Archive

Classroom Management

Sometimes I feel like the most absurdly simple teaching strategies are the ones that work the best. Today, I have one to share with all of you. It’s called writing on the board… with a twist!

At the beginning of this year, I had one section of students in particular that was filled with very, very bright students who did not want to contribute to class discussion. It’s often the story with young introverts with a rich inner world–they suffer the paradoxical situation of having rich insights to share but feeling unable to verbalize them on the spot. This group in particular tended that way, which was frustrating as a teacher trying to foster productive class discussion. They understood what they were reading. I knew this because I could see it in their writing. But ask for them to share their thoughts out loud? Deer in headlights.

Luckily for these young introverts, I am an older introvert who is savvy to their ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished dearly that I could just write down a response in a conversation rather than blurt out some words that hopefully come out fully formed. Sadly for us, life is not thus. Even with some community building and time to adjust to one another, these students were just not budging, other than a couple brave souls who would try to carry the whole class with eyes that pled with me to help them out. So I did! I got them to talk. This is how. 

Everybody likes writing on the board in a classroom. It’s just a fact. It’s fun! There are markers! Come on teachers, you know you love writing on the board. And students do , too. This is something not to be underestimated. It’s a way to make introvert dreams come true–let them write their ideas down, but publicly. Then, the discussion part can happen much more fluidly. Here’s what I do:

1. Make sure you have plenty of nice, fresh dry-erase markers in multiple colors. Or SMARTBoard markers, or chalk if you’re truly old-school (I’m envious!)

2. Give discussion prompt. Since we’re currently starting to read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I gave them a set of questions relating to that word–what is a ceremony? What does it need to go well? Why is it important? How does culture determine its workings? 

3. Have students discuss their ideas with a partner to get a bit of practice verbalizing. Encourage them to write down their best thoughts.

4. [Small class version] Invite every student to write a short phrase on the board that represents their most prominent/surprising/unique insight.

[Large class version] Have partners (or small groups if the class is HUGE) determine one group member who had the best insightful moment and send that representative up to the board to write a phrase that represents it. Remind them to write large and neat enough that their words will be legible.

5. Once the collection is complete, use it to guide discussion. It’s helpful as the instructor to have a laser pointer here, to guide the students to certain parts of this visual discussion. As the teacher navigates, each student gets a turn telling the class about why they wrote what they did, elaborating on it and potentially making connections to others’ thoughts in the process. 

Of course, this is not a substitute for a fully organic whole-class discussion, but it’s a way to work up to it. We did this exercise often at the beginning of the year in this class, and our traditional discussions have definitely expanded as a result. What I love most about this is that every student gets a voice, and there’s no hiding from the fact that they have ideas to add. After all, it’s all right there on the board, in their own handwriting.

Thanks for reading!

Next week, I will begin my tenth year of teaching. I am celebrating this milestone with great satisfaction and nostalgia.

I’m also thinking about this meeting that I had shortly before beginning my very first year as a teacher. There was a staff member who was sharing some information with me. I still remember her saying, “So, some of these resources will help you make it through the year and then we’ll see if you’re really cut out for teaching or if you run off and do something else with your life.” I looked her right in the eyes, little baby teacher that I was, and said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I’m proud to say that I made good on that promise. Teaching isn’t for everyone, but teaching is for me. That much I knew even back then.

Look, it’s not an easy job. I now know that every time you think you’ve got the hang of teaching, every time you start feeling like you’re really a pretty fantastic teaching professional, reality will happily intervene to humble you. There are still points in every year where I feel like a beginner all over again. Ask any teacher you know–no matter how experienced we are, there are always points in the year where we start to question something (or EVERYTHING) about how we do our jobs.

There is nothing I could write that could prepare someone for what this job is, and I am still learning myself how it all goes. However, there are some things that I’m very sure of after being in the classroom for this long. As a victory lap for my decade year, I’d like to share ten things that I now know after ten years of teaching. Especially if you are a new teacher, I hope you find this list hopeful, helpful, and steadying as we welcome the kids through the doors once again.

TEN THINGS I KNOW AFTER TEN YEARS OF TEACHING

    1. It helps to be positive and excited even when it seems like no one cares. It does matter. I am a person who is notorious for seeing the brighter side, and giving a peppy, enthusiastic greeting to my all of my kids as they walk through the hallways. It is hard to do this when you are tired, when you have a headache, and when the teenagers whom you are greeting with care and warmth stare through you as if you are actually invisible with hardly a grunt in response. At the end of the year, though, one of the most common points of feedback I get from my students is how welcomed I always made them feel, and how my excitement for what I’m teaching really helped them learn. Kids respond to good energy… they don’t always show it, but it is worth it to summon the effort to be their sunbeam, even when it seems like it’s not making a difference.

2. There are no bad kids. Are there students in my teaching past whose very names make me shudder as I remember the behavioral or academic difficulties I weathered with them? Of course. But even the most challenging, frustrating, inflammatory students are not bad kids. There is no such thing as a bad kid. There are kids with trauma, kids with illnesses, kids without support, angry kids, scared kids, kids who lack self-control. But they are all good kids. If you refuse to accept their reputation and spend the time to get to know them, to gently keep pushing even when they resist you, you will find the goodness. They may still be rude. They may still struggle. But they are still worth your time–sometimes you are the only person who is fighting for them.

