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Empathy, Empowerment, and Equity in Our Classrooms

I recently attended a teach-in at a local university, where I heard an artist speak about her discouragement with our divisive social and political climate. She stopped working because she couldn’t muster any inspiration or creativity and holding on to positivity seemed increasingly difficult. After several weeks of being unproductive and listless, her mentor invited her to coffee and gently nudged her to talk about why her work was at a standstill. After pouring out her heart, her concerns, and her fears, her mentor responded with, “Artists have always created their greatest works in times of greatest conflict.” This conversation inspired her to harness her anger, frustration, and discouragement and channel it into meaningful and powerful creations.

It occurred to me while listening to her that it is in times of greatest conflict that teachers accomplish their greatest and most influential work. 


Regardless of where we are personally on the political spectrum, we cannot deny that as a country, we have experienced a huge increase in recent months in harassment, bullying, and hate crimes and we all have some students who feel confused, upset, fearful, and marginalized. It’s exactly at times like this that teachers make their biggest difference and have their most influential impact on students’ lives. Students watch carefully and listen closely, and even our most innocuous words can affect them for years to come. This is a time for teachers to rise up, be the change we wish to see in the world, and teach our students that we all can and must do better!

Teaching can be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually depleting in the best of times . . . even more so in the toughest of times. First and foremost, take good care of you! If your tank is empty and you are running on fumes, you cannot care for others. Here’s a few reminders to help you take good care of yourself during difficult or stressful times, especially seasons of prolonged or ongoing stress or crisis:



Next, help students develop healthy coping strategies when they feel marginalized, angry, afraid, or bullied -- or anytime they are dealing with drama, crisis, or a difficult situation. Here’s a guided journaling worksheet that can help:


Click here to download a free copy you can print.  Consider keeping a stack of copies in a quickly accessible location so students can grab one and fill it out any time they need to cool down, cope, process, or come up with an action plan.

Finally, check back here on the last weekend of every month for more tips, ideas, strategies, and free resources you can use to help teach empathy, empowerment, and equity in your classroom. This month, I wanted to give you resources to help you and your students care for yourselves during tough times. In the coming months, I'll provide more resources specific to teaching, implementing, and integrating empathy, empowerment, and equity.

Bonus! I’m teaming up with TpT colleagues who are as passionate as I am about these values and providing teachers with a vault of free resources to help integrate them into your everyday teaching. 


Check out the collaborative blog posts below for more ideas and resources, comment and let us know what types of materials we can provide to help your students and to save you precious time, and let’s keep this important conversation going!


Dr. Robyn McMaster Scholarship

In March of 2014, I had the privilege of meeting seven other Teacher-Authors at a local library to discuss our work of creating curriculum for other teachers across the country. The Teachers Pay Teachers colleagues at that meet-up eventually became the planning team and co-organizers of the Northeastern Regional TpT Meet-Up, an event that is now attended by hundreds of TpTers who travel from 25+ states and 3 Canadian provinces.
Dr. Robyn McMaster joined us at that first meet-up (pictured below), and became a friend who was near and dear to my heart and the hearts of so many other TpTers.


Robyn worked with Dr. Ellen Weber of Brain-Based Tasks for Growth Mindset, but her TpT work did not stop there. Robyn was a tireless advocate of high-quality teacher-created resources and the opportunity to supplement teaching income and provide for families that Teachers Pay Teachers offers educators. She befriended dozens of TpTers, encouraged them, and supported them by posting their resources on Pinterest.



Robyn left us unexpectedly on July 7, 2016 and I miss her presence on this earth every day. Those who knew Robyn remember her dearly as fun, funny, caring, kind, and loving. If you crossed her path, you walked away energized, inspired, and knowing you had a true encourager cheering you on to success as you found and fulfilled your purposes on this Earth. Robyn believed that love helps people find and follow their calling, and all those who knew her -- whether for minutes or for a lifetime -- felt genuinely gifted with love, kindness, and support.
Twenty years ago, Robyn started working with Dr. Ellen Weber and the Mita International Brain Center. Robyn was passionate about using brain-based approaches in novel ways that engage students' individual interests and abilities. Her passion to help all children learn and all teachers teach fueled her spirited work with Mita.
Robyn and Ellen worked together for more than two decades, and their extraordinary friendship and dynamic work have had a local and international influence on brain research and brain-based educational practices that will affect teaching and learning for decades! You're familiar with Ellen and Robyn's work if you're familiar with Making Change Easy (Novelty with the Brain in Mind Book 2).
Robyn loved and supported teachers as architects of our future, appreciating their hard work and devotion to children. TpT colleagues who knew and loved Robyn cannot imagine a more meaningful or beautiful way to honor her life and her work than to help that work continue and move forward. We're raising funds to establish the Dr. Robyn McMaster Scholarship, a scholarship that will be offered yearly to keep alive Robyn's work at Mita!
100% of the funds collected will go to the Mita International Brain Center to carry forward Robyn's beloved work and passion. Your donation will help Mita continue to train progressive teacher-leaders and provide brain-based resources, approaches, activities, lessons, assessments, and curriculum units to students and teachers across the globe. If you'd like to contribute, please click here to visit the "Dr. Robyn McMaster Scholarship" Go Fund Me page.

