Enter to Win a Copy of Every Vote Matters!

Enter for a chance to win one of ten copies of Every Vote Matters!We’re giving away a copy of Every Vote Matters: The Power of Your Voice, from Student Elections to the Supreme Court to 10 lucky readers! This timely book examines crucial Supreme Court cases that were decided by a single vote and why they matter to teens.

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you encourage kids and teens to make their voices heard.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, February 19, 2016.

The winners will be contacted via email on or around February 22, 2016, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winners must be U.S. residents, 18 years of age or older.


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Posted in Free Spirit News | Tagged | 16 Comments

Psst! How to Curb Gossip in the Teacher’s Lounge

By Andrew Hawk

Psst! How to Curb Gossip in the Teacher’s LoungeHaving worked at four different schools as a teacher and a dozen more as a teaching assistant, I have been familiar with the teacher’s lounge for a long time. This private sanctuary offers teachers a place not just to eat, but also to recharge for the remainder of the day. In this simple room, bonds are often formed between teachers. These bonds can have a vast impact on the work chemistry of a teaching staff.

Unfortunately, this room can also be home to less positive interactions. I have worked at a school where gossip was a major problem. When gossip gets out of control, it can have a negative impact on student learning outcomes. In addition, things being said behind closed doors and not out in the open are one of the major indicators of a toxic work environment.

Venting is a healthy thing for people to do when they are frustrated. It is completely necessary and understandable. However, I suggest venting to a trusted friend or family member outside of the workplace. (Even then, do not include confidential information while venting.) Venting your frustration with a colleague or a student to a group of coworkers is never a good idea.

Unfair to Students and Colleagues
In the course of a school year, teachers will often come across private information about students that may affect their classroom performance. For example, if a student’s parents are getting a divorce, this is likely to have some impact on his behavior at school. Letting other teachers who might come into contact with that student know about a situation like this is not gossip. But telling every adult in the school about it and adding your opinion on the matter is gossip. Not only is it pointless, but it is dehumanizing to the student.

Finger-pointing is a common form of gossip that occurs among teachers. At the elementary level, this often happens between grade levels. Maybe the third-grade teachers think that the second-grade teachers grade too lightly. For this reason, so the gossip goes, the students are never ready for third grade. Perhaps fourth grade believes that third grade does not assign enough homework. For this reason, the third graders are never ready to embrace fourth-grade homework. You get the idea.

The problem is that in the midst of the finger-pointing, relationships deteriorate and nothing seems to change. If one grade level has a problem with how another grade level operates, all people involved should come together and hash out their differences.

Here are some tips for curbing gossip at your school:

Don’t Avoid the Teachers’ Lounge
When I was in college, professors told teaching candidates to stay out of the teachers’ lounge. My classmates and I were told that this was the best way to avoid becoming part of the gossip circles that exist in some schools. The problem with this strategy is that if all the people who do not gossip stay out of the teachers’ lounge, then gossipers are given an open area for gossiping. I am not suggesting that people go into the teachers’ lounge and confront gossipers, but you can make a big impact by leading by example.

Raise Awareness
Most teachers understand that gossip exists but do not understand its possible repercussions. The basic definition of a toxic environment is a place where the staff stand in the way of change. Gossip is one of the key elements of a toxic environment. If you think you may be working in a toxic environment, approach your administrator about pursuing a building-wide professional development on the subject. Better yet, do some research and offer to hold the professional development yourself.

Self-Monitor
Before you start training your colleagues on the dangers of gossip, do a little self-reflection and make sure that you are not a culprit yourself. If you are, you should form a plan to alter your behavior. Two good rules of thumb include the following: First, keep student information on a need-to-know basis. Second, do not say something about a colleague behind his or her back that you would not say to his or her face.

Voice Concerns at the Appropriate Times
Not everything needs to be said in a building-wide meeting. If one grade level has concerns about another grade level, stating the concerns in a full staff meeting will probably do more harm than good. However, somehow the two grade levels will need to come together to work out their differences. If you are in a situation like this and do not think the teachers will be able to resolve an issue on their own, approach your administrator about the matter. It will be the administrator’s duty to act as a facilitator in the matter.

