughout the week. They will enjoy a time dedicated just to them. (And you will enjoy a peaceful lunch!)
  22. As a school, hold monthly celebrations to recognize students and educators their accomplishments.
  23. Take pictures with students. Print. Write a special note on the back to the student.
  24. At the end of a term or year, write a thank you to students telling them what you have learned from them. Be specific and honest – authenticity goes a long way. Try to make the note handwritten if possible, but email works well too.
  25. Each day write two students a personal  note about something that you have noticed about them.  Go into some detail and be specific. Keep track of who you reach out to over the year and try and reach as many students as you can. The time you spend doing this will deepen connections and pay off 10 fold.
  26. Have dance parties! It is so fun to let loose and get down with students. Students love seeing you have fun with them, and the saying goes, “The class that dances together, stays together”.
  27. Play with students at recess or during a free time. Climb the monkey bars, play kickball, or tag. Students will never forget you connecting with them on the playground.
  28. Hang out in the hall to give high fives or to have quick conversations with students. Relationship-building can be squeezed into any time of the day.
  29. Notice students having a bad day. Ask questions without prying. Show that you care. Follow up the next day, week, etc.
  30. When a student is having a rough day, ask if he/she has eaten. We are all more unreasonable when we are hungry. Keep a supply of snacks on hand (ex: breakfast bars, crackers, etc).
  31. Go see students at their events: sports, theater, dance, volunteering. Meet parents and families.
  32. When a student stops to say “Hello” and has a friend in tow, introduce yourself and be sure that the guest feels important.
  33. Stop class from time to time with a comment such as, “Hey, everyone, Katie just asked me a great question. I think you’ll all benefit from this. Katie, could you repeat that for everyone?”
  34. Sing “Happy Birthday” to students; send birthday emails (I use “Boomerang” to schedule my birthday emails each month).
  35. Say “I missed you yesterday” when a student has been absent. Be sincere.
  36. We have to make time to grow relationships with our students. This time can not always be in a planner or a calendar. Sometimes, this simply means just being there for your students.
  37. Mail them a postcard for their birthday. They are always amazed to receive personal mail!
  38. In a leadership position, learn as many names as you can. Greet students by their name as often as you are able.
  39. Music! Bond with your students over music. Play soft classical music while they are working. Incorporate music/songs into special events or lessons.
  40. Classroom: Start a compliment jar. Share comments at the end of class or randomly throughout the day. School: Do shout-outs during morning (or afternoon) announcements/news show.
  41. Smile and make eye contact.  “Good morning”, “Good afternoon”.  Something as simple as a greeting in the hall with smile and eye contact conveys both warmth & safety.  Try it tomorrow.  
  42. First day of math class have them choose 10 numbers that are significant to them (3 for number of cats, 1 for brothers, 20 for number of hours they work, etc.).  Everyone shares out.  You will learn lots about all your students in one day.  
  43. Cut them some slack every now and then.  “What were you doing?  What should you have been doing?  Can you do that for me next time?”  We all make mistakes.  
  44. Hold class celebrations and have students develop unique cheers for various accomplishments…these can be anything from a sports team victory, to being selected for something, to earning a grade, and they need not be school related.
  45. Allen Mendler’s 2×10 strategy for challenging students. Spend 2 minutes per day for 10 consecutive days talking to a student about something not academic.
  46. Share your own goals, successes/failures. Don’t be a mystery to your students.
  47. After morning announcements have students participate in a daily discussion question.  Have a student read the question and set a timer for two and a half minutes.  Each person turns to a partner and answers the question then volunteers share with the whole class.  Each question, in some way, will help you get to know your students.
  48. Halfway through the year, have your parents and students fill out a feedback form.  In my classroom, these forms look different.  Allow them to evaluate you so you can keep what works and change things that aren’t working.
