education, effort, engagement, motivation, students, teachers, teaching

Spinning into Motivation

It’s a rare treat when I can go to spin class on a weekday morning (thank you winter break!), and especially one with Gina. Gina is a great instructor. She pushes us to our limits but she also allows for our strengths to shine through. She encourages us to try things that are challenging–hello there simulation of the 20th leg of the Tour de France (I couldn’t walk for 2 days)–and it ends up being so worth it. I like taking her class because I feel motivated to work hard when I’m there. (It’s not that I ever walk into spin thinking, “I’m just going to give it 75% today…”) but Gina helps me go above and beyond during my workout.

Before class, Gina greets everyone by name and introduces herself to new spinners. She helps set up bikes and she even helped me into my new clips today. (A story for another day–what a challenge that was!) Throughout class she looks out into the sea of bikes and picks out someone by name and offers them a compliment–usually that they are kicking some serious butt–and I love it when she zeros in on me. It’s not that I need my fellow riders to know that I am doing well; it’s because once I hear that affirmation from her I begin to work even harder. I think, “if I can do that, I can push it even further,” and I do.

When it comes to assessing students (and teachers, too!) we tend to focus on the weaknesses that are present in the work we see. (Look here again…try it this way…this isn’t quite there yet…) After my students finish an assessment, I score it and automatically look to see which questions they got wrong.

So as I was going into a seated climb–ouch–about halfway through my class this morning, it hit me. Why am I not focusing on student’s strengths as much as I am focusing on their weaknesses?   Well, it makes sense to focus on the areas they need to improve upon because I can begin to help them strengthen those areas. But in the middle of the climb I decided that a better way to bring attention to my student’s weaknesses is to start with their strengths: “hey, I see that you rock at determining author’s choices, but have some trouble determining an author’s diction. It’s a very similar skill. Try applying what you do to determine author’s choices to determine an author’s diction.”

Now, I realize that this isn’t earth shattering people, but I know if Gina said to me, “engage the same muscles you would for a standing climb when you are in the seated climb. It may be a bit tougher at first, but you will work through it and condition your legs to handle it over time,” I would be more apt to follow her advice. First, it makes sense. Second, I’m already going in the right direction–since I have mastered standing climbs–and third, I’m motivated. I’m right in my Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky!) both physically and mentally.

Now my task is to find a way to connect each student’s strengths and weaknesses and motivate them through their strengths to fortify their areas of weakness.

So thanks for the inspiration today, Gina. I’m going to bring it with me when I get back into the classroom in 2016 and I can’t wait to try it out.

education, engagement, high school, learners, students

UDL: Differentiation at Its Best

UDL. Another acronym, I know. But this one I think you’ll like.

Universal Design for Learning has been around since the 90s and at its core, it is really about flexibility, differentiation, and helping students find their “flow”. (I’m a big believer in flow. Basically it’s about being so motivated by something that you don’t even realize the time or space you’re in. You’re essentially locked into what you’re doing and you enjoy this true engagement.)  If you want more info about UDL in general check out this video.

Although purist supporters of UDL believe in creating curricula using the techniques outlined in the philosophy, I find that using it in my classroom regardless of the curriculum for the course is highly effective. (Please note that my district uses a very open design for curricula which allows for such flexibility. It’s really a beautiful thing.) Allow me to offer an example:

We are reading Hamlet. (I know, it’s so exciting!!) This is by far one of my favorite units to teach because it allows for great use of the Multiple Intelligences and UDL theories. For instance, not only do we read important scenes together in class, but we also listen to them and watch them. I want students to see the language, hear it, and see how it is applied on stage or screen with actions. We also watch different interpretations of the play so students can see how the language is used and understood in different ways. (Shakespeare is the perfect vehicle for exploring multiple interpretations of complex language….but, I digress.)

Also, as a grade level team, my colleagues and I came up with various creative projects for students to complete to prove their understanding of the text and more specifically their understandings of the functions of the language, characters, and settings. Students can rewrite the script and create a movie, choose songs that characters might listen to that describe their relationships with others, create a comic book that details scenes and soliloquies, or create a scrapbook of character relationships and how those relationships relate to and function within the various settings of the play.

