I was visiting with a friend the other day who had just become a grandmother again. As she proudly showed me pictures of her new little one, I couldn’t help but think back to my own grandmother. My grandma was one of a kind. She loved Meatloaf (the rock group, not the food) and went to their concerts whenever they were nearby. It was a common sight to see her dancing around the living room as she dusted the windowsills with Prince’s Purple Rain blaring in the background. She fed the birds and squirrels several times a day. She lined the top of the fence and her porch railing with the expensive walnuts she bought from the produce department.
The best part of my grandma, though, was how she made everyone feel special, especially her 10 grandchildren. To this day, each of us would say that we were her favorite. She didn’t do anything elaborate to make us feel that way. It was a culmination of the simple things. When any of us walked through the door, she dropped what she was doing and wrapped her arms around us, enveloping us in a soft, warm hug and the scent of White Diamonds, her signature perfume. We knew the cupboards and freezer would be stocked with our favorites. And she bought the things that our parents didn’t buy, like the little boxes of cereal that come in the variety pack. What a treat it was to lay the box down flat, open it up along the perforations, peel the waxed paper to the side, and pour milk right into the box! She had Klondike bars in the freezer for us, Pringles potato chips (several kinds) on top of the fridge, and a bowl of mini Reese’s Cups on the counter.
Grandma was in tune with the things that interested us. She could talk about music, sports, and what was happening on the soap operas. I have so many memories of sitting with her on her patio, drinking iced tea, and just chatting about anything and everything. She laughed with us, cried with us, and kept our secrets. We knew without a doubt that she treasured us, no matter what.
As I think about starting a new school year, I can’t help but wonder how I can bring what I learned from my grandma into the classroom. How will I let the students know that this classroom is one where all student interests are valued? What can I do to ensure they feel welcomed and important to our community? How will my language and actions reveal that this space we create is a safe place in which to take risks and grow?
I begin with the physical space. I purposely do not fill the bulletin boards. I will take the time to cover them, add a border, and hang a sign that says, “Waiting for Student Thinking” or something similar to that idea. I also pay attention to the classroom library, which is a work in progress. Over the years, I’ve collected a variety of books whose topics reflect the myriad of interests my students have expressed through beginning-of-the-year inventories or classroom conversations. I not only make sure those interests are highlighted but am also cognizant of ensuring that the characters in the books represent a diversity of cultures and abilities. Finally, I ask myself if there are assorted places for kids to be comfortable while learning: Tables and chairs? Empty floor space? Pillows?
In addition to the physical items, I need to think about my interactions with students. All teachers want students to feel welcome and valued. A simple greeting at the door with a smile and “How are you?” can go a long way. Using students’ names from day one is also important. Name tags, table tents, or desk labels can help. It is also crucial that I know how to pronounce a student’s name correctly. Our identities are tied to our names. If I have trouble remembering how to say a child’s name, I will ask them to say their name as I record it so that I can go back to listen and practice until I get it right. In addition, I build in time for informal conversations to get to know my students better. Finding out about siblings, hobbies, and other interests will enable me to build relationships with my students. At the same time, I am sure to share stories about myself. It is through these conversations that we build connections with each other.
Finally—and, I would argue, most importantly—I want to pay attention to my language, which includes my choice of words, body language, and tone of voice. Language forms the basis for everything and sets the tone for the rest of the school year. We is a powerful pronoun. A simple change of wording from my classroom and supplies to our classroom and supplies gives students ownership of our classroom community. Using we instead of I and you when talking in whole-class meetings gives students the sense that the teacher is part of the community who is there to learn alongside them, not the outside expert whose job is to pour knowledge into them.
My body language lets students know that I am happy to be there with them and that I respect them as individuals. Pausing to listen while making eye contact, getting down to a student’s level, and smiling are simple gestures that have a big effect. Lastly, the tone of my voice carries a lot of weight. It has the capability of making students feel validated and empowered and lets them know that I care about them.
Just like my grandma’s special touches, these ideas aren’t elaborate. They are small things that take little effort on my part. However, when put all together, they have a huge effect on how students feel in our classroom. I want them to feel just like my grandma made my cousins, sisters, and me feel…like they belong and are essential to our learning community.