  49. In your summer introduction letter, include a letter asking parents to write about their children in 1,000,000 words or less.  Keep the assignment voluntary and open so they tell you what is most important to them.
  50. Don’t be too busy to truly listen.  Listen to understand, not to respond.  Are you starting a lesson when a student interrupts and tells you they are moving?  Take the minute to hear them out.  That time will mean more to the student than the first minute of the lesson ever will.
  51. When students get stuck in class, teach the other students to cheer them on.  We do a simple, “Come on, [Name], you can do it,” followed by three seconds of clapping.
  52. Teach students call and responses to uplift each other.  When a student responds with something profound and someone loves it, that student gets to start the cheer.
  53. When you check in with groups to give them feedback or see how it’s going, make sure you are seeing them eye-to-eye.  If they’re sitting, don’t stand.  Pull up a chair next to them.  If they’re sitting on the floor, sit down on the floor next to them to avoid standing over them.
  54. Give honest feedback even when it may not be positive.  Your students will appreciate that you expect more out of them than they’re showing.
  55. Create a “You Matter” wall.  Take fun pictures of each of your students.  Print each photo and put each student’s photo in an 8×10 frame.  Hang them all on your wall under a “You Matter” heading.  At the end of the year, send the photos home with students.
  56. Tell them what was hard for you when you went through school and how you worked to overcome the challenges.  It shows they aren’t the only ones who struggle.
  57. Defend your students in front of other people.
  58. Take risks so students feel comfortable doing the same.  Don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do.
  59. Create something that is unique to your class.  For us, it’s a house competition.  It’s something that connects my past students and current students.  It’s also a family bond that only the students who have been in my class understand.
  60. Apologize when you make a mistake.
  61. Cook together and then you can eat family style in the classroom. Some fun and easy crockpot meals: applesauce, vegetable soup, chicken and dumplings. Then, make cupcakes for dessert!
  62. Every so often, take the pulse of your building according to students. Convene a volunteer roundtable with student reps from various groups (athletes, scholars, quiet, loud) and ask them for critical feedback about topics you are working on. Some ideas I’ve seen discussed in this format include schoolwide incentives (assemblies, sledding event, etc.), dress code, and discussing recess options for winter.
  63. During your informal walk throughs, saddle up right next to students and ask them the purpose of the lesson they are involved in. Why do you think the teacher is asking you to work on this? You’ll be more than surprised with the honest feedback.
  64. Bring board games back! Add a few games like Checkers, Uno or Chess to your lunch table options. See if any students are willing to play a game or two with you and others.
  65. Use sidewalk chalk to decorate the entry of your building with positive messages to students. Have teachers help you write and draw the notes!
  66. Leave nice notes on post-its for students on the outside of their lockers. Recruit other students to help spread the kindness throughout many lockers!
  67. Forgive them when they make mistakes. Remind them that mistakes are opportunities for learning. Don’t hold grudges against misbehavior and don’t allow other adults to hold them either.
  68. Make time for dismissal. Tell them you can’t wait to see them tomorrow and share high fives on the way out!
  69. Notice which students still don’t have money to pay for lunch. Help them out when you can. Treat them to a snack they don’t usually get to purchase at lunch time.
  70. Find special projects that need to be done around school and recruit the most unlikely helpers.
  71. Remind your students you and your staff were all kids once too. Have your team bring in pictures of themselves as children (at the ages you have in your school). Post them and have a contest allowing students to guess which teacher is which. Those 80s pictures are the most popular!
  72. My favorite question to ask my students or any student I come in contact with is what are you into lately? This opens communication with your students and let’s them know you are interested.
  73. Allow students to do a job shadow. Give them a peek into what you do and how you make daily decisions.
  74. Host an ice cream social for students that meet certain goals.

