A great last day activity

Ahh…the end of the school year.  A time to clean up, get stuff finished, and reflect on the year.  It’s also the time of year when we try to squeeze out the last bit of learning from our students who grow increasingly resistant as the sun shines brighter.  Yesterday was the last day of classes for us (seniors finished up last week and graduated on Monday-much congratulations to all graduates!).  For most of us, the last day of class is a bit of a slush day where very little happens.  This year, I decided to try something new-an idea that I stole from the incredibly talented and thoughtful Dave Stuart: Pop up toasts.  By the way, if you are an English or Social Studies teacher and you are not following Dave Stuart, you are missing out!  Check out his stuff here: http://www.davestuartjr.com

One of Dave’s techniques that I’ve tried out and made my own is the idea of pop up debates (read more here: http://www.davestuartjr.com/pop-up-debate/) This is a great way to get students comfortable with public speaking, arguing, etc.  His idea of Pop up toasts works on a similar level.

On Monday I asked my students to reflect on 4 questions:

  1.  What are you thankful for in this class?
  2. What is at least one funny memory from this class?
  3. What are some of the things you appreciate the most from our class together?
  4. Who in this class made you laugh/think/smile/see things differently/etc.?

On Tuesday, our last day, I told them that they were to use those answers as a basis for toasting the class.  They each had a cup of water (soda’s unhealthy, so I go with water) to raise a toast.  Whenever you are ready to speak, simply stand up, deliver a short message of gratitude and/or reflection for the class, end with a toast closer (cheers) then have a seat.  If more than one person stands at the same time, simply graciously yield the floor.

This was a great experience.  We had a few laughs together as we remembered moments that we had all forgotten; students expressed sincere thanks to their classmates; students reflected on their past year together and all that we have done; and they all got to practice a little bit of public speaking one more time.

While it was great to hear students reminisce about funny moments, there is one moment here that stands out the most to me.  One student in particular in one class suffers from extreme anxiety.  Earlier in the year she was literally in tears about the prospect of speaking publicly.  She was the 3rd person in her class to  VOLUNTARILY stand up and deliver her toast.  I can’t express how incredibly proud I was of her in that moment.

If you are looking for a great but easy way to end the school year, I urge you to consider pop up toasts.  I urge you to consider pop up debates through the year, and I urge you to check out the work of Dave Stuart.  You’ll be glad you did.


It’s a sad day for education


Today Betsy “watch out for bears”Devos was confirmed by the slimmest of margins as Sec. of Education.  As a teacher, this upsets me greatly.  This isn’t about republicans vs. democrats; this isn’t about her support of Charter and private schools; this is about so much more.

Her absolute lack of competence is staggering.  Forget the fact that she has no experience in education and her lone qualifying attribute seems to be that she has donated lots of money.  I keep getting told I need more leadership experience for an Assistant Principal job, but evidently that same experience isn’t needed to run the nation’s public schools.  Astounding.

Her inability to answer questions during her hearing is something like I’ve never seen before.  If she actually did any preparation for these hearings, she did a terrible job.  What an awful message that entire hearing sends to our nation’s students.

It disheartens me that someone so clearly unqualified could be nominated, nonetheless confirmed, for such a position.  This is a true insult to educators everywhere.

The reality is that she now has a fair amount of power to change public education.  Will she?  Who knows, but the thought is scary.  A much bigger threat in actuality is each state’s secretary of education (which is even scarier as a NH resident–Edelblut is nuts!)  I’m confident that I will see proposals that I don’t like coming from the education department, and I will vocally oppose those, but I can only hope I don’t see massive changes that affect my day to day teaching.

In many ways, teachers see themselves as powerless in the system.  We are but mere cogs in the greater machine.  But we are very important cogs, and we need to use our collective voices.  We lost this fight, but as educators we must continue to speak out against changes we don’t approve of-from the local school level all the way to the national level.

And more importantly, we must continue to do good work in our classrooms.  We must work harder to ensure that our students are critical thinkers.  Our curricula just became more important almost across the board.  We mustn’t just lie down and accept this; we must become even better teachers.  The time is now.

Defending the whole class read

Like most everyone we are in the constant process of rewriting and refining our curriculum.  Just this past week we were reminded that the skills and enduring understandings are the most important aspects of the curriculum and that, in our English classrooms, the texts we read are vehicles to help students obtain the skills.  For example, if the enduring understanding is about understanding the hero’s journey, students don’t necessarily have to read The Odyssey; they can read any texts relating to the hero’s journey.  This allows students more choice and thus more ownership in their own learning.

