Saturday, January 18, 2014

Writing Kids Notes

So much is not going right in my new classroom, but some things are. One thing that is going right is my off-stage strategy of writing kids notes. Megan Hayes-Golding blogged about her teacher notecards a year ago, and right away I stole the idea. Megan is a genius. They are comic strip-style notecards with "Dr. S" at the top of the main thought bubble, surrounded by comic strip energy.

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. S
Another powerful kind of note is an apology for something boneheaded or inadvertent that I have done.
Dear ___
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. S 
In 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. S
Notes 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.


  1. Wow, this is so powerful! I want to add it to my practice!

    1. Thanks, Jasmine! It is good to know that these practices are valuable. Thank you for stopping by.
      - Elizabeth

  2. This warms my heart. Have I mentioned lately how much I adore you? :-)

    1. Thanks, Justin. Right backatcha. I appreciate knowing that this makes sense to others I respect. I appreciate the feedback.
      - Elizabeth

  3. I like this a lot. I have pre cut out cards with things like "Thanks for being a team player in class today" and I just put the kids name on it. Students LOVE it when I do this. I like the way yours is a lot more personalized though and could be used for anything.

  4. I love this idea, and want to implement something similar; it will work especially well in the multi-level inclusion Geometry class I am working with this term. My question is this - how do you make sure - or do you keep track of - you are acknowledging everyone? Or as many students as possible? How many notes are you sending? I have 165 students, and I notice a lot that I don't always get to comment on, so the notes are a great idea. My concern is the students who DON'T receive notes but may perceive themselves 'deserving' of one. I'd love to hear how you can deal with this.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding. I've lost what I entered here twice now, so third time needs to be the charm!

      I have class lists on which I track major projects and I have a column for Notes in which I make a check mark.

      I do INB checks every two weeks, and I try to write ~ 4 notes per class per INB check. That way I get through everybody but it's still manageable.

      Whining about not getting a note is fantastic! It tells me that a kid cares. It flags them for me and I know I need to notice something magnificent they did, which is easy once I've been primed.

      Hope that is helpful. Thanks for commenting!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)