Wednesday, January 9, 2019

What Do You Need Today?

Everyone these days seems to be talking about Bandersnatch, the Netflix movie that allows viewers to choose their own storyline by making onscreen choices while watching: Which type of cereal do you want for breakfast? Which cassette tape should you put in your Walkman? Do you destroy your computer or bang on the desk? Whether the hero ends up victorious or at the morgue depends on your choices. It’s exciting. We like to be in the driver’s seat, to have options, to make choices that suit our mood or meet our needs.   

As we usher in a new year (and try to remember to write 2019 instead of 2018), allowing for options seems especially important right now. If I decide what you need to read about today, I’m likely missing the mark or ignoring something that would make your life—right here, right now—a little better.

So for this week’s Craig Talks Teaching, I invite you to think about what you need and choose your own Craig Talks Teaching. I’ve provided a selection of links to some of my articles from the archives for you to follow based on what you need today:

If you need to restart the semester with a resolution to be more playful, this might provide some motivation.

If you’ve resolved to talk less in class and let your students talk more, reading these scenarios might help you envision what that could look (or sound)  like.
If you want to be that teacher who nudges kids in directions that change their lives, this might inspire you.

If you just need to feel thanked and appreciated for doing a frequently thankless job, click here.
If you’re trying to figure how the focus on Social-Emotional Learning intersects with all the stuff you have to teach, this might help.

If someone needs to remind you that teaching shouldn’t be a “us vs. them” experience, read this.

If you’re getting worried about state testing, this might talk you off the ledge.

If you just want some practical tips on how to give better instructions to your students, this will help.
If you’re trying to give up bad habits in the new year, here’s one that needs to be eliminated.

If you want to work on meeting the needs of the variety of learners in your classroom, read about differentiation here.

If you’ve let things get a little too lax in your classroom and need to tighten the reins a bit, here are a few suggestions to help you.

If you’ve been trying to help your students become better note-takers, but it hasn’t worked yet, this quiz might help them think about how to improve.

If you’re looking to improve professionally and want some help, read this (and then reach out to an instructional coach).

And if you just need to stop and reflect on how things are going midway through the school year, this might be a helpful guide.

This choose-your-own-professional-reading experience might not be as entertaining as watching Bandersnatch, but I hope it gave you a little bit of what you need right now. Next time, I’ll be back to making all the decisions on your behalf.  

Friday, December 21, 2018

Pressing the Reset Button

With only minutes remaining before we send thousands of excited students (and hundreds of even more excited teachers) out into the world for Winter Break, no one has much time or interest in reading a work-related blog. So I’m going to keep this short and sweet.

This is your seasonal reminder that the return from break at the beginning of semester two is an outstanding time to press the reset button to usher in a brand new focus for the brand new year. It’s the perfect opportunity to refresh your norms (or to establish them if that didn’t happen in the fall), to launch new procedures to help your classroom run more smoothly, and tighten up the reins if you’ve let things slip out of control. Blame it on your New Year’s resolution: “This year, my resolution is to be more organized, so I’ve decided to….”

It’s also a great time to press reset on your relationships with difficult students, those kids who enter your room and are already one eye roll or snarky comment away from being sent to the principal’s office. Those kids deserve a fresh start. Let bygones be bygones. Give them the opportunity to impress you with their new-year selves rather than having to lug the baggage of the first semester along with them.

Give your students the opportunity to press reset on their school year, too. Remind them that their first-semester missteps don’t have to define them henceforth. Help them set some lofty goals for their lives and speak them into existence. When you know their goals and dreams, you can assist students with the tiny goals that will help them make those dreams a reality down the road. Make it clear that you’re ready to be part of their support system. Offer help on organization, study skills, note-taking, and other academic-readiness skills. Be there for students as they strive to become the best versions of themselves.

Don’t hesitate to contact an instructional coach if you want help pressing the reset button. It’s our job and our pleasure to help you help your students succeed. Whether you’d like assistance with creating a classroom climate to maximize learning, building engaging lessons, planning for instruction, gathering in-the-moment data to shape your teaching, implementing strategies for student talk, improving writing and reading, or, well, pretty much any other instructional goal, we are here to help.  

