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. 

Metacognition
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.   

Assess
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.    

Summarize
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.  

Teaser
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.    

Emphasize
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.  

Reflect
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.


Dress Rehearsals


My friend Megan is getting married this Saturday. On Friday evening the members of the wedding party will convene for a rehearsal. They’ll run though the wedding service so everyone knows where to stand, where and how to walk, what to say, and how to hand off things like rings and bouquets to other people at appropriate moments in the wedding. Running through  the logistics of a wedding beforehand is standard practice; no one would think twice about having a run-through before the big day. A dress rehearsal helps ensure that the wedding runs smoothly, minimizes anxiety for the bride and groom so they won’t make fretful faces in the wedding photos, and keeps the Man of Honor from embarrassing himself during the ceremony. Practice, as they say, makes the wedding perfect.

Teachers sometimes forget the importance of rehearsing as part of their planning for instruction. We look over a lesson plan and then wing it when the kids show up. Sometimes we can pull that off; other times, our lack of prior practice results in misconstrued instructions, awkward transitions, logistical confusion, and unclear explanations.

All too often, our planning looks like this:  “Okay, so. . . the students will do the opener quickwrite and then move into the Socratic Seminar. After that, they’ll fill out the exit ticket if there’s time.”  

Sketchy “planning” of this nature leaves so many unanswered questions. What are you going to do to hook the students at the beginning of the period? How long should the quickwrite take? Are students going to share or process the quickwrite in any way? How will you transition to the Socratic Seminar, including moving furniture and humans? What kind of instructions will the students need before starting the seminar? What will your role be during the discussion? What happens if the Socratic Seminar runs off track?  How much time will you allow for the discussion so that you have time for the exit ticket? Will you do any kind of debrief on the Socratic Seminar itself to encourage future improvement in student academic conversations? How will you reset the room at the end of the discussion? Will that happen before or after the instructions for the exit ticket? What do you need to say about the exit ticket?  How will students turn in their exit cards? What will you do with the exit cards after you collect them? What kind of preview of tomorrow’s lesson will pique your students’ curiosity?

Leaving these questions to chance means there may be some less-than-stellar moments in what could be an outstanding, highly effective lesson. Talking and walking through the lesson can improve the likelihood that you’ll say and do the right things to achieve the results you desire.

Asking two big dress rehearsal questions when you are planning can set you up for success:  

1.  What will this lesson look like? Asking this question prompts you to consider the many visual and logistical factors that are a part of any well-planned lesson. Before kids come into the room, it’s wise to rehearse—or at least talk through—these things:
  • Materials you’ll need and how they’ll be distributed
  • Written information your students will see:  learning objectives, learning targets, or focusing questions; daily agenda; handouts; other print materials; audio-visual components
  • Room setup
  • Student movement and interactions
  • Transitions from one activity to the next
  • Use of technology and multimedia (The middle of class shouldn’t be the first time you click on a link to see if it works.)
  • Approximate times for each component of the lesson
  • How students will be grouped
  • What successful participation by students will look like

2.  What will this lesson sound like?  Have you ever thought you understood something and only realized the gaps in your understanding when you attempted to explain it to someone else? Rehearsing what you’re going to say decreases the odds that you’re going to flub your explanation. Teachers who consider what their lesson will sound like practice many things:
  • Giving instructions
  • Explaining concepts or terms
  • Building anticipation or buy-in for a lesson
  • Telling a story with an instructional purpose
  • Asking effective questions
  • Promoting student talk
  • Providing verbal feedback
  • Conferencing with students
  • Opening and closing class effectively
  • Correcting students
  • Responding calmly and consistently to student misbehaviors

When teachers consider what a lesson will sound like, they think through other aspects:
  • The desired noise level at various points in the lesson
  • The quantity of student talk vs teacher talk
  • What student talk should sound like
  • Ways to get the desired outcomes for student talk

Effective team planning can involve rehearsing and discussing all these things. We grow better by learning from one another. You will often find that someone else’s idea is better than your own. Hearing colleagues explain a concept, introduce a lesson, or model an effective teacher-student conference can help you prepare for your own instruction, perhaps incorporating elements of their delivery into yours. Teams can troubleshoot  by thinking together about what a lesson that exists on a curriculum document will look like and sound like in an actual classroom. Rather than assuming that every member of the team has the same vision of what the written lesson should look and sound like, making sure everyone is on the same page by rehearsing together increases every teacher’s success, which increases every student’s success.

