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A Teacher’s Confession: There is no shame in learning

16 Feb

When was the last time that you felt dumb? Really dumb? Felt that feeling in the pit of your stomach and that flush in your abdomen, that panic that rises as you think: “I don’t understand this and I am supposed to. Why am I such an idiot?”

The last time I felt this feeling was two weeks ago, in an Arabic language lesson. I love languages; I became fluent in Spanish in my 20s and have a (very) basic knowledge of French. I have always been told I have an aptitude for language learning and have believed it. That is, until I encountered Arabic. Arabic makes me feel stupid. It’s isn’t the language’s fault, of course. It’s a beautiful language — far more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, with its calligraphy and cadence — but it is confounding to me. It’s written from right to left. The alphabet is comprised of foreign symbols. There are sounds I am supposed to make, like the sound for the letter ح, that I don’t believe I will ever be able to make (for a tutorial on these Arabic sounds, click here). Not to mention that every country has its own dialect, slang, and sometimes even grammar, so often my Arabic teacher will ask questions like: “Do you want to say this the Syrian way, the Saudi way, or the classical way?”

In fact, two weeks ago, sitting over lunch with a friend, who has kindly offered to teach me a little Arabic as well, I had the panicked realization that none of it was sinking in. Nothing. From one day to the next, I’d forget everything I’d learned. I couldn’t get my head around the new sounds, the five ways of saying the same thing, the grammar, the formal and informal modes of expression for almost every interaction.

I felt (and feel) stupid. Really. The kind of stupid where you want to give up (Every day I think: “Shouldn’t I just buy that French Rosetta Stone and give up on this? Who am I kidding?”). The kind of stupid where I see the wall in front of me, see it getting higher, see no way through it and feel a sad, enervating defeat. I feel humbled in the worst possible way, a kind of flattened feeling. I think things like: I thought I was good at languages. I thought I was moderately intelligentwhy is this so hard for me?

I will stop to point out the obvious now: I’m a teacher. I’m a teacher who believes to my core that Carol Dweck’s growth mindset work is spot on. I’m a teacher who has told kids (and believes) that there is no shame in challenging work and that we can never get better unless we fail often.

And still, I feel stupid.

If I scratch the surface of that feeling a little bit, though, I quickly reach the underlying emotion that’s really there beneath it: shame. I’m ashamed that I can’t learn the language better and worried about what others would think of me if they saw my progress (or lack thereof).

It’s the same feeling of shame I alluded to in this post about the stress and anxiety I felt while learning how to SCUBA dive.

It’s the same feeling of shame I experienced when taking an online Stanford MOOC this year for math teachers and parents, when I came across this problem:

A man is on a diet and goes into a shop to buy some turkey slices. He is given 3 slices which together weigh 1/3 of a pound, but his diet allows ¼ of a pound. How much of the 3 slices can he eat while staying true to his diet? Give an answer and briefly explain your reasoning.

I wrestled with the problem for a good number of minutes and estimated as best I could that the answer was close to two slices, but I knew it was not precise enough. I then hit play on the next clip to hear the instructor describe this as a typical fourth-grade math problem and cut to a clip of fourth graders discussing it in a classroom and solving it. Fourth graders! I burned with embarrassment, as I was once again reminded that the shiny image I have of myself — a reasonably capable person who has managed to get through college and graduate school without much trouble —  is tarnished by a fourth-grade math problem.

But I have the benefit of some wisdom and experience as I approach my 40s to help me see that struggling with SCUBA calculations, a new language, or fourth-grade word problems isn’t that big of a deal. Neither my job, nor health, nor happiness depends on them.

K-12 students do not have this kind of perspective or wisdom. They have little or no world experience and often low or no self-confidence, especially during the teenage years when social pressure is at its highest. Imagine what a fourteen-year-old kid feels when she gets a series of Cs on her English papers despite trying as hard as she can every time, when I feel so much shame not being able to write a simple Arabic letter properly. For me, the stakes are very low. No one really has to know how badly I am progressing in my Arabic studies. It’s just for fun. I’m not applying to university based on my scores. I’d be mortified if I had a classroom of peers keeping tabs on my Arabic progress, asking what I got on every assessment. Or worse — a rank. I’d be terrified even to try.

So here is my challenge to you: do something this week that makes you feel dumb. It could be analyzing a Seamus Heaney poem; it could be doing these math problems; it could be salsa dancing. It could even be as simple as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Do it, and then share your experience. Post, tweet, and talk about it with everyone you know — especially young people. We need to show our children and students that we aren’t afraid of mistakes, that we are OK with not being the expert all the time, that novices serve a very important function on the path of learning. We have to model what we want them to achieve (trying, failing, trying again), or we run the risk of being frauds.

This is scary stuff. It’s not easy to feel incompetent. It’s not easy for me to put myself into situations that make me feel stupid. On many days, I’d prefer to give up on the Arabic and do something I was better and more comfortable with (e.g. French). Even though I know making mistakes literally makes me smarter, I still hate to make them. But we adults — especially educators — need to push ourselves off the cliff of comfort into the abyss of  not knowing more often. This is not because it will make us better, smarter people (which it will), but rather we need to do it because it’s imperative to show young people that there is no shame in learning.

