Looking for an inexpensive, powerful way to remind your staff of why they embarked on a career in education? Try "I Stand For...," an activity that asks teachers to rise and name a student for whom they have made a difference. Included: Advice from educators who use this activity and excerpts from teachers' "I Stand For..." statements.
"I stand for John," Cossondra George told fellow members of a middle school listserv. "John's home life has been rocky. The stepfather who was raising John and his sister has been convicted of molesting them, and John had to testify against him."
The Newberry (Michigan) Middle School math and technology teacher went on, "As you can imagine, this young man has a tough time. He is often a discipline problem, somewhat of a bully, and frequently teased by his peers. John's academics are not much better. His grades are terrible."
Somehow, George hit it off with John at the start of the school year. "I don't know what made him connect with me, because to tell the truth, I really did not care for him to begin with," she explained. "He did not follow the rules, spoke out of turn, bothered those around him He was one of those students you might pray would be absent but who had stellar attendance."
The turning point for George came when she was out of the classroom for first time, and the substitute left John's name. "When we had our little pre-detention conference, John was so defeated. He said, 'But you don't understand, Mrs. George. Most teachers don't like me. Only you do.' My heart absolutely broke. I thought about how much I disliked this kid initially, only to discover that he thought I, with this dislike for him, could be the only one who did like him..."
SHARING THE POWER
George's post came in response to a message from an assistant principal who had just engaged in an "I Stand For..." activity. The teachers at the principal's school met and were asked to identify the student whom they felt they had most helped during the school year. Reflecting on the individual students as a group proved to be a powerful experience for the teachers.
The message ignited a similar virtual activity, and numerous responses were shared by the listserv members. Brenda Dyck, a teacher and technology integration coach at Master' Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada) described a child who had been somewhat overlooked in her classes.
"I stand today for Tara," she wrote. "I taught Tara in grade six. School was hard for her then, and it is even more so now at the high school level. Tara has a reputation for being a weak student, and few teachers can see past that. One day I was driving Tara home from school, and she told me she was babysitting that night and how excited she was about it. My daughter looked at her like she had rocks in her head and asked why on earth she would be excited about that! Tara explained how fascinated she was with young children -- their imaginations and their interesting way of talking and relating to each other."
This was the first time that Dyck had seen Tara demonstrate a passion for something. She told her, "Tara, when you finish school, you should work with young children. I can totally see you doing that." Her face glowed.
"When I said that, I wondered if any of her high school teachers had looked past her academic weaknesses to find out what interested her," said Dyck. "Did they really see her or just her grades? Ever since then, Tara has opened up to me about her studies and the problems she's had with teachers and with passing. It occurred to me that I can be that teacher in her life who encourages her and speaks positive ideas about her future."
FROM VIRTUAL TO REALITY
Dyck's participation in the online discussion sparked an "I Stand For..." activity at her school as part of a meeting held on the last staff day before the beginning of summer. Each teacher wrote a student's name on a piece of paper, and as the names were shared, they were displayed on a wall.
"Some chose specific students, and one teacher chose staff kids, a small band of kids from our school who have the good fortune -- and sometimes bad fortune -- to have their mom or dad teach in their school," recalled Dyck. "It was a very emotional half hour and an excellent way to finish off the year. We are a parochial school, so it was appropriate to finish our time praying for the kids who were on that wall. As teachers left at the end, they took the names of students they would teach the next year. In other words, teachers passed the student torch to the next year's teacher."
Deborah Bambino believes that the effectiveness of "I Stand For..." comes from this focus on individual kids who teachers connect with every day. The activity puts a "face" -- or many faces -- to data and dilemmas and reminds teachers about why they continue to do the hard work of teaching. It also illustrates the wide reach of teaching and all that a staff accomplishes in a school year.
As a facilitator of Critical Friends Groups (CFG) for the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), Bambino learned to "Stand for Kids" at an NSRF gathering, and she uses the activity to wrap-up seminars and training sessions. "When adults meet without kids to discuss what's best for kids, it's important to find ways to keep them front and center in our minds, so we examine their work and participate in activities like 'standing' and saying their names publicly," she explained.
Modeling the activity and setting norms before it begins is essential. Bambino ensures that everyone participates and no one challenges or discusses his choice or the choices of others. When teachers who work together in a district "stand for" students, they often recognize the names mentioned, and this adds to the resonance of the activity and spirit of community, she observed.
"The tone is highly charged as you listen to all the names in the room," reports Bambino. "The diversity is powerful and emotions usually run high. We sometimes hold hands as we do the activity and pass a gentle squeeze around the perimeter as we speak."
AN ARTFUL REFLECTION
A virtual squeeze reached Eric Baylin, a middle and upper school art teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York, when he joined the Middle Web discussion and stood for a student he called "Benno."
"I stand for Benno," began Baylin. "Middle school students -- and maybe everybody else -- typically divide the world into those who are good at art and all the others. Earlier this year as an eighth grader, Benno was drawing his hand from observation, a 'simple' exercise to help students look more closely at the world. His first efforts came out looking like all the hands he had drawn since lower school, a simplified idea of a hand, but not direct observation. We walked around the room looking at each others' efforts. He noticed how accomplished many of the others were and expressed his frustration at not being very good at this."
When Benno got back to his seat, he started to draw again but with a new intensity in his focus, reported Baylin. He was figuring something out -- how he could trust his eyes in a new way. Benno started with his thumb and very excitedly called his teacher to see. He said, "Look at this. It actually looks like a thumb."
"This was learning made visible," Baylin told the group. "His excitement was palpable. He continued to draw an extremely competent image of a hand. The difference between the first and second efforts was remarkable. Classmates came over to see his drawing and congratulated him. Their support and encouragement were as wonderful as Benno's discovery."
When Benno switched to working on paintings later that semester, he discovered that he had an eye for mixing subtle gradations of colors. Suddenly, painting, which had never appealed to him, became a new adventure. Then one day he saw his teacher in the hallway and said, "Come see the collage I made for history." In fact, Baylin had already heard about it from his eighth grade daughter, one of the "artists" of the class. "You should see Benno's collage. It is amazing!" she exclaimed.
"I love Benno's determination and courage to grow beyond his limited expectations," said Baylin. "Could I have stayed in the classroom for 36 years if it weren't for all the Bennos bravely opening up to new worlds within ourselves?"
REFOCUS AND RECONNECTION
The "I Stand For..." activity affords teachers a chance to reflect on their experience, and while it may be well suited for the end of a school year, it can also help staff members regain their focus at any time. It is an opportunity to find purpose among the students teachers meet each day and to reconnect with the students and peers.
And what happened with the connection between Cossondra George and John?
"From that day forward, I made an effort to not only like John but to tell him why I liked him," said George. "I'd like to say that John has made a complete turnaround and is now a model student. He does participate in my class, always. He is almost always appropriate in my class. He scores high on quizzes but seldom turns in homework. I recently grabbed him in the hallway just before his clenched fist connected with another boy's face. But I stand for John. He deserves not just to think someone likes him but to have someone who does. I will be that someone."
Read more about the "I Stand For..." discussion on the Middle Web listserv on Brenda Dyck's Who Will You Stand Up For? page.