Thank you for helping us honor Robyn and continue her life-changing work and her legacy! 

Literary Sherri Celebrates Kindness

Once upon a time in American society, a certain sense of decorum was the norm. Regardless of what was said behind the relative safety and closed doors of one’s home, people generally treated one another with a certain amount of courtesy and civility in public. In recent years – and especially recent months – we have seen a sharp rise in bullying, violence, hate-based harassment, vandalism, marginalization, and “othering.” If television shows mirror society, just compare and contrast the social norms portrayed in Leave It to Beaver or The Brady Bunch with Pretty Little Liars or The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I call our current social climate a “reality-show climate.” Those who feed on a steady diet of Big Brother, Dance Moms, 16 and Pregnant, or most other reality shows regularly see bad behavior rewarded, morals compromised for fifteen minutes of perceived fame and fortune, and meanness not only glorified, but celebrated. The grittiness and rawness of inappropriate and salacious entertainment behavior is lauded for being “real” and “uncensored” . . . and many watchers, believing the behavior they see on tv is the social norm, don’t hesitate to drop their own filters in public and behave just as outrageously.

Of course, all behavior is caused and causes are always multiple. I’m not suggesting that societal norms have changed because of reality tv shows. I am saying: Whether we’re witnessing life imitating art or art imitating is life, one thing is certain – hostility, violence, bullying, and harassment is not only on the rise, it is fast becoming perceived by many as the social norm, and the divisive political environment in our country is exacerbating this. Adults in our country are deeply divided over immigration, security, religion, racial discrimination, marriage equality, and Roe v. Wade, and our students are feeling the effects of this division. Some students are feeling emboldened to mimic the hate-based actions they see portrayed in the media. Others are feeling fearful, sad, and anxious. Students are grappling with the meaning of new vocabulary words such as misogyny, xenophobia, fascism, bigotry, and resurgence.

Drawing on more than two decades of teaching experience, this is what I know for sure: We cannot ignore these issues in our classrooms. No matter our political affiliation, no matter who we voted for or why, we need to respect and honor our students by talking about these issues truthfully and frankly. Our students deserve the truth and the truth is: We all have work to do to make things better.

Teachers need to actively and proactively address bullying and meanness. This type of behavior leaves deep emotional scars that affects our students' sense of safety and self-worth for years, if not decades. Students need tools in their toolbox to be prepared to deal with mean behavior when it does happen – and they need tools to help prevent such behavior in the first place. 

One way we can address this is by teaching our students how to deal with bullies and meanness:


We can also help students by teaching them coping strategies. If students are feeling anxious, listen to them. Honor their feelings. Make sure they know your classroom is a safe haven for them to talk about their emotions, concerns, worries, and fears. Remind them they are strong, resilient, compassionate, and caring. And remind them that the sun will come up tomorrow, we will all go to school and to our jobs, and we will all be okay.


Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we can help our students by teaching them to be kind, compassionate, accepting, and empathetic community members. If the only thing we teach our students is academics, we’ve only done half our job. The other half of our job is teaching students to be good people. Create a culture of kindness in your classroom and teach students not just about “random acts of kindness” but intentional acts of kindness. Because no matter our political affiliations, worldviews, or feelings about our elected officials, we can all agree that our students – ALL our students – deserve to be treated as beautiful humans worthy of dignity, respect, courtesy, civility, and kindness.

I want to help, and many of my amazing colleagues on Teachers Pay Teachers also want to help! Together, we have created free resources – resources we have committed to keeping free forever – that you can print today and use tomorrow. I created a 30 Days of Kindness Challenge that includes 30 tangible and intentional acts of kindness, along with reflection sheets and writing activities. 


Other free resources can be found by going to Teachers Pay Teachers and searching the hashtags: #kindnessnation and #weholdthesetruths . . . or you can hop through the blogs below to find resources for 6-12 teachers that focus either on kindness or civics . . .