A Real Audience

17 Nov

Lately I have been thinking about audience and purpose, and how critical an issue this is to education.

As a high-school English teacher, I liked to post Essential Questions on my wall that were used as anchors for content and skills throughout the course. One of them is, “When I write or speak, who is my audience and what am I trying to make them think or feel?” While I would often ask students to consider this question as they wrote IB commentaries, personal and business letters, or first-person narratives, I didn’t pause to consider the irony: the real audience was usually just me.

Let’s face it: most high-school kids prefer electives over core courses. One reason for these kinds of results is obvious: everyone loves an opportunity to choose what they are most interested in. If I could choose a high-school schedule today, I’d be heavy on courses in English, film studies, modern language, and art because those are my areas of interest and I’d be more likely to be motivated in them. This is one reason people find college more engaging than high school — there is a lot more choice, and you can specialize in your interests. When I attended my liberal arts college in the 90s, I did have to take math, science and history courses, but thanks to the great variety of choice one has in college, I was able to take a philosophy/logic course, a microbiology course on cancer and AIDS, and the history of African architecture to fulfill those requirements — all of which were fascinating. So one reason students often seem more motivated in Photography class over English class is that they choose to take Photography, whereas they have no choice whether or not to take my grade 10 English class.

But another reason that students may choose P.E. and arts far and away as their most favorite and least boring courses in my dad’s survey of thousands of high school students all over the world is having an authentic product and audience.

Take Jamie, a typical high school student of mine from several years ago. Jamie had her usual core courses in math, science, English and language, but she also chose to take Dance, Film Studies, and Yearbook. In dance, she had to choreograph her own dance and perform it in front of her peers and teacher on several occasions, getting and incorporating feedback to improve the performance. The final performance was on stage in front of the whole school at an assembly, an audience of hundreds. Jamie also took my Film Studies course. For her first-semester exam, she and the other students had to film, edit, and screen a five-minute short film in front of the entire class. As a requirement for the course, she also had to submit the film to the school’s first-ever student film festival that year, where it was judged by a panel of faculty and screened for over a hundred people in the audience. In Yearbook, Jamie had to work in teams to produce a tangible product that was for sale; her team competed against other teams to come up with the best design pitches for the Yearbook theme. The actual yearbook was sold to hundreds of buyers at the end of the year. These examples evince real audiences, which drive more student interest and engagement because the stakes are higher. No matter how good or dedicated my grade-ten English writing student may be, if he knows I am the only member of his audience, he isn’t as likely to care as much about the assignment as he would if it were being considered for publication in a magazine read by hundreds.

Having worked for over a decade as a middle- and high-school English teacher and more recently as a learning coach, observing students in a great variety of courses and contexts, I don’t believe students are any less motivated than they used to be. I do think that students, like all of us, know that the stakes are much higher when their work is viewed by an audience of tens or hundreds. We educators should think of ways — both large and small – to provide more of those opportunities for that, especially in core courses.

A few suggestions:

– For any courses in which writing is required, ask students to submit their work to professional magazines. There are many science, history, and literary magazines that accept unsolicited submissions; teaching students how to draft an eloquent and effective cover letter for this endeavor is also an excellent life skill.

– Try student-friendly publications, especially for ELA and arts students. I have had several students publish their work in Teen Ink magazine, one of several of its kind.

– While blogs are good in theory, they are rarely more public than handing in a draft to the teacher since only a few people tend to read class blogs. Raise the audience stakes by asking students to share their written, dramatic, oral, or visual work in morning meetings, official school magazines and publications, or posted on bulletin boards outside the classroom and in the hallways.

– Provide competition now and again for those that enjoy that sort of thing and work harder as a result. When I taught Film Studies, I partnered with the school’s official parent and alumni publication, which came out four times a year. I told students that the best film review they wrote each quarter would be chosen for publication in the magazine, which had an audience of over a thousand. Students worked hard to submit their best draft of each review, and we all celebrated when the results came out and the chosen review was announced.

– Where products (like a yearbook) can be designed and perhaps sold, let students create real products. Art shows and sales, business and finance projects, STEM projects, web sites or graphic design projects all offer wonderful opportunities for wider audiences for student work.

– For debates, skits, speeches, or oral presentations, invite a panel of outside judges (teachers, parents, or guests) to evaluate students’ work and give them feedback. I have seen this done successfully for foreign language students; they take the feedback to heart and seem to care a lot more about the feedback from a group of unknown teachers or guests (American Idol style).

– One of the best parts of the IB’s Middle Years Program (MYP), a course of study for students in grade 6 – 10, is the required culminating Personal Project. Students spend a year researching and pulling together a personal project of their own design, which they present at a round-robin event for faculty, parents, and students on a single day at the end of grade 10. At an MYP school I worked at, I witnessed a student present on and explain the process of how she wrote and published her own novel; another on how she designed and made original handbags that were department-store worthy; and another who interviewed his deceased mother’s friends and family so he could piece together her life, since he had lost her when he was only two years old and didn’t remember her. You don’t need to be an MYP school to ask students to engage in projects for which they have many audience members or a panel of judges; any school can offer this kind of invaluable opportunity for a more authentic audience to help motivate students to engage in in-depth research.

