The (Best/Worst) 10 Minutes of Class: Part 1

When students come into the room, I figure I have two choices. Either be ready, or be dead.

“Be dead” looks like this: students come in talking, wrestling, beat-boxing, and generally owning the space. Class supposedly started six minutes ago.  I I fumble with attendance, one student tries to tell me about his weekend, three students have some sort of homework-related emergency, five students are playing “The Cup Song” without using cups, and my laptop decides it’s time to Update Windows (from Sucky 4.0 to Sucky 4.1). Stressful. Loud. Frustrating. And time-wasting.

“Be ready” looks like this. Music is playing – music I like, music I think they may like. Students know not to talk to me unless it’s an emergency. Students know that they should consult the Flight Plan on the Google Calendar.

They do “Bell Work” (some call it “First Thing Work”) while I plug in my projector and take attendance. I peek at students’ work, walk around the room, and review my notes.

And when I drop the volume on the music, like an awkward cocktail party, everyone gets quiet. Yes. Quiet.

10 to 20 minutes later, it’s time for Housekeeping: review the bell work, check in on not-quite emergencies, preview homework, review today’s Flight Plan, and list any students’ names I might need to speak to.


Though I have nearly made a religion out of being ready for class, I’m still surprised by the panoply of students’ “non-readiness” that  greet me each day – and how confusing and destabilizing these “not ready” states can be. Each has a completely different response!

  • Students can “space the homework” completely. These students will hope you will not notice – or they will get a little aggro about it: what? What homework?! There was no homework!
  • Students might have tried it…and got bored or frustrated or ran out of time, stopping halfway through. They will say they were “confused.”
  • Students might have tried it…and legitimately became stuck or lost. Each might need 3-10 minutes.
  • Students might be done: but are not sure whether you’d agree they are done.

No teacher has time to look over the whole pile of students’ work, right at the start of class. Some amount of training students to evaluate and articulate what sort of help they might require is a classroom-necessity. And other constructive tasks (I call these Anchorwork) must be at hand, ready to occupy and focus these students’s attention in a meaningful (read: NOT BUSYWORK) way. But how do you reinforce the norms of “what to do next?”

Recently, I decided to make a flow-chart: color-coded boxes would walk students through the steps to determine what they should do at the start of class. I would include live links to my personal scheduler for major problems, reminders to use homework passes*,  and could adjust it for lab days vs. partner days vs. discussion days.

This chart is a work in progress, but I’m hoping it will progress the type of work that happens in those critical minutes at the start of class — minutes that either get everyone set up for success, or that allow mob-mentality to blur free-time into class-time.

chart 2

Now, I just need to make one of these for Sunday mornings.

*Homework Passes: Students get TWO per quarter: I reward their honesty with the privilege to finish the homework in class. Many students say they do homework MORE consistently with this sort of system in place. A box of Popsicle sticks, each labels with students’ names, sits in the class cupboard. If a student didn’t finish the homework, s/he gets a pass and puts it in front of his/her computer. It’s a visual cue to me to check in with them, record the passes in,  set up an appointment if it’s a chronic problem, and determine what to do, next.

Until you’re an Arteest, you can be an Artist-on-Stilts

kir or kesherRecently, students presented art project v 2.0 for final feedback. 12 sophomores and their multimedia. The task: mash up a 3000 year old text with song lyrics and some odds and ends from their own daily lives.

I had already taught the group to avoid feedback like, “I like it!” or “There’s nothing wrong with it!”

Despite this, I cringed a half-dozen times throughout the class: the group leader would set the timer, and after an awkward presentation, someone would say, “It’s really good.”

It reminded me of writing workshops in college where the group might start with, “I like how nothing interesting happened in this story.” “I can’t find anything wrong with it.”

I summoned some sort of bonhomie and praised the students for being “sweet.” Which they were. I suggested that being kind is great 99% of the time, but being honest is helpful the other 1% of the time — and that 1% is when someone asks you for helpful feedback.

One student’s work stood out; it got the most “praise” – a flurry of awkward “I like its” which clearly substituted for helpful commentary, perhaps because he was so unconfidant and the art was…so…well, Google-Drawey.

The artist used the triangle-maker to make a triangle, and the “clump-maker” to make some clumpy-clouds. He added some words. And a super-imposed claw. According to his group’s consensus, it was “perfect” and “likable” and there was “nothing wrong with it.”

I’m not sure how much was right, about it, either. Indeed, the artist seemed disinterested or un-intrigued by his own creation.

Later on, at a parent conference, his thoughtful and articulate mother observed that her son avoids art. He is a “math/science” guy.

It occurred to me that, to anyone for whom art is scary, my assignment (to mash-up up the language of Mt. Sinai with images from the artists’ worlds, song lyrics, and personal artifact) might not be a refuge from algebra 2. I remember plenty of art classes in high school where I’d be sloughing off the trauma of “solving for x” by relaxing into my prismacolor drawing of a dragon, while at my same table, one or two of the other students resembled, themselves, portraits of prisoners in a war-camp. They didn’t want to be there any more than I’d wanted to be in the class before.

The internet is full of resources which a teacher can use which assemble, almost effortlessly, music and images with cool transitions, swoops, and recognizable iconography.