The list will grow as our experiences and our connections grow. Feel free to reach out to any of the Tribe members listed below to learn more about the power of our team and how our tribe constantly supports each other in our teaching, leading and learning.

Compelled Tribe Contributors:

Jennifer Hogan, The Compelled Educator  @Jennifer_Hogan
Jonathon Wennstrom, Spark of Learning  @jon_wennstrom
Craig Vroom, Fueling Education, @Vroom6
Allyson Apsey, Serendipity in Education, @allysonapsey
Sandy King Inspiring The Light @sandeeteach
Gary Kidd Reflections and Rants from the Asst Principal, @hinotewailer
Jacie Maslyk   http://jaciemaslyk.blogspot.com/    @DrJacieMaslyk
Jodie Pierpoint  Journey In Learning @jodiepierpoint
Jim Cordery   Mr. Cordery’s Blog  @jcordery
Allie Bond   The Positive Teacher @Abond013
Angie Murphy ConnectED to Learning @RoyalMurph_RRMS
Karen Wood https://karenwoodedu.wordpress.com/ @karenwoodedu
Lindsey Bohler lindseybohler.com @Lindsey_Bohler
Starr Sackstein http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/work_in_progress/ @MsSackstein
Debbie Campbell The Curious Educator @DebraLCamp
Michael McDonough M Squared at the Microphone @m_squaredBHS
Barbara Kurtz bkurtzteachermentor.blogspot.com @BJKURTZ
Stephanie Jacobs www.thisblogiswhy.blogspot.com @MsClassNSession
Michael Todd Clinton Motivated teacher blog  @MotivatedThe
Cathy Jacobs https://cathyjacobs.org/ @cathyjacobs5
Reed Gillespie Mr. Gillespie’s Office @rggillespie
Molly Babcock Sweet Tea and a Live Oak Tree @MollyBabcock
Lisa Meade Reflections @LisaMeade23

Good Times: Productive Transition Times in the Classroom



Do you need more time in your classroom? Do transitions kill your flow? Want to show your students that every minute counts and have fun while doing it? I have my students all day, besides lunch, recess and an encore class. I love getting to know them so well but sometimes, you just need something to break up the day. Enter- transition songs!

If you walk into my classroom at 8:25, our discussion leader will be finishing up the daily discussion question. All of a sudden a student will stand up and say, “Give me five, it’s time for writing.” Then you will hear… [to the tune of One Call Away]

I will write when I need to vent
I just want to share my thoughts
Come on, come on, come on
Share my mind with my audience
No matter where I go
Ideas will always flow
I’m only one word away
I could write and write all day
Maybe then you’ll see what I mean
I’m only one word away

As the students sing, they grab their materials out of their desks, walk to their book bins, find their groups and get ready for writing. Meanwhile, I also grab my materials and switch the objective on Prezi. By the time that short song is over they’re looking at me, ready for the mini-lesson.


Come 9:15, a student will pop up and say, “Give me five, it’s time for reading.” And then you will hear our reading chat. You’ll have to come visit my class to hear this one.

Later in the day, the students arrive back from recess. That can be a disastrous time, right? WRONG! My fifth graders turn the corner into the classroom and you’ll hear… [to the tune of Monster]

Word time!
This is my word, this is my word.
Working in our notebooks.
Word time!
Find the meaning, in the word’s clues.
Working with our folders.
Word time- Grammar, vocab.
Word time, this is my word.
This is my word. Working with great urgency!
Word time!

Then you’ll see busy workers in their groups completing their spelling, grammar or vocabulary work for the day. When the clock strikes 12:50 you’ll see another student pop up, “Give me five, it’s time for pack up.” Pack up? Seriously? You actually have a song for that? YES! Pack up has such potential to go awry. But it just doesn’t because of the transition song. One student calls binders while the others grab their binders, get their mail and homework and put all of that in their bags to go home. All of the students are back in line to head to the bathroom in less than two minutes. SUCCESS! You’ll hear… [to the tune of Turn Down for What]

Pack up for what
Put your papers
In your binder
Put your binder
In your backpack
Put your backpack
In the closet
[Silence- Count to three with your fingers in the air]

Fast forward and we’re back after a quick bathroom break. The students turn the corner from the hallway and head into the room for math. You’ll hear… [to the tune of Bad Blood]

It’s time for math class
We’re multiplying, dividing
Adding and subtracting
You gotta know where the decimals GO!
Now we got word problems
And you know we can solve them
Gotta use your strategies
Math class starts NOW!

When the song is over you’ll see the students’ math binders opened on their desks and all of the students will be gathered on the floor discussing what we did yesterday in math before the lesson begins. Yes, we also have a chant for social studies and science, too.

