“They can finish the paragraph they’re reading. They can carry on their conversation a bit longer. They can cruise through the day without urgency because they know you’ll repeat your directions—and anything else important—over and over again. You’re actually doing your students a disservice by repeating the directions so much”
Kids ask three questions when they do work in our class:
What did I do?
What should I do?
How did I do?
Two of those questions lead to dependence. They lead to grade-chasing. The other question creates self-directed learners. Do these questions sound vague? If so, here’s another look:
What did I do?
This is the question that students don’t ask enough. They might start asking it, though, if we teach self-assessment. When we answer this question, we give feedback. Giving feedback involves this process:
- We look at our instructional goals.
- Then, we look at the work that the students have done. Does the work meet the goals? To what extent? Were all parts completed? Were some parts missing?
- We report this information back to students.
It’s so simple. It feels trivial. But in this case, our gut reaction might be wrong. Feedback is important.
Feedback looks something like this:
“You used three of the five required quotes in your essay. You did not include a works cited page.”
“You spoke without a single ‘um’ during your presentation. You also used relevant images to support your ideas.”
“After you published your review of Ender’s Game, four students checked out the book!”
Notice that the students get a report on their actions and nothing more. The goal is to be a mirror, reflecting back the way that students meet goals.
Just think, feedback is the common, useful response that real writers get. If we publish writing, we see feedback based on its effectiveness. This comes from likes, shares, replies, purchases, or another action by readers. If we speak in a presentation, conversation, discussion, or meeting, we get feedback too. Listeners laugh, nod, fall asleep, ask questions, take notes, or reach out afterwards. This is feedback.
And usually, the audience doesn’t tell us how to improve. That’s up to us. We might overhear or read an opinion about our work, but we don’t have people saying: “Thank you for your cover letter. It probably gets a C-. Make your closing a bit more persuasive.” No. Instead, we don’t get the job. So, we look at that feedback and try to figure out what we did wrong.
Or… in some cases, we ask a trusted mentor this question:
What should I do?
This is advice. Advice is OK, but it should come sparingly. Lead with feedback, then a little advice. The problem is that many teachers (me) often lead with advice. In fact, it might be the only thing students here. This creates learned helplessness. It promotes a place where the students are trying to figure out what the teacher wants so they can score more points. That’s not learning. That’s a game.
Again, some advice = good, just advice = bad.
Advice looks like this:
“Try to pause more often in your next speech. Imagine that the audience wants you to speak very slowly. Even if you feel uncomfortable, you’ll be speaking at the right speed.”
“Check out the Purdue OWL site for more information on how to create in-text citations.”
“Next time, you might want to include hyperlinks to the author’s other books.”
These are instructions to help students meet goals. Of course, teachers are experts, so we guide students toward goals. But, feedback comes first so students know where advice is leading. Then, teachers can practice reducing advice, so students learn to make their own corrections.
Now, I teach in a real school, which requires these pesky things called grades. Our shared love of grades is why students ask one question more than any other:
How did I do?
When we answer this question, we give judgement. Judgement is like feedback because it describes a performance. But judgement is less specific and less useful. It is the work of a critic.
Judgement looks like this:
No matter how much we tweak rubrics, this stuff is subjective. It’s important to accept that. Teachers can fall in love with a grading system. It might be well-organized, I’ll give you that. It doesn’t promote learning, though.
If a student writes a “B+” paper, she has no idea how to get better. And, even if I give her feedback: “your analysis partially explained the evolution of Odysseus,” she will ignore the feedback and ask “so how can I get an A?” She is back to requesting advice. Back to dependence.
If, instead, I had responded like an audience: “your analysis of the evidence about Odysseus’s evolution did not quite convince me of your thesis,” then the focus is on the task. The student is compelled to examine her work, reflect, and look for the place to fix.
A creator loves his audience (did you know I love you, dear reader?). Through an objective report, the audience validates the creator’s work and implicitly guides him. But a creator does not love his critics. It’s no mistake that critics get a bad rap in our culture. They are the ones that do not make, but simply judge. I’d like to be less of a critic for my students and more of an audience. I think it’ll help them grow.
Are you more of an audience or a critic? What actions do you do that show this? Let me know in the comments.
