Don’t waste the first few weeks

Here I am sitting on the couch at 5:40 on a Sunday morning.  For some reason I have been wide awake since just after 4:00.  As I get ready for my second cup of coffee, I’ve been reflecting back on the start of the school year.  Tomorrow starts week number 3-the first full, 5 day week of the school year for my students.

Things have started off quite well.  I am adjusting to a new schedule that includes day care drop off which means getting to school with only about 15 minutes before class starts then teaching 3 straight classes before I finally get a break.  My classes so far have been a joy as each class presents its own, different personality.  We have only had 2 weeks of classes, and yet we are in full swing.  In fact, my juniors had their first quiz this past week.

You see, I am a huge believer in establish a positive culture in the first few weeks of school.  In fact, I chair our school culture committee because I believe so strongly in this.  I have developed a presentation for our new teachers built on the idea that a positive culture in your classroom will prevent many management issues.  I read vociferously anything I come across in relation to classroom culture.  I take pride in the fact that I can name almost all my students on the second day and then force them to learn and use each other’s names.  I feel very strongly that students need to feel welcomed in the class to learn.

Establishing a positive, student centered, learning focused community is a big deal to me.  But I don’t play name games.  I don’t do ice breakers.  I teach content on day 1.

In fact, it bothers me greatly that many teachers spend the first few days or even weeks doing nothing but what have been dubbed “culture building activities.”  Doing this does your students a great disservice as far as I am concerned.  Students attend school for 180 days; it quickly becomes monotonous.  The start of the school year is the rare moment in which students haven’t been jaded by the monotony of the school year.  For a week or two we have a captive audience.  It is such a short amount of time before students fall into a lull of complacency.  I refuse to waste this time.

Culture and community are hugely important, but don’t sacrifice the first few weeks of content to it.  Build your classroom culture and set expectations as you teach your content.  For example, I build a number of opportunities for group work into the start of the school year.  Then I choose the groups, mixing it up each time, and their first instruction is to make sure they know the names of everyone in their group.  As discussions ensue, I stop students and tell them that they need to respond to each other by name.  My wife the Spanish teacher forces students to use the target language in their getting to know you games.  There are so many ways to build the culture you want beyond so called “culture building activities.”

Yes, please focus on your classroom culture, but also focus on your content.


Why am I emailing parents all the time?

I don’t think parents want to know nearly as much as we seem to think they want to know.  Parents claim they want to know everything happening in their child’s school day, and we try to make that happen.  We post our curriculum so parents can see it; we post our weekly lesson plans so parents can see exactly what we are teaching their children.  We post grades in real time so parents can see exactly what is completed and how their children did on it.  Many of my colleagues are constantly sending email updates to their students’ parents.  One of my colleagues even makes this a weekly routine.

And yet, I would bet most (and by most, I mean an extremely high percentage) parents barely even look at any of this.  Maybe it’s cynical of me, but in my experience most parents become interested when their child is doing poorly or something goes wrong.  Do we really believe many parents are carefully reading our class policies when we make them sign it?  Think about it.  A parent with 2 kids in high school would have about 15 different sets of policies to read if we all did this.  My son’s kindergarten teacher kept a blog last year updating parents on what is happening in class.  To be honest, I looked at it maybe 4 times all year.

This is all to say, we bend over backwards to inform parents, but it isn’t really worth all the effort.  Please know that I think the home-school connection is vital; I just don’t think we are going about it the right way.  I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying something new with my summer school students.  I haven’t decided if it works quite yet, though.

Instead of emailing their parents myself, I made my students email their own parents and CC me on it.  The summer session is only 3 weeks long, so on Friday of each week, students have to email their parents telling them what they did this week, any grades they got, and upcoming due dates.   This keeps parents posted, forces communication between the student and his/her parents, makes the practice writing a bit, and saves me the time.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  A few students are super resistant to it.  I’m pretty sure one of my students doesn’t actually email his parents-just some sort of dummy account.  Students don’t know how to write appropriate and effective emails either.  In fairness, this is a skill I should probably be teaching them, but summer school doesn’t allow enough time for that really.

I’ll obviously contact parents if I have concerns as the summer session rounds out, but I like the premise of having students send the email instead of me.  I think this is an idea I’ll toy with a bit more during the actual school year.

introverts are people too

In light of the Common Core state standards there has been a push to increase the speaking and listening skills of our students.  The argument being that being able to present information and engage in meaningful conversations is necessary to being college and career ready.  The push to build QPA’s in schools often includes a push to include some sort of presentation piece.  This I all agree with.  We do our students a disservice when we don’t expect them to participate meaningful in discussion; when we don’t force them to present their findings (if for no other reason than to expand their audience and gain more feedback.)

That being said, we have to be judicious in how we go about implementing these changes.  If we say that it is important that students are able to engage in discussions, then we have to hold them to three distinct criteria:

  1.  speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear
  2. contributing meaningfully
  3. listening to one another by not speaking over each other, texting, having side conversations, etc.

