Beyond the 3R’s:  Building Relationships and Resiliency

fantastic-falcons“This is awesome!” exclaimed SKMS school counselor Ms. Wisor describing the Falcon Buddy program. “Students are really listening to each other and supporting each other.  Older students help guide younger students and encourage a sense of belonging at Skyline.”  SKMS counselors developed Falcon Buddies pairing 5th graders with 8th grade “Buddies” to help students navigate the transition to middle school.  Falcon Buddies is just one of numerous efforts at Skyline to foster our safe and welcoming community and to develop the 4th & 5th R’s:  relationships and resiliency.

The middle school years are a crucial time for students to feel a sense of belonging; develop a growth mindset by practicing persistence; and to grow their interests and leadership skills.  We have several interrelated efforts at Skyline to promote social-emotional well-being and community.

Daily Advisory & Community
    An expanded advisory program is our first school-wide program.   Building on two years of weekly Olweus CAST meetings, our 940 students now start every day in small group gatherings of 8-15 students facilitated by a teacher advisor.  Our advisories are intentionally supportive communities focused on social-emotional skill building.  During extended advisory sessions, called CAST meetings, students “circle up” and pass a talking piece to check-in with each other to develop empathy and build relationships. Advisory teachers facilitate close home-school connections and provide mentorship to small groups of students. Another example of building community was this year’s Mix-it-Up lunch, where students sat with new friends and enjoyed conversation facilitated by teachers.

Growth Mindset & Productive Persistence     At last year’s closing assembly, Mr. Kirwan shared an inspirational story about the value of a Growth Mindset.  In 6th grade mathematics classrooms students engage in “Mindset Monday” lessons, and their teachers focus on developing the habits of persistence and wonder.  In partnership with JMU, our 6th grade math students enjoy weekly lessons using a locally developed computer application to grow their Mathematical Mindset.   Every week we recognize our Fantastic Friday Falcons to celebrate students who work hard and contribute to our community with a ‘can do’ spirit. We look forward to ‘growing’ our mindset work over the next few years.

soccer-for-insiderStudent Engagement & Leadership    A third significant way we develop student resilience and positive relationships at Skyline is through student leadership opportunities.  Our students participate in AVID classes, lead the student council, donate hours to the Builder’s Club, help fellow students as Student Ambassadors and are active in numerous sports teams. One new opportunity this year is our after-school soccer program begun by our home-school liaison, Tony Fajardo.  Over 75 students participate in this twice weekly program proudly wearing their new soccer jerseys. Skyline is the first area middle school to have an intermural soccer program of this size. Soccer playing students and their families express pride in belonging and commitment to our school and our team.

At Skyline, we help our Falcons SOAR in many ways.  We are committed to developing the whole child at Skyline by building relationships and developing resiliency. As we say every morning at the end of announcements: “Remember to work hard, be nice, dream big and SOAR to new heights!”






Writing to Learn & Learning to Write

Walk into any Skyline Middle School class and you will likely see students “thinking on the page” through writing. As we begin a new year, we are building upon our literacy-across-the-curriculum efforts with a laser focus on the craft of writing. Our September faculty meeting introduced “6+1 Writing Traits” for all subjects. “6+1 Trait Writing” gives our Falcon community common language for developing student writing and thinking throughout the day and year.

At Skyline we are committed to nurturing and educating well-rounded young people. We know our students are preparing for a future where they will need to read complex texts, express their thinking in writing, and reason to solve problems we have not yet imagined. We design active and engaging learning opportunities for students to give them opportunities to critically and creatively engage in the world. For example:

 5th grade scientists created descriptions of rockets they designed and launched;

 6th grade dual language students penned letters in Spanish to a Guatemalan guest speaker;

• 7th grade historians reflected in their journals on the 15th anniversary of 9/11/2001;

• 8th grade artists produced beautiful works and published their artist statement.

Writing occurs informally through daily quick writes, entrance and exit slips, and letter exchanges. More formally, students take notes and write summaries, craft essays and even write books. In band class, students write to express their reactions and critiques of musical pieces. Our Bridging students write reports to share about their countries of origin and learn about other countries in the world. The examples of writing across the curriculum are as numerous as there are classes at Skyline.

Our Skyline faculty teams are working together across disciplines and within departments to help our students “write to learn and learn to write” all year long, in every class.

Why Write?


Writing is Thinking on the Page

As an educator, instructional coach and administrator over the last decade and a half, I’ve thought a lot about education.  I’ve presented at state and national conferences, led staff development sessions and planned and taught lessons to students of all ages for hundreds of hours.

However, I have not shared my thinking about education in writing.