There are areas of my work life where I choose to be OK. Not even good. Just passable. Wardrobe is one of those areas. And my class handouts–I’m scraping by. If a kid requests an extension, I’m a pushover. This stuff is hard to change. In theory it’s easy, but it’s actually related to our values. Sometimes, it takes an outside force to make us go from average to awesome. Or, as you’ll see with Jori below, from relaxed to relentless.
I’m sharing her story from Hacking Literacy because it inspires me. We all “check the box” somtimes, and no one faults us. Were busy, right? For Jori, a high school teacher from Cali, independent reading with her kids was just “okay.” Then, she had a change of heart, and her students grew. I think you’ll find her story worth your time.
You’re up early on a Saturday. No teacher clothes, today, though. Jeans, baby!
The night before, your spouse said, “you’ve got that teacher camp thing tomorrow, right?”
You’re a dedicated teacher, doing out-of-school PD. And whether it’s the weekend or a district-given school day, your time is valuable. So is mine. So I’m writing this post at 5:43 AM on the Monday morning after attending nErDcampNJ 2017 because Better PD involves a strategy.
[The headline says “for introverts.” I’m not sure about my personality assignment, but crowds exhaust me. Not anxiety, but need-a-nap. These tips are for those who feel the same.]
What follows are reminders and realizations with some preferences too.
Prepare, preview, and plan. Review the session list, research the topics, Google the speakers, and plan out your day. This avoids time wasted.
Go for depth over breadth. This is a personal preference. I like to choose 1-2 topics of interest or urgency for my teaching and focus my time around those topics. This makes it more likely that I’ll find something useful to use in my classroom after the session.
After my first NCTE in Boston 2013, I got excited by seven different topics and came home with a stack of professional books from the Heinemann tent. Trying it all in the classroom was fun and exciting, but it also was unfocused and distracting. Now, I’d prefer to go deep on a few things that are useful right now.
Introduce yourself first. Often, there are teachers at an event who I may recognize from the Internet but have never met in person. This is weird. Acknowledging this weirdness and still introducing myself with a handshake melts the weirdness. There are built-in conversation starters to use: what sessions are you attending? Where do you teach? How did you find out about today? Many people are uncomfortable around large crowds, especially when alone. Introducing yourself to someone could make their day.
Sit somewhere random during breaks. The peak of social anxiety for a large PD event can be breakfast, lunch, or happy hour. Again, this is where introducing yourself to someone can improve the day. Further, begin a conversation with one person, then bring in a third person. You might say, Hey, person X, this is person Y, I’m Jerry. We were talking about…
Speaking of breaks, take them. Even during a morning event, my brain absorbs more if I take a 20-30 minute break every 90 minutes or so. This gets me thinking about the strain of a typical school day for students. No wonder some students struggle to concentrate. Sitting is exhausting.
Bonus: go outside. I wrote the notes that became this post on the front bench of Chatham High School. Our students would benefit from a designated in-between-class break area outside, too. Weather permitting.
Do a brain dump as soon as possible. We exchange so much information during PD. We lose most of it. Sit with a notebook, even in your car. Do a quick write and list the words, phrases, and ideas that you remember from sessions. Then, do the same about whole day. Here are my notes after nErDcampNJ:
If you are a teacher-writer, this is more valuable. I wrote a draft of this post in 15 minutes because of my notes.
Use Twitter intentionally. This is difficult. At times, the super-dopamine-highway of Twitter gets me during a conference. So much engagement! Now, I like to listen, take notes, and go on Twitter later to reflect or share a picture. Again, this is a preference. Do what you like to do.
Try to plan follow-up actions. Matt Morone and I hosted a session on Innovative Approaches in the High School ELA Classroom. Now, we will host #CELChat on June 7. This is a great way to take the discussion at this weekend’s nErDcampNJ and continue it. Plan to meet up with another educator again. Use an idea from a session and email the presenter about it. Read someone’s book and Tweet them about it. It’s good to follow-up.
Read this far? Next, go to the comments. Tell us your routine, hack, or strategy for making the most of PD.
The assessment, the test, is one of the quintessential aspects of American schooling. The experience of testing reminds me of these quotes:
“Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
“High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.”