Reach Out to the Island Teachers
“Island Teacher” is a term I have heard used to describe teachers who want to be on their own little island. They do not want to collaborate, and they do not want to do things as a team. These people are often the subject of school-wide gossip. Honestly, they bring most of it on themselves. If you work with someone like this, try to find a way to lure him or her off of the island. Gossiping about what a bad team player someone is will not change the situation.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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Talking with Teens About Respecting Physical Boundaries

By James J. Crist, Ph.D.

Talking with Teens About Respecting Physical BoundariesSexual assault has been in the news frequently over the last year. Many college campuses are struggling with how to establish useful guidelines for their students, as seen with the recent shift from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” However, teens start learning about dating and ways of approaching others well before they leave home. Parents have a vital role to play in helping their teens learn respectful ways of interacting with others.

The Challenges of Adolescence
Adolescence is a time of experimentation, and most teens experience some confusion about how to conduct themselves in relationships while taking into account the wishes and feelings of others. It’s not just a matter of respect, but also of being able to communicate one’s wishes clearly to the other person and of being able to understand what someone else is telling you about what he or she wants. Further complicating matters is the fact that many teens have mixed feelings about what they feel comfortable with, making it harder for even well-meaning teens to navigate this area of their lives. Wanting to be liked and accepted can cause them to go along with physical contact they are not ready to have.

Some teens have more trouble with these issues. Those with ADHD might react impulsively, for example, hugging someone or initiating a kiss without thinking about the consequences. Teens with autism spectrum disorders can have great difficulty reading other people and typically struggle with understanding how others might react to their attempts to get close. They often need more direct instruction. Substance use adds another dimension; teens who are drunk or high often exhibit poor judgment and may do things they ordinarily would not do. They may not recall what happened the night before. Anxious and shy kids often have trouble saying no.

A Strong Parent-Teen Relationship Facilitates Communication
Your ability to help your teens with these issues will depend on the quality of your relationship with them. These are hard issues for them to talk about (and maybe for you, too). If you have worked to establish a close and supportive relationship with your teens, it’s more likely they will come to you with questions or be willing to listen to your suggestions. If you are overly harsh or disrespectful in how you talk with teens and how you punish them, they are not going to come to you when they need help or advice. That increases their risk of making poor decisions.

Modeling the setting of healthy boundaries is also important. While parents usually expect their kids to obey them and not question them, this is not realistic. Teens need to learn how to say no, and that often starts at home. If they are never allowed to disagree with you or challenge you, they may not learn how to be assertive. Your task is to teach them to do it respectfully.

Teaching empathy at a young age is another useful task. Kids who understand how others feel and value the importance of not hurting someone else’s feelings may be more likely to show consideration and respect in their intimate relationships later on. This requires parents to respond empathically to children’s feelings, as well as teaching them to respond similarly to those of others.

Ways to Help Teens Establish Healthy Boundaries
Here are some suggestions for talking with your teen about respecting others’ boundaries. Remember that asking for their opinions first, rather than telling them what you think they should do, makes it more likely that your discussion will be mutually respectful and productive.

  • Ask your teen what his or her thoughts are on respecting others’ boundaries. For example, “How do you know if someone is comfortable with a hug or a kiss? Would you consider asking first, or would that feel awkward?”
  • Help teens think through possible consequences of their actions. For example, ask, “What do you think might happen if you start becoming physically intimate with someone without making sure he or she is comfortable with it?” or, “How will you feel the next day if you go along with something you really don’t want?”
  • Explore different ways of setting limits or boundaries with others. Again, lead with a question: “How do you think you would handle it if you were out with someone and you felt uncomfortable with what that person was doing with you (or trying to do)? How easy is it for you to say no? Would you worry about hurting the person’s feelings?”
  • Watching movies or TV shows with your teen is another way to broach the subject. When relationship issues come up, ask your teen, “What did you think of how that character handled the situation? What might you have done?”
  • Offer to role-play situations that might come up at parties or on dates. This may be especially helpful for kids who are shy and may have more trouble asserting themselves or setting limits with others.

Know the Laws of Consent
Make sure your teen is aware of the age of consent as well. This typically ranges from age 16 to 18 and varies from state to state. Trouble is more likely when there is an age difference. In most states, for example, if an 18-year-old has sexual contact with a 16-year-old, that can constitute statutory rape, even when both parties consent to the contact. The greater the age difference, the more hurtful it can be for the younger party. It’s also riskier from a legal perspective. Being charged can lead to being convicted as a sex offender, with potential jail time and negative implications for future job prospects. Teens typically don’t think that far ahead.