And speaking of success, Megan, I hope your wedding is all you’ve dreamed it will be. Enjoy your special day (and your rehearsal before that).

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Trust the Test


As much as it would please almost everyone in the country with any first-hand knowledge of education, high-stakes, government-mandated testing isn’t going away anytime soon. Standardized testing is a reality, and, unfortunately, it’s a yardstick against which districts, campuses, and even individual teachers are judged.

In response to the testing onslaught, publishers have rushed to the rescue with test-prep booklets, computer programs, and websites, all designed to help students get ready for the dreaded test. Teachers have latched onto test-prep methodologies such as assigning daily openers containing released test questions, giving practice tests in class, teaching vocabulary lists of high-frequency words gleaned from past assessments, and requiring after-school and on-the-weekend attendance at test-prep boot camps designed to give struggling students more exposure to what they can expect to see in the spring on their state tests.

The result of all this hullabaloo is that kids aren’t really doing much better on these tests and—no surprise—they hate school. When every day of the school year is another tedious encounter with test-prep materials, students have nothing to look forward to but soon learn that there’s lots to dread.

I’m led to believe that the companies we pay millions to construct and field test these state assessments have some expertise in the art of test design. They build these tests to measure student mastery of a subset of the state objectives for the course.    

What would happen if we trusted that the test is actually measuring what it claims to measure and that if we simply taught the skills the state asks us to teach, our students would be fine on the test? I’m willing to take that chance for the sake of students’ love of learning.

The STAAR end-of-course exams in English, for instance, measure, in a fake way, many of the things we do naturally in a well-taught English class. They ask students to comprehend and analyze a variety of texts, to make judgments about the author’s intention, to connect ideas or techniques between texts, and to find textual evidence that supports an assertion. These tests require students to make corrections to errors in essays, just like they would do when editing a classmate’s paper in a writer’s workshop environment. They ask students to examine an essay and make recommendations about organization, word choice, transitions, and clarity, as they would in a writing conference with a peer. Finally, they ask students to come up with an idea and support it in an organized, focused, clearly-written essay of their own—something I hope every English student is doing frequently in class.

It seems to me that if we just teach our students the state objectives, formatively assess to adjust instruction and target students who need extra attention, and build up students’ self-efficacy and dispositions toward the subject, they ought to do fine on the test when spring rolls around.

Taking a practice test that asks students to analyze a poem doesn’t teach students how to analyze a poem. Answering revision and editing multiple choice questions about an imaginary student’s fake essay doesn’t teach more about how to give feedback on a paper than actual writing conference does. A practice test takes hours that could be used in active instruction: teaching state standards, informally gauging student understanding, and reteaching or extending as needed. Taking a practice test is boring. Good instruction isn’t.

Maybe we should trust the test— trust that the test is indeed assessing the knowledge and skills it claims to assess—and devote more of our time and energy to familiarizing ourselves with the standards the test is testing, pinpointing the places where the standards align with our curriculum, strategizing about how to teach the standards and assess our students’ mastery, and developing authentic ways to remediate during class time instead of asking struggling students to carve out time from their busy schedules to get help outside of class.   

Teaching our students how to take the test won’t help them if we haven’t taught them how to do what the test is asking them to do.




Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Outsourcing Discipline



We’ve all taught that kid that knows how to push your buttons and that, after the first few days of school, is on strike two before ever entering the room. This is the kid who makes your stomach get a little queasy each day before class starts, the one who haunts your dreams at night and turns your days into living nightmares. The one who makes you pray, “Please, please, please, please let him be sick today,” as you are driving to school in the morning. 

For me, that student was Horton (For the sake of anonymity, I’m using a name of no student I ever actually taught). Horton was in my English class, and he was trouble from day one. As soon as I had an inkling he was going to be difficult (probably day two), I promptly called home to establish a relationship with his parent early on. The next day Horton showed up in class more unpleasant than ever and announced belligerently, “You called my mom last night.” He then proceeded to make my day even more miserable. Frustratedly, I pulled Horton into the hall and, in the heat of anger, gave him a big ol’ adult lecture, which made absolutely no difference when we re-entered the classroom and he had to save face in front of his peers. I gave him a warning, followed by a second warning, followed by a detention. 

He failed to show up for the detention, much to my delight, because that meant a double detention, which I immediately issued, and which was also unserved. Good, I thought to myself. This is out of my hands now. I get to send him to Saturday School and make this kid someone else’s problem.  Before the first month of school had ended, Horton had been assigned two Saturday Schools and had received three or four office referrals. He even got to spend a few days out of my class in in-school suspension, but the ISS only served to give me a day or two of rest and to make sure Horton fell impossibly behind, which made him even more of a problem when he returned to class. 