Thanks for all you do to make your classrooms welcoming spaces for students to challenge themselves and grow. Have a safe, fun-filled, restful, celebratory, invigorating, playful, comforting, relaxing, jolly, and re-energizing holiday. See you in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Restroom Equity

Many of the schools I visit have a restroom equity problem. I’m not talking about that issue at public venues like conference centers, performance halls, and sporting arenas where there are clearly not enough women’s toilets and their line snakes out the door while the men zip in and out of their restroom. The equity gap I most frequently observe is race-related.

I’m just going to say it. In many schools, a disproportionate number of students wandering around the halls with bathroom passes during class are not white or Asian, and more of them are male than female. I have no idea whether they ever actually go to the restroom or not. What I mostly see in the halls are black and Latino male students strolling with no sense of urgency individually, in pairs, or in larger groups during the times while (I assume) instruction is taking place in their classes.  

Here’s why I think this is an equity issue worth exploring. Equity issues in schools crop up whenever an outcome exists that that doesn’t mirror the demographics of the campus. Whether it’s enrollment in AP and honors classes, participation in extracurriculars, placement in disciplinary programs, or failure rates, if there’s a discrepancy between observable reality and campus demographics, that issue merits a closer look. If, for instance, 60% of students on a campus are white, then 60% of the students in the hallways during class should be white if we have true hall pass equity. If 90% of failures in a course appear on the report cards of male students, while males comprise 51% of the population enrolled in the class, there’s a gender-related equity problem. The roaming-in-the-hallways population I observe on many campuses doesn’t match those campuses’ demographics.    

It’s easy for us to make excuses, place blame, and point fingers to explain what’s happening, but as far as I can tell from a quick internet search (one that has no doubt sullied my Google search history and will lead to all kinds of weird shopping recommendations the next time I open Facebook or Amazon), bladder size doesn’t vary significantly according to race. It’s tempting to ask what it is about those kids that makes them not stay in class, but the conclusions that develop from conversations like that always sound racist to me. Blaming the students is easy, but it’s not productive because we can’t force students to change. We have to look at our own role in this.     

The better question to ask is this: “What is it that these students’ teachers are doing or not doing that is causing some students to want to leave class while others are staying put?”

As I see it, students ask to leave class for five (legal) reasons:
1.  They are bored.
2.  They hope to rendezvous with their friends.  
3.  They are restless and need to move around.
4.  They don’t feel like the time spent in class is valuable.
5.  They actually have to use the restroom.

Let’s explore these and the role we play as teachers in each:

1. Boredom.  When class gets boring, minds wander, which leads to kids wanting to wander, too. Keeping kids interested may be the key to keeping more kids in the room.  We can’t avoid the reality that some concepts we have to teach are more intrinsically exciting than others, but we can control the method of delivery, the pacing, and the way we “sell” the lesson. Framing the lesson in an engaging manner that links the content to students’ experiences, interests, life goals, and opinions helps ensure buy-in. Our own excitement about the learning matters, too, as apathy is contagious. Find something in every class period to be genuinely excited about and communicate that enthusiasm sincerely. Vary the mode of delivery and the activities, and keep the pace moving from bell to bell. Avoid lags and downtime by being extra prepared and by teaching with a sense of casual urgency. Spice up a routine with something unexpected. Students won’t want to be gone from your room for fear of missing out.

2. Social Opportunities.  News flash: Not every student comes to school for the learning. For many students—and particularly those in poverty, according to Eric Jensen in the fantastic book Poor Students, Rich Teaching—the opportunity to spend time with friends is the driving force behind school attendance. If social needs aren’t being met in class, students will seek peer interaction elsewhere (ie. in the hallways). Classrooms that rely on sit-and-get models of instruction, that demand student silence, and that fail to build community lack the social motivator for students to remain in class. I wonder if many of our classes, especially in schools where minority groups are truly in the minority, are segregated by race and class, with some students feeling like insiders and others feeling like they don’t belong. If white teachers (most of whom enjoyed school growing up) teach primarily to students who are like them in background and attitudes and don’t make special efforts to build relationships with the students who are most unlike them, the class divides into the “in” group and the “out” group. Classes where students know, appreciate, and interact with one another are ones that fulfill every student’s social and emotional needs. These are the classes where students feel they belong, and when a community exists, students don’t try to escape into the hall to find their pals.