Both of these come from Alexis Wiggins, daughter of the late, great Grant Wiggins, and high school learning coach. She shared these two observations in a post she wrote after shadowing two students during a typical school day.
In her post, she says that her realizations were not a critique of any teachers but of our shared system of schooling. It is a system in which many students watch teachers or classmates do all the work. They may informally opt-out of their education yet still pass through their classes.
The literature classroom may be suspect number one in this discussion.
Do we allow students to intellectually “opt-out” during activities, discussions, or assessments of reading? Can students earn good grades even if they have not read? This is the culture of fake reading.
To address this problem, we can focus on the book, the reading, and the reader. In this post, I’ll share a case from my sophomore honors English class as an example of an instance where I’ve tried to design an assessment that encourages opting into deeper reading instead of trying to avoid it.
The book for the unit was Lord of the Flies, selected because I thought all of the students could read it with little scaffolding, its content related to a curricular unit on geography and season in literature, and it begs some interesting questions about human nature.
The reading was based on Ariel Sacks’s Whole Novels approach. This means that:
- I introduced the novel, gave students a suggested reading schedule, and set a deadline for finishing the book.
- Students made responses throughout the book in the form of asking and proposing answers to their own questions. The topic of these questions was open-ended; they asked questions about topics of interest or connections to our work in class.
- We held off on discussing the book formally until students had read all of it. Which means that…
- During class, instead of stopping to dissect each chapter, we read supplemental nonfiction and poetry, and students did mini-projects to address literary elements from the book. One example was the character map, pictured below.
The readers had mixed reactions to the book but became more engaged for the final assessment. This was a mock trial in which William Golding was tried for libel against humanity. This activity that has been written about by other educators, including Jim Burke.
The assessment allowed students to practice these academic and social skills:
- Collaborating with team members to solve a problem
- Speaking like an expert in front of peers
- Writing authentically
How this prevented “opt-out”
Students took roles as lawyers, the author, characters, or Enlightenment philosophers. They prepared to ask or answer questions during the trial, so they had to anticipate the important moments in the book that lawyers might discuss.
Even if students had not fully engaged in their first draft reading of the book, they were compelled to revisit important parts of the text during their preparation. Literacy teachers know that re-reading is a valuable strategy for a difficult text, so seeing this re-reading suggested to me that this assessment had value.
The results, teacher perspective
On the day of the trial, students were palpably nervous and excited. We arranged the room to resemble a court, students read opening statements, and then the lawyers began calling witnesses to the stand.
As students answered unfamiliar questions, asked by their peers, about the novel, it became very clear to me which students had read the book and which hadn’t.
One of my main gripes with the focus on literary analysis in the high school ELA classrooms is that students are masters of completing the assignments without reading. For this assignment, though, students’ reading and comprehension of the text were both much more clear to me.
It’s harder to pretend that you’ve read a book when you are questioning every character about their motivations, asking a philosopher about his perspective on the plot, or acting as one of those aforementioned roles and interpreting the events of the novel.
The results, student perspective
I asked students to share the strengths and weaknesses of this assessment and to compare it to a typical project or test. Here is a selection of their responses:
One of the strengths in this type of assessment is that it allows a student to fully demonstrate their understanding of a book even if they lack knowing some parts.
we were not forced to stare at a paper for 55 minutes or a screen for 1 to 2 hours so it created a memorable experience where everyone was given an equal chance to speak and present their case and ideas. The strengths of a mock trial is that it is a different way of learning that is interactive which enhances an overall learning experience.
I feel like I prepared a lot more for the debate and was a lot more enthusiastic about the trial than I would be about a normal test or quiz.
For tests, many people memorize information but during the mock trial you had to understand the information to do well.
I feel that writing a paper on this topic would have been more effective because this would give each student a chance to share their ideas that they felt strongly about, but did not have a chance to express them when being asked questions right on the spot.
I feel that I learned more through the trial than if I would have written or paper or taken a test because the trial was not about merely restating what happened the book and analyzing its meaning, but rather about getting a full, deep understanding of the novel, and how there could be different interpretations of the text.