I wish I could tell you that I executed some phenomenal teacher move that got Horton back on my side and that he ended up being my star student by the end of the year. Unfortunately, Horton and I spent an entire semester antagonizing one another, his mom and I became BFFs over the phone, and I finally convinced the counselor to move Horton to another teacher at the semester so “he could get a fresh start.” I passed him off to a colleague and then commiserated with her from time to time about the challenges of dealing with this unruly miscreant, all the while thinking to myself, “Better you than me!”  In hindsight, I was the worst in so many ways. 

For some reason, I had forgotten something taught to me by a very wise Assistant Principal my first year of teaching, Scott Potter. Mr. Potter insisted that we not outsource our discipline, not send our students away to detention halls, not assign Saturday School sessions, and not write stacks of office referrals. When a student was having a problem in our class, it was our responsibility to schedule a detention with that student. The detention wasn’t meant to be a punishment—no scraping gum off desks or pounding erasers. Instead, we were supposed to spend some quality time, one on one, with the student, talking about the problem and thinking together about ways to remedy it.  

As a young teacher, I thought this was a ridiculous torture designed to make me have to spend an agonizing 30 extra minutes with someone I didn’t even want to see during the time I had to see him in class each day. Now that I’m older and perhaps a little wiser, I see the brilliance in this approach. 


Teaching is all about relationships. So is discipline. If a student doesn’t have a relationship with the teacher and feels antagonized, adversarial, or unsafe, the student has little incentive to cooperate in class. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to sit down with a teenager who dislikes you and your class and try to break the ice, but over time, when you put down the authority persona and adopt the ally stance instead, the student eventually learns that you’re on the same side and that you want him or her to succeed. Punishment does little to improve behaviors; building a relationship with a student leads to positive change.

Students know when you don’t like them. They sometime even assume you don’t like them, even when you do. Sitting down in a one-to-one with a student gives you a chance to find things you like about that student and discover ways to make positive connections with him or her. 

Misbehavior happens for a reason. Most often, a student is seeking attention—from you or from peers—and doesn’t do it in ways that are in sync with your lesson plans. Frequently, a student walks into your class carrying excess emotional baggage from home, from parents, from peers, and from other teachers. If you’re just one more angry adult adding to the noise in that student’s life, you can’t expect cooperation or engagement. Your tête-à-tête with that student may allow you to find ways to give that student positive attention and to help that student learn to deal with the baggage. 

When you spend time with students individually and empathize with them, they become more receptive to what you want them to know. Life is hard. Growing up is tough. Being a teenager is pretty terrible sometimes, or at least it feels that way for many. Let your students know that you know that; it may surprise some of them who believe no one understands them or knows what they are going through. Resisting your impulse to lecture, just listen to them. You may be the only one who does, and that listening might be a breakthrough. 

Adult brains are more developed than teenagers’ brains. We are also presumably more skilled at regulating our emotions, adapting our behaviors to various situations, navigating social norms, and solving problems. To expect kids to think and reason like adults is extremely short sighted. Students who come from difficult backgrounds may be even less equipped to handle the emotional and behavioral demands of school. The best teachers are the ones who understand this and are willing to teach problem solving, emotional intelligence, and self-regulation to their students. If we teach students what is expected in our classrooms, how to respond in difficult situations, and which techniques can be used to level things out when their emotions get out of whack, we are giving them tools they can use forever. But they won’t learn them when we lecture, issue consequences, and stack punishment on top of punishment. 

So when you’re faced with your own Hortons and your first inclination is to get them as far away from you as possible and make them someone else’s problem, consider a different approach. Transform detentions from punishment to productivity. Take the difficult steps to form a relationship with that student, become an ally rather than an adversary, and teach the problem-solving and social skills to help Horton handle the stressors that life will hurl at him.  

I heard from another former student—not Horton—the other day. He’s an adult now and doing quite well, traveling the world and writing. When he was a high school freshman, I suspect some of his teachers had their doubts because he couldn’t sit still, was prone to blurt things out, asked incessant questions, lacked impulse control, didn’t pick up on social cues, and always seemed to be talking when it was time to be quiet. He was also incredibly bright, though sometimes his behaviors masked that intelligence. He is a student I didn’t let frustrate me. Instead, I did what I could to build a relationship. In his note to me, he wrote, “Having a teacher who could joke with me, but also point out my shortcomings and how to fix them, but also endeavor to understand what I was all about, but also inspire me to grow bigger than that, etc….super valuable.” I’m glad I took the time to know this young person because he’s become an adult who inspires me with what he’s done. 

