Instilling a Sense of Belonging

My awesome Period 5 World History class

This society is broken. I mean, just look around…many people (adults and children) are feeling isolated and alone. Why is that? I don’t think we can solely blame the pandemic on this. Social media was already influencing how users perceived themselves as they compared their lives with others. As adults, you’d think that we have the skills to be able to separate fact from fiction–but not everyone has these skills. But this post isn’t about adults…it’s about children.

Having taught middle schoolers for the past 27 years, I can attest that the pressure to be perfect has only increased for these impressionable kids. They are looking at snapshots of a person’s life…comparing their reality with the fantasy. And no amount of talking is going to convince these kids that they need to only be concerned about their personal growth and achievements and not others’.

What is needed is a concerted effort by everyone to provide these impressionable kids with the skills necessary to look beyond the fiction and focus on what’s important–being a better version of themselves today than yesterday.

The first two administrators that I had as a young teacher pointed out that I was able to build a good rapport with my students. I used to think “thanks for the kudos!” but over time I gained a better understanding of why it’s so important to build rapport and relationships with my students.

Having taught in Title I schools for my entire career, I came across too many kids who:

  • Came from broken homes
  • Were being raised by a grandparent
  • Lived below the poverty line
  • Slept on a couch because they didn’t have bed
  • Shared a living space with their family in a garage-conversion
  • Did not have a warm breakfast
  • Lacked proper shoes or clothing for the weather
  • And the list goes on and on…

Yet, these kids showed up to school day in and day out.

So, what I made a goal for myself to greet each and every student who came through my door. Sometimes I stood at my door during the passing period so that I could chat with my kids outside; other times, I would walk around the room as the kids got settled in their desks and I would offer a compliment or ask them how they were doing. If I didn’t get a chance to touch base with a student before class started, I made a concerted effort during class to talk with them–sometimes it was class-related and other times I simply gave them a compliment or positive praise.

I can’t remember where I heard this…it was probably a TED Talk, but I recall an educator saying that it’s so important for teachers to greet their students because sometimes that’s the only positive interaction that child may have for the entire day.

And that thought makes me so sad.

But I can’t change their home life, and I cannot control what happens outside of my classroom. But I can control what happens inside my class–regardless if that’s a physical classroom or a virtual learning space.

One of the means that I used to build community was through the creation of a class photo in Pixton. In middle school, we don’t have class pictures–and it’s so easy for students to feel lost or alone in a school of 800 – 1200 kids. But being the competitive person that I am, I always try to instill in my students that our class period is THE BEST and that we’re a little family who takes care of each other. We begin with a class identity and then we work on a world history “family” identity that transcends class periods. I want kids to feel like they belong somewhere.

We begin developing our family identity through the creation of avatars that can be put together in a class photo. This is where Pixton is amazing. Students can choose different options to create an avatar that is personalized to how they are in reality or even their alter-ego. Then all I have to do is go through Pixton to create a class photo of all those avatars.

Take a look another look at a Pixton class photo of my incredible Period 1 World History class–notice how their individual personalities shine through the simple creation of an avatar.

My incredible Period 1 World History class

I used these class photos in our LMS and it served as the banner image in our Google Classroom as well. This way, students always saw that they were apart of something bigger than themselves.

If you haven’t tried Pixton yet, I encourage you to do so! It free (yay!) and it’s so easy to use. There are other features in Pixton that you and your students can use to support their learning, but for me, Pixton was the means to begin building a sense of belonging for my middle schoolers.

If you’re interested in learning more about how I build a sense of belonging with my students, please check out a workshop I am hosting through EdTechTeacher: Building Community in Your Classroom – SEL in Action. This three-day virtual workshop is July 11, 12, and 14. I hope to see you there!

And if you cannot make it, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am happy to share the various things I used to help build a sense of belonging for my students.

Let’s Prioritize Creativity

I was lucky. As a young child in elementary school, I had the privilege of being accepted into the gifted program with phenomenal teachers. Their passion for learning and love for children were evident everywhere you looked. But more importantly, these teachers infused creativity into everything they did. 