3. Teachers are most effective when they embrace the nerd within. Students respond to passion. Everything young people perceive is through a lens of intense emotion. To compete with that, you need to gush and rave and freak out with joy about what you’re teaching. It may be dorky to start yelling about how utterly outrageously good The Crucible is because the unit is only a week away and you seriously count down the days every year until having the privilege of teaching it, but kids respond to that when it is genuine! If I present students with a bookshelf filled with books, there might be a couple of them who want to investigate it on their own. If I take a book off of that shelf and start talking about how it personally changed my dang life with its awesomeness, I will have a waiting list seven kids deep to check it out. Embrace the nerd within. You know you love your content area. Show them why.

4. Teachers do the wrong thing sometimes. There will be days where you will do something stupid. You will react to a student the wrong way in a bad moment and make a kid feel terrible. You will enter an assignment score in the online gradebook for Ashley F. that was actually the score for Ashley T., and somehow lose Ashley F.’s original score in the process. You will listen to a hateful comment from a student in class and want so badly to address it, but end up freezing, your face turning red with anger as you just say nothing. These mistakes will make you feel like garbage. But they happen because you are an imperfect human being. The best thing you can do to remedy this is to address it with an honest apology to the student that was affected–students understand and respect this. And don’t be too hard on yourself, because we all have bad moments.

5. Business hours are necessary for sanity. To not suffer burnout as a teacher, you need a system for keeping your work life and home life separate. You will be much happier if you are not “on call” 24 hours a day. Do yourself a favor and try to leave your work at work. When you walk out the school doors, there are no more emails, no more quizzes to grade, no more plans to plan until you return the next day. Keep your weekends open for yourself and your family as much as humanly possible. Listen: Even though you are a teacher, you are allowed to have a life. It will make you a better teacher. If you struggle with this, find someone who has it figured out, and learn their ways.

6. Clean slate club. This is one of those cliches that is actually true. If something doesn’t go well in one of your classes, it’s easy to get sucked into negative thinking: you’re doing everything all wrong, your class is never going to be well-behaved, and Bobby in the front row hates your guts for being a lousy teacher. But then, the next day, you try again, and everything is okay again! (In all likelihood, Bobby in the front row has already forgotten the thing you stayed up all night agonizing about.) Students and teachers both bounce back very easily. Bad days may occur, but as long as you approach it with kindness and a desire to understand, a new day is always a clean slate.

7. Teachers disagree with each other a lot, but they are incredibly caring. No matter where you work, you’ll encounter other educators who have different opinions from yours. They may have different ideas about adopting new strategies or keeping old ones. They may hold on to a certain classroom management philosophy with an iron fist. They may just think your fashion sense is whack or misunderstand you on a fundamental level. Decisions are not always unanimous and meetings are not always harmonious. However, all of that falls away when you look at what these people do for kids. Teachers are extraordinarily caring people. They show it in different ways, but they are all kind, self-sacrificing people who want to help others in their own way. If you can tap into that commonality, it’s a lot easier to mediate differences of opinion.

8. Build your legacy! One of the most enjoyable things about being a teacher is the legend that builds up around you. What goes into that legend is sometimes within your control, and other times up to the whims of fate. Seriously, though, it’s amazing to hear kids say “I always heard that this was a great class” or “My older sister had you as her teacher and I’m excited that it’s my turn now.” The more and the longer you invest in your school community, the larger your legacy reaches. You start to feel more admiration and trust from your students, which is really the best feeling in the whole world.

9. Describe behavioral expectations in physical terms. This is a super effective classroom management strategy that has been invaluable to me over the years. When you want students to redirect and do something other than what they are doing, be direct and literal in your requests for compliance–tell them what to do physically to achieve the desired outcome. Instead of telling them “Pay attention,” ask them to “Look at my eyes with your eyes.” Instead of saying “stop bothering her,” say, “I want you to move your desk three feet to the left and turn it to face the window.” Instead of saying “Does everybody get it?” say “Take your notebook out. Draw a big smiley face if you understand and a frown if you don’t. Hold up your notebooks.” Works like a charm–whatever management challenge your class throws at you, if you can think up a physical direction to counter it, better results will follow.

10. Teaching keeps you young. Maybe you’ve seen that funny meme around that says something like “Teaching? Stressful? I feel great, and I’m only 32!” along with a photograph of a woman who could easily be 90+. It gives me a good guffaw. However, I have to say, some of the most supernaturally young-looking people I know happen to be teachers, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Surrounded by all that youthful energy keeps us hopeful, as long as we’re doing it right. We can’t sit still very long without someone needing our attention, and we laugh constantly because kids are often fun and hilarious. Plus we’re usually up on the newest weird slang, music, and fashion trends. We might even feel some extra pressure to stay hydrated with all those teenage athletes walking around with their giant Nalgene water bottles. Sure, the teacher is the oldest person in the room. But if you’re a teacher who enjoys your job, odds are that you have a youthful soul.

 

I’d like to end this post with a thank you, to all the remarkable students and colleagues who have blessed my life along this ten-year journey.

Thank you, Milwaukee School of Languages.

Thank you, St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy.

Thank you, Sheboygan Falls High School.

Thank you, Port Washington High School. It’s been my privilege. I think I’ll keep going.

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.

Black Round Analog Wall Clock

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

 

class

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.)

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 8.14.40 PM

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 4.39.26 PM

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

1

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!

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.

dante

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.

 

20140118_131057

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!

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.

IMAG1420-1-1

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.