July 2018

Cindy's Instructional Videos: Conversation Starters

"Throughout my work this past year with the District Initiative and the PBS Edcamps many Edcampers started using the term “Conversation Starter.” Due to this, I decided to create a quick one page document that can be placed in every break out room at your next Edcamp. This can also  be handed to Edcampers who want to put a session on the board but are nervous about getting started. Here are some proven strategies that are sure to start some great conversations." --Cynthia Leatherwood, Outreach Manager

Watch the quick instructional video here. 

Download the document from here.

Chris's Perfect Tips for Imperfect Human Beings Entering High School

In one of my final posts for Edcamp, I wanted to share some of my own personal writing. This comes from some tips I offered along with Philadelphia Notebook's High School Guide. It is addressed to rising 9th graders and tries to offer them decent advice about what differences to expect...while trying my best to be fun. - Chris

Coming soon. You, the emergent high school freshman, begins that first trek en route to this school that many tell you will determine your future. I don’t know if that’s true, but it is sure to leave a mark on your life. Truth be told, you are sure to leave your mark on it. These tips are meant to help you navigate this experience. 

1) You can’t fool yourself. Embrace who you are. Trust your experience. Learn from it. 

High school is as much about the messy social experience of becoming, as it is the classroom content you are expected to master. If you are like me, you’ve begun every new school experience with a bunch of jittery pre-first-day promises that you will not end up being that regrettable version of yourself that you left at the last school. Instead of running from the past, how about trying something different? Embrace those past experiences that have helped form you into the person you are today. Know that you are not who you once was. Furthermore, know that you have not become who you will be. However, don’t forget the past. Learn from it. Did you end up in a circle of friends that weren’t really your friends? Learn from the moments when you realized and share with the new people you will meet. Were you always beefing with your teacher who picked on you for no conceivable reason? I can’t say that this was not true. But learn that it could be powerful to share and reinforce early with teachers how you expect to be counseled, which leads me to the next point…

2) Build honest relationships with your teachers and classmates. 

It might be hard to see that your teachers are human, error all the time, and frequently on the verge of losing control of the oversized collection of personalities that make up a classroom. The truth is, we are in need of your help. We require it for a healthy classroom. The best way to help your teacher is to be honest and up-front with them. What are the conditions or behaviors that distract you from learning? What are some of the triggers (meaning the words or actions that cause you to get upset or angry) that you have experienced in the past? The earlier that you can share these with your peers and teachers, the better. Having teachers especially understand your priorities or obligations (such as to home or family) beyond whatever homework assignment is due helps teachers to find / design ways to best support your learning goals. We all live unique lives, and each student’s needs are different. A healthy, honest relationship with your teachers can open the door to more second-chance opportunities to put forth your best effort. But know, the mirror image of honesty is accountability. Be accountable with your word. 

3) Plan to work. Work the plan. 

You might be reading this thinking that this teacherly advice is light on actually dealing with the increased workload that accompanies your ascent into high school. Sister Corita Kent famously advanced “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.” This is true. You must set aside time to work. You must become deeply enamored with practice. Yes, I am talking about practice. We are solely what we practice. Yet, for you to personally understand and be motivated to work, you must also know your WHY. No teacher can impose this on you. Why do you come to school? Some aim high and understand the power of education as a tool to overturn oppressive systems. Others reach equally high and understand that school presents an avenue to learn necessary skills to provide for themselves and their loved ones. Do the work. Care about it. Know your why. It will carry you through the boredom and/or the tough times.  

Christopher Rogers serves as Program Associate for the Edcamp Foundation. Recently, he was accepted into PennGSE's Reading, Writing, and Literacy Ph.D program where he looks to continue his passion for education. 

Building Relationships with Honest and Open Letters to Students

I want every child to know that when they walk in my room they are seen as an individual, a child, and as a valued member of our community. Creating this environment takes time and begins on day one of the school year.

Like most teachers I was profoundly impacted by a former teacher who inspired me to go into the field of education. My third grade teacher had a way of showing us she cared about us as individuals. She routinely asked us about our lives and took time to actually listen to our responses. I can’t tell what learned in third grade, but I can tell you how she made me feel: safe, loved, and respected.