Starting Transition Songs

So, how do you start transition songs in your class? Every year I create the first chant and teach it early on, although, it’s never too late to start now. I type it up, sing it to the class and then send it home. The next day I expect the class to use it. Does every student have it memorized yet? No. Some of them go home and forget the tune. That’s okay. Enough of the class has it memorized the next day. Since the students sing the song every day, it doesn’t take more than a week for the whole class to have it, even if they aren’t practicing at home.

Then, there’s always that first day in the fall when I have training and need a substitute. So, for writing, I tell my class ahead of time that I’m going to give them a challenge. They are to come up with transition songs for the rest of the subjects. When I get back, we’ll have a sing-off and the class will vote on their favorite songs for each subject. It’s a win-win. Now, writing time will be super productive while I’m gone and the students will have new transition songs. They love this! My only regret is I never get to watch the process of how they create their songs. Also, as a word of caution, the students do not need to listen to the original songs/lyrics to complete this task. I don’t open that can of worms.

When I come back, we have the sing-off which is simply the best. If you are at all skeptical about the quality of the songs your class will produce, don’t be. Every year I’m amazed at how much better the songs are than I ever could have imagined. Once the songs are chosen, I type them up, send them home to practice (best homework ever) and they begin using them. Transitions are truly a good time in our room!

Benefits of Transition Songs

• They are student-led, quick and fun brain breaks.
• They are a designated time to get materials out quickly.
• The songs incorporate kinesthetic movement and are a chance for students to be loud in a productive way. It’s not uncommon for my kids to clap, drum, use rain sticks and dance during the songs.
• I can get the pulse of the room. Is it Monday morning and the song sounds more like nails on the chalkboard than a song? I can instantly tell the kids are tired. I address it immediately while they’re singing and the whole tone of the day changes.
• I learn the type of music my students enjoy early on in the year. Some songs are country, others are rap and pop. I can capitalize on this knowledge and use it in other areas of my instruction.
• It lets my musically inclined students shine. This is important for me because I find out who can sing and carry a tune. I’ll need their help throughout the year because I do a lot with songs… and let’s just say there’s a reason I’m not a chorus teacher.
• The students whose songs are chosen grin ear to ear with pride during their songs…even in June.
• The winning songs, surprisingly, never seem to come from the same groups.
• The songs help build relationships. We all know our songs but no one else does.
• It puts everyone in a good mood. Did a lesson just flop? Did someone just make a bad choice? As soon as you hear those angelic voices, you can’t help but smile and regroup for the next lesson!

Happy Transitioning!



Competition & Collaboration: A Perfect Harmony


Every August, I can’t wait to tune into the Little League World Series.  I love the games in part because I grew up playing competitive softball.  I also adore how passionate the kids are about the game.  I love how their raw emotion makes the games wildly unpredictable.  This year, our local Maine-Endwell team won it all.  It was a blast to follow them, celebrate during the Welcome Home Parade and see the community rally around a bunch of talented tweens and adolescents experiencing a summer they’ll never forget.

What I love most about the LLWS, though, is the expectations.  When a pitcher lets go of a wild pitch and it hits the batter, he runs over to check on his competitor at first base…. because it’s expected.  When a batter knocks a homerun over the hedges in center field, the third baseman gives him a high five as he rounds the base, headed for home… because it’s expected.  When a team is down by one run in the bottom of the sixth with bases loaded and the batter strikes out, the coach reminds him to enjoy the moment and be proud of all of his accomplishments that got him to where he stood that day… because it’s expected.  Competition and collaboration coexist in perfect harmony.

Competition has a bad rap.  We assume that if we are competing, we also have to have the every man for himself mentality.  Yes, competitions can easily turn into this.  That is, if that is what is expected.  We’ve all been at a game when a parent takes things a step too far in the name of competition.  We’ve heard the winner who brags in the faces of others only to crush their spirits. But just as easily as a competition can spiral out of control, leaders can expect and promote the synchronization of competition and cooperation and set the tone accordingly.