This is all true, but there is something to be said for assigning an entire class a novel.  I’m all for student choice and giving options, but that doesn’t mean students need options on everything all the time.  My juniors have 3 assigned novels that the whole class reads: The Scarlet Letter, Player Piano or The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.  My seniors have 2 assigned novels: 1984 and On the Beach.  Assigning these novels offers a variety of benefits that extend beyond the classroom.

In a lot of ways, I think it is good to have students read something that is not in their wheel house.  When I assign 1984, many students aren’t interested in a futuristic totalitarian society, which is exactly why they need to read it.  If we only expect students to work within their own passion and comfort zones, we are greatly limiting their growth and thinking.  Are there are other dystopian, totalitarian novels?  sure.  Do they present the same opportunities for shared and meaningful discussion?  I’m not so convinced.  When I teach these novels as a class, and see success both in terms of the standards and in terms of student engagement, I’m not so ready to simply throw it all out the window.

The shared experiences and conversations that can ensue from a whole class read are also extremely important.  For one thing, I like that by the time my students are seniors they have all read, for example, The Odyssey.  This allows me as the teacher to make references and comparisons to it when I talk about heroism while teaching Beowulf.  I do this throughout my course too.  We read 1984 to start the semester, and I reference it over and over again as we read Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales, etc.  If they hadn’t all had these shared reading experience, these references would be lost.  More importantly, the shared discussion of a novel as a class is an important learning tool.  I routinely watch my students discuss and question each other about a novel offering insight and interpretations to each other.  While this can happen in lit circles, that unnecessarily limits the number of people involved.

Student choice is great and can be a powerful motivating tool, but it isn’t everything.  Sometimes as the teacher, I know what is best.  Students don’t need choices for everything.

When did facts become debatable?

Towards the start of my teaching career, I was reading an article with my juniors about the changing nature of education, and in the article the author stated something along the lines of school leadership is pushing for more student centered instruction.  One of my students told me that he didn’t agree with this statement.  When I asked him to clarify he told me that he doesn’t believe school leadership is pushing for more student centered instruction.  I was baffled.  That is a fact-school leaders are pushing for more student centered instruction.  You don’t get to disagree with that fact.

I was reminded  of this incident this morning as I was grading argument analyses that my seniors wrote in which they told me that they disagreed with the facts presented in the essay they were analyzing.  When did it become acceptable to disagree with facts?  What have we done as educators that allows students to think that they are free to simply choose which facts to agree with?

We are embroiled in a highly polarized election year right now that we are so worried about offending someone that we refrain from talking about the election or temper any talk of the election by appealing to both sides.  What good does this do our students to understand the issues that the country is facing?  My senior English class is focused on argument and persuasion, and I ask students weekly to consider controversial issues in the world.  Naturally many of them wrote about the debate between Sec. Clinton and Mr. Trump.  One of them wrote that Mr. Trump won the debate as he presented strong counterarguments with “correct facts.”  What in the world are correct facts?  The implication that Sec. Clinton’s facts are incorrect is astounding.  Facts, by their very definition are correct.  Why are we not teaching our students this?  One can misinterpret facts; one can omit facts, but facts themselves are not incorrect.

Now, I watched the debate, and read a great deal about it both before and afterwards.  I’ve re-watched clips and read the transcript.  Mr. Trump did not present many facts.  Unfortunately, if I say this in class, I will be called out as biased and pushing a political agenda unless I also disparage Sec. Clinton’s performance.

In our effort to remain unbiased and non-offensive as teachers, we have mistakenly adhered to the notion that all sides deserve equal play, even when one side is demonstrably wrong.  And that’s a shame.  We say we want to teach critical thinking, but we are unwilling to deal with the controversy that is necessary to true critical thinking.

Politics and Morality in the classroom

Last week, terrorists attacked Paris.  There are major political, practical and moral questions that abound as a result of this.  Our country is debating whether bombing is appropriate and what to do about Syrian refugees entering America.  These are all big questions as they make us question our own belief systems and values.  As educators it is important for us to remember that this is an important lesson for our students too.