As a fifth grade teacher my top priority is instilling those same core feelings in my students. I want every child to know that when they walk in my room they are seen as an individual, a child, and as a valued member of our community. Creating this environment takes time and begins on day one of the school year. For the past eight years my first day of school has consisted of a letter writing activity that sets the tone for the year to come.


The letter is written the night before school begins. I take the time to reflect on how I am feeling and I write an honest and open letter, never reusing the previous year’s letter. I have shared my fears (like last year when my son was beginning kindergarten), my joys (pregnancies, accomplishments, summer vacations, etc.), and my hopes for the year. After reading the letter I ask my students to take time to respond by telling me how they feel at that very moment. I want to know what they’re excited about, if there’s something concerning them, or just something I should know. 

The truth is when kids feel safe, loved, and respected you don’t need a lot of rules because kids rise to your expectations.

Over the past eight years my letters have varied in content but they have never varied in tone or in purpose. I want my new fifth graders, who are looking at me with equal parts excitement and fear of a new school year, to know that for the next 180 days they are in the hands of someone who already loves them and can’t wait to get to know who they are. 

What I have found is that students are always eager to open up to me in their responses because they sense my genuine desire to get to know them. Students have told me about recent deaths in their families, fears of social dynamics changing based on their peers in the class, divorces at home, and so much more. These letters provide me with a glimpse into their character, their lives, as well as their writing abilities- all on day one!

I encourage all teachers to take time to begin the year by setting the tone for the relationships you hope to foster. The truth is when kids feel safe, loved, and respected you don’t need a lot of rules because kids rise to your expectations. Take time this September to remember why we’re all in this profession: for the kids! When relationships come first, everyone succeeds. 

Stephanie Cardoso is entering her 13th year as a teacher in Edison, NJ. Stephanie's passion is for forming bonds that transcend the classroom. As the 2015 NJ State Teacher of the Year Finalist and the 2015 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year, Stephanie uses her passion for teacher leadership and forming student relationships to help encourage other teachers to reach all of their students on a personal level. 

We Are Family: Going Beyond "Getting to Know You"

What I’m trying to do is not so much build a community of learners, but rather a family. 

I’ve read a lot about classroom community building through the years and it's been great to see the switch to that from the “professional distance” that was preached when I was an undergrad but I’d like to suggest a slight change in language. What I’m trying to do is not so much build a community of learners, but rather a family. 

When my students see themselves as part of a family, they are more willing to take risks, accept challenges, and welcome and encourage others. I find that classroom disruptions are fewer and, in general, everyone is happier. Without this crucial part of the equation my classroom isn’t the best it can be. 

One thing I always do at the beginning of every year is get to know my students. This goes beyond the “Getting to Know You” circle activities and survey sheets. Those are great but I have found that kids will tell you more about themselves if you just listen to them and pay attention. If the only thing you do with a survey sheet is to stick it in a file then that was really a waste of everyone’s time. Use that information to inform your teaching and goal setting for those kids. You can build incentives that really matter and find out where the barriers to learning may exist just by engaging them in real conversation and listening to what they have to say. 

When my students see themselves as part of a family, they are more willing to take risks, accept challenges, and welcome and encourage others.

Another thing that seems simple is that I share my life outside of school with them. My classroom is decorated with photos of my own children and family. I often start the day with stories of what my kids did over the weekend that made me laugh and then I let them tell their stories.  I ask them for advice on birthday presents, how to know if my daughter really did her homework, what to make for dinner, anything to draw them into my circle. In doing this I establish trust between us and if you can get a kid to trust you then you can get them to move mountains. 

Finally, and likely the most important thing I do to build a sense of family in my classroom is that we read together. A lot. I’ve worked very hard to build a classroom library that is diverse and representative of many cultures and family structures. For independent reading time I make sure that every kid can find themselves represented on my shelves in no less than five different novels. That’s a tall order but so necessary to show how much I value their contributions to our classroom family. EVERY SINGLE DAY I spend time reading to them from those books. This shared experience brings us together in a way that nothing else really can. 

Through all of this we develop a group identity as “”Our Family” and not “Mrs. Tanner’s Class”. The difference might seem subtle but it is essential to keeping my students engaged and willing to work together to change the world. 

Stephanie Tanner is an elementary Gifted Intervention Specialist with the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West. She’s been teaching for 17 years.