In my classroom, we have four houses, or teams, that the students are sorted into on the second day of school.  The students keep their houses for the entire school year and we have a total of two competitions.  I have heard my fair share of criticism of this but most of it comes from people who don’t step foot in our classroom.  They haven’t seen, in this setting, how competition and collaboration can work together in harmony.  And it works, for the most part (we are far from perfect), because that’s the expectation.

I am confident that my students will be exposed to competition in their lives.  One of the many reasons I have my students compete is to teach them how to compete with full collaboration in mind.  I’ve seen how healthy, safe competition can push students to grow, especially when they learn to compete with themselves.  I teach them to win and lose graciously.  I teach them to congratulate the winner, cheer on the other team, and encourage the peer who is struggling, regardless of his or her team.  My goal is to teach my scholars the true spirit of competition, which is collaboration.

I’ll leave you with one last example: the Olympics.  Fierce competitors have the chance to showcase their talents to the world.  But at the end of the day, isn’t the goal of the Olympics, and the reason why so many people watch it, the spirit of collaboration and unity within the competition?  Didn’t Abbey D’Agostino, the runner who stopped mid-competition to help her fellow competitor who fell, steal our hearts just as much as Michael Phelps and all of his gold medal glory?

We are all leaders in some way or another in our lives.  So, I challenge you.  Don’t shy away from competition because of past memories when the every man for himself mentality was expected.  Promote collaboration within competition and my hope is we can all experience how beautifully they can coexist.



When I see Michael Phelps, I see his gold medals.  I picture his remarkable Olympic swims, his triumphs, his records, his endorsements, his time standing on the Olympic podium as our flag was being raised, and, have I mentioned his gold medals?  But what I, and I assume many, don’t picture is the daily, grueling work that prepared Phelps to rewrite history.

Recently I finished reading The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work.  In one part of the book, Bob Bowman, the swimming coach of Michael Phelps and many other successful swimmers, talks about how many swimmers take Sundays off.  Because of scheduling issues when Phelps was younger, Michael began practicing on Sundays and stuck to it as time passed.  So, while others were taking the day off, Phelps was, “getting five years of training into everyone else’s four years” (Bowman and Butler 131). That’s preparation.  And it’s just one example of how Phelps prepared.

When people fall short of their goals, it’s often due to a lack of preparation.  Perhaps you wanted to become more fit this year.  But, did you come up with a daily plan and stay committed to it?  It’s easy to look at the end result of what we’d like to achieve but we often don’t envision the long road that will get us there, thus resulting in disappointment.

I now appreciate Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman so much more.  I no longer just see the gold medals.  I respect the intense preparation the two went through to achieve excellence.  I see the medals that Phelps earned and deserves.

So my #OneWord2017 is preparation.  I plan to focus on the daily grind, the steps that are arduous and don’t sparkle and shine like gold medals do.  I’ll make this choice because behind every successful person is this easily overlooked preparation.


Bowman, Bob, and Charles Butler.  The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class  

     Excellence in Your Life and Work.  St. Martin’s Press, 2016.


Remembering Our Angels

Four years ago today, a heinous crime was committed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Personally, this hit home on many levels.  Not only did I grow up in the town next to Newtown, but I am also a teacher.  If ever there was a town that something like this would “never happen in,” it was Newtown.  Every morning when I walk into my classroom, I place my key down on a table next to my door and I cannot help but think of that day.  After all, it’s one of the reasons I intentionally leave my keys where I do.  And four years later, the events that unfolded are truly still incomprehensible to me.

When you walk into my classroom, you might notice that my desk is topped with a bright, colorful, laminated collage with photos and inspirational quotes.  It’s a great pick-me-up on a tough day.  But what might go unnoticed is something that sits on the front, left corner of my desk.  It’s a laminated letter on understated white paper.  In the wake of the tragedy, I came across this letter from Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace got her wings on December 14, 2012.  I encourage you to take the time to read it.  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/09/06/03marquezgreen.h33.html

As we remember all of the people whose lives were forever changed because of that day in Newtown, let us also remember the wise words of Ana Grace and her mother.