Every Student Matters: Cultivating Belonging in the Classroom

Originally posted in Edutopia on September 4, 2019

About a year ago, I received a text in the middle of the teaching day from the mother of a student I had taught eight years earlier as a second grader. She thanked me for always being there for her son, who had come out as gay to their family the night before. She shared that her son—now a senior in high school—mentioned me in their conversation and said I had taught him that all people have equal value in the world, a lesson that helped him face the truth of who he was.

Early elementary teachers rarely see the seeds we try to plant in our young students come to fruition, but we always hope they will grow into the people we imagine they can be. For the last 16 years, I’ve taught in an inclusion classroom where many students have learning differences that can pose a challenge to connecting with others. I’ve learned that if students feel anxious socially, they will not be open to taking academic risks, so building a culture of belonging has become my greatest priority. It is important to clarify that when I say “belonging,” I am not talking about “fitting in”—students’ individuality and uniqueness should always be valued. Belonging in the classroom means ensuring that all students feel welcomed, comfortable, and part of the school family.

Here are five simple ways I’ve found with which I can convince every student that he or she was meant to be in my classroom:

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Fake Money Has No Value!

So it is now May and the pacing guide says it’s time to teach the math unit on money. Now let’s be clear, I have been teaching money all year but the pacing guide says now is the time for the actual program unit. The lessons are so familiar and are included in all math programs for 2nd grade no matter the publisher. However, I refuse to teach it the way it is planned. For 15 years I have taught children how to identify, sort and learn the value of money. In the beginning I will admit I used the bags of plastic coins that came with the Everyday Math kits. I had magnetized coins that happily stayed on the board. I creatively noted that if it was the 122nd day of school there was a dollar magnet, two dimes and two pennies up there and each day a student added a coin and then traded them in as we reached groups of 5 pennies. But at some point in my career I realized just how stupid I was to teach coins to students using fake coins when I had real ones in my pocket. Never will a student ever encounter a fake plastic coin in real life and need to know what value it represents. Coins are very nuanced to a young learner. So let me tell you about how I used real coins the other day in my class.


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When Quitting is Persisting

Teachers constantly show students how to be the best they can be in life. We model for them how to make mistakes, how to recover from them, and how to get up and try again. We model kindness and empathy. We show them that hard work and determination can lead to success, and that failure is just a step along that path. And sometimes we overdo it.

easter family photo

Often teachers will give and give to a point where it becomes unhealthy, taking us away from our own families or our personal lives. As lifelong learners, we make a second career of attending conferences and workshops, or reading and participating in professional learning outside of our work day. This tendency to overcommit ourselves can be exploited by schools and districts under pressure to perform and reach ever higher achievement with fewer resources. Frequently we work second jobs to make ends meet, lighting our candles at both ends, and often burning ourselves out in the process.

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Pay Teachers More Now or The Bill Will Come Due Later

“Originally published in The Ocean City Sentinel on May 4th, 2014”

According to a 2014 USA Today article NJ was the 5th most expensive state to live in, stating
that that one would have to earn $95,000.00 annually in order Welcome-to-New-Jerseyto live comfortably. That number is in stark contrast with the state’s average starting teacher salary of $48,000, according to the National Education Association. The Garden State’s above-average teacher salary is $63,000, which still falls significantly short of the figure deemed necessary to live comfortably.

Teacher salaries have always been lower than most other professional jobs requiring a college degree. According to NEA Research, which is based on US census data, “annual pay for teachers has fallen sharply over the past 60 years in relation to the annual pay of other workers with college degrees. Throughout the nation the average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now over 50 percent higher than the average earnings of a teacher.” Continue reading

Five Simple Ways to Make Reading Fun

  1. Declare Freedom Read-Um Days.

These are the days when I allow students to choose whatever book they want from whatever leveled bin. Students are free to move up or down levels to suit their desire. I also allow students to choose any location in the room to do the reading and on many of the Freedom days I allow free choice of partners to read to and share with. This totally celebrates student choice.

I had a very high level advanced reader two years ago who on Freedom Read-um Days would drop down and take it easy. One day I saw him reading a book from two reading levels below his independent level. The book was called, The Stupids Die. When I asked him why was he reading from that bin of books he said, “I wanted to have fun and reading the word Stupid is a lot of fun.” I laughed, he laughed and later we read it to the class and we all laughed. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. That brings us to suggestion number 2.

  1. Read books with “Bad” words in them.

If you have ever worked with young students you know that the so called “S” word is not what it means later on in life. For my second graders it means stupid. I learned this early on in my career when a little tattler came up and announced that Cindy just used the “S” word and upon cross examination it was revealed that she called the tattler stupid. I was very relieved. So there are books out there with words that still have shock value to young readers. My personal favorite is the series called Walter the Farting Dog. The most easily distracted student will be hanging on every word as you read that classic. I also include the Stupid Family books in this list. Someone once suggested Everyone Poops but I haven’t seen it yet. Feel free to add titles in the comments of books that hold shock value and are fun for younger students.

  1. Create fun independent reading environments.

Recently I asked my students to describe their favorite reading spots at home. Not one said sitting in a chair at a desk. So we revamped our classroom reading time. I allowed students to design and implement this daily ritual and the outcome was a big increase in engagement. Students also became very expressive about how much they loved reading this way. I told the kids to go home and design a favorite reading nook with their families. Emails started rolling in with shocked claims of students racing off the bus to go and read. Parents were very happy to see some major transformations happen in their reluctant readers.