Giving your students ways to fix their shortcomings and grow bigger than what they are all about right now—that’s the hidden curriculum that may be more important than the content the state tells us we have to teach. If we outsource our discipline, we are leaving those most essential lessons untaught. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

SchoolWhyde Initiatives

In my years in education, I’ve seen a lot of schoolwide initiatives. Learning styles, cooperative learning, AVID strategies, technology, differentiation, brain-based instruction, writing-across-the-curriculum, critical reading, 21st century learning (which I think may be different from technology, but I’m not entirely certain), social-emotional learning, block lunch. standards-based grading—the list goes on and on. 

I’m not trying to say anything negative about schoolwide initiatives because I fully believe that, if implemented effectively, a well-chosen initiative can transform a school. I’ve seen initiatives that worked well and ones that have failed more colossally than Crystal Pepsi, the Sony Betamax, Jar Jar Binks, the KFC Double Down, and Scrappy Doo. 

Here’s what I think separates the successful initiatives from the ones that fizzle or simply curl up and die. The problem occurs when the change-makers leave the “Why” out of schoolWhyde.  

I assume that most principals and other educational leaders who launch these plans have thought about, studied, read, and consulted experts about these initiatives before deciding to implement them. Much of this thinking and learning happens during the summer, I assume, when things are a little less busy around the school and the principals aren’t putting out fires (hopefully not literally), or maybe the ideas crop up at conferences or other professional learning opportunities. 

So now we have an educational leader who is excited about an idea and is ready to bring it to life. After all, there’s no time to waste because a truly transformational idea needs to be experienced as soon as possible by as many students as possible. So at the next inservice, faculty meeting, or other opportunity, the new initiative is unveiled to the staff.  

“This year, we are going to allow students to retest for a higher grade and redo homework assignments for full credit.” 

“Since we are focusing on schoolwide AVID strategies, I want to see Focused Note-Taking in every classroom.” 

“I want every student to have a 21st Century learning experience in every class this semester.”

“We’ve got Chromebooks, so I want to see them in use!” 

The What is announced, and the teachers excitedly (in most cases) start planning the How. How are we going to make this happen? 

There will probably be trainings. Before- and after-school seminars and workshops will be offered. E-mails will circulated and videos shared. The staff will plunge into the schoolwide initiative. Teams will meet. Lessons will be planned. And now we’re doing [insert name of initiative here] schoolwide.  

Maybe it will work.  And maybe it won’t. 

The reason it may not work, once again, is because we shortchange the Why. Teachers haven’t had the opportunity to wrap their heads around the rationale for the decision. They aren’t all on board. They haven’t become true believers. 

Truly transformational movements aren’t simple. They’re backed by extensive theory, research, and thought. They’re rarely as easy as they seem. 

Take the redo/retest thing, for example. Allowing multiple attempts to complete homework correctly and retake tests flies in the face of the educational experiences of most teachers who are in the classroom now, so most of us haven’t experienced this firsthand from the student perspective. The theory behind it is complex and multifaceted, but it makes good sense. The problem occurs when teachers adopt the wrong reasons for the initiative. It’s not about making sure every kid gets an A. It’s not preventing hurt feelings and panicky parent phone calls. It’s not about instilling high self-esteem. And it’s certainly not about being able to report lower failure rates. Allowing students to redo homework assignments and retest happens because we believe that learning is more important than recording a grade and that sometimes mastering something involves making some mistakes along the way. 

Getting an entire faculty on board with any initiatives requires time to allow everyone—not just the instructional leaders on campus—to ponder, study, think ideas through, ask questions, raise objections, troubleshoot, and establish a unified vision grounded in a shared understanding of the Why behind the What and the How. Getting one’s head wrapped around the ins and outs of any initiative takes time and effort, but good instructional leaders know that the effort will pay off. 

In the case of Focused Note-Taking (one of my personal favorite AVID strategies), teachers need time to understand that it’s not just about the layout of the paper on which the notes are written. Cornell Notes are one type of notes, and they aren’t the best type of notes in every situation.  When educators have a clear vision of why we ask students to take notes in school, how to establish a clear purpose for the note-taking, what are the various types of notes and why each type is useful, how to teach students to make informed note-taking decisions, why the note-taking process springs from research on learning, and how to incorporate multiple meaningful interactions with notes into the learning process, then (and only then) will Focused Note-Taking take off as a schoolwide initiative. 