Now, these projects are nothing new. Teachers have been using them for decades, but what I find to be so great about them is their ability to appeal to all different types of learners. For instance, there are several students in my classes who participate in our school’s morning news show. They are interested in visual media and its construction, so the movie project is perfect for them. It serves their interests and they have access to the proper equipment in order to do justice to such a project. When they feel they can properly complete the assignment, make it their own, and enjoy working on it, they are achieving “flow”. And that type of motivation is what we want for our students in school. Learning has to be engaging, or students will lack the buy-in needed to make learning happen in the first place. (And please don’t get me wrong, not every assignment is like this, but I work in the fun where I can!)

In everyday classroom life–whether we are working on Hamlet or not–I use UDL to appeal to students’ interests. I will present to them the goal of the class (I call it “The End Game”) and I will allow them multiple pathways in order to achieve that goal. (Note: I teach seniors and they have enough independence and know-how to complete a task in whatever way they please. This does not always work as well with freshmen and sophomores unless you spend time “training” them.) I give students hard copies of things, I post assignments on Google Classroom, I offer helpful websites, allow them access to multimedia, and various texts, etc. I also allow them to work at their own pace, yet within a time constraint. For example, during the research paper unit, I will teach a mini lesson and then allow students time to write; I call it “workshop”. Some students will keep up with the pace and work on what they learned in the mini lesson, and others may be behind or ahead. Either way, students can sign up for writing conferences with me during their workshop time and I will help guide them through the process. In the end though, the due date stands–so they must find ways to finish on time–and I am there to help during lunch and after school.

Ultimately, I truly enjoy using UDL. It allows for differentiation, emphasizes that we all learn differently and are motivated by different things, and allows for reaching goals in multifaceted ways. It’s not always easy, and it is a lot of work for me, but it’s worth it in order to help kids see that learning is fun and worthwhile. And that’s what I want for them. I want them to see that learning is not a one-size-fits-all activity. And when they walk into my classroom, I want them to know that I will do whatever it takes to help them see that.


Best Practices: The Trouble with the Do Now

Do Nows have a permanent place on my lesson plan template.  After objectives and standards, before activities and assessments. There it is.  My good ol’ Do Now that allows the students to review yesterday’s lesson and allows me to take attendance, and pass out yesterday’s Do Now (with some feedback of course), graded papers, and discipline passes.  

I’ve been doing Do Nows this way for years. It’s a great way to start your class. Some even say it’s a “best practice”.  But then I started thinking…”what is ‘best’ about having my students review information they have already learned, ignore them while I get some housekeeping tasks finished, and only use their name because I have to hand them their pass down to the discipline office?”  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  

Here’s the thing.  I was taking advantage of the Do Now for my own desires.  I wasn’t using it as an instructional strategy, I was using it to buy me time at the beginning of the class to focus on my own tasks. And I can’t lie, it felt good.  It felt SO GOOD.  The kids were “working” as I was taking care of all the boring stuff that goes along with being a teacher, and if someone walked by and saw my classroom, they would assume some sort of learning was occurring.  It was so easy and satisfying.  But it was teacher malpractice.  

So I’ve started revamping my Do Nows.  I have even re-named them to Success Starters (which is a term from Suzy Pepper Rollins’s book Learning in the Fast Lane: 8 Ways to Put ALL Students on the Road to Academic Success).  She states that the “trouble with warm ups is that they are quite possibly the opposite of what students’ brains need during the opening minutes of class” (2014) and she is right.  When students walk into our class their brains need to be stimulated, and when they are done with the Do Now, Warm Up, Success Starter, etc. their curiosity and interest levels should be high.  

Yeah…I was NOT doing that…

So here is an example of what I do now. (I use the things my students are interested in to convey information that is relevant to them.  Therefore, thank you YouTube for existing.)

We are reading memoirs this marking period and we recently read a short memoir about Kendall Ciesemier, a young woman who started her own non-profit organization called Kids Caring 4 Kids. The next day, as the Success Starter I had my students watch a TEDx video of her speaking at Georgetown about Finding Power in Powerlessness. My students were engaged in the video as this young woman they just read about the day before came to life on the screen.  She spoke about many of the things she wrote about in her short memoir and she added some more details about her life and experiences. Then I had the students “evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums” (CCSS RI.8.7). The following discussion was great!  We talked about how seeing a person and hearing a person speak can be mesmerizing.  We talked about how connecting a face to a “character” in a text made it more real.  Watching the video made the students understand that Kendall, and what she does, is real and that they can be just like her.

This Success Starter didn’t take long to set up.  I found the video and wrote down some questions I wanted to ask to get the conversation started, but the outcome was so much better than asking my students to summarize what they read the day before. Plus, it lead us right into the lesson about finding evidence in order to classify a text as a memoir. And, a little secret, I still took attendance. After this, I couldn’t wait to start every class with a Success Starter.