Thank you to Rachel Lynette of Minds in Bloom for originating the idea for #kindnessnation and #weholdthesetruths resources. Thanks, also, to Pam of Desktop Learning Adventures and Darlene of ELA Buffet for hosting the Secondary Smorgasbord blog hop . . .


Celebrate the New Year with New Resources!



On Sunday night, 12/31/16, not one but TWO lucky winners will receive $25 in resources from my TpT store AND a $25 gift card to spend in any TpT store they'd like! To enter:

1 - Follow me on Instagram and like the Instagram post,

2 - Comment on the Instagram post with your 2017 wish for your students, and

3 - Tag a teacher-friend on the Instagram post for one bonus entry per teacher-friend that you tag!

Wishing you and your students many meaningful learning moments in 2017! Happy New Year!

Why I Wear a Safety Pin


Adopting tangible symbols of peace, hope, and nonviolent resistance is a centuries-old practice. Ancient Greeks used an olive branch to symbolize peace. A symbol of wishes granted for centuries, paper cranes have symbolized hope and healing for 6 decades in Japanese culture. Peaceful protesters in Taiwan use sunflowers to represent the light they wish to shine on oppressive government policies. In Hong Kong, umbrellas symbolize peaceful protest, and women in Iran frequently wear brightly-colored nail polish to express their resistance to the extreme oppression they endure.

In April of 1940, just months into World War II, Adolf Hitler set his sights on an invasion of Norway. Controlling their ice-free waterways would make it quicker and easier to transport goods into Germany. German soldiers occupied Norway for 5 years, insisting that teachers and churches teach complete obedience to the leader and the state, passing anti-Jewish legislation, and deporting 700 Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz.

In the autumn of 1940, students at Oslo University started wearing innocuous paperclips on their collars and lapels to symbolize the binding together of like-minded Norwegians in a rejection of ethnocentric ideologies, peaceful resistance, and solidarity. Pins, bracelets, and jewelry fashioned out of paperclips bound like-minded Norwegians together in the face of adversity.

In December 2014, an Iranian refugee took hostages in an armed standoff in Sydney, Australia. By the end of the 16-hour ordeal, he had killed 2 hostages, prompting intense and violent Islamophobia to erupt across the country. Australian Rachel Jacobs posted on Facebook that she saw a Muslim woman remove her hijab out of fear for her own safety. Jacobs encouraged her to put her hijab back on, promising to walk with her and make sure she was safe. Her post prompted a social media campaign using #illridewithyou in which Australian citizens offered to walk, ride, or sit with Australian Muslims so they would feel safe and protected.

In post-Brexit United Kingdom, when there was a sharp rise in unprovoked attacks and hate crimes against both ethnic minorities and immigrants, a Twitter user named Allison, inspired by Australia’s #illridewithyou campaign, started wearing safety pins to symbolize a rejection of racism, peaceful push back against violence, and solidarity with immigrants. After tweeting photos of her safety pins and explaining, in 140 characters or less, the meaning behind the small gesture, the idea took off. Safety pins are commonly worn in the U.K. as a signal to marginalized groups that they are valued and supported. Thousands of U.K. citizens joined the #safetypin movement in a joint effort to communicate to marginalized and sometimes victimized immigrants, “You are safe with me.”

Since the 2016 general election in the U.S., millions of American citizens are concerned – scared, even – about the seemingly sharp rise in hate-based harassment, vandalism, violence, bullying, and crime being perpetuated against U.S. citizens – citizens who are often labeled “minorities” and are marginalized. As a result, the “Safety Pin Movement” has found a place here.

Many criticize or even condemn the gesture for being superficial and shallow, calling those who wear the pin “slacktivists” – a pejorative term used to describe people who think of themselves as social justice activists, but who only get involved with “easy activism” and “feel-good measures” such as signing on-line petitions or sounding off on social media websites, not the hard work of stepping out of our comfort zones to participate in street demonstrations, visit elected officials to demand change, or support organizations that actively work to affect social change with ongoing financial contributions. In other words, safety pin wearers are often criticized for doing something easy to “pat themselves on the back” without doing the hard work of actively trying to fix the problems they are peacefully protesting.

White people, in particular, are facing backlash for wearing safety pins as a passive and elitist action – an easy way to identify themselves as allies while doing none of the hard work it takes to help affect change. Christopher Keelty said in the Huffington Post, “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies. And make no mistake, that’s what the safety pins are for. Making white people feel better.” Others have criticized safety pin-wearers as lazy, saying they are being worn as a way for white people to identify themselves to other white people as having voted -- or not voted -- a particular way in the most recent general election in the U.S.

