Sunday, August 2, 2015

Impacting our Students Through the Thoughts, Words, and Actions of LOVE

On Friday, July 31st 2015 I had the honor of presenting one of the Ed talks at the Better Together California Teachers Summit at Brandman University in Visalia, California.

Below are the transcripts and Google Slides from my talk. As a Speech and Debate teacher, I am constantly talking my students down before they speak, telling them to relax and enjoy the adrenaline rush. I sure enjoyed some of that on Friday. I was nervous speaking to the people I respect the most: teachers! 

Please feel free to share your stories of love in the classroom in the comment section below or email me at Love is not just the best part of our jobs, in many ways, it's the only part.

Impacting our students with thoughts, words, and actions of LOVE

Today I want to talk about something timeless, something that applies to all grade levels, all personality types, and all content areas, and any California standard or curriculum they could possibly throw at us:  I want to talk about LOVE - the concept of LOVE and how it relates to the classroom.

The year was 2003 and I'm 32 with my 1st teaching job at Gahr HS in Cerritos. A tough schedule: 10th and 12th grade remediated English who had just been through a parade of subs. I got the job in November on emergency credential- my interview was basically the principal checking to see if I had a pulse due to the massive teacher shortage at the time.

I started out naively enough with my students wanting to “get to know them” & was met with my first very realistic interaction with a boy named Evan. Evan, a tall, handsome sophomore on the Varsity basketball team, slumped in his seat shouted out "you ain't never gonna know me."

All 36 sets of eyes fell on me: “Well, I'd like to,” I said sheepishly.

He replied with, "You ever have a lady hide her purse because you walkin on the same side of the street?" “You ever have a security guard follow you around at Rite Aid cuz you went into get a soda?”

I had to reply no. He stuck his earbuds in and went silent.

I greeted Evan at the door every day, asked him about his basketball games and even clipped a newspaper article of him shooting a 3 pointer. I picked short stories with defiant strong young men as protagonists in hopes of hooking him. I thanked him for being so opinionated and told him that his strong convictions would be an asset in life. I gave him loads of attention-sometimes well received, sometimes not, but I knew I was on to the love thing when he came back next year to visit my classroom mumbling as he looked at the floor that he wished his teachers “wanted to get to know him.”

I knew I was not a BETTER TEACHER than these veterans he compared me to, by any means, but I did three things during my rookie year: I thought of the kids with love, I communicated with words of love, and I my actions portrayed love. I learned names fast and used them often and made eye contact with every kid at least three times a day. I knew the color of their eyes.

FEISTY EVAN was my first lesson on love in the classroom - I was his student, ironically. And for the past 12 years and 4 schools later it has been my overarching pedagogy, my greatest lesson plan, and my most effective classroom mgmt tool: LOVE.

With such a broad topic it’s difficult to streamline the most important aspects we can explore in the classroom, but I’ve attempted to break it down into the three vital sections: THOUGHTS OF LOVE, WORDS OF LOVE, and ACTIONS OF LOVE.

When you think of your toughest student...what thoughts come to mind? Over the past 12 years, I’ve had some rough ones, as I’m sure you all have, and thinking about these kids through a lens of love is DIFFICULT.

One of my students that really challenged thoughts of love for me was Savanna. She was a girl that filled the room from down the hall. I could hear her...Mrs. JOOOONNNESSS...She was really quite regal, the queen of the 200 building with 8-10 underlings surrounding her hoping for a scrap of attention. Savanna’s thirst for attention continued into my 1st period English 1 class. She was always on volume 20. I’ll never forget Act 2 of Midsummer NIght’s Dream when she shouted from our make shift stage, “Mrs. Jones, what if I by accident I say Puck’s name wrong and pronounce it ______? THANK YOU, SAVANNA!

Thinking of Savanna with love was really tough but that changed one day during our student study team meeting after school when I met...her mother. Her mother was Savanna times 1,000.  She cussed, she berated all of us for “giving Savanna Fs,” and she actually threatened to hit Savanna in the middle of the meeting. Our AP stopped her.

Savanna needed me to love her. I would get nothing “playing hard ball” with this girl. She was living in hell and school was her escape-it was obvious. Love was my only chance. She didn’t care about grades or threats. Love was my only chance.

So, everyday before Period 1, I would take 3 minutes to think about Savanna lovingly, to picture her home life, to visualize how I would greet her with a warm smile, and thank her for coming to class that day and being my “Morning coffee.” Better than morning coffee!