While many educators, especially elementary- and middle-school teachers, already do these things, I think it’s time for everyone in education to engage in a conversation about how to provide more authentic audience experiences to our students, no matter what age or experience level they are.

After all, knowing that this blog post will be read by hundreds of people makes me think carefully about the words I use, the examples I have cited, whether or not I have made my point cogently, and if I have missed any typos. The truth is, if I knew that only my husband was going to read this post, I might not have even proofread it.

It doesn’t need to be a lot more work for us or our students; it could be as simple as requiring one submission a term to the school’s literary magazine, or opening the classroom door to all faculty and parents on the day history students are debating the best form of government. The more we can open up authentic audience experiences for our students, the more we are likely to see engagement and high-quality work.

From Teacher to Coach

26 Jul

This summer I find myself in a strange position; for the first time in almost fifteen years, I am not preparing my classes for the coming year. I will be leaving the classroom for a full time position as a high school instructional coach.

I first read about instructional coaching in a New Yorker article by the surgeon Atul Gawande only a few years ago, and I was transfixed. “That is my dream job,” I remember saying.

Lucky for me, the administration at my school does a very cool thing every year when contract renewal comes up in the fall; we are all given a form to fill out, on which we indicate if we plan to return the following year or not. If so, there is a space for us to write any jobs at the school that we would like, even if they do not currently exist. I have never had an employer do this, and I think it’s a great way to develop talent and innovation in a school. Who knows what people have to offer unless you ask? I took the opportunity to write down “Instructional coach,” and it just so happened that the powers that be had been mulling over the coaching model for a couple years prior. Last year, the board approved the budget, and three coaching jobs were offered (one for each division), and I got my dream job. Syzygy.

In the international school circuit, where I teach, the instructional coaching model is in a nascent state. There have long been literacy coaches and sometimes math coaches in elementary school settings, but I find more often than not when I tell my global teaching friends that I will be a high school instructional coach next year, most of them say, “What’s that?”

Good question. The exciting and terrifying thing about being the school’s first high school instructional coach is that no one has done it at our school before. Our coaching team did some research this spring, attending coaching conferences, reading about various models and research, and interviewing colleagues in the field who have used one model or another in their schools, and we have decided that the model that best fits our learning environment is Diane Sweeney’s student-centered coaching. The basic idea is that an instructional coach, or “learning coach” in Sweeney speak, is someone who:

- Helps teachers achieve their learning goals based on student evidence. 

- Focuses on student learning, not teacher’s instruction per se

- Is not admin; she is not in a supervisory role, but she works with admin and faculty to achieve learning outcomes

- Coaches in cycles of 4 – 6 weeks, or longer as necessary, to achieve a specific goal with a teacher or team of teachers.

- Helps teachers set goals that might be specific to a task (“improve persuasive writing”) or general (“increase participation”); he will look to evidence for examples of where students currently stand in relation to the goal and, later in the cycle, evidence of whether they have reached the goal or not. 

Our coaching team really loved the focus on student-centered learning and student evidence to measure progress toward goals, as we felt that models that centered on teachers’ instruction might create more tension between coach and teacher. We look forward to the challenge of this new initiative at our school and hope it will improve learning.

In any case, I am gearing up for an exciting shift in my role as an educator. While I will truly miss having students every day (I really do love them), I will not miss the grading!

I’d love to hear anyone’s experience with coaching out there — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Please share if you have any insights or words of wisdom on coaching, changing roles, or leaving the classroom.




Genius Hour is Genius Part 1

6 Apr

I first heard about Genius Hour via Twitter, and I was intrigued. Anything that allows students to be highly engaged in their own learning gets my attention. I did a little research on it, and most of what I have found is geared towards elementary and middle-school students.

I modified some existing resources I found on this wiki for Genius Hour and decided to give it a go with my two grade 9 English classes. We have an A/B block schedule, so the idea was that every time we had English on a Friday, we’d have Genius Hour on that class (great idea for last period on Fridays!), which winds up being every other week.

Here are my specific rules for Genius Hour:

  •  You can do anything you want as long as it is learning about or learning to do something (e.g. how to juggle, how to write a novel, carrying out donut taste testing)
  • You have to choose something you are interested in
  • You can learn anything you want but must bring all the materials yourself (e.g. if you are learning to practice frosting techniques for baking, you must bring all the food and hardware yourself)
  • You have to be engaged during the whole class. It is not time to catch up on sleep, passively watch TV, or half-engage. If you don’t like your GH project, change it.
  • You can work in pairs, groups, or apart.
  • You must have a research question that you are trying to answer (“Do students prefer McDonald’s or Burger King for their fast food?”; “When I take apart three different brands of cell phones, are the insides different or the same?”)
  • You must present to the class on your project every month, a 1-2-minute update on your project or what you did and the result when it was finished.
  • The presentation must have a visual component (live performance, a slide show with a photograph or screenshots, etc.) and state the research question clearly in writing.
  • There is no time limit — a project might last one session or six
  • There are no grades for Genius Hour at all, but there is lots of student and teacher feedback and self-reflection at the end of each project.