Teachers must be well-versed in the thinking behind any strategy or initiative so they can “sell” it to students, field questions from parents and colleagues, and make informed instructional decisions about how to bring the initiative to life. Once the entire staff takes ownership of the idea, schoolWhyde implementation succeeds. 

Maybe it's time to do some formative assessment on our campuses to see how well we understand the Whys behind our schoolwide initiatives. Ask one another to explain the thinking behind the movement. If you can't rattle off a list of reasons and explain your thoughts with certainty, ask for clarification, for more information, and for more conversation at the campus level.

If your campus initiatives have stalled out, consider spending some more time in departments, in teams, and as an entire staff to recalibrate your thinking. Read the works of the educational thinkers endorsing these initiatives. Get more professional development. Discuss and clarify the initiative and the research that supports it. Make sure everyone is on board. When all members of the campus community have an understanding that matches that of the ones who are spearheading the initiative, your efforts to spread a practice across a campus will work...and make an impact.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

If I Had a Hammer

A hammer is a useful thing to know how to use. If you gave me a claw hammer and taught me to use it, I could do a lot of things: hang a picture, nail together a couple of boards, pry a nail out of something. Once I learned how to use a claw hammer, I might be able to figure out how to use other types of hammers—ball peen hammers, club hammers, sledge hammers—which would enable me to accomplish many more tasks.

As I added hammers to my toolbox, it would be useful to know what each is used for, its strengths and weaknesses, so if a hammering task arose, I could select the best hammer for the job.

But what if I needed to cut a 2x4 in half?

A hammer won’t be of any use in this situation. I would also need access to and understanding of saws—miter, jig, band, hack, hand, circular—so I would know which one would best meet my need.

A toolbox with only one tool in it isn’t much use. Having many tools but no knowledge of how and when to use them is equally useless. Likewise, if I never build anything myself, what’s the use of having tools at all?

These three points relate to much of what we do in the classroom. As we try to equip our students with what they need to accomplish our learning objectives, we have to consider these truths. 

A toolbox with only one tool in it isn’t much use. Sometimes we give our students a tool or strategy, hoping to help them but inadvertently limiting them. In writing, for instance, we might give students an organizational structure or template for writing an essay. When reading, we might provide them with a set of steps for annotating a text. For note-taking, we might teach them a format—Cornell Notes, for instance. Each of these tools is useful and worthwhile in some situations, but when we try to force every student to use the same tool in all circumstances, problems arise. A far better idea is to provide students with several strategies, multiple tools for their academic toolbox. There are many acceptable ways to organize almost any essay. Good readers use a number of annotation strategies to make sense of what they read. And sometimes two- or three-column notes, sketchnotes, graphic organizers, and traditional outlines are more useful than Cornell Notes for certain purposes.  

Having many tools but no knowledge of how and when to use them is equally useless. Suppose we fill our students’ toolboxes with strategies but don’t teach them what to do with them. Suppose we make all the decisions—use this tool for this and this one for this—rather than asking our students to select among a variety of tools and defend their decision. We should share with students the pros and cons of each tool as we introduce it and later let the students decide which to use for whatever task is at hand. I’m a believer that classrooms need to be full of strategic discussions: developing plans, testing hypotheses, creating blueprints for learning, and debriefing often. The teacher can’t be the one doing all the strategizing, though. When students develop the autonomy to determine which organizational structure matches what they have to say in their essay, which annotation method will work best for the type of text and purpose for reading, and which note-taking format will help them achieve their objective for taking notes, they have become independent learners who can handle whatever challenges the world of college or career throws at them. They are master craftsmen and craftswomen who can take charge of their own learning.  

If I never build anything myself, what’s the use of having tools at all? It’s sad when kids know how to take notes but never need to take them. It’s equally unfortunate to have reading skills but nothing to read, writing skills with no opportunity to try them out on real-world audiences. We need to make sure the tools we give our students are going to be used. With the best of intentions, we often circumvent the actual development of students’ skills by shouldering most of the cognitive work ourselves. We provide fill-in-the-blank essay templates for students who don’t need them. Or we decide not to assign writing at all. We summarize reading instead of asking students to work their way through it; equally shameful, we give study questions and reading guides that students can answer without having to actually read the text. We ask students to take notes for the sake of taking notes rather than taking notes that are necessary to accomplish a learning objective. It’s our obligation to provide students with reasons to use the tools we teach them, to give them something to build with those tools.