I enjoy reading research and respect my colleagues who work in education in many arenas from teacher preparation to policy-making.   As an assistant principal and literacy specialist, entrenched ‘in the middle’ of public education, in a middle school for 10+hours a day, I have a perspective to share that is different from reporters and researchers and, I hope, valuable to the national conversation about education. I hope to add to that conversation through writing occasional posts to this blog.    My posts may include stories about experiences, thoughts about current issues and research and reflections from the field.


writing ideas

In this space, I look forward to sharing some thoughts as a practitioner and avid reader of educational research.  I look forward to joining in the national public conversation about public education.  How can we do this messy and marvelous enterprise in the best possible way?

Public education is perhaps the single greatest democratic enterprise of our society.   We welcome all students who enter our doors regardless of their ability, nationality, or social status.  We love them, care for their social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs.

Public educators are nation-builders.

I look forward to sharing my thinking in writing

and to the shared conversation as I write my way to clearer thinking



Re-Pete: The value of practice

Netflix gets some things right.  This Christmas season, instead of traveling hither and yon, we’ve been home and have enjoyed simply ‘hanging around’ together.  In addition to a seemingly endless game of Monopoly, hikes in our beautiful area, and lots of fun cooking and eating with friends, we’ve watched some movies.  Netflix recommended Hallmark’s “Pete’s Christmas”, petes christmasthe TV movie about a 14-year old middle child stuck in a repeat loop on Christmas day until he learns to make the day more about giving than receiving.

Despite the movie’s predictability and saccharine sweet scenes, we enjoyed it.  Perhaps because we are parenting two teens who, like Pete, are navigating between self-interest and generosity,   between casting blame and taking responsibility, between giving in to moodiness and choosing to wholeheartedly engage, we found the film’s repeated scenes of teenager life delightfully resonant.

“Pete’s Christmas” also has some important insights for school.  As we transition back after the extended break, we have the opportunity to re-teach our behavior expectations at school and re-establish our school culture.

As we transition back after the extended break, we have the opportunity to re-teach our behavior expectations at school and re-establish our school culture.

At the beginning of the year, our faculty discussed taking a developmental approach to teaching behavior expectations at school.  When a student arrives in our classroom or school without some academic skill or knowledge, we teach that student, starting right where they are.  When a student demonstrates that he or she does not know how to act appropriately, or make strong behavior choices, we need to teach the student, starting right where they are.

One of our efforts this year has been establishing clear and consistent school-wide behavior expectations encoded in our focus on S.O.A.R: Be Safe, Be Outstanding, Act Respectfully, Be Responsible.

SOAR badge

In every area of the school, the cafeteria, classrooms, hallways, the gym, restrooms, the office, there are specific understandings of how to S.O.A.R.  When a student does not demonstrate strong behavior choices, we teach the specific behavior and provide lots of positive feedback for positive behavior choices.   Students who run in the hallways, need to go back to the point where they began running and walk.  Students who make a mess in the cafeteria, need to clean up their area and help the custodians clean additional tables.  The consequence for poor behavior is not scolding and empty words, but the opportunity to do something differently and do it well.

 The consequence for poor behavior is not scolding and empty words,

but the opportunity to do something differently and do it well.

Using consistent words and a consistent approach school-wide helps the adults in the building speak and act with a clear, unified voice.  In many ways our “in loco parentis” responsibilities during the school day, obligate us to provide the kind of shepherding for the 840 children under or daily care that we would offer to our own children.  Using S.O.A.R. gives us    common language and helps students understand our community norms.  One 5th grade student, who I’ve worked with on several occasions, now quotes the expectations of S.O.A.R. to me in a single breath every time I see him in the hall.  “Ms. Zahner:  Be Safe-Be Outstanding-Act Respectfully-Be Responsible. Right?”

Our focus is on teaching our behavior expectations and then, through experience and positive reinforcement, give students plenty of opportunities to ‘get it right’.  We strive to approach teaching prosocial skills in the same way we approach teaching literacy or numeracy skills.

We strive to approach teaching prosocial skills in the same way we approach teaching literacy or numeracy skills.  

Instead of assuming students ‘should already know this’ we help students grow from where they are to where we want all our community members to be.  And we always strive to hold high expectations for their positive contributions to our community.

As the parent of two teens, I know what it feels like to be stuck in a seemingly endless loop of teaching and re-teaching behavior expectations.  How many times can I re-establish the norm of where the hockey gear is stored?  I also know the delight of a young man unexpectedly pulling out the chair for an elder, helping a sibling, choosing to make dinner for the family.

With repeated practice, like Pete, we can get it right.