Based entirely on anecdotal evidence, in my experience teachers are hesitant to discuss hot button political and/or moral issues with their classes.  We fear that we will offend someone in the class, which is only heightened when we read stories of teachers getting in trouble for their comments.  Sometimes we are concerned that we don’t have the time to discuss these issues because of testing and curricular requirements.  I contest that we, as educators, have a responsibility to discuss these sort of issues.

Today, in class, we read Emerson’s Nature and began discussing his idea of the oversoul.  Whether you know anything about Transcendentalism and the works of Emerson is irrelevant, but stemming from this is the concept of human connections.  In fact, the question I posed to my classes today is: “Do we have a responsibility to other humans?  And if so, what is that responsibility?”  In light of that question, how can one not discuss the current issues regarding refugees?

With my seniors, we study British literature which includes the epic Beowulf in which we view the concept of the epic hero.  An obvious question in this unit is: “What is heroism?”  Without a doubt students drum up examples of modern day heroism to include police men, firefighters, and military men.  So I always ask the follow up question: “Are all members of the military heroes?”  And the answer is largely yes.  I then hand out an article from the early 2000’s detailing a veteran of the Iraq war who killed his entire family and committed suicide after suffering from PTSD, and ask if he still qualifies as a hero.  Suddenly many students are unsure.  Does these actions in some way take away from his service?  There isn’t necessarily a right answer, but now I have them contemplating the issue of heroism much more deeply.

My seniors also read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and we look at the various pilgrims and consider their various vices and virtues to ask the broader question: “Are humans generally good or bad?”  We also live in southern New Hampshire, so when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, that is an act of terrorism that hit pretty close to home for our community.  How could I possibly ask students if humans are good or bad and not ask them to look at the events of that day?  Did bad things happen that day?  Yes.  Did good things happen that day?  Yes–the outpouring of help and support was phenomenal.

I don’t ask my students these questions because there is necessarily a right answer.  I don’t ask these questions of students because they are embedded in my curriculum.  I ask these questions of my students because they are questions that matter.  School is about more than just gaining skills to join the work force or advance on to the next level of skill.  School is about finding ourselves and tackling difficult questions.  We must help students understand their beliefs and values.  We mustn’t be afraid of asking moral and ethical questions in our classes.

Presenting material and PowerPoints

While the lecture has come under attack as of late for being too teacher centered, we, as teachers, still use it as a method.  I honestly believe that most teachers recognize that lecturing non-stop is not good teaching and attempt to create more student centered lessons as well.  The reality is though, teachers have information that students need, and presenting that information orally is an efficient way of disseminating that information.

I have trouble believing that there are many teachers who stand in front of the room and just talk at their students day after day after day, but I think all teachers do it from time to time.  That being said, we have to ask the question not only “When is it acceptable?” but we must also ask “How can I lecture and present material in the most meaningful way?”

Obviously, one of the most common means of presenting information is via a PowerPoint presentation.  What an awesome tool PowerPoint can be, but, boy, can they be used poorly.  Since I teach Public Speaking, I have done some research on presentation tools and given a great deal of thought to how to use them well.  As a teacher, I tend not to use PowerPoint a whole heck of a lot–not for any particular reason, per se; I just don’t use it a whole heck of a lot.

That being said, as we think about using PowerPoint, I have a few rules of thumb that I follow.   A PowerPoint should enhance a presentation–it should not be the presentation.  There is nothing I hate more than listening to a speaker read PowerPoint slides to me.  I also hate when students just mindlessly copy slides into their notebooks.  If the intention is that students have the material on the slides in their notes, why not simply print out the slides?  If you could simply hand out the presentation to kids and not actually speak, why not do that and save time?  There is something to the idea of presenting material in different formats for students, but the same exact material orally and visually at the same exact time?  That just doesn’t feel right to me.

Which brings me back to the whole idea of just reading the slides.  PowerPoints are visuals.  So let’s use it that way.  A PowerPoint full of pictures or images is far more meaningful and powerful.  Research is pretty clear–providing pictures helps many students learn.  PowerPoint is a great way to do that.