So, some students rightfully argued that they did not have as much of an open-ended opportunity to share their thinking about the text as they might have had if we wrote a paper on the novel. Other students suggested that the quality of the discussion of the book led to deeper learning than might have occurred otherwise.
It was both a whole class reading of a novel and a whole class project, which doesn’t happen too often. Part of the benefits of a whole class text is the classroom community that it can help to build, and this project helped to further emphasize the community aspect of teaching the novel. It might be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate this kind of whole class project if the students had not all read the same novel.
With that said, next time I’d like to integrate a choice reading aspect to this unit. Students could’ve researched and read articles that demonstrate both the good and bad of human nature. That could’ve been an ongoing task throughout the unit for non-fiction independent reading. This would provide more of a balanced literacy experience for the students.
In the closing of her article, Alexis Wiggins says the following:
“I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder.”
This experience reminds me that I should design student-centered assessments. Many students are working hard, so let’s have them work hard on things that matter.
A reflection and how-to on asking students to read at home.
Just to clarify: this is not a hypothetical post. Not a thought experiment. This is about the other day in room 141, and yours truly walking around the room, slowly realizing that the lesson planned was nearly impossible because the students had not done the reading.
In that moment, what is there to do? Or more importantly, why did it happen in the first place?
I question whether assigning curricular texts for homework is valuable in the first place. Without a doubt, students need to read home if they are going to improve enough to meet those goals of volume, range, and complexity. But on the other hand, telling students to read a specific novel or story is a more delicate process. Students might fake read. Students might cheat. Or students might not do it. This third option was most popular on this particular day.
What are the details? Let’s dive in…
I assigned students “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. As a first-draft reading task, I asked them to imagine that each page of the story was a chapter that they had to create a title for in a few words. The task was simple so that it didn’t bog students down from the main focus: the reading. But when I circled around the room, fewer than half of the students had titles on the top of their pages. Some of those students appeared to have hastily scribbled words at the beginning of class.
The follow-up task planned for the day, intended as a short warm-up, asked students to compare the titles of their pages, select the most accurate titles for each page, and use the words/phrases of their titles to write a short retelling of the story. Then, the plan was, we would share these retellings, come to a consensus on the main ideas of the story, and move on to a guided reading of a few key scenes.
Because of the low number of students who completed the reading, we never got past this retelling.
I assigned a focused tasks, and the students had three days to complete it (I’ll get back to that).
So where did I go wrong?
Looking back, there were a few problems with my reading assignment…
Of course, the errors in our decision making are easier to spot in hindsight, but they are still a valuable discussion point. Teacher reflection is valuable. This is what I now realize may have contributed to my students lack of reading at home:
- The previous class period was a Friday and the the last period of the day. Teacher-student communication is strained during this time.
- The class traveled to the library for this period, in order to browse independent reading books and select one for later reading.
- I did very little framing or introduction of the story, aside from distributing the copies and explaining the assignment to students before we went to the library.
- I gave it to students to read over a three day weekend. Reading assignments, especially, are less likely to be completed over an extended break or weekend, my bias personal experience tells me.
There wee a few options for how to respond once I realized that very few students read. I believe I could either (A) press on with my lesson as planned, (B) read the story aloud or (C) both A and B. Yes, I opted for C. So, the students who did read moved on to creating their retellings of the story, while those who did not read spent the remaining time reading the story. This was not the best case scenario, but I think it was a reasonable response to the situation.
How you can learn from my mistake
Here are a few questions to ask for when students didn’t read…or better yet…a few questions to ask before assigning reading:
- Has this text been properly framed and introduced to the students? Does it feel “random”?
- Do students have the knowledge and skills to read this text independently?
- Do students have the stamina to read this text independently?
- Have I created a reasonable, meaningful task for students to do with this reading?
- Do students know how this text fits into our lesson, unit of study, and general year-long focus?
- Is there any other logistical thing (tech access, a big school event, a long weekend) that might make it more or less likely that students will do the reading?
Now, it’s unreasonable for most teachers to stop and reflect on these questions in some kind of formal way. But this list deserves some merit, even just to skim this once, and internalize some of these for the next time a situation like mine comes up.
It may be that you have a more hardline stance on required reading, and you would have pressed on with your lesson as planned. On the contrary, you may be against all required reading, and therefore much of this post is meaningless to you. Either way, I’d love to know: what do you think I should have done differently?