3. The Need to Wiggle.  Classrooms where students stay put in their seats all period cater only to the compliant students with extreme attention spans. Many students, particularly adolescent boys, grow restless when they sit too long. If the teacher doesn’t build in opportunities to squirm and get some energy out, the logical recourse for restless students is to feign a bladder emergency so they can walk for a few minutes. Teachers who understand kids’ desire to wiggle incorporate movement into lessons, giving them chances to stand, walk, change their position, respond with physical movements, and do things besides quietly sitting and listening.

4. Lack of Value. Some things we do in school seem like a waste of time to students. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher (a sweet woman who, bless her heart, was not a dynamic oral reader) made us listen to her read aloud Jack London’s long and boring novel White Fang every day after recess for weeks. Nothing about this experience seemed pleasant or worthwhile at the time; I could have read the book on my own if I had cared anything about a dog in Alaska, which I didn’t. My solution was to figure out how to give myself the hiccups so that I could be excused to get a drink of water in hopes that the hiccuping would cease—and I was one of those kids who actually liked school. When class isn’t worthwhile, students can think of many places they’d rather be. These days, watching a full-length video (when every kid nowadays has immediate access to millions of videos in his or her pocket) seems like an excuse for the teacher not feeling like teaching that day. Being given way-too-much time to complete a not-that-challenging task takes away any sense of urgency to spend the class time working. Time to work independently and silently without in-the-moment feedback from someone else seems wasteful. It’s hard to work in isolation in school—the place where your friends are—rather than saving it for home (or not doing it at all). Having to do many repetitions of a skill they’ve already mastered is tedious and pointless. Using grades as a motivator only works with students who are particularly concerned about grades, so we have to think of other ways to make the learning matter to the other students. Make every minute count so that students won’t want to roam.  

5. Legitimate Need. Sometimes you actually need to pee.        

When we identify issues of equity, we have two choices. One is to accept the situation the way it is, which means that we are okay with inequality, with differences determined by race and class, and with some students receiving better opportunities and experiences than others. The other choice is to figure out what is wrong with our system and fix it. The education system in the United States was created at a time when denying opportunities to some sectors of society was not something the people in power seemed concerned about. Many aspects of that system have remained in place for over a century. Isn’t it time we started identifying places where equity gaps exist and figuring out what we need to do differently to fix them?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Stepping Up Your Note-Teaching Game

Taking notes is hard. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. Unfortunately for students all over the world, note-taking is frequently expected but seldom taught.

Educators can play a key role in helping students become proficient, independent note-takers and studiers with some careful planning and instruction in the art of note-taking. We can’t just ask our students to take notes; we have to teach them how.

Here are a few simple strategies tips any teacher can employ to improve at teaching and using note-taking in the classroom.

Have (and communicate) a purpose for note-taking. Taking notes is a worthwhile pursuit if the notes are going to be useful somewhere down the road. If you’re planning to give a review worksheet later that prepares kids for exactly what’s on the test, why should the students take notes at all? The same is true if you plan to give them a copy of the “real” notes later or (worse) if you are only making them take notes to keep them occupied so they don’t throw things and run amok. Before asking students to take notes, consider how those notes will be used and communicate that purpose. Better yet, provide students with an essential question that focuses their note-taking. By encapsulating in one question what you want them to take away from the lecture, reading, video, or whatever, you’re giving students some direction and encouraging them to become discerning learners who can sift through masses of details to figure out what’s important.

Teach your students a variety of note-taking forms and styles. Everyone learns a little differently, and good notes don’t necessarily look the same. The days of rigidly forcing every student to take Cornell Notes have come and gone. And copying teacher-written notes off a PowerPoint is so 1990s it might as well be flannel and grunge. Our students are learners, not medieval monks in the scriptorium. While students are developing note-taking proficiency, it’s not a bad idea to ask them to try out suggested formats or styles. Perhaps a particular type of two- or three-column notes is particularly suited one-day’s note-taking task while tomorrow’s note-taking purpose might lend itself to a mind map or sketchnotes. Filling the students’ toolboxes with a variety of ways to take notes gives them options to meet the purpose and their personal preferences.

