What do I write notes for? The answer is as individual as the kids themselves. Sometimes I write a note to compliment a student on her renewed focus in class. Other times I will write a note to thank a student for a particularly insightful contribution to our discussion or to our classroom community.
Sometimes I write a note to encourage a student's courage:
Dear ___ —
Thank you for asking Mr. X if you could come to my room during 4th period for help with your completing the square homework. I was proud of you for advocating for yourself when you were not sure what to do. Once we got to the bottom of that one piece of confused thinking, you were completing the square like a champ. For future reference, once Mr. X has called over, you don't have to wait outside the door to come in — you can just come right in.
Keep at it, ___. This new approach you are trying out is really working. — Dr. SAnother powerful kind of note is an apology for something boneheaded or inadvertent that I have done.
I am writing to apologize for calling you __ [another student's name] the other day in class. I felt bad all day about that because I value you so much for all the energy and effort you bring to our class. I never want to hurt your feelings, but I could see that when I made that mistake, it really hurt your feelings. I hope you will accept my sincere apology for my actions. — Dr. SIn my new school setting, I notice a thousand times a day how teacher energy and attention and support are a form of currency in the classroom and whole-school economy. Notes become talismans that support new behaviors and learning patterns and most importantly, courage. They are tangible artifacts of social and emotional learning that is every bit as hard-won for a student's mathematical and academic development as their mathematical skills.
Whatever the circumstances from which they come, I want all of my students to grow up into compassionate and mindful persons of power in their communities.
Sometimes the competencies we need most to cultivate within students are social and emotional. Many times I notice that the lack of well-developed psychological or emotional resiliency blocks a student from being fully present in their mathematics and from taking even small risks with their learning. And if we want students to be accountable for their behaviors, then we also need to model being accountable for our own.
Dear ___, Thank you for telling me what is not working for you in our class. In addition to showing great courage in your learning, you have also saved me from wasting more of everybody's time using the same old failed teaching ideas. From now on, I am going to do more direct instruction and note-taking practice at the beginning of class first — before we break into group work. I think that will help you and the whole class to get the main idea students need to be successful with our investigations and practice problems. Thank you for helping me to understand what is not working for you so I can find a way to do it better. — Dr. SNotes can become treasures that help students remember to advocate for themselves. There's nothing secret inside their envelopes, but they heighten kids' awareness that something important has been going on and that I have noticed it. Most of my students have never been noticed at school for much of anything. But because they are amazing and growing human beings, they want it. Some of them want it bad. And that is a big part of the culture I am trying to create. I want students to want to receive positive acknowledgment of something they have done in class.
"Dr. S! Percy is trying to look at my letter!"
"Percy! Leave Q's letter alone! That is her stuff!"Sometimes this system of accountability touches a nerve. Sometimes it touches a heart.