Sometimes, teachers get psyched about something because it makes our lives easier. Let’s ensure that our instructional decisions are in the best interest of students and sustainable for us.
A story of teacher-centered decision making
I can still feel the rush of warmth that began in my lower back, wrapped around my mid-section, and lingered up around my neck. The feeling was met with a scrambled dash to find that piece of paper with the certain student’s name on it. It must be somewhere in this mess.
It feels terrible to lose a student’s paper. But it has happened more than once. That’s almost physically painful to type, but it’s true.
Any of my own high school teachers might have predicted as much. That student with the bulging folder, the folder that’s for every subject? Yea, that was me.
During my first few years of teaching, the articles, exit slips, drafts of writing, and vocabulary quizzes all left me overwhelmed and disorganized. The sheer amount of paper involved in teaching English seemed to eat up a large chunk of my colleagues’ time, too, even if they were the colleagues with organized hanging files.
I know what you might be thinking. This is about the life-saving help of technology for teachers. But it isn’t. It’s a warning for teachers enamored with things that make our lives easier.
Around my second year, I discovered Google Drive, and it immediately caught my attention: online folders, accessible from any computer, allowing students to submit their work digitally. And I can comment on their docs instead of writing in the margins? Had the moment been recorded on video, I’m sure that a golden light beamed from my monitor as a quartet of angels sung a perfect-pitch C chord.
The love affair grew deeper as I discovered Doctopus and Goobric, tools that acted like personal assistants to deliver student assignments, collect them, and help me grade them more efficiently. For a while, this was my educational obsession.
Without a doubt, using less paper improved my life as a teacher. I was better organized, less stressed, and physically lighter–my brief case was at least.
Last year, as our school moved to Google Classroom, I’d reached peak paperless. There was nary a handout in my English class. Simultaneously, my freshmen students were experiencing the “no grades classroom,” where we used digital portfolios in place of traditional grades, so the online system for organizing student reading and writing seemed superior. This was a win all around, no?
A gap in thinking
If you’ve noticed, this reflection is about how I was stressed and disorganized, made a discovery, and then felt better. What I realize now is that my decision on moving towards a completely digital reading and writing classroom was a totally teacher-centered one. It was just more convenient for me.
Teacher convenience is not the best criterion for decision making in the classroom. We need a balance of teacher sustainability, which is the more positive framing of convenience that I’ll use, and student learning impact, which I think we all agree is why we’re here.
The chart below illustrates a potential teacher decision making matrix, providing examples of practices or activities that fall within one of four quadrants depending on whether they are sustainable or unsustainable & effective or ineffective. The practices or activities mentioned here are categorized strictly by my subjective judgement. This is much more of a spectrum than the image below demonstrates. That said, I still think this might be a useful reflection tool for our pedagogical decisions.
This applies to how we use technology
It’s the teacher’s responsibility, as literacy educators in the digital age, to not only determine what the most important content and skills are for our students to learn, but also how the students should interact with the content or practice their skills.
This matrix is one way that I’ll make decisions on the type of reading and writing that my students do, and whether they do that reading and writing on paper, on devices, or some mixture of both. Broadly, it’s important to stay aware of any decisions that we make as teachers that begin to run on default. As my teacher and mentor Bill Sowder says, “When does a routine become a rut? When does a structure become a crutch?”
No, a student hasn’t asked me that question. But I’m waiting for the day it comes. Scan any Facebook newsfeed, and you’ll find a low average quality of information shared. One of the 21st century skills that educators need to work on is obvious to see: source reliability verification.
This is apolitical. There are dubious memes and murky articles from the far left and far right with few to zero links to source material, cleverly hidden biases, and “remixed” images that demolish the original context of the content. The ease with which we can create and share information has plummeted the average quality of the information that we see. We have a new set of responsibility to ourselves and to our students if we want to maintain the quality of our democracy and society in general.
Consider how the process of gathering information has changed for us, without anyone undergoing much of a formal education on how to deal with this change:
Then: We read the newspaper or watchedTV and learned about current events happening locally and worldwide.