If the goal is to create art, well, no, the end product isn’t always exactly art – half the composition is precreated-template, and the other half of the composition could be cut-n-pasted images from Google-images, random clips from the text, and a few phrases to tie it together. The “artist” doesn’t need to learn technique. Or discipline.

But the other half of the composition is art – that is to say, when you see the weird alchemy of music, images, words, and a few memories, something special happens. Let’s call it, rather than “making art,” playing.

Playing doesn’t require discipline or anxiety. It’s fun and creative, inherently. And every serious artists doesn’t only paint heavy masterpieces, they also play. (Check out Nina Katchadourian’s excellent – and playful – airplane-lavatory art, here, or where the artist transforms into a shark, here).

We don’t need to tell these traumatized math-science kids that this art-play is art. We can just show them how cool it is, and ask them to make some. How long until play leads to the real thing?

Just think — pre-schoolers aren’t any taller when they stand on coffee-can stilts made by adults. But they can see farther, all the same.


Check out a sample of pre-art here, where the artist mashes up the Garden of Eden with a “shocking” incident from his childhood. Created by me – a “pre-artist” – at

A Blog for Teaching

I’ve never wanted a blog, but now, it seems, I have one.bitstrip

I imagine that many successful bloggers were blog readers, initially, and without knowing it, spent some timing honing their vision. I’ve spent the better part of 12 years teaching and successfully avoiding writing about it.

As a short-fiction writer, years ago, I used to read excellent short stories and I would ache – closing the book and sighing: they were so beautiful – I was hungry to be part of a genre that produced such beauty. I wrote about 10 decent short stories and then retired as a writer, or so it seemed. I was 29 and had no perspective.

And though now, I own and use at least 5 screens per day, I run a paperless class, and I can scour the internet for hours, looking for tools to make me a better teacher, I’ve never wanted to write a blog. I can’t twitter my way out of a paper bag. And most of my Facebook posts feature my cat, my girlfriend, or both. Sometimes, a picture of a shark – or rather, a picture of a picture of a shark.

But now I have a blog, and it’s not about cats or sharks or food, but it’s about teaching. That much I know. And while I don’t love blogging, per se, I love writing, and I definitely love teaching. A friend of mine, recently gave me the following compliment: “I’ve never met anyone as driven to perfect his craft as you are.”

There are a number of things I have felt driven to do in my life: in no particular order: learn to ask a girl on a date, learn to accept no, learn to accept yes, learn to be in relationship, learn tae kwon do, learn capoeiralearn to dress (like really dress), learn to salsa dance (a lot of learning, see?), visit India, visit Africa, learn Talmud, learn to wrap tefillin, learn to be in a grown-up relationship. I’ve been successful at most of these. 

Teaching is different, however, because if I, at any time, had lost my drive to do any of the above, I could have carried merrily (or depressedly) along – same old me, not doing karate, not going to classes, not salsa dancing, not traveling, wearing too much orange. I’d be me – just more boring, less-or-unfulfilled.

But I am actually a teacher. I can’t not be a teacher. When I was 15, I taught my next-door-neighbor guitar, and have been teaching non-stop. Both of my parents are teachers. My brother and my biggest heroes growing up were teachers. (Even Google seems unable to resurrect Mr. Franzen and Mr. Kellett, whom I will never forget). My friends are teachers and many of my teachers are my friends. And being a teacher for 12 years, without losing a drop of drive to be better, requires near-obsession. I cannot be an average teacher. I don’t want to be a good teacher or a great teacher. I want my students, in spring, to feel like they’ve been transformed – shot into space, in a capsule-full of fellow travelers. Returning older and wiser and maybe a bit obsessed, too. I want them to laugh daily, I want them so say, “whoa,” weekly, I want them to feel, at least once a month, the way I felt when, in my first year of studying Torah from Judy Klitnser, at Pardes in Jerusalem, I would think, “this is BIG. This is very BIG.” And to that, I want to add the eerie weirdness that happens when reasonably curious students and passionate teacher and deep text and maybe some pop culture, some technology, some nerdiness, some excellent music, some “question authority,” some, “be yourself,” and some, “I know you can say it better” all come together.

So, since I’m positively DRIVEN to teach, then, if this blog will help me in that process, I am driven to write it.

So that’s who I am: who are you?

You might be a teacher. Humanities, probably. Art – litterature – reading – writing. Maybe Jewish Education, though I’m an equal opportunity teaching-maniac.

You are somewhere north of neutral on the “obsessed with teaching” scale, but I don’t expect you to be an “I’ve been playing with for five hours to see what it will do for me” type of person.

You are open to using computers. You might find the idea of technology in the classroom an exciting one.

Like me, you have tried a million things and threw most of them away.

Like me, you really like young people, although you might also wish they came with “mute” and “freeze” buttons.

Like me, you had a special teacher or two or a dozen who made you who you are.

And like me, you’re willing to spend time looking for answers which might only be “good enough for now.”

In return for you visiting this blog, I will share with you some of the tools I have amassed, the systems I have created, the goals I have set. I believe they can bring you to a better place in your teaching.

Maybe together, we can make our classrooms and schools and communities into the most interesting, intelligent, and relevant places on earth.

So, now, I have this blog. Let’s see what it can do…