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![hr]
Thank you to Mom, Brian, Dad, and Kathy, for all the love you gave me on my birthdays growing up.
Love this idea! I’ve always felt like I should be incorporating kid’s birthdays somehow into class, especially when you get those students who really want you to know it’s their birthday. I think the day is a big deal to students at this age (and to your wife’s point, should be at all ages). I think this is a convenient way to begin using them to reinforce our class culture. The challenge for me, as with most classroom routines, is keeping consistent with it throughout the year but I think if I have students keep me accountable and add their birthdays at the start of each month then it’s a worthwhile use of time!
Thanks again for another useful idea, Dave!
My pleasure, Shawn! I hope you are well.
Now Dave!!!!!!!! Awesome idea BUT why didn’t you post this at the beginning of the school year ?? I can’t wait to use this next year !! I enjoy all of your blogs -I even printed one out for my principal to post in her office 🙂 I’m a big fan of teachers who take kids seriously and think of them as an important part in this journey called life -take care!!
Heather, this made me smile 🙂 Yes — I just never thought of sharing it until this week! I’ll make sure to include it in a back to school 2015 round-up article or something like that. Thank you for sharing my words with your principal, Heather!
Amelia Daniels Whitaker says
I really like this idea and plan to use it with my 6th graders. I sometimes write down the priceless things they say but I never thought about doing something like this. Thanks for sharing!
I now teach a reading intervention class to freshman, but when I first moved to high school, I taught 12th grade government. On each student’s birthday, I gifted them a voter registration card and told them to use it wisely. When I transitioned from Government to English 4, I continued this tradition, but I’ve sort of let birthdays go since I moved down a few levels. Thanks for the reminder that I should start treating them specially again.
Kathleen Below says
I bake each of my students a small birthday cake (use cake mixes, canned frosting, and sprinkles). I compile the birthday list at the beginning of the year and on the weekends I bake up a batch of cakes and keep them in the freezer. On the eve before a birthday, I take a cake from the freezer, slice it horizontally (while frozen is easier) and frost it like a two layer cake and put sprinkles on top. GFS carries the small to go containers and I usually invest in one bag of 100. I place the cake in the container and hand it to the student on their special day–sometimes we get a song, but mostly it gets a big smile from the recipient and everyone talks about the day when they will receive a cake. I love to bake, so it’s not a big deal for me, but when I listen to my students, you’d think I had put a lot of effort into it. Depending on what grade I am teaching that year (it changes every year), I have had the opportunity to get repeat offenders or some who are not with me this year, but send me a little reminder about their upcoming birthday. All around, I think it creates a high level of morale and family–my students can be tough but all I see are kids who need a little love–who am I kidding, a lot of love!!
Kathleen, this is epic!
Colette Book says
I like the idea you’ve shared. I like to honor kids’ birthdays by having a “Birthday” celebration during a lunch period near the end of the month. I send an invite to the kids who celebrated a birthday (and a half birthday) that month to bring their lunches and join me in my classroom. I get a chance to eat with them in a relaxed and informal way – and no one is allowed to “talk shop” – just casual conversations about what is going on in their lives. Not everyone accepts the invitation, though. I like your idea as it does get everyone to participate and then they have a “keepsake” that honors the class community. I’ll have to try this next year.
Colette, that lunch period idea is so neat, too!
Jared M. says
Love this idea! Our school announces birthdays (we are very small) so this is totally doable. I also have a picture of two from the year and have never known what to do with them. The short letter is a great idea. Thank you!
Denise Bakkum says
What a great idea! I can’t wait to make this a classroom tradition. Thanks so much for sharing!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
I’m so glad, Denise — thank you 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to go through this valuable lesson for the school year! I just started this and eagerly anticipating the students’ excitement at the end. What a great way to recognize students on their most important day!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Of course, Sarah! 🙂
Thank you for sharing this, my heart almost explored with joy! I love student birthdays. They are so important to me. It is my opportunity to really show students that I value them and how much my life is better for knowing them. I create a birthday board that has each student’s name and birth date posted on it. Students then receive a little goody bag filled with candy and a homework/extra credit pass.