I acknowledge the limitations of this gesture or symbol. Wearing a pin doesn’t fix racism, xenophobia, exclusion, or cruelty. However, despite the sharp criticism and safety-pin shaming, I wear a safety pin and will continue to do so. Here’s why:

  • It is a concrete symbol that bigotry, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and bullying are not the norms in my circles, and I will actively take a stand against those ideologies in all their forms. If it reminds even one other person to actively stand for inclusion, acceptance, empathy, and kindness, it’s worth wearing.
  • I will actively take a stand against those ideologies in all their forms. I will not just wear the pin – I will attend the demonstrations, write my elected officials, contribute financial support to organizations actively working to affect change. Wearing a safety pin reminds me to actively be the change I want to see in the world, and if it reminds even one other person to do the same, it’s worth wearing.
  • Awareness is important. Awareness by itself doesn’t change things. It isn’t enough. It doesn’t solve problems. However, if enough people work together to raise awareness and use that awareness to dialogue about what we can actively due to help shift cultural norms, then awareness can lead to action, and action changes things. If my safety pin reminds me to act and inspires even one other person to act, it’s worth wearing.
  • Brain research shows that telling people what to do isn’t as effective as showing them what to do and how to do it. If enough people use their sphere of personal influence and social media influence to demonstrate actionable steps we can take toward inclusion, kindness, empathy, and acceptance, we can create social change. If my safety pin prompts even one person to ask why I wear it, and leads to even one discussion about the ACT in activism, it’s worth wearing.
  • Pinning this symbol to my clothes is a small gesture of community, participation, rejecting self-centeredness and apathy, being part of something bigger than my own little space in this world. If it symbolizes that to even one other person, and encourages them to share in this sense of community and togetherness, it’s worth wearing.
  • Knowledge is power. Some don’t understand the symbolism behind the safety pin, or the importance of real activism. If even one dialogue is sparked by a question about my pin, it’s worth wearing.
  • Helplessness, hopelessness, and despair are paralyzing, and we are flooded daily with media stories that incite these emotions. If wearing my pin symbolizes help, hope, and healing to even one person, it’s worth wearing.
  • Wearing a safety pin is not enough, but it may be enough to remind us to ask ourselves and one another what else we can do. It’s not a resolution – but it may be a start. It may lead to work toward a resolution.  If my pin inspires even one person to ponder this, it’s worth wearing.
  • Wearing a safety pin may indicate to a person who lives in fear of being marginalized, bullied, or victimized that I am a safe person. If I witness someone being bullied or victimized, I will not be a silent bystander. I will stand with them and for them. I will help. If my pin conveys that knowledge -- that safety -- to even one person, it’s worth wearing.
  • Wearing a safety pin may instigate dialogue with students and colleagues about the importance of active inclusion and kindness, and if even one student or colleague is inspired to think about these concepts, have these important conversations, act on these values, it's worth wearing. 


So, when you see my safety pin, please don’t assume I wear it out of privilege or guilt or an effort to assuage my guilt. The truth is, I understand first-hand what it’s like to be marginalized and bullied for one facet of the thousands of facets that make up who I am as a whole person. Even though on the outside, I may not “look” like a person who understands and experiences marginalization, I do. I hope I would stand with and for marginalized people even if I wasn’t a person who experienced this myself. I know my own experiences make me acutely aware of and responsive to others’ experiences. My other truth is, in some ways, I do experience privilege that others don’t enjoy. I am acutely aware of this and in the ways I am privileged, I will use that privilege to tirelessly work for inclusion and equality for all.

When you see my pin, please don’t assume it is the only thing I am doing. Don’t assume I am lazy, or a slacktivist. Don’t assume I’m not serious about intentionally and actively affecting change. Don’t assume I wear it to make myself feel better. In fact, I want anyone and everyone who is negatively affected by hatred, exclusion, or “othering” in any form to know I stand with them, for them, beside them, behind them, in front of them – whatever it takes – and knowing there is a need to stand against exclusion and for inclusion breaks my heart. I don’t feel better about myself by putting the pin on – I feel worse for all of us that there is a need to put the pin on.

When you see my pin, please don’t assume you know how I cast my vote. I believe acceptance, inclusion, and kindheartedness can bridge the gap between our differences, no matter whom we voted for and why. Despite political differences – despite all differences – we can find some common ground, stand with one another against bigotry, hatred, injustice, and othering, and stand together for compassion, empathy, and kindness.