Now: We have a torrent of information propelled at us. This requires us to have a specific plan for selecting the sources we consume, saying “no” to an infinite number of other sources, and constantly vetting the information presented to us for accuracy and objectivity. We don’t understand how Facebook tailors the information we see and we can easily become stuck in an intellectual echo-chamber if we don’t seek out perspectives that are different than our own.
Just as the modern physical education teacher must battle the pervasive Standard American Diet and sedentary lifestyle that is part of our culture, literacy teachers must face the Standard American Info-Diet and passive consumption of media that has seeped its way into our students’ lives.
This is a new frontier with many unknowns. Here are a few questions that expose the realities of teaching literacy today:
How do we manage to help students see that a plethora of misinformation exists online, so that they can learn to sort through it and become well-informed citizens?
As the title of the post suggests, this is the one that is most pressing to me right now. When students are completing a research task in class, it is relatively easy to give them parameters for their sources and ensure that they encounter reasonable information. But when they leave the classroom, both this year and after graduation, how do we reduce the likelihood of them blindly sharing memes that alter reality and present it as truth? Instead, we want students to get in the habit of doing the hard work of sifting through multiple perspectives and coming to their own conclusions.
How do we help students to develop the self-control and self-awareness required to do the Deep Work required of meaningful literacy tasks?
Most adults need to work on this as well, myself included. Notice the boom in mindfulness, habits and productivity shared all over the Internet over the past few years. Our self control has never been more important.
We give students deadlines, ask them to work together, and encourage proper behavior. We do this because our job responsibilities include helping students have the technical and soft skills they need to be successful in their next stage of life. Teachers must develop approaches for encouraging students to manage the barrage of distractions they face while trying to do their work.
(A P.S. on this one: Do we realize that we have to model a new thing now? Just as we show our students what it means to be a well-informed, literate adult by doing the reading and writing, we’ll have to show students what it means to be a well-informed literate adult who can focus on one task for a sustained period of time. Time for me to close a few tabs and turn off my cell phone.)
As I mentioned in my last post, what do we know about reading and writing on devices?
I know it matters, but I’m not yet completely sure about how and when we should use paper-based texts or digital texts. Sometimes, there’s a clear answer. But there’s a big gray area where we need more research in order to make a good decision.
How do we get district and school leaders to see that introducing devices into a literacy classroom is a neutral act?
Inherently, a wheely cart filled with 25 Chromebooks, 15 iPads or 3 MacBooks does not help or hinder instruction. Sure, with proper training, clear expectations set for students, and an adaptable curriculum, teachers can use devices in class to connect students with each other and the outside world like never before. However, if these new devices are simply inserted into an existing curriculum and pedagogy with no further considerations, it is more likely to hurt than help.
Seriously, though, does MLA 8 include anything about citing memes? (Asking for a friend.)
As literacy educators, it’s more important that we teach students to be great readers, writers, speakers, listeners and thinkers than great technology users. I’m sure about that.
But as we speak, the amount of information and the number of distractions grows. These are what stand in the way of the meaningful reading and writing that we want students to do. So, considering that, we now have to become experts at navigating the intellectual spinach that our students need, and teaching them the self-control to stay away from the intellectual junk food.
How do we do that? I’d love to hear your thoughts here.
During September, I focused on two clear and simple goals.
These two goals were posted on my desk, written on a scrap of paper, and taped on with some packaging tape that I’ve been using to hang up everything.
1. Use all 56 minutes of class (clear openings and closings)
2. Communicate clear expectations
These two areas of teaching are a struggle. Maybe you can relate.
We let students wander into class as the bell rings, as we check one more email, enter in one more grade, or finish up something from the class before. We wrap things up a few minutes early and accept it when those few students begin packing up during our closure. But those are creeping disintegrations of our classroom management, the stuff that just gets worse and worse until June.
We provide vague instructions, ramble on in front of our students because we are not exactly sure what we are saying. We know it, but we haven’t thought it through, haven’t figured out the clearest, most concise way to explain the assignment or display the directions on the interactive whiteboard. We talk too much, oh yes we do.
The two goals, as with most things I write about, were not a panacea for any ills. But they were a daily reminder to push myself and the students. Make the most of each of the class periods, because that is the duty of the teacher. And communicate clear expectations to the students, because when they know exactly what is expected of them, they are more likely to succeed.
