My birthday was last week,  which means that I had a chance to participate in our classroom birthday tradition: words of wisdom. I’ll share my words (actually, they’re not mine) next week, but for this week let’s just talk about what “words of wisdom” is, why I think it’s a worthwhile investment of roughly one minute per classroom birthday (and that’s important, the efficiency piece), and what traditions you use in your classroom.
What is Words of Wisdom?
Let’s say it’s Ebonye’s birthday. My classroom calendar or one of Ebonye’s peers have indicated as much, and so, at a transitional moment in the lesson that allows for a one minute interruption, I walk over to my computer with an exaggerated air of gravitas and pull up the Google Spreadsheet that contains this year’s words of wisdom (here’s an anonymized version, which I hope serves as further proof that I teach very real, very ninth grade, and very worthwhile humans). The kids don’t see the spreadsheet, but they do hear me monologuing with the customary lead up:
You know, lately I just find myself obsessed with wondering, deep in my soul, about what the answer might be to a single question. And what I want to know, really, is this:
— and now I’m ready to write it down or type it right into the spreadsheet, and she’s had at least a few seconds to realize what’s happening —
“Ebonye, in your fifteen or sixteen years, please, tell us something — what have you learned about life?”
Ebonye then shares something pithy or witty or goofy. It may be something she came up with, or a quote she lives by, or something she just made up. I write it down while repeating it, then we clap, and then we move on with the lesson. Before Ebonye leaves, I try to follow up with her individually just to say, “Hey, happy birthday, young lady.”
The end of the year bonus
In May, I start scheduling words from the kids who have summer birthdays — we need everyone to go, and they know that from my introduction of the tradition with our earliest birthdays of the year.
On the last day of school, I share our class words of wisdom, compiled onto a single printout, along with any cool class photos or other memories (see Figure 1; here it is as a pdf). The print-out closes with a send-off letter from me.
Why do I take valuable class time for something like this?
It honors my students on (or near) their special day. One of many things I appreciate about my wife, Crystal, is that birthdays are her favorite holidays. She loves how they place the focus on one person; they are a day of remembering who that person is and why they matter. I think recreating that in our classroom, even in a small way, is powerful.
It reinforces our class culture and values. I often say to my students that we’re a family and a team. I stress this when we begin the year with arguing (I want them to understand argument primarily as a collaborative, intellectual endeavor rather than an antagonistic, mean-spirited one). Words of Wisdom communicates that every one of us has something worth sharing, some piece of us worth writing down.
It communicates that I take each child seriously. Even if they don’t take their words seriously (e.g., “Tupac isn’t dead”), I still write their words down. As the year goes on, kids are increasingly prone to share genuine insights or treasured lines. But it’s up to them; they are young adults.
It’s memorable. A few days ago, a former student and I were speaking, and she asked me if I shared my words of wisdom on my birthday. During the conversation, she mentioned that she still has her end-of-the-year printout from a year ago.
It’s quick. Class time is one of the most sacred things a teacher is given. How we use that time is very important. Traditions like this should be meaningful yet efficient.
What are your classroom birthday traditions?
I share this because it was on my mind this week — not because it’s the best way! What do you do for kids’ birthdays?
- To my horror, it’s the same day as Justin Bieber’s; much more to my horror, I’ve had students inform me of this fact for the past several years, including this year. Bieber Fever is still strong, my friends!
Thank you to Mom, Brian, Dad, and Kathy, for all the love you gave me on my birthdays growing up.