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.

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Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.

A teacher’s ego

A piece of advice I give to new teachers every year is to be willing to say “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry.”  This is advice that bears repeating over and over again.  Perhaps it’s human nature, but these are hard things for us to admit.  As teachers we worry about saying that we don’t know for fear that we will look like we don’t know what we are talking about.  Saying “I’m sorry” of course implies that I was wrong.  Neither of these is appealing if I’m trying to come across as an authority to teach and guide students.

But the power of these phrases lies in their ability to build trust and relationships.  When we say “I don’t  know” or “I’m sorry” to our students we are making ourselves more vulnerable.  We are opening ourselves up to them.  We are proving to them that we are real people who make mistakes and can admit it.  This builds trust, and actually increases our effectiveness as teachers.  Our own ego that makes this hard is hurting us quite a bit.

I personally have always had trouble admitting when I am wrong, but I’ve been forced to do it over the years.  Recently I taught my juniors about pronoun antecedent agreement.  The lesson was thrown together a bit too hastily and my examples weren’t nearly as clear as they should have been.  Half way through the lesson I had to stop and apologize for how unclear I was being.  I wanted to just plow on.  I wanted to blame them for not trying to understand.  The reality was I did a poor job planning this and, as a result, a poor job explaining it.  It was hard to stop and say that I’ve messed up, but it was necessary.  Obviously at this point in the year, I have already established trust and relationships with my students, but to maintain those relationships, I had to do this.  I tried to do it seamlessly; most of them probably didn’t even realize how hard it was to stop and admit my mistakes.

Learning happens when relationships happen.  Relationships happen when trust occurs.  To achieve that we must put aside our egos and say “I don’t” and “I’m sorry.”

Stress

I haven’t posted in quite some time.  I, like everyone else, have been quite busy lately what with the term ending soon and all my many obligations.  Last week in particular was a rather draining week for me.  The grading is piling up, and I haven’t slept well in the past couple of weeks, and last week I had two committee meetings that I chair.  All this is a way to say, I’ve been feeling stress recently.

On Thursday, I teach night school, and as usual I went up around 5:30 to the teacher’s room to heat up my lunch when I saw one of my coworkers still going strong.  I always see him on Thursdays still working.  He tells me that it is unusual that he goes home before 6 or so.  Now he is young teacher with no kids in his first year.  Seeing him made me think of just how stressful it is to be a good teacher and what schools do to try to mitigate teacher stress.

We all know burnout is a major problem among teachers.  We also know teachers have many demands put on us.  We’ve all known 12+ hour days and sometimes we heroically announce that the only time we see the sun is through our classroom window as if that is something to be proud of.  We also know that this sort of work/life balance is unsustainable.

Schools try to offer various solutions to teacher stress and burn out.  I’ve seen many schools offer various stress management workshops; some schools have yoga, meditation, or exercise clubs for their faculty all (at least partially) sold on the idea that they help reduce stress.  I applaud these efforts, and I hope schools continue offering them, but I fear they are only short term solutions-solutions that look good, but don’t really solve the problem.

The reality is that we, as educators, have to be willing to walk away from work or just say no.  While we have many pressures put on us, many of our obligations and stress are self inflicted and we need to give ourselves permission to let go of these.  So many of us are perfectionists or over achievers by nature that we kill ourselves unnecessarily.  Rarely does that test need to be graded and handed back the next day.  For example we are a google school, so naturally many teachers use google classroom.  We are required to post our assignments in our grade book so students have access to it.  We are not required to use google classroom, but many people do, so they feel obligated to post their assignments there as well thus duplicating their work.  This is a small example, but my point is that sometimes we build more work for ourselves.

We relax by watching netflix, but we feel guilty not grading at the same time.  So what do we do?  We grade while we relax, which is of course not very relaxing (and probably not very efficient grading either).  We know this isn’t healthy.  We know this isn’t sustainable.  And yet we do it to ourselves all the time.

We need to give ourselves permission to de-stress and school leaders need to make it known that that is acceptable and should be encouraged.

Writing this makes me a better teacher

Recently a friend posted an article in which the author argues that she is a better writing teacher because she writes frequently.  I merely skimmed the article, but she seemed to primarily focus on how she writes creatively on a regular basis, and as a result of this, she is a better writing teacher.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I tackled any sort of creative writing, and I can only think of a select few assignments that I have given over the years that force students to write creatively.  I love fiction; I don’t consider myself a strong fiction writer, nor do I feel confident in grading students’ fiction writing.

That being said, I do assign a great deal of academic writing ranging from short responses to multi-page research papers that go through many drafts.  I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and as I think about it, I’m not just a better writing teacher because of it, but an all around better teacher because of it.

Writing, though seemingly simple, is actually a difficult task.  When writing, students not only have to flesh out high quality ideas, but they need to communicate them in the most effective way possible, which is, of course, a matter of interpretation.  While there are many writing rules, none of them are truly set in stone, and good writers break them all the time.  Imagine how complicated this must be for students.  As a teacher, when the last thing you wrote was in college, think of how difficult it is to sympathize with what your students are tasked to do.  Even the best writers come to a stand still and get writers’ block, and yet our students are still faced with deadlines that don’t really care about writers’ block.

Writing this blog on a  semi-regular basis helps me sympathize with what my students are forced to do not just in my classes, but in all their classes that require some writing.  I share this with others on social media and receive a great deal of feedback from educators around the country and plenty of non-educators as well.  The comments I have received on this blog via Facebook, twitter, wordpress, etc. have helped me flesh out my ideas more clearly and helped me realize where I lack in communicating those ideas that leads to confusion and misinterpretations.

Pretty much everything I write in here is what I consider first draft writing.  I rarely re-read and edit before posting.  Seeing how people respond has helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer which allow me to understand my students’ struggles more clearly.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but I conference better and provide much better feedback to my students since I have taken up writing this blog.

Not only that, but I am an overall better teacher because I write this blog.  I’m an education nerd.  I love talking shop, and this blog has allowed me to do that and reflect on so many aspects of education.  Educational leaders are constantly reminding us that we should be reflecting on our practice.  This blog allows me to do that, and then allows me to re-read and reconsider my practice.  It also allows me to reflect on policies and trends in education, so that I can figure out how to best implement theory into practice.  This blog has opened up dialogue with my students, my colleagues, to some extent my bosses, as well as people outside of the educational community who offer interesting insight into what education can offer.

I cannot off the top of my head point to particular and specific data that demonstrates growth as a teacher as a result of this blog.  But I can think of how I have taught in the past and my educational philosophies and I can quickly realize that writing this blog has helped me grow as a teacher.

This has been a very self actualizing project for me.  As a teacher, time is perhaps our most precious commodity, and it can be very difficult to find the time to do all that we want nonetheless add another task to our to do list.  And while I have not blogged nearly as frequently as I’d like this past year, I think this may be the best professional development tool available to me on a regular basis.  After all, when we sit in workshops we are not developing professionally; it is when we think about and wrestle with the ideas presented that we actually develop professionally.  That is what this blog allows me to do.

 

It’s a sad day for education

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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.