So just how many words should be on a slide?  A valid question indeed.  I constantly remind my Public Speaking students to not overfill slides.  My mantra is clear: “Slides are free” and “more slides”  Sometimes I feel like Oprah (and you get a slide, and you get a slide!)  But in all honesty it is true.  There is no reason to limit the number of slides.  Let’s say you put 36 words on a slide; that’s a number that I’ve seen bandied about on many blog posts.  Simply reading those 36 words is boring to students and a waste of their time, but it also overloads their brains.  The latest research suggests that reading aloud to students from the PowerPoint actually decreases comprehension because the brain is trying to do two things at once–listen and read.  So if you put up 36 words and wait for them to read it, you have to actually wait quite a long time.  The average reading speed is 180 words per minute, which means it would take about 12 seconds for the average person to read 36 words.  Are you really willing to wait that long?  12 seconds is a long time to wait and stare at a class during a presentation, especially if you have multiple slides like this.  Breaking up the slides (and including mostly pictures–not words–helps to alleviate this problem.

All in all, what I am suggesting here is that we use PowerPoints thoughtfully and judiciously.  Not every presentation needs a PowerPoint, nor does a PowerPoint necessarily enhance the presentation.  As teachers, we may need to lecture from time to time.  That doesn’t mean we need to use bad PowerPoints.

Grading efficiently

As an English teacher I have to grade literally hundreds of multiple page essays.  I have to score them with a rubric, provide feedback, input those grades into the computer, discuss those grades with parents and students all while trying to convince those same students and parents that their learning is far more important than their grades.  Of course, I have college recommendations to write, meetings to attend, various other forms to fill out and a family that I like to see from time to time, all while the pile of papers on the corner of my desk gets bigger and bigger.  I am certain that this is a contributing factor to burnout among new teachers.  To that end, I offer 9 tips to grade more efficiently:

  1. Grade less.  Seriously.  Not everything a student does needs to be graded.  Sometimes a quick glance, and quick feedback is more than enough.  This past week, I asked my students to answer some questions regarding the literary devices in The Declaration of Independence.  They did this in class in small groups as I walked around, read their answers and engaged in discussion with them.  What good would have come from me collecting and grading this assignment?
  2. Less red ink.  All too often when we read essays/lab reports/etc. we become copy editors, and it all gets lost on the student.  Focus on what really matters.  I’m a proponent of standards based grading, and I keep that mindset as I grade so that my commentary and feedback stays relevant to the standards at play.  It may kill us to not mark every comma, but it’s better for everyone if we let it go.
  3. Grade with a highlighter.  Don’t correct grammatical errors even when it’s a standard being focused on.  Whoever corrects the error does the learning.  I simply highlight the sentence with the error and it is up to the student to determine what the error is and fix it.  (Obviously I teach these grammar concepts first)
  4. Make meaningful rubrics.  All too often we use rubrics with absurdly vague descriptors that mean nothing: “Essay has a strong thesis statement.”  Well, what the heck is a strong thesis statement?  When you use a rubric like this, you have no choice but to write commentary.  A clear, meaningful rubric would save time from having to write that commentary.  We are leaning in education towards creating school wide or district wide or department wide rubrics that are so vague that can cover any assignment.  This is a mistake on so many levels.  It doesn’t make it easier to grade and give feedback, that’s for sure.
  5. Don’t comment–write “see me.”  Often times, the commentary is just too long or will elicit too many questions or is just too complex to write in the margins.  Having students come and talk to you about their assignment can clarify issues and tailor your feedback even more specifically.  Obviously, you’ll need to establish a relationship with students so that they don’t simply ignore “see me,” but that’s a post for a different day.
  6. Remember that you are not the only person who can give feedback to your students.  Teach peers to how to give meaningful feedback to one another and then let them go.  Peers grading one another is a tricky subject, so I just keep this for non-judgmental feedback.  This increases the audience for students’ work, and it builds a variety of skills such as working with a team.  I spend time early in the year training students on how to give non-judgmental feedback, and then expect it of them throughout the year.  Bad peer conferencing is a waste of time, but if done correctly, it can be a very powerful tool.
  7. Find the right place to grade.  Figure out your personal preferences.  I have a great deal of trouble grading at home.  I have two kids who distract me, and I start looking for other things to do.  “Oh boy, I haven’t cleaned out the garage in a long time–better get on that!”  I’m a morning person; I wake up early and get to school early just to grade.  Figure out what works for you and go with it.
  8. Set a timer.  Get some hard data on just how long it takes to grade one essay/lab report/project.  Then ask yourself: Is it really worth that much time?
  9. Sub for yourself.  I try not to do this often and it obviously depends on your class, but sometimes I give my students a work day or a reading day, just so I can get caught up.  I’m not going to be a good teacher, if I am overwhelmed, overtired, irritable, and all that is keeping me going is coffee.  They read; I grade and get caught up; everybody wins.