With some deliberate planning, we can become educators who equip our students with the right tools, teach them how and when to use them, and then give them reasons to dig into their toolboxes. Before we know it, our students will become handy in ways we never imagined, thinking of new things to build and collecting additional tools on their own to help them build them.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

How Do You Feel Today (about my class)?


English teachers have it rough. Socially, I mean. There’s rarely a week that goes by that I don’t meet someone who,  after discovering I am an English teacher, tells me about how much he hated English in school, all the assigned books he didn’t read, how he doesn’t know anything about grammar or spelling, and/or that he’s a terrible writer.

Math teachers have it worse, perhaps. The whole world is proud to announce how much they hated math in school. They brag about how inept they are at computation and join in with others in the Great Mathematics Hate-athon.

I’m sure there are factions of science haters, social studies detesters, and even PE loathers out there. We’ve done a fantastic job in education of making students despise what we are trying to sell them and of making them feel incompetent at doing what we ask them to do.

I’m convinced that teachers should have two main goals for whatever they teach: to make their students enjoy the subject and to develop confidence in their abilities in that area. Teachers should strive to help students form positive dispositions about what they are learning and about themselves as learners.

In order to accomplish this lofty set of goals, we have to undo damage inflicted upon them by educators past and by societal norms about education. We have to erase the scars of bad grades, scathing comments, harsh criticisms, and failed attempts. We have to empower our students by helping them experience success. Setting each student up for excellence is key, and providing the type of feedback that ignites hope rather than quenching dreams is crucial.

We have to show our students that, though the world wants to convince them it’s not cool to read, write, solve math problems, or engage in other scholarly pursuits, there’s value and enjoyment in learning how to do these things. Reading can unlock worlds of experiences and can thrill you more than any movie or video game. Writing well can give you power over others, help you get your way in the world, provide an outlet for self-expression, and allow you to understand your own life more clearly. Math is everywhere, and being computationally helpless leaves you vulnerable to others who will take advantage of that weakness. Learning to think like a mathematician is important whether you’re hoping to make money, run a household, launch a business, invest wisely, shop ‘til you drop, or create something in the kitchen, the craft room, the workshop, the laboratory, or on the computer. Science is just cool. Every branch of science contains something that will blow your mind if you give it a chance. Social studies helps us make sense of the world we live in and gives us perspective beyond the here and the now. There is something life-changing lurking within the curriculum of every subject in the school day. We have to find those bits of awesome and introduce our students to them.

Dispositions are difficult to change, but I think we can make some progress if we follow several simple suggestions:

  • Stop taking ourselves so seriously. It’s school, not brain surgery.
  • On a similar note, don’t be afraid to have fun. No one should spend eight hours a day doing something that is miserable.
  • Celebrate successes—even tiny ones—and be gracious about failure.
  • Unleash curiosity. It’s okay to wonder and explore instead of always seeking the right answer.
  • Remember that no matter what the world says, the test is not as important as the learning leading up to it. Passing the test but hating the subject is still a failure in the long run.
  • Think like our students. Get to know what they like and how to reach them.
  • Let learning be its own reward. Ditch the extrinsic motivators. Trained seals work for treats, but they won’t keep working when the treat supply dries up.
  • Sell your subject. Use comedy, mystery, or drama but not horror. Fear is a bad motivator if we want more than compliance.
  • Play! Explore! Tinker! Laugh!
  • Build bridges of trust with students. Let them know we want to see them succeed and that we’ve got their backs.
  • Take moments to step away from the curriculum to share something interesting about the subject we are teaching: something we’ve read, a brain teaser, a brilliant quotation, a surprising bit of trivia, an anecdote, or other fascinating nugget.
  • Connect. Connect ideas. Connect with the students. Connect students with one another and maybe with students somewhere else. Let them make connections to their lives, to other things they are learning, and to the world they inhabit, the things they care about.   

We have to remember that our most reluctant students don’t see relevance in what they are learning, don’t believe in their own capabilities, and cannot foresee a future where it’s important that they know and do what we are asking of them. Even many of our high-achieving students choose to live in the world of compliance rather than of intellectual excitement.


If we teach every day as if our subjects matter and do all we can to ignite the excitement of learning in our students, we can make a difference in some kids’ lives. We can change the dispositions of many. We can open their eyes to possibilities that will impact their decisions to go to college, to pursue careers they never considered, to add to the body of knowledge in the world, or simply to continue curiously and courageously learning throughout their lives without apology.