This is where I am finding (based on talking to other teachers) we are tripping up.  In order to do this well, we have to lay these  expectations out clearly beforehand and then sticking to it.  In conversations as colleagues, we often have trouble with these criteria (how many times have you seen number 3 at a faculty meeting?)  This requires diligence and teaching and reteaching on our part; it doesn’t happen on its own.

More importantly, we need to be respectful of our introverted students.  In our zeal to promote speaking, we often gloss over these students and force them to speak.  Sitting on the sides of a discussion and listening is not a flaw.  In fact for many of our students, they are  gaining more from the discussion by listening and not stressing about when they will be speaking.

So how can we force these students to speak while respecting their introversion?  It’s rather simple.  Speaking and listening should be scaffolded just as we scaffold other skills.  I inform my students early on that they will all be expected to speak throughout the course, and then I remind them often of this expectation.  I then prime them for this, by offering them opportunities to share in smaller settings (think/pair/share or group work-groups are usually chosen by me).  On the first day that I truly expect everyone to speak, students must first write out a claim.  This way, if they are called on to speak and have nothing to add (as is often the case with introverted students), they can simply read their claim.  This limits their stress of thinking of what to say.  As the discussion comes to a close, if I realize that some people haven’t spoken yet, I simply call on them to speak.  I do this in a non-threatening and non-accusatory manner.  This teaches them that I will hold them to this expectation, and more importantly, that their opinion/thoughts matter and they can contribute it safely.

After the first discussion in which everyone is required to speak, students reflect on the discussion as a whole and their own participation.  From their reflections, I ask how to improve for next time, and I can increase my expectations from there.  For the record, this first discussion just happened today in one my classes-a full three weeks into the school year.  I built up to this moment throughout the previous weeks.

Expecting students to just get over it (whether you say that or not, that is the implication when students are forced up to speak too quickly) quite simply doesn’t work.  Instead, lay out expectations and build up to the main event.  It’s worth the extra effort.

What’s in a meme (part IV)


Welcome to my 4th installment discussing this meme.  Check out parts 1-3 herehere, and here.

Non-compliance is punished.

For most of these claims, there is a little bit of truth, but not the whole story.  I will fully admit that #4 is pretty darn accurate.  Non-compliance is punished in just about every classroom and every school out there, but this is because schools are a product of society–a society in which non-compliance is punished.  So many people already complain that kids and teenagers are disrespectful.  Could you imagine how much more these people would complain if schools didn’t, in some way, punish non-compliance?  Without going into the science about brain development and whatnot, students need boundaries and consequences for exceeding those boundaries.  Anybody who has actually worked with students knows this.

Many people are probably saying, but what about civil disobedience?  If a rule is unjust, unfair, or unnecessary, students should practice civil disobedience.  After all, we teach students (directly or indirectly) the virtues of civil disobedience.  In fact my students even read Henry David Thoreau’s piece called “Civil Disobedience.”  Aren’t I being slightly hypocritical for not practicing what I preach? Not exactly.  What often gets forgotten in that argument is that Henry David Thoreau wrote that while in jail.  He practiced civil disobedience by not paying his taxes to fund a war that he thought was unjust.  As a result he was punished and sent to jail.  As we talk about this, I constantly remind my students that civil disobedience comes with consequences.  Your non-compliance will be punished.

When one thinks about non-compliance and civil disobedience, the most prominent example is the work of MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.  These people staged sit-ins at whites only counters, etc. and fought for what is just.  Many might argue that by punishing non-compliance in schools we are hindering these sorts of movements in the future.  Again, I’d point out that these civil rights activists were all punished-not just by being sent to jail, but also through physical violence.  I’d also point out that it is easy to say you’d be civilly disobedient, but much harder to actually do it when the time comes.  Martin Luther King Jr. actually trained people in how to sit at the counter and keep calm while being insulted and physically attacked.  I don’t know many people-nonetheless school age students-who could withstand that sort of abuse while remaining calm without the necessary training.

None of this is to say that students have no ability to question authority or school rules.  While I alluded to this in a previous post about this meme, in my experience schools (and individual teaches) have allowed students to voice concerns about policy.  For example, a few years back the dress code for one particular dance was made more stringent than it ever has been.  One member of the student government, with the guidance of the adviser, circulated a petition regarding this change.  This was a means to start a conversation that has been ongoing since though the dress code for this dance is looser now.

My point is that while non-compliance is generally punished in schools, there are means for students to question the rules and authorities.  It is easy to suggest that we are squashing free thinkers, but it is much harder to maintain an appropriate learning environment than non-educators realize.  We must strike a balance that helps and supports all our students.