Do you feel it?
…the “honeymoon phase” between you and your classes is over. I’ve been feeling that, too. Today, I’ll share some ideas for what we might try doing about it.
At a few points in the year, there’s a natural tendency for the well-oiled machine of a classroom to become squeaky. Even in a classroom with engaging lessons and smart classroom management plan, the students start to get antsy, get too comfortable in the way they speak to you (I’m talking about a lack of respect, not positive rapport), or get complacent about their behavior.
It’s not sudden. It’s a gradual loss of control. It takes a second longer for students to give you their attention. The student who was making an academic turnaround this year stops submitting his homework. Those two friends are a lot less focused on their work, and a lot more focused on interacting with each other at the the most inopportune times.
Here are the specific examples I have observed that show me it’s time for a reset in one of my classes:
- Physically, I get more tired at the end of a school day. My voice, especially
- It takes longer to get the students’ attention during transitions
- A lower percentage of students are following procedures like beginning an activity when the bell rings
- Students are having conversations more around their social lives outside of class instead of discussing the questions or topics you share with them
We can address this with a methodical, unemotional approach, applying different solutions to the situation, then determining what works and what doesn’t work.
Here are a few ideas for how to do a “reset” when it feels like your class needs one:
This is quick and easy. You can do this throughout the year on a schedule or only when you feel the need for it. I think regularly changing seats helps build the class community. You might get a hint that you need a change from another teach observing your class, if you’re comfortable with that. Which leads me to…
Have a colleague observe you
Choose someone who you trust and who is honest enough to provide you with objective feedback. You can offer to observe them and provide feedback on their teaching, too. Offer the colleague a specific part of your practice that you might want him/her to pay attention to during the class.
Deliberately revisit and remodel the appropriate classroom behaviors
Many high school teachers might feel that this will not be received well by students. But, like with all parts of our teaching, students will not meet expectations that we do not set for them. Their behavior will fall to the lowest common level of what is accepted in class. So, if you deliberately model for students the fact that “keep objects to yourself” means you cannot throw a paper ball into the garbage can, or grab the pen out of a classmate’s hand, you might be surprised at how students are reminded of their own behavior and what is acceptable and unacceptable.
After both Dave Stuart Jr and Jennifer Gonzales of Cult of Pedagogy wrote about Smart Classroom Management with Michael Linsin, I knew he had some ideas worth of my time investment. I picked up his short guide call Smart Classroom Management Plans for High School, and I’ve been trying it out this year.
You can begin a new classroom policy at any point of the year, if you have the courage to articulate it clearly and assertively to students, and the consistency to enforce it fairly and always.
Reflect on your lesson plans and look for routines that have become ruts. Change it up.
My student teaching supervisor and long-time mentor Mr. Sowder asked me, “When does a routine become a rut? When does a structure become a crutch?” This might be the single question (I consider it the same question, just re-worded) that I use in my teaching. When you can find where you begin to cruise on autopilot in your teaching, and evaluate those places to ensure that you can actually optimize those areas instead of just accepting them as they are, things will improve
Make positive phone calls home to as many students as you can
After parent-teacher conferences coming up soon, I’ll look at the attendance list for Back to School Night and parent-teacher conferences and contact any parent who I have not yet met on one of those two occasions. This will take some time, but I think it may go a long way to establish a year-long rapport with students and their families who need the most attention.
When you feel like your class, a small group of students, is getting out of control, don’t accept it. The school year is long, and students deserve the best classroom environment for learning that you can provide. That means reflecting, identifying the areas in need of improvement, and deliberately trying new ideas here in order to improve it.
Focus on what’s working
The number one important idea for dealing with the need for a “reset” in your class is to focus on the good things. Sometimes, considering the problems is overwhelming, and you need an emotional pick me up. That’s why my three reflection questions start with:
Before continuing to:
What’s not working?
So, what next?
Reminding ourselves of the basic parts of our classroom that are going well is the way to sustain our energy throughout the year. For everything else, it’s a tenacious dedication to trying new ideas and reflecting on their success that will improve the one reason we’re here: the learning of our students.