Building Bridges: Lessons for School from the Dining Room Table

“As-salamu alaykum,” 

As our neighbors took off their shoes in our entrance way and we awkwardly navigated shaking hands/hugging/bowing to each other, we took another step in building our relationship.   In the three months since the Abbas* family has lived across the street, we’ve frequently greeted each other in front of our houses and some of their 7 children have played on our trampoline. We have visited their home to help figure out how to better heat the house;  The mother, 8 months pregnant and weighted down,  visited us and brought fruit.

However, we had not yet sat down together, all together,

and broken bread ~ broken barriers, together.

Yesterday, as we cleaned up the remains of Christmas, cooked a large lasagna meal and set the table for 12, I wondered what the Abbas family would enjoy eating.  How would our conversation flow with our non-existent Arabic and their developing English?  Where would everyone sit?

The Abbas family moved to our city from Baghdad, Iraq, 8 months ago after a 3-year wait and a months-long, multi-stop journey.  Their older children attend Newcomer classes through our city schools.  As a former Newcomer 5th-8th grade teacher, I appreciate the intense language and cultural learning the children are undertaking each day.  Recalling my time working with refugees in Guatemala,  I can identify with their eager desire to learn and the headache-inducing struggle to navigate a new language and culture.

As is often true with immigrant families when they come to our school front office, over our lunch table and in our living room, the Abbas children helped their parents navigate the cultural and linguistic territory of our home. They shared the story of their journey to Harrisonburg; we discussed the cost of living in Harrisonburg and the cost of living in Baghdad, where apparently utilities are free.  We talked about religion and they explained some of the beliefs of Sunni and Shai Muslims. They educated us about some of the complexity of refugee relations in our city.

Throughout our conversation, the youngest children played with the kapla blocks on the floor and the older brother sat quietly listening and observing.  The oldest daughter, in animated tones with sparkling eyes, helped build a bridge of understanding between the two sets of parents. She translated for each of us and likely added kind words from each of us to the other.

Talking over lasagna (not a hit) and bread (more popular) and later over tea and the baklava the Abbas family brought to share (very popular), we came to understand some of the challenges of their lives in our friendly city. Utilities alone cost two weeks wages from the father’s work at a poultry processing plant; the support we imagined them receiving from the mosque is not comfortable for them to receive because of religious and ideological differences; they fear for the safety of their family members in Iraq and miss their daily company.   Navigating the health system here, as the mother deals with gestational diabetes, has been challenging and frightening.

Every morning in our middle school cafeteria children of all races, religions and creeds eat breakfast together.  They sit in small groups, mostly with kids who look like themselves, but always nearly touching elbows or back to back with kids who look different than themselves.  In our diverse school, where there is not one majority, kids can’t help but sit near people whose home life is different than their own. From a certain vantage point, this can look like a diverse and peaceable kingdom.

However, after our lunch with the Abbas family, I am struck with the difference between looking like we’re integrated and truly understanding and appreciating each other.

What do my own children, who attend these culturally and ethnically diverse schools, really know and understand about their classmates? How can I learn more about the 850 children and their families who make up our middle school community?

Over the last two years we have been growing in our social and emotional intelligence as a school community and have embraced the Olweus program to prevent violence, especially bullying. Every week, students gather in small groups in our S.O.A.R. classroom meetings patterned on morning meetings and restorative circles.   School-wide, we are formalizing our efforts at teaching positive behavior using PBIS resources in what we call our through our SOAR program.  These efforts are excellent steps forward and they are messy because they are based on building positive relationships.  This year,  I hope we try to Mix it Up,  promoted by Teaching Tolerance, in our school cafeteria.

If the ambitious project of public education is to be successful in creating the next generation of active and creatively engaged citizens, we must begin with building relationships.

As educators, we develop relationships with and among the students in our classrooms. Our next step is to build relationships with families of our students.  Phone calls and parent-teacher conferences are only part of the solution.  Home visits, as detailed in this NPR piece, can have a powerful impact in building partnerships between families and school.  

During the Abbas family visit to our house, the children spoke excitedly about their teachers’ visits to their home.  They described each of their teachers and the food they ate while visiting.

As an educator re-creating during these days of winter break, I am reflecting again on the importance of visiting the homes of the students in our school.  I want to visit with students and their families at times of celebration and connection, not just to bring home an errant child and discuss consequences for negative behavior. I want to facilitate and make it easier for our faculty and staff to get to know students in their home-land. 

After the baklava was all eaten, the goodbyes said, the shoes returned to feet, we watched the Abbas family cross the street together and waved goodbye.

A smile and a wave need no translation.

*the family name has been changed for this story.