In the Classroom: Build Community and Foster Identity

I have a pretty intense belief in the necessity of the educator to provide a safe and encouraging space. This may be no shock to you, but middle school and high school are not the best places for safely growing into who you are. There are expectations, fears, insecurities, on a terrifyingly magnified level. This is the main reason I start each semester, not with some clever icebreaker game, but a clear establishment of a simple, undeniable truth: you are a beautiful, adored creation. Do I say it that way, exactly? A lot of laws dictate that I can’t… but I want to establish up front, each kid has value, each kid is important, and we will respect one another with our words and our actions. More importantly, I back that up. In my class, you can probably get away with a few things… but speaking down to someone? Insulting them to make yourself feel better? If I hear even a whisper of that, we are in the hallway and talking about why we value someone, and what it means to build people up rather than pull down. So what’s a hands-on way I try to do this toward the end of the year?

Activity: Compliment Sheet

I actually stole this idea from Ms. Lobasso (now Mrs. Letts). She had us do these when I was a junior in high school, and it meant the world. I print off a sheet with the name of every student in class. I pass these out to my students and I ask them to write something nice, something genuine about every student on the sheet. When all of these papers are turned in, I type up all of the comments and print each person a list of the things their peers said about them (obviously, I make my own comment, too. When you have a class of 30, it’s easy to take out comments that are short or really don’t seem too thoughtful and still have a solid amount of compliments from peers). Here are the keys for making it work:

1. Your classroom must involve students working with each other often and in different groups. If they haven’t talked to teach other, obviously they won’t have something to say about them… Build community. Give your students opportunities to interact. This is exceptionally easy in creative writing, where I can facilitate student groups for a wide, wide variety of reasons.

2. Have at least one day where they sit in the order of their names. This will deflect most of the, “Wait who is so and so again?”

3. Frame it- Your thoughts on any activity matter. The way you describe it and the way you explain it matter. I try to explain the importance of what we say to each other. I explain that, often, I hear high schoolers say things that are more destructive than life-offering. I encourage them to take this chance to say the thing that will have a positive impact and may stave off whatever negative words a person has encountered that day.

4. Keep it anonymous. I make sure students know that the other students won’t know who said what.

5. Encourage people NOT to talk about physical features. Yes, I’m sure there hair IS nice… but encourage genuine reflection on why people are special and important.

6. Follow through. You’re going to have to type. A lot. But you can do it, because kids matter and sometimes a sheet of paper is enough for them to remember that they matter.

Feel free to comment, tweet, or email for questions about how to do this!

What Happens in School… Stays in School…


1. The kid who lost a button the other day and stapled his shirt together, like it was nothing.

2. The student who asked me who Chris Brown was today. And Rihanna.

3. The student who asked me what the word “tool” meant. 

4. The student who told people he got invited to my wedding and it was beautiful (He didn’t, it was.)

5. The student who DID A FREAKIN BOOK REPORT ON MY BOOK LIKE A ROCK STAR. And even drew my main character and what magic looks like in the Tower room and all this cool stuff!

6. The students who refer to me as the Steward because I’m the head of the Middle Earth club. Why do I have to be the guy who sets his own son on fire? Not a fan.

7. The student who came up after class and asked, “How do I make a difference? The poem was about making a difference. That seems so big. How do I start?”

I love my job. Happy Tuesday!

A Lesson in Anger

In my 4th period class today, all of the following happened:

1. I had two students that were tardy, even though I walked PAST them to go to the bathroom during the time between classes. Meaning they passed my room, and then proceeded to “fill up a water bottle together”. Which made them late.

2. I had two students spend 45 minutes on an assignment and write 5 words between the two of them.

3. I had at least 3 students fall asleep during a writing assignment.

4. I had 5 students that genuinely didn’t understand the assignment in spite of massive scaffolding.

5. I had students laugh when I told them I was writing them up.

6. I had students lie to me.

7. I had students attempt to cheat on an assignment that was meant for practice and that I wasn’t even going to grade except for participation.

8. I had students pretend like one of their classmates was “contagious” and that if they spoke with this person they would get a disease.

9.  I answered at least 150 questions. And honestly, that’s a low approximation.

10. I asked the questions, “Why aren’t you working?” and “Why haven’t you written anything yet?” at least 20 times.

So what is there to learn from all this?

I walked out of today’s class burning with a righteous anger. I was pissed off that these kids don’t care. I was pissed off that my calls home will mostly go unanswered, will mostly reach disconnected phones. I was pissed off that they have no perspective, that they don’t understand the dripping stains that go on their record when they spend the first year in high school gathering F’s and referrals. I was pissed off that some of them really just have a hard time learning. I was pissed off that no one read to them as kids, that no one told them they could achieve something.

I was so, so mad about it all.

And then I drove home. I stopped to have coffee with my friend, Jim Gernatt. Jim’s a great guy, he loves Jesus, and every time I speak with him he does a good job of pushing me toward truth. We didn’t talk much about my kids, but the conversation had my mind re-centered as I drove home. And that’s when it clicked…

God was giving me an ironic, but gentle lesson. God tries to get my attention, but I’m so often sitting at my desk in my own world. I wonder how many times He walks by me on a daily basis, and why He has the patience to ask me if I’m ready to work on things now. I wonder how often he sees my assignments not yet begun. I can go years without writing a word. I wonder how many times I’ve laughed in his face, or lied about where I’ve been over the years, or thought someone was less than me. I’m not much different than my kids, I just look a little neater with my job and manners.

I’m not going to pretend like this lesson has sunk in fully.


This will take years to understand. But God is patiently making me more like Him. That’s the promise I have in all of this. The promise of my relationship with Him is not happiness or satisfaction or contentment or any of those things. He has promised to make me Holy. And some days, he uses 25 infuriating kids to do it. Thank God for that. He could have left me