The best part about it is that the formula is simple: interesting information + exciting presentation of the information + a standard based in academics = Success Starter! I encourage you to try it.  I promise, you will enjoy it just as much as your kids and you won’t want that plain ol’ “Do Now” to ever come back.


Do Teachers Need Secretaries?

Teachers, have you ever wished you had a secretary?  Someone to send and answer emails, format your SGOs, PDPs, and LPs? Someone to make your copies, put up your bulletin boards, file your papers, maintain your materials, download updates onto your computer, put in tech requests, hang your posters, laminate your anchor charts, plug your grades into the grade book, type up and send out the minutes from your PLC meetings, take messages from parents, set up parent teacher conference times, coordinate field trip schedules and transportation, administer standardized tests, collect student data, clean and reorganize your classroom at the end of the day, take attendance, keep track of weekly, monthly, quarterly, and semester attendance logs, organize absentee work, follow up on class cuts, write up referrals, put in daily announcements to the office, write out book receipts, check your voicemail…

Yes!  That would be perfect!

And after all of that is taken care of you can grade papers, create and write lessons, analyze data, talk with parents, participate in professional development, build relationships with your students—and of course—teach!

But, it’s never going to happen. Teachers will never have secretaries, and will go on having to do the above tasks regardless of the fact that they have very little to do with direct interaction with students.  But this is the reality of what teachers do every day and here are some suggestions concerning how to combat all the paper work teachers encounter regularly.  Below are a few things teachers can do to make life easier since they don’t have—and will never have—a secretary.

  • Save electronic copies of everything from year to year.  Then, replace what you did last year with new material so formatting stays the same. The same goes for referrals, announcements, and book receipts.  Type in all the information that does not change, print out the documents, then write in new information; that way, half the work is already done.
  • Make copies early in the morning or after school.  Give up some time to make life a little less stressful.  Or, buddy up with another teacher and share the copying as well as the great worksheets and lessons being copied.
  • Have your students make a bulletin board that interests them, or give them your idea and have them run with it.  Make it part of your class.  Early finishers can help during the day and students staying after school for after care, detention, or extra help can assist too. The same goes for filing papers, maintaining materials, hanging posters, and cleaning and reorganizing the classroom (which students can also do right before they leave your room).
  • Install downloads on your computer at the end of the day, then restart the device before you leave for the day.  Updates will be ready to go the next morning.
  • Tech requests only take a moment.  Keep them short and sweet.  The tech guys like that.
  • Putting grades into the grade book can be tedious sometimes, but try to keep up with it two or three times a week. (Some teachers even input grades at the end of every day.)  Then it doesn’t seem so arduous. Plus, view this as a professional development opportunity.  Look at the data you are collecting and make some quick analyses about it.
  • All teachers share recording responsibilities at meetings.  Take handwritten notes and take a picture of them.  Then text or email them out to your colleagues. No need to type them up again.
  • Voicemails, messages, and parent-teacher conferences are unavoidable—and necessary.  Here is how to make it easier.  Send emails or make phone calls frequently to those parents who need it.  If something important, pressing, or serious comes up and a conference is needed, ask your principal or VP to set up an appointment so all parties can talk.
  • Take attendance during the Do Now on a clipboard as you walk around. Greet each student and mark them present after you have spoken to them.  That way you have interacted with each of them, offered help if it is needed, and you have taken attendance.  Keep a written record or an electronic record.  Save all work.
  • An extra papers basket is great for students who were absent.  So are folders categorized by day or period. Put extra copies into these folders and have students get the copies they need when they come back.
  • Following up on class cuts or students who were absent is just a part of the job. Do your best to fit it in.  You’re ultimately helping the student by finding out why they are cutting your class and you can hopefully come to a solution.
  • Proctoring standardized tests is tough.  You can’t do work, catch up on anything, use your computer or your smart phone.  Take the time then to see what each student is doing.  Look for general strengths and weaknesses and use that information to inform your practice.
  • Field trip coordination is time consuming, but for this one…just do it. The ends will justify the means.

Teachers will always be inundated with work.  In fact, most working adults are swamped with tasks that do not necessarily relate to their career of choice, but, remember, those duties are all part of the job. As long as teachers remember that everything they do is for their students—even menial tasks that seem to have little meaning—it makes life a bit easier.  You are here to teach, teachers.  And teach you will.  Because you love it.  We all know you do.