Finally, think of these issues as ongoing discussions with your teen. By letting your teen know that it’s always okay to come to you for help or advice, you strengthen your bond and improve the chances that he or she will grow up happy, healthy, and safe.

James CristDr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.

Free Spirit books by Dr. James Crist:

The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue  WhatToDoWhenYou'reScaredAndWorriedSiblingsYoureStuckWithEachotherSoStickTogether


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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Posted in Parenting, Social & Emotional Learning | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Writing from—and to—the Heart: Middle School Writing that Matters

By Jim Delisle Ph.D., coauthor of Building Strong Writers in Middle School

Writing from—and to—the Heart: Middle School Writing That MattersAs students transition from their early years of schooling to young adolescence, a rush of new emotions and thoughts leads many of them into a period of exploration and uncertainty. They yearn to fit in and find meaning in their lives, question their places in the world, and can easily become self-absorbed.

So what’s a language arts teacher to do? The best ones try to harness that intellectual and emotional energy by devising activities that tap into students’ nascent maturity. Let’s be honest: When many seventh or eighth graders hear that their assignment will involve a writing task, the groans can be deafening. Not for every young teen, to be sure, but enough of them have learned along the way that writing is so formulaic that it is an artificial exercise disguised as a meaningful task.

THAT’S about to change! When my wife Deb and I decided to write a book on middle school writing that matters, we wanted the activities to contain several elements:

  • Personal expression, so that our students’ voices could be heard
  • Open-endedness, to encourage both creativity and risk-taking
  • Integration, using words to express both thoughts and emotions
  • Fun, because, hey . . . it’s middle school, where playing around with ideas and words is a breath of fresh air in our data-driven schools

One of our favorite activities out of the 24 we include in our book is titled “My Personal Quote Shield.” We begin with the hook—a sneaky way to get our students curious about what’s to follow. As they enter the classroom, the board is filled with half-quotes, like these:

  • “To be or not to be . . .”
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”
  • “The only thing we have to fear . . .”
  • “Life is like a box of chocolates . . .”

Give students a few minutes to talk with classmates about how these quotes end and invite them to say (or guess) who said them. Following this, ask students for their opinions on the meaning behind these quotes, and mention how even a few short words can be timeless in their appeal—and meaningful for generations to come.

Now that you’ve primed your students with salient quotes, mention that this activity is going to involve finding a quote that is personally relevant to them from a real person or fictional character. They will find a quote (use any of the many quotation databases online) and type it, in large letters, on a sheet of paper. Have them attach this paper to a large piece of construction paper that is cut into the shape of a shield. Beneath the quote, they will attach a two- or three-paragraph essay explaining two things: how they interpret the meaning of this quote and why this quote is important to them.

Why a shield? Because a shield in the Middle Ages did two things: It identified a particular clan and protected the person holding it. Words can do the same: be both revelatory and protective.

Some of the quotes our students chose include these:

  • “Be yourself ’cause everyone else is already taken.” —Selena Gomez
  • “I think the thing to do is enjoy the ride while you’re on it.” —Johnny Depp
  • “Respect for the rights of others means peace.” —Benito Juarez
  • “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” —Wayne Gretzky
  • “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.” —Alice Walker

One of our more memorable essays came from a seventh grader who quoted Siddhartha Gautama: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” The essay that followed included these thoughts:

To me, this quote simply means that you can mope over mistakes in the past or look ahead to a different future. However, moping won’t change the past, and fantasizing won’t prepare your future.

I’ve made mistakes. For example, from the moment I was born I couldn’t see out of one eye. It wasn’t until late in my kindergarten year that I told my parents about my condition. When my mom asked why I hadn’t told her earlier, I told her it was because I didn’t want to have to wear glasses. If my bad vision would have been caught sooner, it would be a whole lot better now. Still, dwelling on the past isn’t going to change the present, so I moved on.

I often dream and worry about the future, like whether I’ll get decent grades in high school or if I’ll be able to get into (and afford) college. So, even though I could write a 500-word essay on how my life could turn out, the only thing I have control over is how I live my life today, which is why I like this quote so much. It backs up my personal beliefs.