Here is what we created:

Here is the link to create a beach reading environment.

Students have also chosen the waterfalls and

But this led to higher request to use the bathroom.

  1. Turn read aloud chapter books into multi-sensory vacations.

Research shows just how important being read to is to developing literacy skills in young students. At home being read to is becoming more and more rare. To hook my students I have transformed my chapter book read alouds to involve all the senses. Every year I read The Cricket in Times Square in the fall and then I switch to the Borrowers Series of which I usually read 3 or 4 of the 5 books. I go chapter by chapter and find ways to bring more depth of experience to the children.

CRhxLeJUkAAlXyfThe Cricket in Times Square lends itself well. There is a chapter where the characters eat fortune cookies so I bring fortune cookies for my class. Almost every chapter has a different variety of music the cricket learns to play on his wings. I incorporate YouTube videos of the songs and explain opera, South American Rhumba, Irish jigs, and Italian folk songs. I created a playlist on YouTube. As a culminating activity I get a visitor to come and play the violin in class. When I read I always use voices and accents to differentiate the characters. Let’s just say I do a mean Brooklyn Tucker Mouse and hoity toity Harry Cat.




The Borrowers is set in the English countryside about IMG_5136100 years ago so I play all sorts of videos from that time period to show how life was then. In one of the stories there is a thatched cottage so the whole class goes outside with me to collect materials to make thatch. We also use old lunch half-pint milk cartons to create model cottages to recreate the village from the story.


  1. Celebrate and share student success with their families.

celebrate monday

I have always had students call their parents from my cell phone as soon as I have determined that they are moving up a level in their reading. Parents love the mid-day connection they get to their child; that is, as soon as they realize no one is in trouble. J Students beam with pride knowing everyone in class is aware they are using the teacher’s phone. This year I decided to up the ante. After having gone through the National Board Certification process I have incorporated parents as participants and not just witnesses to the learning. So I now will use Voxer, a free app, to record students reading aloud their downloadDevelopmental Reading Assessment, DRA2. The test has them read a portion aloud, make predictions, then answer comprehension questions and retell the story. I forward these “voxes” to my school email and then forward that to the parent with the feedback I generate after going over the results from the assessment. Now parents know how many words per minute their child is reading, what areas they are strong in and/or need to improve in. They hear firsthand what I heard. This creates a very comprehensive bridge between the classroom and home reading environments. Students are able to discuss with parents in detail what they are doing in reading. Testing is not usually associated with having fun but the celebration that I link to the reading is the key. Pride is a valuable and powerful motivator in 7 year olds. IMG_5134

My Students Love to Read, Yours Can Too!

As a second grade teacher, one of my primary goals is to foster not just reading improvement but a deep love of  reading.  Because of this, I believe that making reading a part of “homework” is perhaps the most misguided decision ever made. We all know that readers gain skill the more they read. This does not mean we should force the reading. Studies show that a love for reading is four times more powerful in predicting future success than a parent’s level of education.

Children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers, according to new research from the Institute of Education (IOE).

The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.

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Surviving Family Holiday Education Experts

I am sitting at the dinner table and it’s Christmas Eve. As so often happens, relatives weigh in on the profession of teaching, since they attended school and that makes them experts. This setting has played out at homes across the country. Add unlimited eggnog to the scene and the comments worsen as the blood alcohol level goes up. The most commonly heard misconceptions of teaching heard at the holiday dining room table are:

  • Teachers have the summer off.
  • Teachers have many weeks of vacation during the school year, like this week between Christmas and New Year’s.
  • Teachers only work part of the year.
  • Teaching is a part time job with full time pay. (Thank you Governor Christie for that one.)
  • Teaching is easy.
  • Teaching isn’t a stressful job like my job is….

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“Burning the Teacher Leadership Candle at Both Ends: Why We Need Hybrid Roles”

tl candle two.png

Currently, teachers have two choices: leave the classroom to lead or tack leadership activities and responsibilities onto a full classroom teaching load. This poses a challenge to me and to hundreds of other teachers who lead from their classrooms. To be a highly effective teacher I am forced to work ridiculous hours that far exceed what I am compensated for. I kept track of how many hours I spent in my classroom that went beyond what I was contracted and paid for last year. I stopped after I hit over 400 hours, a full 10 weeks – which just happens to be as long as the summer (non-paid) break.

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Five simple ways to show students you truly care about them.

1.) Be ready for them. Know their names, Have the room arranged for them. There is one thing that I do every year that sends a big message. When I arrange my room I always incorporate one or two extra desks into the set up. It depends on how many are on my list but I always add one or two. Then when a new student arrives, they usually do, instead of griping that my perfect arrangement is now difficult to manage I simply turn and say, “We have been waiting for you, come on in and let’s get started.” Children are believers and literal thinkers at the age of 6 or 7. They will feel honored instead of being a burden. This year I had 21 students but my room is set up in 6 groups of 4. Three sections have an extra desk. Continue reading

No Teacher Leader Left Behind!

Why the New ESEA Must Contain Teacher Leadership

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with his former teacher and a group of Mexican Americans, his former students, standing behind him. This legislation was born out of Johnson’s deeply held belief that not all students were getting access to the American Dream: “As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.” President Johnson’s personal experiences – teaching in a segregated school during college and then teaching high school prior to his political career –  led him to action in passing this law that would have an enormous and lasting impact on education.

President Johnson ESEA

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