On the first day of Genius Hour, there was lots of excitement. Here were some of the proposed topics:

  • Donut taste testing
  • The scientific definitions/parameters for race
  • Cupcake and cake piping techniques
  • Writing a novel
  • Self-defense
  • Sign language
  • Learning about the Illuminati
  • Taking apart old cell phones to see what’s inside
  • Finding out why everyone prefers Burger King

Right away I realized an opportunity for learning when the proposed topics of interest were turned into questions. The students didn’t know how to create good research questions. Brittany and Mary, the girls doing the donut taste testing, started with the research question: which is the best donut?” Atash and Haley posed the question: “Why does everyone prefer Burger King?” Hamad and Ray asked: “What’s inside a cell phone?” Ibrahim asked: “What is the scientific definition for race and what are the scientific boundaries that divide the races?”

I decided to go back to my original Google doc form and add some columns, and I did this right in class while they started to work. I first changed the column about the research question to read “Original Proposed Research Question.” Then I added a column next to it that was “Final Research Question.” At the end of the doc, I added a column: “Approved by Teacher” where I could leave my initials once we had conferred and I could sign off on their project and research question as being strong enough that they will have a clear path to learning. Here is my updated Genius Hour Proposal Form — feel free to use, adapt, and share it as you desire.

I then went around to every group or individual and checked in. We talked through the research question and I helped them see that a research question that couldn’t be answered, or that was answered by opinion, or that assumed an outcome that wasn’t necessarily true, was not yet a strong research question. Through five minutes of chatting with each of the first three groups of students, I was able to make them see that they either couldn’t answer their questions or they could answer them too simply (e.g. What’s inside a cell phone? Open it up and there it is. But what did you learn?)

Here’s how the first three questions changed in the first half hour:

  1. “Which is the best donut?” became “Do people prefer chocolate glazed donuts or sprinkles, and do the donuts’ ingredients help suggest why?” (e.g. is there more fat/sugar in the one people prefer?)
  2. “Why does everyone prefer Burger King?” became “Do ninth-graders at our school prefer McDonald’s or Burger King and why?”
  3. “What’s inside a cell phone?” became “What does the inside of a phone look like? How do the insides of a Samsung, iPhone, and Blackberry compare?”

Suddenly, the students saw that refined, specific, answerable research questions set them on a clear path for their first GH. The donut group began designing their taste test; the fast food group began figuring out how to do a survey of all the ninth graders and seek out resources: a teacher who is expert at creating surveys in Google, class lists from the HS office to make sure they sent their survey to everyone, and the grade 9 English teachers to make sure they asked all students to complete the survey. The cell phone group was off and running, seeking advice from the tech director, borrowing tiny tools from the IT office to open the phones, and watching tutorials online as to how to open and take apart cell phones.

The fourth student, Ibrahim, was a little more problematic. I knew when I heard his initial research question, “What is the scientific definition for race and what are the scientific boundaries that divide the races?” that he was going to have a tough time, as science has evolved to move away from scientific definitions of race (e.g. eugenics). I could have just told him this, but I thought I’d see what he came up with. When I checked in with him on his research, he was finding lots of information on what distinguishes one race from another; for example he had pictures of albinos from three different races and he was reading through a page of comparisons of the men’s physical features, other than skin color, based on the photographs. But I quickly noted that he was using Wikipedia. I told him Wikipedia was not a reliable resource page, even though sometimes it can be very helpful as a general overview of something. But I told him he needed to evaluate the sources by making sure they were legitimate, by ensuring they were trusted news organization, like the BBC, or they were a .edu or .gov site, etc.

Ibrahim went back to his research and continued for only a few more minutes before he turned around and said, “Ms. Wiggins, can I change my topic?”

“Sure, why?” I replied.

“Because without Wikipedia, the only sources I’m getting now are ‘’ and ‘Yahoo Answers.'”

“What does that tell you about your topic?” I asked.

He smiled and replied, “That it’s pretty sketchy?”

Bingo. It was such a great moment for me as a teacher to see that in about 15 minutes, a student had himself discovered the importance of good, reliably sourced information in order to proceed with authentic learning. I was glad I hadn’t jumped the gun and just told him to change the topic, because I think he learned the lesson more deeply on his own.

In the end, his research question became, “Is ethnic background a factor in certain medical conditions?” Now that was a research question he could work with, and within minutes, he was finding loads of sites and sources. He checked back in with me several times to ensure that the web site he was using seemed “legit,” and we looked together for the signs — that they were .govs or .edus, that the page had recently been updated, etc. Within one class, Ibrahim had learned what my Extended Essay students in grade 11 often took days and weeks to learn — a good question makes research easy, you can’t trust everything you read on the web, and there are ways to help figure out if sources are reliable.