Build into your lessons ways for students to interact with their notes. Brain research shows that in order for learning to stick, we have to engage with the content in a variety of ways over time. Assuming students will interact with their notes on their own is like believing that a full box of donuts left in the teacher’s lounge will still be there an hour later. Knowing that, wise teachers incorporate interaction opportunities into their lesson plans. They stop after 10 minutes of lecturing and ask their students to compare their notes side-by-side with a classmate, adding to and clarifying the information. They ask students to write questions about their notes for homework and begin class with an activity in which the questions are shared and discussed. They have students underline main ideas, circle key terms, and chunk their notes prior to a discussion or class activity where the notes are the key to success. On the day before the test, they ask students to mine their notes for key ideas and predict the test questions they will see on the test. As students become accustomed to interacting with their notes in class, they eventually realize the value of processing their thinking and returning to the content multiple times. Ideally, they will soon start practicing note-interaction on their own.

Model your own note-taking. Remember that old tv show where the guy paints a picture in 30 minutes right in front of your very eyes while you attempt to replicate it at home? Aspiring artists can learn techniques and develop skills by observing other artists working and explaining what they are doing. In the same way, teachers can model note-taking for their students while thinking aloud about what they are writing down and how they are doing it. Making the deliberate decisions underlying your note-taking visible to the students builds their capacity to make those decisions themselves. Students may not realize how much is going on inside the head of a proficient note-taker. If students are taking notes on a video or text, take your own notes. When you stop to process, display your notes and allow students to compare theirs with yours. Or project your notes onto a screen as you take them, explaining the thinking behind the note-taking.

Reflect on the notes. We don’t get better at doing something unless we think about what we did and how to improve. If we want our students to improve as note-takers, we have to give them time to reflect on their note-taking: What’s working? What’s not working? How do I plan to improve? My high school humanities freshmen had a notoriously difficult time taking notes on their reading in the college-level AP World History textbook used in the course. Part of my job as the teacher became helping these students—many of whom had never experienced difficulty doing school-related tasks—learn to take effective notes that aided their comprehension and helped them study the content for the class. I developed a note-taking self-quiz with 20 questions students could use to compare their own note-taking and study techniques with those of skilled note-takers. The quiz became a jumping-off point for discussions with the students about refining their practices and setting personal goals for improvement.

Consider what good notes look like in your discipline. The notes I take while reading a novel in English don’t look the same as the ones I take in the same class when I gather information during research. Useful math notes aren’t exactly like useful history notes. We often talk about the idea of standardizing practices across a campus, and that can be a good idea at times. What I think is more useful, however, is for educators to be overt in discussions of disciplinary literacy—to acknowledge that different disciplines have different expectations for reading, writing, and learning. As you are teaching students to read and write like mathematicians, historians, and scientists, also instruct them on how to become effective note-takers in each of those disciplines. Rather than trying to homogenize and streamline everything to make it easier for the students, coach them to become aware of the different learning demands across your campus. Becoming better at discerning what matters in each discipline will make your students more thoughtful readers, more confident and adaptable writers, and more successful independent learners.    

Use your available resources. For those of you who have an AVID account, the new book AVID Writing for Disciplinary Literacy has an entire chapter devoted to implementing Focused Note-Taking with your students, whether you teach at the elementary, secondary, or higher-ed level. It’s a free download on the curriculum page for a limited time. Get your free copy today if you haven’t already.

The time we spend teaching note-taking isn’t a waste. Note-taking is an essential skill for success in college and in the world beyond, and proficiency won’t happen overnight. The investment we make now in equipping our students with lifelong learning skills will pay off down the road as students are able to reach new destinations and steer themselves successfully around the curves and bumps life and learning will put in their way.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Creativity Starters for Students

Freeing your mind for creative exploration is like unlocking doors to future exploration and adventure. Though our critical inner voices try to squelch our creativity, persistent practice can help us get unstuck and reclaim the joy of creative play we once experienced in childhood. I asked my high schoolers to keep a creativity journal in which they "did something creative" for ten minutes four times a week for seven weeks. I provided an optional starter each day in case they needed a jump start. At the end of the seven weeks, students told me they loved the opportunity to "have to" make time for being playful. Their creativity journals left them relaxed and inspired. Several told me they were going to keep using their creativity journal, even though it was no longer required. Kids today are so scheduled, programmed, and overloaded that they welcomed the impetus to just be alone with their creativity. 