I had a complete turn around with this girl. The funny thing is she didn’t change that much, I did. And because I viewed her through a lens of love, I was more patient, I could anticipate her misbehaviors and circumvent them like casting her in a bigger role, or having her play music for our writing sessions. She passed my class, and I now smile when I think of her...instead of cry.

I want parents to smile when they see my name on their kids’ school schedule because they know I will love them and take care of them. I want to honor this important trusted position as TEACHER. It's big- that's why I'm so proud to respond to people when they ask what I do. I'm a teacher and I love kids. It’s pretty huge.


The way a teacher talks changes how students perform, think, and feel. The words that leave our lips create the classroom world we live in: we control it.

Reframing how we communicate everything into worlds of love will transform your classroom into a place everyone wants to be - you included. There is a fabulous book dedicated to this entitled: Choice Words by Peter Johnston. In Choice Words, Johnston says, “the children in our classrooms are becoming literate. They are not simply learning the skills of literacy. They are developing personal and social identities-uniqueness and affiliations that define the people they see themselves becoming.”

He gives the simple example in the book of a teacher reprimanding a student instead of a punitive statement like “Stop doing that or you are staying in at recess” the teacher says in a lower voice, “That’s not like you.” The teacher’s words, though simple, confirm that this “bad behavior” is atypical and it assumes that the student is a good person.

I had to do lots of reframing last year with a student who challenged me Stephan - the chronic pencil sharpener: up/down, up/down, up/down. You know the guy. It started to drive me a little crazy-I would brace for it. This problem could have been solved easily:  SIT DOWN. I could have banned him from the sharpener.  OR, I reframe the request with WORDS OF LOVE.

The next day in class, I squatted down beside him and said “Thank you, Stephen for being such an avid pencil sharpener - a man after my own heart -because I too cannot stand a dull pencil. My thank you present to you is 5 lethally sharp pencils. Use them all and when they dull out, take the first or last 5 minutes of class to sharpen because I want you to take your time and perfect that lead point and you can’t really give it the time it needs in the middle of class - you’ll be rushed.”  

I never had another problem again. I showed him love instead of hate even though I hated the behavior. That’s important, the behaviors are not going away but the power of our words can get them headed in the right direction.

Here’s where we really start working. This is the tough part.
The actions we take to show students love can take on many, many forms.

I want to share a specific story about an action of love I took with a boy named Jaime: Jaime was an angry 14 year old from Pixley.

He didn't crack a smile for the first month of freshmen English: It was as if he was daring me to try and make him do it. It was a little game we played. I greeted him everyday at the door, complimenting him on the artwork on his t-shirt: a scantily clad girl straddling a rocket or Marilyn Monroe sporting a rotting skull face. He looked up at me stone faced, and walked on to his seat, never carrying a book or a backpack or a pencil...just Jaime.

One day, Jaime proudly donned a new t-shirt with a very familiar face: Tupac Shakur.

"Did you wear one of my favorite poets to class just for me, Jaime?" I smiled as I patted him on the shoulder.

"No, it's Tupac," he rolled his eyes, "He's a rapper."

"I know...he's one of my favorites-what a genius."

THIS IS WHEN I TOOK AN ACTION OF LOVE.  I grabbed The Rose that Grew from Concrete from my shelf and tossed it under the elmo projector.

We conducted an impromptu Socratic Seminar and deconstructed three of Tupac's poems with Jaime leading the way. He knew everything about him and gladly became the expert in "cool." He compared Tupac to his father, imprisoned near by at the Corcoran prison: at night Jaime explained he can see the security flood lights faintly in the distance. He said it made him feel close to him.

Everyone modeled their own poem using one of Tupac's for inspiration. Jaime’s was beautiful. So beautiful that I grabbed it and told him I was going to submit it to the Fresno State Young Writers' Conference contest.

I explained to Jaime that “It’s a writing competition and if your piece gets chosen, you get to ride up with me to Fresno State and spend the day with me. Does that sound fun to you?”

“I don’t care.” That was my yes.

Jaime did win a spot that year to Fresno state and spent the day in breakout writing sessions with graduate students, eating Panda’s orange chicken! and enjoying the “hot college chicks” (his words, not mine).

He is happy now, living an honest life in a simple town. Want to know how I know this? Because he came back to visit me last month after 7 years.  He came back to visit me.

I know the crazy dichotomy of our profession : it’s a brainy business but we work with young people which absolutely requires us to use our heart.

So, I leave all of you with one more item for your to do list as we open our classrooms: How will you think about your students with love, communicate with love, and show them love this year?

Thank you.

I would love to hear all of your stories of love this year.
You can reach me at:
Mission Oak High School
twitter @litcoachlaurie

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