Stay tuned for the next part on Genius Hour when I’ll share how these projects turned out and how the presentations went.

5 Ways to Reduce Your Grading Time

17 Feb

Some tricks I have invented, heard of, or stolen over the years to help me reduce my grading time.

1. Frontload: do as much formative assessment as possible. The paradox is that it can be more efficient and effective to use the first third of class time to assess students’ work and give brief, specific feedback on what is being done well and what needs to be improved. It feels like “wasted time” but in my experience it is the opposite — a valuable investment. You not only give more feedback more often this way, but you have more data and insights into students’ work and understanding before high-stakes tests or assessments. Don’t give any real grades on this — just practice grades and brief feedback so students understand what they need to do better without being penalized.

2. Embrace the facetime. With a class of 22, I can’t write as much feedback during my “frontloading” formative assessments as I’d like to. Instead, I speak one-to-one with each kid and leave a brief note, a line or two at most, sometimes just a few words, like “raise vocab level.” I find that the face-to-face conference is more effective because most high-school students don’t read or take into account long comments (not the ones that most need to, anyway.) With the face-to-face, better feedback is exchanged, as they can ask follow-up questions they normally wouldn’t when reading their paper comments in class and we can clarify misunderstandings. More facetime like this leads to fewer hours writing long comments.

3. Grade one or two criteria at a time – not all of them. It doesn’t make sense to assess all skills every time. If you are working hard on organization in teaching how to write, try an assessment or two that grade only on “organization” so students don’t need to also worry about spelling and grammar, and depth of analysis. There is no need to fear that expecting less than perfect work will lead to shoddy work overall; think about learning a sport like tennis and imagine if you were expected to serve, smash, volley, and play at the baseline perfectly every time all the time without ever honing those individual skills. Sometimes we need to just work on serves, just assess the serves. This is part of becoming proficient in a skill. Grading this way is much faster and perhaps more efficient for the student in the long run.

4. Outsource your work. Thoughtless peer editing is a waste of everyone’s time, but well designed peer editing can be illuminating. For example, a simple, factual check list can be very effective, one that asks a peer reader to tick “yes” or “no” after questions like:

– Are there many spelling errors?
– Does every paragraph have a topic sentence?
– Does every topic sentence connect back to the thesis?
- Are there at least six quotes used in the essay?
- Are all the quotes correctly cited using MLA parenthetical citation?

These sorts of judgement-free peer editing forms can highlight quickly for students how many errors they need to fix in their work based on the criteria. It does not ask students to rate or grade their peer’s work, which is often unproductive (I find most students are too nice and write things like, “good job!” for any kind of work at all, or they themselves are weak students and can’t recognize the good from the bad themselves). A clear, factual checklist against simple criteria is the way to go here.

Another idea is to ask students to get two other adult readers to sign off on their work and give two suggestions or areas for improvement. This ensures that many more errors will be caught, gives students more authentic audiences than just you, and provides another source of feedback than just you.

5. One brick at a time. Another paradox: I have learned with something as complex as writing is best done in stages and that spending much, much longer on the early stages pays off in the long run. I have spent an entire semester honing students’ writing skills for one, single paragraph. Even in eleventh grade. The problem is if we move on to longer essays and they still aren’t clear on the basics, the grading (and the grades) are usually abysmal. I see more universal progress and confidence in students when I set smaller short-term goals (like the paragraph response). Later, when we put a few strong paragraphs together into a longer essay, it’s much easier to assess because we have already mastered the parts so the conversation just expands to include more of those parts, but I am not teaching for the first time how to write a clear topic sentence, as we have already gotten that part down cold.

And shorter work is also much faster to grade. Grading a stack of bad paragraphs is far faster than a stack of bad essays, and it allows me more time to try that paragraph again with them the next week, allowing for more formative assessment and better, faster improvement (see #1 again).

Advice for New Teachers

11 Feb

The thirteen things I wish I’d known when I started teaching ten years ago: (Why 13? Because it’s my lucky number!)

  1. Don’t do anything but assess the first month of the school year. I only discovered this wonderful piece of advice in the last couple years, and it has really changed my teaching. Instead of diving right in to whatever curriculum or text you’re given, spend the first weeks assessing students’ abilities in your field. I’m a high-school English teacher, so I spent the first month of teaching grade 9 by asking students to do things like annotate their texts as they read by using post-its, but I didn’t tell them how I wanted them to do it. Once I checked their homework and saw the general ability level, I knew I had to go back to square one and teach them annotation 101, so I did. I also asked them to write a multi-paragraph essay in response to the prompt: “Is it true that you can never fully trust anyone?” I did not grade or even mark up the essays, but I did read every one and note them in my grade book as being average, above average, and below average. There were a few that were off the charts low this year, and it was a red flag from the second day of school that helped me keep tabs on students that were quite weak and would likely need extra support and more communication from me. This essay stays in their portfolio in class as a baseline essay against which we can compare their future writing, and the kids feel no stress about it since it didn’t count. I waited a full six weeks into the term to give a single major grade, which allowed the students to adjust to new standards and expectations in high school English and allowed me to help identify weakness and work to strengthen their skills before a single grade is given.
  2. Start student portfolios on the first day of school into which all assessed work goes. This may be old news to education students, but it was brand new news to me, since I had little formal training when I started teaching at 23. I’ve had students keep simple manila folder portfolios, bursting with the year’s writing and rubrics, in the back of the room; I’ve had students in a fancy private school in the Middle East keep e-portfolios of all their work, including video and sound clips. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, as long as there is a place where the students’ progress and your feedback on it can be kept in one spot. They are wonderful to peruse before doing grades, and great fodder for parent-teacher meetings. At the end of the year, students can review the portfolio’s contents and do a written evaluation of their growth – it’s nice to see them compare a year’s worth of their work and really acknowledge their challenges and accomplishments.
  3. Keep a paper trail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been grateful for starting and keeping an email folder for all parent communication. I bcc myself on all communication I send to parents via email and pop it in that folder, along with any replies I get. The result is that I have an excellent, irrefutable record of communication attempts from my end. The few times I’ve needed this paper trail, I was very grateful I had it (for example, when a student in my class was in jeopardy of not graduating because of his results in my class senior year; the paper trail I had from me to his parents was long and extensive, and the administration was able to use it to make the case to the parents that he would have to change radically or not graduate.)
  4. Don’t mistake your role as teacher for friend, family, or savior. It can be tempting to help those students who seem most in need of a support network by befriending them, or trying to “save” them from their problems. I made this mistake early in my career. I had a student who was drawn to me and wanted to talk regularly about her problems, and I – twenty-three and flattered, thinking I could really help her through her tough times – found myself quickly in over my head with a student who had far deeper problems than I was prepared to handle. I realized, humbled, that those deeper psychological or family issues a student has are best left to counseling and mental health professionals. The next time a different young student explained that she felt comfortable around me and wanted to talk with me about some of her problems, I politely explained that I loved being her teacher but that if she needed to talk about her problems, she could make an appointment with the counselors who are better equipped to help her. I still had a nice relationship with this girl, but the boundaries were clear and healthy for both of us. Model your role on that of pediatrician rather than confidante or savior – a professional working toward her students’ educational wellbeing.
  5. Don’t assume students know how to do even the most basic study skills. I still make this mistake. Begin the first weeks by showing them how to do exactly what it is you want them to do – model clearly what it is and don’t just say it. For example, if you want students to annotate in their book, either on the page or by using Post-its, it’s not enough to ask them to do that. Spend time showing them exactly how to do this – putting the notes in the book as you read, saying the many kinds of notes you might write. I came up with an acronym for annotation in HS English: SCRAP-Q to help them try various strategies on their notes (Summary, Connections, Reactions, Predictions, and Questions). Suddenly, they no longer had excuses that they didn’t know what to say, because they had several simple strategies to use. If you want your students to study for vocab quizzes using flash cards, show them how to make the cards and self-quiz using three piles for the words they know cold, the ones they almost always get, and the ones they don’t know yet. If you want them to take bullet-point summary notes of their reading, show them how by practicing it in class. Give them tools that will help them, like Cornell Notes, annotation hows and whys, and how to review in math or language by self-testing a little previous content every night. I often erroneously assume that students know the most basic skills, like reading the dictionary to find a word’s origin or part of speech, and I’m often reminded that they need more direct guidance from us in these simple but important tasks.
  6. Understand that assessment is not the same as grading. It was a ways into my career before I understood the power of this. Much like #1, assessment is a way to measure your students against standards and criteria (yours, your school’s, or the state’s); grading is assigning a value to the assessment outcome. Good teachers assess often by measuring where their students are against standards and criteria and then readjust their teaching based on those assessments. An in-class essay for my grade 9 English class usually comes after several informal writing sessions with verbal feedback, then a practice essay in a timed setting with feedback from me and a grade that doesn’t count, and then the real essay with a grade that counts. Assessing and recording all the data this way has given me far more info on their strengths and weaknesses, and it has shown me that students can improve greatly from one round of assessment with feedback to the next.
  7. If giving a timed assignment, write down the amount of time each student took to complete it on the upper corner when the student submits it to you. I have found that this is helpful feedback when a student has rushed through and done poorly, or when I see that a student always takes the maximum amount of time and still doesn’t finish. It helps me better know and address the students’ challenges in a timed test setting.
  8. Record everything in hard copy in your grade book. I keep track of attendance, all grades, and even all formative assessments (those assessments that are graded but not counted), participation attempts – everything. This helps me greatly with parent-teacher conferences. It helps me see at a glance whose writing is consistently weak, even when it doesn’t count. It helps me see if attendance corresponds with grades, and it shows me how participation links to these elements. I like to code for situations. For example, I will make a “c” in my grade book next to an assignment that wasn’t up to par to note that the student and I chatted about why and how she can do better next time. That way, when I see her poor performance next time, I can check the book and say, “We chatted last time about how you needed to work better on this area, and you still haven’t. Why not?” I code for things like late submissions, excused absences and assignments, difficulty following directions, and when students mostly summarize rather than synthesize (something of increasing importance as they move through high school). This coding helps immensely for comment writing and parent-teacher conferences. In the digital age, this might be redundant for some, but I find that technology is not always foolproof; more than once I have been saved by having my backup hard copy on hand when the tech went down. Either way, keeping clear, consistent records is such a boon to your communication with students and parents.
  9. Make the kids do the work. Six years ago, I was hired by a Harkness school, a high school where students are encouraged (and in fact graded on their ability) to lead class discussions. Essentially, students work in a Socratic seminar environment across the curriculum, and they are expected to participate equally and substantively, exploring their way as a group through the curriculum, while the teacher is mainly silent, working as observer, feedback giver, and guide. Teaching in that Harkness school was the biggest gift I ever received as an educator, and probably the biggest gift my future students could have received. It showed me how, during all the preceding years of my career, I had been spoon-feeding to my students what was most important, what I wanted them to understand. When forced to sit back and watch them work their way – awkwardly at first – together through the material, I saw to my surprise that they were almost always able to discover what was important on their own. Without my interference, students were doing deep, meaningful inquiry together, which resulted in a much more ethical, balanced classroom – a team of players working together with their coach off to the side. Now I come in to my high-school English classes to watch how the students tackle their reading head on in a Spider Web Discussion. I often don’t say a word for an hour as they work through the most salient, pertinent aspects of the texts. I might jump in with a provocative question, or I might redirect them to a passage I think they need to examine and haven’t yet. But often I find they get so good at this practice after only a couple months that I mostly get to go in and enjoy seeing what their astute, curious brains have uncovered. Often they pick up on something I did not, or travel down a fascinating path of ethical debate, back and forth, inspired by their shared inquiry. I’ve learned that they, not I, should do the bulk of the thinking, and that a classroom built on these principles rewards them more in the day-to-day through engaging discussions, and more in the long run by surreptitiously teaching them group problem solving, critical reading and thinking, and public speaking.
  10. Observe Colleagues. The best PD is free and right next door: watch your colleagues teach. It’s easy, painless, and inspires great collaboration through follow-up discussions. At one of the international schools I taught at in Asia, instead of being formally observed by a department head, we were paired up with teaching colleagues in our department and asked to observe each other several times throughout the year and share our feedback with one another. I learned a lot from these sessions, and it was great to see how she interacted with her students. She had a very different approach to assessment than I’d ever seen, and I was only introduced to it because I got to pair up with and observe her. If possible, arrange to see colleagues in other specialties and subject areas as well as colleagues in yours; you’d be amazed what high school teachers can learn from first-grade teachers (multi-tasking anyone?), and math teachers can learn from English teachers (why can’t math class be discussion-based?). It’s also good to have more exposure to the day-to-day reality of our students’ academic careers, from beginning to end and across all subjects, so we can truly start to teach them as if they are in a continuum, not just “in our class this year.”
  11. Use Twitter. I wasn’t sure how to use Twitter to my liking until I decided to make it solely for education and pedagogy purposes. Then I discovered its power. I follow all sorts of interesting education policy wonks, bloggers, teachers, and writers and get dozens of links to great articles every day. There is never a day that goes by when I don’t find something fascinating and completely relevant to my craft in my Twitter feed. I often incorporate them immediately into my classroom, which means Twitter is another totally free, easy way to get great PD. It also is a wonderful communication tool if you’re inclined to share your (140-character) education musings with the world. This can result in interesting collaborations across the medium, such as when someone tweets something like, “Anyone have experience/success using music and math together?” and you reply, “Yes! What do you want to know?”
  12. Get feedback often, from a variety of sources. I was lucky, because early in my career I was introduced to the power of feedback, and I never developed a fear of it as a result. My motto is, “How can I be better?” and feedback has never failed to help me in answering that question.First, solicit feedback regularly from your students. Don’t wait until the end of the course – what a missed opportunity. If your school requires year-end feedback, do it informally on your own. The best way is completely anonymously – via the computer. I found that when I switched from hand-written feedback forms to computer ones, the feedback became a lot more honest, since they were no longer afraid I could recognize their writing. I use Survey Monkey every month to check in with students on how they find the texts, pace, teaching style, class dynamic, and grading. Survey Monkey provides data and graphs that are really convenient; within seconds of students’ finishing, I’ve got a bar graph showing how many of them love the current book and how many would be happy to burn it. And this is the part where I encourage you to steel yourself and ask some uncomfortable questions, like, “Does the teacher play favorites?” I’m always surprised when a small percentage of students respond that they think I do, but it’s valuable feedback; it makes me reconsider how I interact with kids and what they might perceive from those interactions. Much of the feedback on these surveys is reaffirming, too. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many students reported “loving” English class this year, so sometimes the results just help me know I am on the right track.

    Second, pair up with a colleague, much like the situation I described in point #10. Find a friendly colleague whose feedback you trust and ask if he can observe you two or three times throughout the year and give you general feedback, as well as his observations of any specific areas you’re looking to improve upon. This kind of informal peer observation can be so informative and is much less threatening than having your supervisor observe you.

    Last, get a video camera and film your teaching. Watch it – see what your students see. Watch an hour-long class and chart the level of student interest and engagement; watch how often you call on which students; see how much you talk versus they do; observe how often you write or draw on the board to help deepen a concept. Few people like to see themselves on film, but steel yourself a second time, because there’s much to be learned from self-observation. It’s also an easy way to ease into feedback, since no one else is involved besides you and no one else has to see it.

  13. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Give yourself two or three years to feel like you are treading water. Give yourself five to feel like you can swim. The first couple years of teaching can be nothing short of overwhelming. I remember lots of tears my first year (and second, and fifth…) and many moments when I wanted to leave the profession. But the more experienced I grew, the more I was able to take the long, more patient view. There are many highs and lows in a teacher’s year. The trick is seeing the mountain range, not only the peak or valley before us. Most importantly, don’t get bogged down by what you can’t change. Instead, focus on what you can do and attack it with fervor and love.  

2014 New Year’s Resolutions for Educators

29 Dec

Last year I posted a list of New Year’s teaching resolutions, and here is my list for 2014. Happy New Year!

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for Educators – 2014

1. Check for understanding regularly. While you know how good this and you see how much your students benefit from it (and from your readjusting based on the results), you often let this one slide because “there isn’t enough time.” But if you’re not sure understanding is being achieved, what is the point of “teaching” with that time? Aim to check for understanding at least once every day — through “exit tickets,” informal Q&As, and formative quizzes, essays, and group work.

2. Videotape your class. Take your principal up on this excellent PD challenge so you can see with your own eyes how you move, talk, use time, and interact with your class. It’s an excellent, free, and fairly painless way to grow professionally and get instant feedback on your performance. No one needs to watch it except you!

3. Collaborate regularly. You come away from these sessions energized, often getting great new materials or insights, and you align your grading standards better. The best teachers are thieves, stealing good tricks from one another. Try to collaborate weekly with others teaching your same subject.

4. Start a monthly “edchat” lunch meeting for interested colleagues. Those great education conversations you’ve had recently with the art teacher, the elementary-school homeroom teachers, and the high-school history teachers should continue on a regular basis. Start an informal “edchat” lunch where you all grab a bite at the cafeteria the first Thursday of every month and talk about a specific topic, such as “formative assessment” or “differentiation”; share stories, ideas, questions and insights about the monthly topic.

5. Make time for connecting with students. Remember that you recall almost none of the content that you learned in high school but you remember vividly the personal connections you made with teachers. Show students you care; be firm but kind; give them as much support in and out of class as you can; make sure they understand that — ultimately — knowing things like iambic pentameter and how an author uses metaphors are not nearly as important as knowing how to manage time, sleep, diet, relationships, stress and the pursuit for peace and happiness in one’s own life.

6. Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold. Never overestimate how much students know or understand. Use models regularly to show students examples of great, average, and poor work so that they know the difference, and guide them step-by-step through the process of writing or reading comprehension. Never assume they know how to do anything you haven’t seen them do proficiently entirely on their own. It’s better to take a long time getting comfortable in the shallow end with the basics than to throw them into the deep end and watch them flail.

7. Seek out the expert. When you want to learn something better or from scratch, ask around and find the expert. Seek her out, watch her in action, and ask for her input. For example: you want to learn more about Kagan Structures and how certain teachers at your school are using it to promote cooperative learning, so find the handful of teachers that have become experts at it and ask them to share their knowledge. Don’t be shy!

8. Grade smarter. You have a record number of high-school English students (100+) and you cannot grade the papers of 100 students the way you could those of 50. So grade smarter — utilize peer editing more to your advantage by having students peer edit for the clear-cut, obvious errors that any level of student can find; ask students to have one or more adult readers sign off on their rough drafts before submitting them, asking them to note any errors or confusions as they read; have students read their papers out loud to each other or a family member before submitting to catch those errors that slip by them. In addition, do more formative writing in class in smaller chunks and spot-check this work, catching major errors before students get started on longer drafts and before you have to mark them all up with your comments.

9. Try one crazy curricular idea this year. Take a chance on something a little out of the ordinary — for example, Oedipus the King for ninth grade. The more challenging, sophisticated Greek drama might not work as well as the classic ninth-grade novel Of Mice and Men, but you’ll never know unless you try, and it may just be a hit. And go beyond your comfort zone and traditional models: try that graphic novel you’ve heard so much about with eleventh grade, and experiment with a unit on short stories made into films, giving students a chance to study film for a change.

10. Give students more variety and choice. Let’s not kid ourselves: school and its content are often boring. Giving students more choice in the content, units, or assessment types they have raises the levels of  engagement and learning. Try a “self-directed unit” in which students choose their own genre and texts to study. Allow students to take a graded test in pairs or teams. Let the class vote on which poet you study in the final part of our course. You want students to be invested in the process of their own learning, so engage them in that process more directly.


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