What’s in a meme? (part I)

My brother recently posted this meme on facebook:


And as an educator, it is hard to not respond to something like this, but his facebook wall just doesn’t seem like the right place.  The fact of the matter is that there is certainly some truth to these statements, but a meme never tells the whole story, so I figured I’d give a go at each of these statements in a series of posts.  And so, let’s have a go at the 1st statement:

  1.  Truth comes from authority.

Our curriculum (at least at the high school level) actually leads to the exact opposite of this statement.  When we teach the works of the great thinkers of the world such as MLK Jr. or Thomas Jefferson or Ghandi, we are teaching that truth doesn’t necessarily come from authority. We idolize these people and hold them up in schools as examples of people who questioned the authorities of their time and recognized that truth can be found elsewhere.  High school English curricula all over include dystopian novels which very often question the very notion that truth comes from authority.  George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 is not only about constant surveillance, but also very much about the problems with allowing authority to hold the truth.

The Common Core State Standards also disavow this statement.  One standard reads: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. And another says: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.  Both of these standards are asking students to evaluate information that they receive from “authorities.”  This is a cornerstone of my senior writing course.  This is an argumentative writing course in which students have to use research to support their claims.  They need to know how to critically evaluate information in order to determine if the authority is true otherwise their argument is going to be garbage.  A few years back I had lunch duty with one of my colleagues who also teaches the same senior writing course.  I distinctly remember discussing with him the need for our students to gain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the information they obtain.

Now all that being said, the bigger question is: does our educational culture practice what we preach?  As teachers and administrators we do often try to stop students from questioning our authority.  Every school has administrative codes and discipline procedures for disrespect and failure to comply, and students who question teacher authority are often labeled as such.  In schools we have this deep rooted fear that all hell will break lose if we allow students to question our authority-that we won’t be able to maintain any sort of classroom management to make our way through the standards of our curriculum in time.

One piece of advice that I always give new teachers is to be willing to say “I don’t know.”  And yet so few of us as teachers are willing to say that.  We are afraid to open ourselves up to our students and be vulnerable.  We expect our students to accept what we say as truth.  Yes, learn about the importance of questioning authority, but be sure to question someone else’s authority not mine.  We can be quite hypocritical in this regard.

Through my years of schooling this is undoubtedly the message I received, and I still see it as I walk the hallways and talk to fellow educators.  But I also see this shifting.  Educational change moves at glacial speeds, but I am happy to say that I work with a number of people who are practicing what we preach.  The original statement from the meme isn’t entirely true, but it’s not entirely false either.


As a young child, we were all taught to say thank you, and we expect our students to do the same.  It’s basic human nature to feel good about yourself when people thank you for doing something.  That common courtesy is something we pretty much all wish to instill in our students, but how often do we say it to them?  I’m serious–how often do you thank your students?

I don’t mean this in an insulting way, but I have watched many teachers do their thing and never say thank you when students work hard.  It seems to me that students will be more willing to work with teachers when they feel their efforts are appreciated.  A simple thank you can do just that.

As I type this, I have 7 kids in summer school sitting before me and all of them are typing away powering through my assignments.  None of these students is the stereotypical “good student;”  every single one of them admits to not completing their assignments, and yet here they all are typing away.  Almost all of these students have discipline records and have been known to cause problems for their teachers, and yet they are all typing away.  Obviously why they are willing to work here is a multifaceted question, but I’d posit that at least a piece of it is because I continually thank them for their effort.  Every day I thank them for coming in early; I thank them for completing their assignments; I thank them for revising when I ask them to; I thank them for staying focused throughout the 2 hour session.  I general, I thank each kid individually as well as the class as a whole.  I honestly believe this makes a difference.

Last week I wrote that how you phrase things makes more of a difference than what you say.  Today, I say that what you say matters when it comes to saying thank you.

So thank you, readers, for taking the time to read my musings.

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it

We’ve all heard this before, but when it comes to working with students especially, this age old mantra is quite true: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

I’m thinking about this in terms of classroom culture and management.  I’ve long argued that the best means of classroom management is to ensure a positive culture of mutual respect focused on learning.  Obviously, that is the sort of thing that is easier said than done, but when I think of the idea of HOW we say things, I consider the idea of a positive culture.

For example, the misuse of cell phones is a pervasive issue in my school-one that is constantly bandied back in forth in disciplinary meetings, etc.  The perennial question is how do we get kids to use them appropriately and responsibly.  Most of us know that banning them outright isn’t the answer, but we want students to put them away when they should be focused on our teaching or their classmates’ ideas.

In my experience, I have had classes in which I was constantly battling cell phone use and other classes with little to no issues.  What is making that difference?  In my, albeit not research based experience, simply the way I word the request makes a big difference.  When I tell kids “put your phones away,” I have far less compliance than when I say “thank you for putting your phones away.”  Am I making the same request?  Essentially, yes, but phrasing it in a polite and positive way leads to better results.  I’m currently teaching summer school, and there is not a single phone in sight.  All I said was “thank you for putting your phones away.”

Words matter.  Will framing your requests in a positive manner always yield the intended results?  Probably not–after all does anything always work?  but I’d say it’s a nice start to creating a positive culture.