For example, in 3rd grade, my teacher used sentence phrases to help us write short stories. It was a hodgepodge of phrases that we put together as the inspiration for our stories. From those stories, she had us hand-draw pictures to go along with the storyline. Afterwards, she took those stories and had them published into two hardback books. One that went into the school’s library, and the other one went home with us. So, basically, I wrote and illustrated my first book in the 3rd grade. 

Another example was in the 4th grade. To help us learn how to write letters but also to understand how the U.S. Postal System worked, my teacher set up a post office in our classroom. Yes, we had the post office window and mailbox! We got to write letters to our friends, address them, put a stamp on it, submit them to the post office, and have the postmaster deliver the letters to us within the same day. We all took turns being the postmaster so we could experience sorting, stamping, and delivering the letters. Who knew that the U.S. Postal Service could be run by a bunch of giggly 4th graders?

My last example occurred in my 6th grade class. When learning about California state history, my teacher planned a trip for us to fly to Sacramento so we could see with our own eyes our State Capitol. We toured the Capitol building and went by the governor’s mansion. She made history come alive for us while also giving us real-world experience with traveling on a plane and being away from home for a few days. 

These three examples show how creativity in the classroom not only can leave lasting impressions on a child, but they also exemplify how teaching should be in the classroom for everyone – not just gifted students and certainly not just for elementary-aged children.

When I became a teacher, my goal was to make learning fun and creative for my middle school kiddoes. Luckily for me, I started back in 1995 before standardized testing became the barometer of learning that it is today. And, I had quite a bit of autonomy as California did not have history standards at the time, but rather teachers used a framework that allowed for more voice and choice for teachers and students.

My point is that creativity should be a priority in the classroom. And, I don’t mean at the expense of important literacy skills either. Students can learn in creative ways, and they can acquire and practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in the process. I know this because that’s exactly how I structured my classes…after all, I learned from the best.

If you’re interested in how I infused creativity into my instructional practices, please join me for my session “Let’s Get Appy – Creativity in the Social Science Classroom” on June 27, 28, 30 or August 1, 2, 4. This virtual workshop is part of the summer series hosted by EdTechTeacher, and if you’re not interested in this particular session (no hard feelings, I promise!), there are 30+ other sessions offered by a phenomenal team of educators. Please check out the EdTechTeacher website for more information.

Sparking the Learning

The person I am today is the direct result of the many wonderful, generous, and talented people in my life, and all of them are near and dear to my heart. But one in particular stands out as he’s one of the first friends I made when I entered the teaching profession: @primohistory. While Gregg and I have moved to different schools from the one which started our friendship, we have remained close friends as we share the love of history as well as similar teaching philosophies and general outlook on life. I bring Gregg up because he’s the one who coined the phrase “history is a verb” to describe how history should be learned, taught, explored, and experienced. Even though we teach different grade levels as well as content within the social science discipline, we have found that good teaching strategies transcend content and grade level bands. In fact, we regularly share new ideas and discuss revisions of old favorite practices to change things up on our respective classrooms…

Which brings me back to the reason for this post: Sparking the Learning.

I will be the first to admit that history was not my favorite subject in school. And that wasn’t because I didn’t have awesome teachers (I had many), but it was because the emphasis tended to be on rote memorization of names, dates, and events. I swore that I would do everything I could to make history fun, engaging, and worthwhile. In other words, I planned to design my class around the term: history is a verb.

The moment my students walked through my doors, I told them that they were mini-historians. I explained that it was my job to teach them historical analysis skills, but it their job to make sense of the primary and secondary sources set before them. They were going to be active participants in the learning process, and I was merely the guide on the side. But in order to spark the learning, I had to design active learning tasks.

I preface all of this because I am excited to host a workshop for @edtechteacher21 titled Inquiry & Reflection: History is a Verb. This three-day workshop is scheduled for June 20, 21, and 23 and will include lesson ideas, best practices, and student samples on how to make learning history active, engaging, and meaningful. The details for this workshop and many, MANY others hosted by a talented crew of educators @edtechteacher21 can be found on their website:

Please join me on June 20th for Inquiry & Reflection: History is a Verb. I’d love to connect with you!