I've had several requests for my list of creativity starters. It's grown over time; some are more successful than others. Enjoy using them with your students (or start your own creativity journal).       

Creativity Starters

1.     How many different ways can you write your name…or  “I am creative”?
2.     List everything that hinders your creativity. Create a monster that symbolizes the things that block your creativity.
3.     Ask 5 people for one word each. Tie those words together in a story, song, poem, or artwork. 
4.     Write a poem using only words or phrases you found in a novel or magazine (or in your e-mail in-box or Instagram feed).
5.     Create a flag that represents our school’s multicultural heritage.
6.     Create your own utopia.
7.     Make a collage of words and pictures that interest or inspire you.
8.     Who inspires you creatively?  Who are your muses?  Whose creative works do you admire?
9.     Write a paragraph or story using only words that begin with the letters in your first and last names.
10. Dream big:  Where do you see yourself in 20 years?  Imagine a best-case and a worst-case scenario.
11. Draw a self portrait using only geometric shapes. . . .using only words...using only letters of the alphabet.
12. Look around your home and find something you were planning to throw away.  Then, think of as many uses for that item as possible.
13. Write a monologue as if you were your shoe.
14. Write a story using only 16 consecutive letters of the alphabet. (Inspired by Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.) 
15. Choose an invention and predict what the world would be like if it had never been invented.
16. Draw or paint some abstract nouns—love, sadness, hope, truth, faith, goodness, evil, etc.
17. Write like Dr. Seuss.
18. Plan a clever, creative, unique theme party.
19. Write haiku poems about famous people.
20. Design an innovative Halloween costume using all found materials.
21. Write about yourself from another person’s point of view.
22. Write about one event in the voice of three very different people. 
23.  Plan out the movie of your life.  What happens?  Who will star?  Who will direct?  What’s it called?
24.  If you were a character in a musical, what song would you sing?  Write the lyrics to that song.
25.  Scribble a random shape on your paper, and then list as many things as you can that it can be.
26.  Notice 10 new things at school today and write them down…or draw them.
27.  Create an extended metaphor.
28. “Write” a story using no words at all.
29. Design a piece of clothing that is also a musical instrument.
30. Eavesdrop for a day.  Write down some of the interesting quotes you overhear in your notebook.  You could illustrate your overheard quotations if you’d like. 
31. Write a story or conversation using only song lyrics.
32.  Open a dictionary randomly and choose a word. Then, write as many brilliant ideas as you can about that word.
33. Wander around an unfamiliar place and just observe. Then, record your observations and thoughts in your journal.
34. Choose a new name for yourself and your friends. How would you feel if you used this name permanently?
35. Choose an object.  Try to visualize that object in all stages of its life. Write about all the people who would have encountered it.
36. What causes stress in your environment? Try to eliminate one for a day (or more) and write down the effects.
37. Create a new game. 
38. Imagine a day without one of your senses.  What would that be like?
39. Draw a picture using your non-dominant hand.
40. Choose three or four random letters of the alphabet, and then spend some time thinking what they could be an acronym for.
41. If you were trying to market yourself, what sorts of slogans could you make up?
42.   Create a new recipe. . and, if you’re feeling adventurous, cook it for dinner tonight.
43.   Create an artwork to represent the (now ending) 5th six weeks. 
44.  Make up new words.  Create a dictionary for your new vocabulary.
45.   Draw a picture made up entirely of geometric shapes. 
46. Create your own fantasy assembly. What’s the subject?  Who will perform?  Who will emcee?
47. Make an ad campaign to sell something useless.
48. Design a ceiling for a room in your home (a la Sistine Chapel).
49. Draw a picture with your eyes closed.
50. Use Romeo and Juliet as the inspiration for a poem, artwork, song, collage, etc.
51. (for April 23) Design a birthday card for William Shakespeare, or write him a sonnet.
52. Draw cartoon likenesses of your friends, classmates, teachers and put them in a scene or comic.
53. Design the classroom of 2120.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

While You Were Paying Attention to the Strugglers. . .