Essay after essay, shield after shield, our middle school students’ hearts, minds, fears, dreams, and realities were displayed—literally—for others to see. Their writing takes on a personal meaning that is so often absent in traditional five-paragraph essays.

As an extension, students can post their quotes (or additional ones) on the school website’s weekly set of announcements. As an additional exercise, teachers can select their own favorite quotes and write essays similar to what their students wrote, posting them on a bulletin board near the school cafeteria or office. Trust us, they will get read!

Middle school essays don’t have to be dull. They can be filled with the lives of the students we serve, and when they are, we get to appreciate our students in unique and meaningful ways.

Delisle_Jim_FSP AuthorJim Delisle Ph.D., is a retired Distinguished Professor of Education at Kent State University and a former middle school teacher. The author of 19 books, Jim currently teaches gifted ninth graders monthly at Scholars Academy in Conway, South Carolina.

Free Spirit books by Jim Delisle:

Building Strong Writers in Middle School When Gifted Kids Don't Have All the Answers The Gifted Teen Survival Guide


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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That’s Not Fair! Teaching Kids the Difference Between Fair and Equal

By Barbara Gruener

That’s not fair! Teaching Kids the Difference Between Fair and EqualYou’ve probably heard cries of, “That’s not fair!” a time or two in the recent past. Let’s face it: Life doesn’t always seem fair, especially to our young people. Once they adjust their thinking, however, and can understand and appreciate the simple fact that fair doesn’t always mean equal, it doesn’t seem as insurmountable an issue.

But, how do we effectively concretize that abstract concept?

Start by using the eye-opening example of wearing prescription eyewear. After asking students if fair means equal (their typical response is a resounding, “yes!”), respectfully demand that everyone with glasses remove them because it’s not “fair” if some have glasses while the rest of the class doesn’t. This will challenge their thinking about fair meaning we’re all the same.

Then, use the one-size-fits-all bandage metaphor. Ask students to share aloud the most serious injury they can think of: a broken leg, a concussion, a laceration that requires stitches. As they share their answers, hand each of them a small bandage to fix their injury, no matter how big it is.

Finally, announce that you’re giving a WOW Award. Watch how straight and tall students sit as you contemplate who the recipient will be. Select someone who has something like you, maybe blue eyes, brown hair, or a white shirt. Explain to them how you chose that person and expect shouts of, “That’s not fair!” Let students explain why it’s not and what they think would be a fair way to determine criteria for an award.

Unpack each of these examples to check for understanding before asking again if fair means equal. It’s likely that their thinking will have changed a little bit.

In all fairness, we must teach students two key words and their definitions from Merriam-Webster to better understand the idea of fairness:

Equality: the quality or state of being equal; the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc.

Equity: fairness or justice in the way people are treated

Dealing with Unfairness: Six Tips for KidsYounger students will likely need your help understanding the difference. Simply put, fairness isn’t about everything being equal, but about leveling the playing field so that people get what they need when they need it.

Once students understand and can discern between equality and equity, glean examples from their everyday life and use them as prompts in a game of “Fair or Foul?” Do these scenarios hit a fair ball or a foul ball in the game of life? If foul, how can they be changed to make the situation fair? Some scenarios you can use are:

  • Your older sister gets to stay up later than you.
  • Your brother got money for his birthday and you didn’t.
  • Your friend brings her ball to school but won’t let you play with it.
  • Nick always gets to be the line leader.
  • You save a seat for someone in the cafeteria.
  • Your friend lets you cut in line in front of him at the drinking fountain.

Once you’ve played a few rounds, let your students supply the next few prompts to get a sneak peek into their world. Then, turn to literature to find more models for what’s fair and what’s not. Use the following titles to help students reflect on how the characters in these stories resolved their fairness frustrations:

A few more strong titles include:

Finally, keep the lines of communication open and give students permission to discuss their thoughts and feelings when life doesn’t seem fair. Ask them what they want or need to resolve their conflicts. Help them become problem solvers by listening to their concerns and offering equitable options to help strengthen their voices and choices as they work to negotiate life so that it feels fair for everyone.

Bonus! Download Dealing with Unfairness, a free printable page from What’s Up with My Family? These six tips will help kids keep their cool when life isn’t fair.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2016 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

Posted in Character Education, Early Childhood, Teaching Strategies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment