Category: Classroom Management

Look at it This Way: Stories from the Growth Mindset Classroom

At the beginning of this school year, I set up some growth mindset self-talk phrases on my bulletin board. I had seen many great examples of elementary boards that encourage students down this kind of mental path, and I adapted what I saw online to suit my purposes, rephrasing when necessary to fit my high school clientele. While these are things that I hope my students will eventually be able to internalize, it takes modeling from me to show them how to adopt a mindset where they are at an emotionally healthy and academically ready place for learning. I’d like to share the statements that I use and a couple of ways that they pop up in real student interactions.

One of the biggest indicators to me that a student is going to grow in their skills and succeed in a class is their ability to problem-solve and self-advocate. In my classroom, that often means extra one-on-one help from me. If you know any high school students, you know that asking for help isn’t always their strong suit. I get around this by introducing non-optional, one-on-one conferencing with my students often, especially early in the year. We conference on their reading, their writing, their ideas for projects… and yes, it does take up a good chunk of class time. But it’s so valuable, because it builds a routine and a comfort with approaching me one-on-one. It simply becomes part of the daily workings of class. During a conference, I will speak problem-solving thinking processes aloud that could benefit them–things like, “Hey, since you’re having trouble finding a book, let’s go through how to look up titles on the library catalog by subject or author. I bet that would be a good tool to use” or “You know, it seems like you really had trouble with your conclusion of your last essay. Should we plan ahead for that this time by talking about how to write a successful conclusion?” It doesn’t take long before they start approaching me and adopting that kind of language on their own. In turn, I try to always make myself easily available and approachable for students who need support.

After nine years of teaching, I’ve cultivated some great standard responses for common questions or complaints from students. One of my favorites is set up with the cry of, “This is really hard! I don’t get it at all!” In response, I crack a huge smile and enthusiastically say, “Well, that’s a relief. If you thought it was easy and didn’t need any help figuring it out, I wouldn’t have a job! That’s why I’m here: to help you learn.” I often remind students that physical tasks, like riding a bike, take a lot of practice to learn and perfect. Why would a mental task be any different? Learning is a gradual process that doesn’t yield perfect results the first time. That’s a very freeing thing to realize. Early learning attempts should be free of pressure and judgement. Another classic comeback I have is this: “It’s ok that you’re struggling. That’s normal at first. You wouldn’t make fun of a baby for not being able to talk very well, would you? You’re still a beginner, but you will get better the more we practice.” It may seem obvious, but it can help a student snap out of the (incorrect) assumption that certain academic skills are just inherent to our personalities–instead, they arrive through exposure, study, and experience. Just like in the weight room, the more we train, the more challenge we can handle!


Laziness and apathy are the enemies of discovery. It’s important to me that students learn how to challenge themselves. Too often the focus is on “What do I need to do in order to be done as quickly as possible?” I’m sure this is in some way a symptom of our hurried, hectic modern lives, but most students default to being impatient, sloppy, and rushed…especially in their writing. For students who work at a high skill level, they often get by on “good enough” without actually challenging themselves. I try to show students the value of slow consideration and revision through modeling my own writing as it takes shape. I also attempt to relentlessly push students forward in my feedback. Even an “A” paper will get revision suggestions from me in the comments–I’m sure that’s initially frustrating to my students, but I explain that one of the reasons I love writing so much is that the difficulty level is unlimited! We are always growing, and there’s always a way to revise and improve. I intentionally talk about how hard writing is. Even for someone who thinks, teaches, and does writing for a living, writing presents a challenge. “If you’re not working hard or feeling challenged, you’re not doing it right”: another axiom that I hold my kids to. The struggle should be welcomed–it’s an indication that you’re working at an appropriate level of difficulty. I want to teach all my students to savor challenge. Still figuring that one out.

For kids who felt chronically helpless, giving up is the easiest way out. By the time they’ve reached the teenage years, many of them have mastered disengaging at a profound enough level to frustrate their teachers into leaving them alone to stagnate. My approach with these kids is a broken record question: “What is the first, small thing we can do to move forward?” I keep asking this. I may go away and come back. The question is always the same. I’ve come to learn that often, students are stuck on taking a step because the step feels too big. Writing an essay seems impossible. So instead, I cut it up into more digestible pieces. Depending on the student, he or she may need very small pieces. [ 1. Get out notebook. 2. Find a pen. 3. Write your name at the top of the page. 4. Write the title of the assignment. 5. Tell me about your ideas. 6. Let’s make a list of some of the ideas you just talked about. 7. Our first sentence should introduce the topic. What could you say? 8. Write that down. We can change it later….] Is it spoon-feeding? Yeah. But here’s the thing: kids eventually get sick of being spoon fed. When they rehearse the smaller steps enough times, they start to do it themselves. Small progress is still progress, and creates momentum to carry them through the task over time.

Some people feel that jealousy and comparison to others are good motivators when used correctly. I am not one of those people. I believe that one of the greatest keys to happiness in one’s life is to view the successes of others as sources of admiration and potential collaboration opportunities. This is a pretty big mind shift to ask for in our culture of individualism and competition, but I really try to foster it. So many times, I’ve heard someone say of a person who does well at something “I hate her” or “I hate him.” Hate? Really? A lot of the time, this hatred comes from the jealousy of how “easily” a certain skill seems to come to an individual. But this overlooks the work behind the scenes. Success comes from diligent work, so if I call out a student as a positive example in class, I focus on the process, not the product. I hope that this teaches students that they can imitate one another’s strategies for success, rather than believing that “good” students are just somehow magically good. I call attention to writing that has gone through several drafts, a student’s copious practice sessions before a speech, a meticulous set of index cards that indicates devoted studying. I give examples of people that I admire and imitate–even if my imitation is not as good as their example, it still makes me better! We all have strengths and weaknesses, and there’s much to celebrate together.

Feelings First: Acknowledging Emotion in the Secondary Classroom

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Anyone might agree to the statement that high school students have their share of drama. These are the years when all kinds of hormones run amok and create a world of feeling so vivid that it’s practically exploding. Parents know all too well the unpredictable bursts of joy, rage, and irritation that teenagers have been famous for since forever.

And on top of that, there’s something new. More and more young people are falling into our gaping, growing mental health crisis of anxiety disorders. Flying on the wings of ever-present disturbing media images and fueled by the pressure cooker of social media’s unforgiving threats and expectations, debilitating mental health issues have become increasingly prominent in our nation’s youth. If we’re being honest, we have to recognize that quite a few of our students feel a little bit scared most of the time.

But, oddly enough, despite the maelstrom of emotions swirling about us, I would argue that many high school teachers stay well away from talking about “Feelings.” (Make sure you give it a capital F and say it in a hushed tone.) I have had conversations with teachers who firmly state that they are “not much of a talk-about-your-Feelings kind of person.” As if it’s silly. As if it’s elementary. As if it’s weak. Or just because we get so focused on content that we forget the people that are staring us in the face while we’re trying to teach it. I will argue, though, that putting feelings front and center in the teaching of high school kids can make a more effective teacher. It strengthens our student’s trust in us, of one another, and helps them get stronger. 

So what am I talking about here? Am I describing a classroom world where every special snowflake is coddled and allowed to avoid anything that makes said snowflake uncomfortable? Absolutely not. I tend to share the sentiment that psychiatrist Rob Haskell espouses in his recent article on child anxiety for Vogue:

 Laypeople and professionals alike have pointed to something else at play in the anxiety epidemic, or rather a pair of paradoxical factors: We are both putting stress on our children and trying to protect them from the uncomfortable feelings that can be an appropriate response to stress. This sends a confusing message–that the world is dangerous and that kids don’t have the tools to manage those dangers.

Bearing this in mind, I try to empathize with my students’ sincere emotional struggles–whether fleeting or chronic. However, I also make it my mission to equip them with the tools they need to flow through those feelings and find strength on the other side. Of course, I am not a clinical psychologist, nor should I ever be confused with one. But I am a person who cares for children, and who feels a heavy responsibility toward helping them become successful adults. I’d like to share some of the ways that I put feelings first in my high school classroom.

1. When there’s something going on that is impacting the emotional climate in my classroom, I acknowledge it and advise students about how to manage their reactions while in my room. Teachers know what kinds of situations will create powder kegs of emotion. For example, this month, I taught the day after the presidential election. I had already heard a variety of comments shouted in the hallway before first hour to confirm my assumption that students would be keyed up about it. Before I started teaching, I addressed my class with this message: “Hi, everyone! Now, I need to be honest with you–I think today is going to be kind of difficult here at school because of the election results last night. Many of us were up very late, for one, and might not be at our best. But also, some of you are feeling very excited and happy about the results. Others of you are feeling very sad and nervous about the results. That creates a tough situation for me as a teacher, because we all need to work together today. So, I’m asking you to press pause on whatever you’re feeling while you’re in class so that we can avoid getting derailed by conflict or being distracted by our feelings. It’s very important to have political opinions and conversations, but we’re going to put those away in a box for now, so we can focus on other things. (Sidenote: I did have one student start to taunt another for his political affiliation, but I just reminded the taunter, “Hey, hey–away in the box, remember?” and he promptly apologized.) 

2.  When asking students to do something potentially anxiety-producing, I provide coping strategies, opportunities to practice in low-pressure environments, and include success stories of others who have faced their fears and won. My junior classes are currently in their public speaking unit. The final assessment for this unit is a solo speech of the student’s own design. Throughout the four-week unit, I teach them how to use their physical posture to feel and appear more confident. I give them early practice opportunities without evaluation other than copious praise. I counsel students one-on-one about what to do to manage nervousness beforehand. And I share awesome examples of people who have overcome their speaking fear, such as this incredibly moving talk by Megan Washington:

3. I model the appropriate sharing of positive and negative emotions. I never overshare, but I will be honest about how I’m feeling with my students. When they ask me how I’m doing, I might say, “I’m doing great! Even though I’m tired, I’m in a really good mood.” Or, I might say, “Pretty good, but feeling a little nervous about my big training run this weekend. I’ve never gone 20 miles in a row.” I will also be up front with students about my physical well-being. Sometimes I’ll start class with, “Hello, class! Just to let you know, I’m losing my voice today, so if I seem kind of tired, it’s because I’m a bit sick. Nothing to worry about, though; we’ll get through it!” On the horrifying occasion of a student’s death, I cried with my class, and told them I didn’t think I could be very productive that day and I didn’t mind if they took some time to process as well.

4. I teach about self-care. When exam time comes around and my students look visibly stressed, I remind them that grades are merely a measurement of their academic knowledge at one moment in time, and have nothing to do with their goodness as a person. I talk frankly with my students about the benefits of exercise, experiencing nature, eating and drinking nutritious things, hugging pillows, and learning to say “no” to obligations that overload them. These are real skills that adults need to negotiate the world, stay balanced, and avoid burnout. Whenever I can, I share the idea that we can’t control everything, that we don’t have to be perfect, and that we can be nice to ourselves even when we fail. I wish more of my teachers had told me such things. Even, (especially) in high school.

Nobody knew more about helping children understand emotions than the late master educator Fred Rogers. I’ll leave you with two of his quotes to ponder as you step back into your classroom this week:

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

From The World According to Mister Rogers

 

Inviting students to the table: “Circle up!”

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Why are the most elegant solutions also the simplest? Call it Occam’s razor, call it what you will, but sometimes when I reflect on my practice, I realize that I’ve started to forget some of the best things I already knew about teaching!

One of these things is very, very simple. So why does it feel almost like a secret? Here it is: teaching can–and probably should–happen in a circle. One. Big. Circle. With everyone in it. Including you. It is my hope that many of the teachers reading this post say to themselves, “Yep, already do that in my classroom,” and move on. But the rest of you, hear me out.

There’s a huge priority on small group collaboration in today’s K-12 educational landscape, and more and more classroom sets of desks are consequently being replaced by collaborative tables where students sit in pods of two, three, or four. While I’ll be the first to say that students do benefit from working together, there’s more than one way to make that happen. Often, a classroom needs to work as a whole, unified community. So what does that look like? For many of us, we default to a stand and deliver format for whole class work–every student faces the front of the room, and the teacher instructs them while standing front and center. This can be problematic, though! Physically, such a classroom mode sends the message that the teacher is creating and dispersing knowledge while students absorb it. However, that approach doesn’t work so hot when you need to create knowledge together alongside your students.

I started (re-)understanding this last year, when I assembled a group of my AP students into a big, whole-class circle. It was a small, intellectually mature group, and I thought it would be “fun” to put our desks in a circle for discussion.

Four easy steps to put a classroom in a circle:

1. Tell students, “We’re going to put the desks/chairs in a big circle today. I’m going to ask you all to help me with that.”

2. Say, “Let’s go.” Start moving your own chair or desk, and they will follow suit.

3. (Optional step) Make fun of how terrible of an attempt at a circle the resulting shape is. This lays down the gauntlet for geometrical accuracy in the future.

4. (Most important step) Sit down in your own spot in the circle. Direct any members of the class who are not truly on the circumference line to adjust so that everyone can see them, and they can see everyone else.

Once in the circle, we all took a moment to say, “Whoa… this is different!” We were connected. We could all make eye contact with one another easily. I was sitting in a desk, on the same visual level as my students. Discussion was more dynamic, more considerate, and more organic than ever before. The kids loved it, and asked to do it more often. As they bounced out the door, I wondered, “Why don’t I do this all the time?”

This year, I made the circle a regular part of my AP classes. Every time we had a class discussion planned, I’d chime out, “Circle up!” and watch the room morph before my eyes. I love having a front row seat to my students’ faces as they think, process the ideas brought to the table by others, raise questions, and share their own interpretations. The circle brings my students physically to an equidistance with myself, sending the message that we’re all creating this moment of learning together. And, when I step in to guide or laugh or offer an idea, I feel less like an authoritarian and more like a mentor, because we’re all at the table together. This is how college workshops and workplace team meetings operate. Of course, it worked here, too. Obviously, it worked with these small, mature groups of AP students. I’m not saying I would try the circle with my most rowdy, crowded group of juniors.

OR WOULD I?

I would, and I do. After the wild success of the circle in my AP classes, I’ve experimented a couple times with class circles even in classes where I thought, “The circle will be too big to fit in the room” or “These kids might not be able to handle this kind of thing.” Guess what? The circle did fit in the room, and they were totally able to handle it. It’s hard to misbehave when one is literally face to face with the teacher, no matter where in the room they may be. Again, these students also asked for the circle to happen more often, and I’ve set it as a professional goal for next year to develop more circle-friendly lessons, in all of my classes. Isn’t it interesting how these millennial kids, so often criticized as the generation who can’t hold an in-person conversation, are so keen on sitting in a circle and story-sharing? My inkling is that even our born-with-Google clientele craves a little more real life discussion, which can only happen if we create a classroom environment which invites it. Most of us start our learning lives in circles, whether around the family table or cross-legged during kindergarten story time. Let’s not let it die in high school.

Long live the circle.

Also, this Onion article always makes me chuckle. Just another reason to circle up! (Click on the image for the full text of the article.)

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Dear Kid, (The Magic of Summer Email in AP Literature and Composition)

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Like most other AP (Advanced Placement) instructors, I require my incoming AP Literature and Composition students to complete a summer assignment. The idea behind summer coursework is to keep students’ skills limber over the summer, to give them a realistic look at the level of work they’ll be expected to complete during the year, and to provide me with a preview of where each student shines and struggles as a starting AP scholar.  Last year, I was feeling a little out of sync around this time as I transitioned to a new school, since my new AP students were working with a summer assignment that was designed by their previous AP teacher, and hence unfamiliar to me.  I really felt hampered by flying blind–not being able to depend on the summer assignment that I had so lovingly designed during my previous two years teaching the course.

This year, though, as I am fully installed in the Port Washington High School English Department–with a new classroom and everything!–my original AP summer assignment is BACK. And, at risk of sounding like the tagline for a Godzilla movie, it’s bigger and badder than ever.

I’ll be the first to admit that my summer assignment is, in fact, a little bit beastly. If you’d like to see the monster in full for reference in the development of your own AP course, or just out of curiosity, CLICK HERE! For everyone else, here’s the breakdown. My new students are required to (1) Read and annotate How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster. (2) Read a book off of my provided list of literary classics. (3) Write an analytical essay about said choice book, and also (4) Write me two letters via email during the summer, to which I will respond. I’ve got my reasons for including each of these elements, but I’d like to address this last requirement in this particular post, because I think it makes a huge difference: the summer email back-and-forth with my future students.

That fourth component may seem a little bit unnecessary. I mean, I’m already asking them to read two books and write a paper… why must I force my students and myself to deal with even more responsibilities during the summer? I was definitely asking myself that a few days ago when I sat down to the task of responding thoughtfully to over forty emailed letters. But, I’m telling you: SO worth it. I got a lot out of it, and I gave a lot to it. These interpersonal transactions add up to an invaluable starting rapport with a group that I’m going to be asking a lot of from September to June. Here’s a little look at why this process is so awesome.

What I Ask My Kids to Do

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What I Get From The Process

During the process of reading these letters, I get a flavor for who these kids really are, especially as it relates to the subject matter that I teach. Since this communication happens before I am formally evaluating, there’s no pretense, no “I am performing for you” filter. They are honest about how they feel about past English classes, the idea of reading in general, their own writing skills… and they usually have a pretty good handle on assessing their own personalities. This helps monumentally. It jumpstarts my understanding of the interpersonal originalities each student brings to the table–it serves as kind of a cheat code, to use video game jargon, into the level of interaction that allows me to be a successful mentor.

The best part, especially of the first letter, is that I also get a built-in dose of self advocacy as each student tells me of their hopes and fears related to the class. It serves as a window in to where I’m going to have to supply extra support, where I’ll have to be extra sensitive, and where I can challenge and push. Without these letters, it would probably take me weeks to figure out this kind of information for each student. In the special space of summer letters, where the hectic rhythm of the school year is removed, I get a more realistic, candid beat on student skill levels and personalities.

What I Give To The Process

I respond to each and every student letter with an original response, which helps me put my best foot forward as an instructor. I make sure to read to their letters very carefully, making sure to highlight specific things that they mentioned which caught my eye. In my response, I might do any or all of the following:

*Encourage a declaration of academic ambition. (Ex. I am blown away by your goal to read every book ever written by Toni Morrison! That is SO cool! )

*Relate to a similarity that I share in writing style, reading preferences, or personality tendencies. (Ex. You mentioned having a hard time speaking up in class discussions. Guess what? I was the same exact way in high school. Even now, it can be hard for me to navigate unfamiliar social situations unless I work at it. I get that.)

*Offer advice related to areas of struggle. (Ex. I hear what you’re saying about distractions making it tough to focus on reading. I’ve found that finding a specific time of day where I step away from all electronics can be helpful–sometimes making it a habit can help train your brain to know that it’s “reading time.”)

*Be frank. (Ex. You spent a pretty big portion of your letter addressing how you dislike assigned reading. Just so we’re clear, there will be a TON of assigned reading in AP Literature & Composition. I’m guessing you’re ready to take on the challenge, but if you find that this isn’t the course for you, please let me know, ok?)

*Appreciate humor. (Ex. P.s. I loved the picture of a donut-eating shark that you included at the end of your letter–hahaha!)

*Encourage and remind. (Ex. I am so excited to have you in my class this year! I’m looking forward to reading your second letter about your choice book and essay ideas!)

As I write back to my students in way that is focused zero percent on evaluation and one hundred percent on relating to them as learners, I get the chance to establish myself first and foremost as someone whose job it is to support them in their academic journeys. When I see my students for the first time in September, we’re already all going to know each other a little bit. And that is priceless.

I would be really interested to find out how a process like this might work for elementary classes or other secondary level classes outside of AP… has anyone else tried this kind of summer communication with future students? It’s a pretty powerful practice. It does take an extra donation of time… but for me, it’s worth it. What do you think? Leave a response in the comments below!

How My Cat Made Me a Better Teacher

This is my cat. His name is Dante. I love him more than almost anything else on the planet. If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m not really a personal blogger, so this is a new move for me, but hang in there–it’ll get back around to teaching. For now, just look deep into those handsome feline eyes and say, “Awwww!” Then, scroll down.

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This post is about human connections. And you just had one with me. I shared something about my life that is both important to me and almost universally relatable. This is something we do to build relationships with our friends and family constantly. But do we do this with our students? For me, if I’m being honest, I have to say the answer is normally “no.”

Especially high school teachers, I think, are encouraged to keep their personal lives very quiet in the classroom. There are many very good reasons for that. For me, it’s mostly about time and professionalism. I need to cover a lot of rigorous content with a lot of students in very little time. That’s my job. I take this seriously to a fault, even so far as to respond to the occasional, “Did you do anything cool this weekend, Ms. H?” with something like, “That’s neither here nor there–but let’s take out our Chromebooks and check out today’s learning targets!” I like being focused on what my students are learning, and I like a veil of privacy to be drawn between my work and home life. My students understand that I am their teacher, not their pal, and that I don’t respond to Q&A’s about my life… even if I will talk with them for hours about their writing.

But there’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes even the most professional teacher has to let a little bit of daylight come through between that personal-professional barrier in order to be an effective educator. The reality is that kids respond to teachers who present themselves as people. And while I’ll certainly never be comfortable sharing very much, there are certain aspects of life that are always worth sharing–things like sports, art, and animals. These three topics never fail to spark delight in even the students who are hardest to reach. I remember, a few years ago, being warned about a particular student who had a problem with authority. I brought up my concerns to another teacher, who gave me the key–“Just talk to him about fishing,” she said, “and he’ll love you forever.” She gestured over to her bulletin board at the collection of handmade lures that he had given to her, and smiled. This is something that I tend to forget, and I am grateful every time that I am reminded of it. Talk to the kid about what he loves, and share a little bit about what you love. Sometimes, it goes a long, long way.

So, back to Dante the cat. A couple of my junior classes this year made it very challenging for me to motivate and interest them. For whatever reason, many of these kids kept me very much at arm’s length at the beginning of the year. This was understandable–as a new teacher in the school, they didn’t know me or necessarily trust me. It didn’t matter how many times I’d offer to look at their writing or talk to them about their reading; they simply weren’t having it. So, when we did a multi-media memoir vignette project, I took one of those personal risks that one has to take before expecting trust in return. I created an exemplar memoir vignette about my cat: the process of adopting him, the way I nearly decided to return him to the Humane Society after his aggression wouldn’t subside, and the slow, beautiful process of his becoming the most loyal and gentle feline friend I could have. I “broke rank” and even included pictures of me with my cat, and openly gushed about him, at the risk of cementing my status as a crazy cat lady.

But you know what? The kids LOVED it. And it created a window that everyone could reach through who has ever cared about an animal… and that’s pretty much every one. Just from that little bit of sharing, I got more eye contact, more smiles, and–truly–more effort on assignments. Students would purposefully bring me stories of the antics that their pets were up to, and show off cell phone pictures. It made a huge, lasting difference. I even mentioned Dante just in passing the other day, and when one student said, “Who’s Dante?” another responded with, “How do you NOT know who Dante is?! He’s Ms. H’s amazing cat!”

Recently, a colleague of mine was asking for advice on what to do to reach a group of students who just wouldn’t work for him or respond to him. My suggestion was to take some time to talk with each of them, one on one, and just kind of “check in” with their progress in the class or toward graduation, and see what they wanted to share. Even though it’s not found in any textbook, the occasional moment of inviting others to share what’s important to them is an important way to invite youth to engage with us. It may not be written explicitly in the curriculum, but it’s something that should not be forgotten.

So, I may still refrain from sharing personal details about my beliefs, my family, or my shopping habits… but I’ve made it a point this year to do more sharing about my creative goals, playlists, and athletic pursuits with students, inviting them to tell me about their own passions. And, of course, I’ve brought up Dante a couple more times. It translates to a greater appreciation between teacher and student, which is another way of saying higher achievement.

 

The War Against Time: Teaching Well Without Bringing Work Home

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When I started my teaching career, I worked like an absolute fiend. I would get to school an hour early, stay an hour past the last bell, go home, eat, and keep working from 6:30pm to 10:00pm. I would also reserve eight hours every Saturday for grading. While I loved teaching, a desperate panic would often set in as I looked, utterly overwhelmed, at the pile of work to be done that just never seemed to go away. I didn’t see how it was possible to sustain this level of dedication for a whole career. I remember other teachers at my first job telling me, “Don’t take work home–you need time for yourself, too.” I remember thinking “How? I have to design three brand new lessons every night, create materials, find resources, read and give feedback on my students’ multi-page essays… There’s NO WAY I can do my job without taking work home.” I remember asking my district mentor to level with me. “Honestly,” I asked her, “is it even possible for an English teacher to do her job well without taking work home? Will I ever get there?” She smiled knowingly and admitted that she, as a very experienced educator, still spent weekend time grading, but she did dangle a purportedly real-world example of what would become the (seemingly unachievable) goal that I would strive for over the next five years–a colleague of hers who taught English full time, and never did a single moment of work outside of school. “He never stops moving,” she said, “He’s never without his stack of grading or his laptop… But when he leaves for the day, he’s done.” I knew that I needed to get there if I was going to be happy as a teacher. I needed to never stop moving.

Fast forward to this, my fifth year teaching. This year has been the first in which I have actually succeeded–I simply do not do work outside of work. It is my hope that sharing some of my time management strategies can help others who want to make more time for their waking lives to harmonize with–rather than be crushed beneath–their teaching careers. As a result, it is my strong belief that we become better teachers.

A Quick Disclaimer: I have a beautiful career situation that sets me up for success.  I can devote more time to actually doing my job because my commute is all of five minutes. (For two years of my teaching career, I had an hour commute; nobody appreciates a short commute more than I.) Also, my school gives its teachers both a period for prep as well as a period reserved for department collaboration every day–this saves time for all of us to be on the same page and work on projects together as a team while at school. The biggest deal? My class sizes never get much higher than 25. As someone who started her career with classes of 35+, this also plays a huge role in my ability to manage time. (I also do not have children at home, which I’m sure contributes to a nice reserve of mental energy that those who do have kids cannot always count on!) Without all of these perks, I would never be able to handle a schedule of four different courses in five sections without bringing work home.

How Is This Accomplished?

Use the internet to do your lesson planning. My life has gotten so much easier since I took my lesson planning online. For the past two years, I’ve been posting each of my lessons daily on my class websites. Each post includes learning targets, a narrative of the class agenda, and links to all materials (videos, documents, links) that students need to complete the lesson. This helps me blend several tasks into one. What used to be writing out notes to myself, making copies, designing instructional materials, and writing out directions on the board is now one simple step. It also keeps everything organized by date and time, and negates the need to hunt down work for students who were absent. And revising posts from year to year becomes unbelievably simple. No more looking through clunky binders… CTRL + F, and you’ve got exactly what you need in a matter of seconds. Also, I can work on my lesson posts from anywhere, anytime. Thanks, Internet!

Build on previous material. One of the biggest reasons that I was not able to get away from doing work at home early in my career was that I wrote all my own curricular material rather than working from a textbook. Every single school night, I was designing or compiling several somethings for my classes–maybe writing a skit that transformed two chapters of Pride and Prejudice into modern language, creating a “How to write an annotated bibliography” guide, and inventing a grammar review game. ALL IN ONE NIGHT! EVERY NIGHT! FYI: This is insane, and should probably not be attempted, but it is how I operated for the first three years. And it has worked to my benefit over time. I have thousands of pages of curricular material that I’ve written, which creates a library that I can draw from to modify and reuse. I also keep my entire collection of material online using Dropbox and/or Google Docs, so it is instantaneously accessible, searchable, and linkable. If you made it, use it. Revise and recycle successful activities.

Be smart with assessment. Not every assignment needs to have a unique point value. All of my daily assignments are worth 5 points, and I grade them on a formative scale. I try to remember that little daily practice writings are practices. Kids need to know what level of understanding they are reaching. They do not need me to make it worth twelve points and write down three sentences that explain each point that I’ve taken off. This helps grading go by quickly. Is the skill demonstrated perfectly, fairly, not quite, barely, or not at all? This is a question that I can discern and mark extremely quickly. I also do a lot of what I call “live grading,” where I literally record the grade for the assignment as a student is presenting it or as I am walking around the room during student work time. I don’t need to collect things in a pile if I just walked up to a kid’s desk, read it, and gave him verbal feedback that he immediately applied–so I collect as little actual work as possible. I save lengthy written feedback for major assignments, and these I collect in shared Google Docs folders that are organized by my students’ last names. This way, I can type my feedback (SO much faster than handwriting), and I don’t have to sort anything as I transcribe scores into my online gradebook. Students also receive their feedback the instant that I write it.

My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)
My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)

Never stop moving. Every minute of time is precious. I know you want to spend the first five minutes of your prep staring at the wall being overwhelmed. I have been there, my friend. But seriously, bring your laptop or notebook or whatever you are using to plan lessons or assess student work wherever you go. Those ten minutes waiting for a staff meeting to begin are useable minutes. The five minutes you’ve given students to silently read an article at the start of class are usable minutes. The twenty minutes that your students are taking to work with a guidance counselor to enroll for classes are usable minutes. I try to keep my focus and drive razor sharp throughout the school day (with the exception of lunch, which should be a mental break). The incentive of not doing work at home helps me keep checking things off of my list rapidly.

Don’t leave the building until you’re done. Since I’ve vowed to do no work at home, I sometimes stay in the building late. But I tell myself that I can’t leave until I’m completely prepared for everything the next day. And I stick to it. If I have to stay until 4:30pm or even 5pm once in a week, it is still absolutely worth the mental freedom of knowing that the moment I get into my car to go home, the rest of the night is always my own time.

Sometimes, you might still take work home. But schedule and adhere to it like a mandatory work commitment. There is one exception to this rule for me, and it’s grading formal essays for my AP Literature and Composition classes. This takes quite a bit of time, because the writing is longer, more complex, and the feedback that I need to give has to move students into a college level of insight and argumentation. Every three weeks or so, I need to schedule extra time to grade these–I usually need about seven hours to accomplish this for my 31 AP students. So I schedule my “work day” on a Saturday. If possible, I do it outside my home, which is supposed to be a relaxing, work-free space. But I go hard and do it all in a row. Because the sooner I have fulfilled my responsibilities to my students, the sooner I can get back to spending time with people I love and freeing my mind up so that I can get to school fresh, excited, and positive on Monday. 🙂

Essentially, I just want others out there to know that it can be done. But it doesn’t happen overnight. My second year of teaching, I actually felt irresponsible for making 9:30pm my “cut-off” point for work, but I had to do it for my own sanity. My third year, I made the cut-off 7:30pm. My fourth year, I added on a “no work on weekends” rule in addition to a 6pm cut-off on weeknights. And now I’m here. I’m living proof that it can be done, without sacrificing doing an excellent job for your students. Challenge yourself to work better, not longer!

Design Thinking and the Classroom of the Future

I recently joined my district’s ReDesign team, a group of teachers and administrators who meet once a month to share ideas about design thinking, and work together to find ways to start applying it in our classrooms. Especially considering the project-based senior English class taught by myself and Ms. J, I felt that this would be an important group to take part in. At the first meeting I attended, our facilitator led the returning and new members in a design thinking challenge, to get us acquainted with what design thinking really means. Since design thinking involves a process based on interaction and problem solving, learning by doing was ideal. Our fearless leader, Mr. L, used materials from Stanford University’s Institute of Design (known as the d. school) to train us–I am quickly learning that the d. school has many invaluable, free resources available for those who want to learn more about design thinking. To get an idea of what it’s all about, and what kinds of things we examine on our ReDesign team, check out the Stanford Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking.

My first ReDesign meeting was a little over a month ago, and two very cool things have come out of it–one practical, and one a little more imaginative. I’d like to share both quickly in this post.

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First, the practical example. As mentioned above, design thinking is a natural extension of the work we’ve started with our seniors in English 12. (For more on our course design, see this post.) Now that our students have finished their inquiry-driven academic research papers, we are officially transitioning into the most design-heavy portion of the course, where students design, produce, and promote a project that relates to their area of research. Before we set the students loose solo, however, we decided to do a mini project with a little bit of guidance to get them used to this way of thinking and learning. This was an excellent time to share what I learned about design thinking directly with my students. (Here’s a version of the presentation that we shared with students, while mentoring them on a small scale project that spanned about a week from conceptualization to distribution: Design Thinking) Ms. J and I look forward to seeing what our kids can do when it comes to their independent projects… I am already solidly impressed with how much they have grown in their ability to work together, respond to feedback, iterate freely,  and think about the logistics of a final product with a specific audience in mind. We’ve since moved on to the initial prototyping for their individual senior projects, and it’s so exciting watching the students struggle but succeed through the problem solving process of finding the correct solution to a pertinent real-world problem or need associated with their topic. (Here’s our expectations guide that we’ve used to help students develop and frame their project/process plans: The English 12 Senior Project Expectations Guide) They are currently overwhelmed by the possibilities and the vastness of the task, but they are starting to trust the process, and that will guide each student to the right place in the end, even if that means that hundreds of different places are the right one!

The second cool thing that has already come out of my involvement with the ReDesign team has been the chance to imagine a little bit. During the first workshop, I was partnered with my colleague Mr. M, and we were tasked with envisioning a product that could help address a specific need within our classrooms. As we discussed the needs that we feel as teachers, many different things came up: better ways of communicating with students, ways to streamline and combine the many emerging classroom technologies that we already use, better ways to collect, assess, and archive student work in a meaningful fashion… So, since our challenge was on an imaginary unlimited budget, Mr. M and I designed the ultimate technological tool: smart desks with touchscreen surfaces that would instantly customize for each student. The desktop would contain the content and student work for all classes throughout a student’s career, allowing for archiving and review by teachers, students, and parents. Messaging capabilities would allow teachers to send quick reminders or notes to students. Students could type, speak, or write with a stylus to complete their work, which would be stored in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. Videochat and live workspaces would enable collaboration across classes and even schools. Media editing and learning software would be customizable and built-in. There would even be a mood indicator light on the side, so that teachers could know at a glance if a student was compromised or energized by emotion on that particular day. Students could touch and share, or group their assignments with a flick of the hand or the touch of a button. How cool would that be?!  We gloried in the freedom to ideate without limits and wondered how much money it would take to really bring the smart desk to life. But the most staggering thing was the realization that we came to: this kind of thing *will* be a reality in the years to come. In fact, as our friend Mrs. D tipped us off to, there are many others out there who are way ahead of us in envisioning the classroom of the future: Click here…

Adults often start to forget this, but really, anything that we can imagine, can be. By the time they turn 18, our students should believe that more than they did in kindergarten, not less. Because it’s possible and true.  Here’s to design thinking, and the wonder it brings.

Secrets to Making Work Time Productive in the English Classroom

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If your classroom is like mine, you’re constantly asking students to create—to display their skills in composition by writing essays, designing presentations, synthesizing research, or penning poetry. While there are many exciting ways to present the content for developing these skills during a traditional lesson, eventually the students do need to take complete control of it by making something that demonstrates their proficiency in the targeted skills. And we all know what that means… work time!

Most schools seem to have adopted the mentality that, at least in part, guided work time belongs in the classroom rather than at home. And while I feel that it is important for students to cultivate independence and responsibility outside of school hours, I also know that it makes good sense to provide in-class work time for students to receive initial feedback, to compensate for time that may be stretched by work and extracurriculars, or to provide quality computer access for a student who may not have it at home. So, we sign up for the computer lab, hand out our instructions, and let the kids go, with the expectation that things are going to get done!

That being said, what actually happens during “work time” can sometimes devolve into a confusing muddle of distraction, idleness, and sub-standard results if the classes aren’t structured appropriately. As a teacher, this can be frustrating! Sometimes we ask ourselves why we even bother to dedicate two or more consecutive days of class to work time if our students don’t use it correctly. While much of that can certainly be remedied through strong classroom management and clear directions, I’ve found a combination of several strategies that, when applied, will consistently ensure that work time is truly a productive block of time where real teaching, learning, and (YES!) work will indeed occur.

*STRUCTURING CLASSROOM WORK TIME: A HOW-TO*

The Prewriting Check-Off

I always give my students a pre-writing activity that will help them start developing their ideas for a particular assignment. This may be a detailed annotation of a poem, a graphic organizer, an outline, a thesis-generator sheet, or even a sketch that shows an idea. When my students have their first day in the lab, before they may even turn their computer on, they must get their pre-writing activity physically checked off by me. This helps students get their ideas in order, so that they have at least a starting point. As I check students off, I can address early misunderstandings or questions while also avoiding the “blank screen phenomenon.” If a student has trouble starting, I can point to their annotations or graphic organizer and help them use that as a springboard for their first keystrokes. This way, I know that every student is prepared to work well before they even begin.

Mini Lessons at the Start of Class

Especially if the project is an extended one requiring several days in the lab, I start my students in the actual classroom, where I give a mini-lesson on a particular writing or analysis skill that’s relevant to the task they are approaching in their work. For example, during a branding project for English 12, I showed my students a brief presentation on how to use color, typography, line, and texture to communicate ideas before we started working on that particular day. A short mini lesson before work time gives my students an injection of learning that they can immediately apply in their work, making them more focused and capable. When I offer mini-lessons, I go pretty quickly as to not take up too much time, but I always make the content available on my website, so that students can refer to it throughout the class if they need to revisit it or take a closer look at an example—which I often see them do!

Goal Setting

This is such an easy step that is often overlooked. Give students a specific goal, or even a set of goals, for each day of work time Goals can be skill-based (Ex. Today, I want you to include at least one metaphor and at least one personification in your writing.), quantity-based (Ex. I want you to write two or more pages by the end of class), or process-based (Ex. I want you to at least get through step three of the directions today.) I also ask students to set personal goals as they are logging on. Again, this gives students a specific thing to shoot for, which increases the sense of meaning and urgency for what they are working on, and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they meet the goal.

Sticky Notes for Student Needs

After the first couple days of a project, it can be hard to know exactly how hands-on to be with the students as they work. Students at the middle or end stages of a paper or presentation have a way of all looking like they know exactly what they’re doing… even though some of them inevitably don’t. So, what’s the teacher to do? You don’t want to distract or intrude upon students who are “in the groove,” but you also want to know if students need help. My technique for dealing with this conundrum is giving each student a sticky note to stick on top of their monitor. I give them a range of options for what to write, usually “I got this,” “I have a question,” or “I’m lost!” As I stroll around the lab, I visually check the post-its. I quickly address the needs of the lost students, meander around to the ones who have a question or two periodically, and leave the go-getters alone to do amazing work without any help from me!

Classroom Management through Sound

I do allow students to listen to music on their headphones as they work if they wish. I will also periodically play music out loud for the whole class—I usually select a Pandora station with contemporary but slow-paced music. [My current favorite station, which changes weekly, is The Gabe Dixon Band. It’s important to avoid Top 40 or very danceable tracks, which have the opposite of the desired calming effect!] I use music as kind of a subliminal “get focused” signal for students that are a being little too social. I don’t say anything about it; I just turn the music on. It seems to work best to start the volume loud, about as loud as the students are talking. As they register the fact that music is playing, they typically start lowering their own volume. I then ratchet the volume down along with them… it’s kind of like magic! In the event that music is ineffective, I will implement silent work time and seating charts. Students may bellyache about it, but when it’s necessary, silence always sends the message that things need to get done. In this case, I usually say “I want to hear the sound of typing. That should be the main sound you are making.” I’ve also found that a half-and-half technique, splitting the class between productive buzz (first part of class) and silent work (middle of class up until the bell), is effective and helps students retain momentum over the full length of the class period.

Individual Conferences

While all of this is going on, I also make sure to conference individually with each of my students at least once throughout the duration of any project. I try to catch students who I know will need a heavy dose of guidance first, and then call students up at random to talk about their vision, progress, and plan. This gives me a really good idea of each student’s understanding of the task, and allows me to offer explanation, ideas, suggestions, and reactions. It also provides a chance to interact with students one-on-one, which builds positive relationships and helps me be accurate with the types of differentiation and assessment methods I’m using.

So those are my secrets for catalyzing student productivity… How about you? Any other ingenious suggestions for how to structure work time? I’d love to hear them!

 

Project-Based English 12–Semester One

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What is English 12?

That’s the question my colleague Ms. J and I found ourselves asking last summer, as we prepared to roll out a brand new version of senior language arts. Our department had found a need for a new way of looking at things as the new Common Core State Standards were being presented, 21st century skills were becoming the most touted measuring stick for student achievement post-high school, and voices in our community were calling for graduates who were more professionally savvy. Our previous English 12 courses were very traditional literature-based classes, with no real identity to ground them as anything other than a basic senior English course. Our vision was to completely revamp the curriculum: Align curriculum to the standards. Create a project-based course that gives freedom and ownership to the students. Find ways to constantly connect learning to the community and to real life experiences. We hoped to see higher student engagement/buy-in, higher achievement, and an emerging professional demeanor in our students.

Here’s what we came up with:What’s English 12? Infographic

As the year unfolded, the students were occasionally mystified or daunted by the new, challenging things we were asking of them. The largest of these is the senior research proposal, paper, and project. Students are asked to select a defining topic that pertains to their interests, skills, or future plans. Throughout the year, they develop research on that topic which eventually results in a project, of their own design, that the students display for the community at the end of the year showcase. During semester one, we’ve planted the seeds for this epic undertaking in several special ways. I’ve given a snapshot below.

September – October: Introduced “big picture” of course, linking to Tony Wagner’s idea of Passion, Play, and Purpose as the most important cornerstones of learning that creates innovation and creativity. Students were asked to begin considering their topic choices, keeping these ideas in mind.

Early November: Over 30 local professionals from many different fields were our guests at the Professional Symposium, an event designed for students to learn more about the real expectations of the different corners of the work world. Each professional had a table where they brought in things related to their career (like a model of a human spine, a laptop video display, architectural drafts, plants…). The students, who were required to dress professionally, then circulated and asked both prepared and impromptu interview questions to prompt conversations. Students also had important roles in the event, such as being in charge of lighting/sound and giving the closing address. This experience offered important insight, and helped several students select a topic.

Late November: Students were required to select their topics by this time. (True to the student-ownership goal, these ranged from the history of comics to Spina Bifida awareness to Bigfoot to sports medicine.) We took the students on a research field trip to the Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee. The staff worked amazingly well with our massive group of students. During this experience, our rural students got to see what a respected university library is like, and they had access to a nearly-endless collection of both digital and print resources to inform their topic. They spent the day taking resource-specific notes and refining their topic choices.

December: In class, we offered instruction on specialized research skills, like how to conduct an email interview, using electronic databases, how to take notes, and choosing what to read in a lengthy  source. During this unit, students wrote a detailed annotated bibliography of 20+ credible sources related to their topics. Students were expected to give periodic reports to the full class about their reading and discoveries.

January: For the semester exam, students were asked to write a formal proposal for their researchEnglish 12 Research Proposal. I was so impressed with my students’ overall excitement and true scholarship associated with their topics. I found myself reading things like…

  • “Philosophy does not get the respect and credit it well deserves. Few people in the world today realize how much philosophy has impacted society and the human race. My stance on this is that philosophy is an invaluable and irreplaceable building block to modern knowledge.” Alex L.
  • “I would say that modern comics are stepping away from old ideas and greeting new ones more openly as well as [showing a] more true step into maturity, unlike the hollow, pandering “maturity” of the 90’s. This is evident in things like superhero comics becoming somewhat less popular, indie and comics that deal with much different subject matters than the mainstream seeing much more popularity, the early 2000’s seeing the abandoning of the comics code almost altogether, and the far more respectful portrayal of modern war and tragic events like 9/11.” Stephen P.

  • “The juvenile system has flourished over time and helps create life saving opportunities for adolescents. Continuing over each generation adolescents will do bad things, but it is the system’s job to help save their lives, and create a better tomorrow. I arrived at my stance through trial and error. First I wanted to research the history of juvenile justice, but then I decided I want to find out what the juvenile system can offer adolescents. What can the system do for kids whose families have given up on them? Samantha S.

Our students have already grown so much in intellectual and professional maturity throughout this process, and I can tell that they are feeling proud to call this class their own. I’m looking forward to second semester, to see what happens as more and more responsibility is released over to them, and they are enabled and empowered to do interesting, contributive things. Students light up when you ask them about the right things–we’re channeling the power of those right things in order to activate remarkable learning.

Things I’ve already observed during semester one of English 12:

-Project-based learning is just as powerful as all the research claims it us! It targets a comprehensive skill set dealing with academics, technology, and professional demeanor.

-Project-based learning is absolutely achieveable in a public school environment, with all levels of students, though those who need to grow in their ability to self-direct have the most work to do to succeed. This type of format requires educators who are able to and interested in keeping close tabs on the progress/development of each individual.

-Project-based learning helps students, even those prone to “senioritis” remember how much they actually do love to learn.

Things I’m still wondering:

-How does project-based learning look in other senior classes around the state and country? Do you teach one or know of one? Please share! Examples have not been the easiest to find.

-What are the best assessment techniques for such a wide variety of outcomes? While many aspects of student acheivement are observable in this format, measuring it objectively and accurately may become a challenge. Are there any educators out there with ideas about this?