When you see my pin, please don’t lash out at me for attempting to show solidarity and support. Instead, please consider that wearing the pin is a statement of my personal values . . . inclusion, acceptance, compassion, empathy, and kindness. But if you do judge me, if you do think poorly of me, if you do criticize me when you see my pin, know that those values – conveying them, reminding myself of them, inviting others to dialogue about them -- are so dear to me that I will wear a safety pin despite the controversy. Kindness matters, and if wearing a safety pin conveys encouragement to even one person who needs to feel a little kindness today, it’s worth it.

Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop: Literary Sherri Shares "The Tell Tale Heart"

Students love Edgar Allan Poe's spooky settings and terrifying tales, and October is the perfect month to grab their attention with his Gothic masterpiece "The Tell-Tale Heart." Nothing piques students' interest quite like this creepy classic!  

Hit up The Dollar Store or Target's Dollar Spot for a few seasonal decorations for your classroom, dim your classroom lights, play some seasonal music in the background (here's one option), and use Poe's spellbinding short story to analyze mood, tone, theme, symbolism, characterization, figurative language, and author's craft. This resource contains everything you need to teach this riveting narrative tomorrow, including the full text of "The Tell-Tale Heart" with especially difficult vocabulary words defined, literary analysis activities, 9 unique and engaging writing prompts, vocabulary worksheets, grading rubrics, and answer keys. Best of all, it's available in traditional format, as well as interactive-notebook format!



Teachers who have used this resource say:

"This is very thorough and covers a lot of skills!" (Karen M.)

"My students loved working on this . . . it's not the typical read and answer questions." (Melissa R.)

"This was a great activity for breaking down the story and making it more understandable for my 8th graders." (Michelle W.) 

"I loved this . . . it inspired me to read more Poe works, and created interest in my students for  his works." (Tania P.)

"Excellent resource . . . my students really had to think, which I loved!" (Kathleen Y.)


Click here to add this resource to your repertoire today for 20% off, then cozy up under your favorite blanket with a steaming mug of hot coffee or (my favorite!) salted caramel hot cocoa and hop through the blogs below to treat yourself (and your students) to more perfect-for-October resources! Thank you to Stephanie of The Creative Classroom for organizing this Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop!





Fidget Widgets Can Enhance Learning in Middle School Classrooms (Part 2)

Ready to incorporate fidget widgets into your classroom management plan? Some of my favorite fidgets include:

If you're on a tight classroom budget, you can make your own fidgets by using a wide-mouthed funnel to partially fill latex balloons with clean sand, flour, cornstarch. or play dough. Doubling or tripling the balloon covering will help these homemade stress balls last longer.

You can also stop by your local hardware store or carpet store and gather small carpet samples (approx. 3" x 3"). Ask if they'd like to donate a dozen or so samples to your class. (Run fabric glue around the edges to keep them from fraying, if you'd like.) Small carpet samples make fabulous fidgets!

Other super-effective ideas include:
  • Bands
    • Stretch a therapy band, resistance band, bicycle inner tube, or giant rubber bands around the front legs of each chair, allowing students to silently bounce their legs or feet on the band.
  • Velcro
    • Cut adhesive Velcro into 4-6 inch strips. Adhere 1 strip on either side of the underside of students' chairs. You can also adhere strips under tables or desks. You really don't even need to tell students the strips are there . . . fidgety students will find them and the strips will keep their fingers occupied for awhile.

    Be picky when choosing the perfect fidget widgets! You want fidgets that are:
      • Inconspicuous 
        • Fidgets should fit easily in one hand and be able to be used under a desk or table.
      • Inexpensive 
        • They may get lost or find their way out of the classroom. You'll likely replenish them a few times throughout the year, so don't invest inordinate amounts of money in them.
        • Silent
          • Fidgets that make noise (or that can be used to make noise) should be avoided, if possible.

        • Safe
          • Pass on fidgets that can be snapped, popped, or thrown across the room, unless you can prevent these scenarios with effective pre-teaching.
        • Tactile
          • Fidgets should be more tactile than visual -- they should not draw students' eyes away from the task at hand.
        • Tools, not toys
          • Balls or objects that bounce or roll are not ideal fidgets.

        Fidget widgets help enhance focus and concentration, decrease off-task and distracting behaviors, and increase learning for middle school students -- and the bonus is incorporating them into your everyday classroom management plan differentiates your classroom learning space and optimizes your middle school classroom for all learners!

        Not convinced? Click here to read more about how fidgets can enhance learning in Middle School classrooms -- and how to pre-teach so that you can incorporate them seamlessly into your cclassroom management plan!

        Do you have a favorite fidget widget? Tell us about it and how you use it in your classroom!

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