When we dive deeply into our student data, we learn so much about the kids we teach. It’s fascinating to put together the clues of a student’s assessment history. We notice trends in performance, uncover weaknesses, and make plans to rescue those who are struggling the most. We develop remediation plans. We target specific standards to emphasize and reteach. We identify the objectives most missed by our students and redesign entire lessons to make sure our kids learn what they don’t know. We become that guy from the sappy little parable, walking along the shoreline and frantically flinging starfish from the beach back into the water, determined to save as many as we can.

Meanwhile, the gifted kids in our classrooms often go unacknowledged, ignored, and unchallenged.

Helping struggling students grow is one of the most important things teachers do, but every student deserves to make at least one year’s progress during one year of school. While we are scrambling help our neediest, what are we doing to meet the needs of the kids who already get it?

Education has no finish line where kids get to stop and rest, satisfied that they know all there is to know and have learned everything. When we cap off instruction, putting a ceiling over our students, growth is stifled. Bright students become disengaged, bored, and apathetic. Some of them turn their attention to mischief-making and become your worst classroom management problems because gifted kids who want to cause trouble are often very skilled at doing so.

Gifted education guru Carol Ann Tomlinson says that differentiation, ultimately, is an act of empathy. Educators put themselves in the position of each student in the classroom and figure out what everyone needs. Then, they try their hardest to take care of each one, not because they are told to do so but because they know it's the right thing to do. 

It’s not easy to meet the needs of every student in a mixed-ability classroom, and secondary educators tend to be much less accommodating to diverse learners than our friends in elementary. Traditionally, secondary classrooms are a one-size-fits-all model, where every student receives the same instruction and does identical assignments. One popular solution to this—though not one I think very highly of—is to always have some extension work for students who finish early. This solves the problem of keeping every kids occupied, but the extra work seems more like a punishment than a blessing to the high school gifted student who soon figures out the way to keep from having to do more is to work more slowly. When the extension work is a meaningless diversion unconnected to the curriculum (puzzle pages, logic problems, crosswords, etc.), the purpose is clearly babysitting rather than growing learners. Elementary teachers understand that good teaching sometimes looks like a three-ring circus, with the teacher checking in on everyone and providing appropriate attention at just the right time to keep everyone progressing.

One of the ways I prefer to think about providing appropriate experiences for gifted learners is to consider depth and complexity:  How can this content, skill, or subject be viewed more deeply and in more complex ways?

Depth and complexity can appear in many guises, some of which can be uncovered by asking yourself questions like these:
  • What does this look like when the experts do it?
  • What’s the next step or the next level in producing a more advanced product or thinking about the topic?
  • What do people who study this professionally argue or discuss?
  • What moral or ethical issues are associated with this topic?
  • What is ambiguous about this subject?
  • What words do experts use to talk about this topic? 
  • Are there exceptions to the rule, plausible non-examples, or variations you didn’t teach to the entire class but that are worth exploring?
  • Who are some of the important thinkers, doers, or innovators in this field?
  • What are some articles, books, or primary sources that would provide interesting additional understanding of the topic?
  • What do your students wonder about this topic that could be explored more deeply?
  • What does this topic look like in another locale, in a later time period, in a different situation, of from a different perspective?
  • What influenced this? What did this influence?
  • What’s the counter-argument, point of disagreement, or opposite viewpoint?
  • How does this topic connect to other topics you’ve studied, to other subjects, or to the wider world?

Sometimes, differentiation for gifted learners is as simple as offering some choices that intrigue the students and pointing them in the direction of the right resources. The option to explore at a level that provides a worthwhile challenge—not more work but different work—might hook some of your gifted learners. Who knows? Some of your struggling learners might take up the challenge, too.

By all means, take care of your special ed kids, your English language learners, your at-risk students, and your underserved populations. Just don’t forget to also take care of your gifted and talented students. As much as anyone in your classroom, they need you to push them and motivate them to keep growing as learners.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

How MASTER Teachers Close Class

What happens during the last five minutes of your class? Do students pack up early and form a line at the door like they’re waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight? Does the bell ring mid-activity as you shout out some final reminders and students sprint toward the door?

If you’re not using the last few minutes of class to its fullest potential, you’re missing out on some opportunities for powerful learning. MASTER teachers can use this handy acronym to plan intentionally to end class powerfully. 

Wrapping up class with a metacognitive reflection—whole-class or individual—can help students reflect on what they learned and how they learned it.  When students explain their thinking, they reinforce strategies for success. For instance, after a lesson during which students struggled together to solve a tricky problem or to work their way through a piece of challenging text, you could call a quick class meeting to debrief the day’s lesson by having the class brainstorm the strategies they used to overcome the difficulty. The resulting list of how to approach a complex problem or decipher a dense piece of writing can become an anchor chart on display for future reference. Students can look over to the anchor chart for some tips when they next encounter challenges.   

It only takes a few minutes at the end of class to collect a bit of formative data that can help drive future instruction and interactions with your students Ask students to answer a question or two on an exit ticket and hand it to you on the way out the door. Give them a quick quiz using your favorite digital tool to see what they know. See if students can explain a key idea from the lesson or—better yet—answer the day’s Essential Question in a few sentences. Collecting tiny bits of info from each student allows you to see which students have mastery and who needs more help. You can also design a formative assessment that gives students immediate feedback on their own learning; that way, you won’t be the only one who knows whether some reteaching or further practice is called for.    

Recapping the major ideas from the lesson reinforces the main points, providing the kind of repetition that makes learning stick. Research shows that summarizing is one of the most powerful strategies in helping student learn. A 25-word GIST statement about the day’s lesson, a two- or three-sentence summary on a notecard, or an oral summary on a digital tool such as Flipgrid makes students separate the important ideas from the minutia. Pro tip: Though it’s much easier and quicker to summarize learning for your students, having them summarize themselves yields a bigger payoff. I’m a big fan of a paired summary: turn and explain the main ideas of today’s lesson to your neighbor. Then call on some neighbors to recap what they heard for the entire class.  

I know I’m late to the game, but I’m currently listening to the Serial podcast. Each episode ends with an exciting hint about what new aspects of the mystery will be uncovered in the next installment. Fortunately, I don’t have to wait a week like the original listeners did because after I hear the teaser, my appetite is eager for what comes next. Savvy teachers know the power of the provocative preview. Tempting students with a bit of trivia, a cliffhanging question, or the promise of something exciting in tomorrow’s lesson will tap into their natural curiosity and have them thinking about your subject after they leave the room. Who knows? Some may even do a little reading ahead or research on their own to find out more before they return to class.    

Talk show host Jerry Springer always took a moment at the end of the insanity of each show to address the audience with a final thought, a piece of wisdom that gave a “so what” to whatever madness his viewers had endured for the preceding hour. Emphasizing a takeaway was Springer’s way of sending his viewers off with something they could use in their lives. The same strategy can be an effective part of your class closure routine. With so much intense learning happening in your room, some students may have a hard time discerning the difference between the nice-to-know and the need-to-know. The final moments of class give you the opportunity to draw attention to big takeaways from the lesson, to clarify points of confusion, and to send your students forth into the world with a significant idea to remember.  

How do we improve if we never stop to think about how to improve? Self-reflection is one of the most important and most overlooked aspects of education. Most students, after leaving your classroom, won’t give your subject a second thought until they see you next time. They certainly aren’t going to look up from their game of Fortnite and think, “You know, I didn’t revise my essay very well thoroughly today in English class, so tomorrow I will probably want to devote some time to look at sentence variety in my paper.” The last few minutes of class is the perfect time to switch gears and shift into reflective mode. I love the Plus/Delta Reflection: students reflect on what they know or did well from the learning experience (that’s the plus) and then on how they need to grow or change going forward (the Delta). You could also ask students to set a short-term goal for next class, write down what they did well and one thing they want to work on, answer specific questions about how they learned or performed, give themselves a numerical rating, write a note to the teacher about what’s going well and where they need help, or complete a sentence stem that asks them to reflect on their progress. Revisiting the reflection the next day is a perfect way to begin a new day of learning. 

Stop wasting the waning moments of class. Wring every drop of learning out of your lessons by incorporating effective lesson closure. A little prior planning (and remembering to set a reminder alarm) is all it takes to add an extra step that makes the learning sizzle rather than fizzle.