The Most Helpful 3% In the Classroom : Student Ethic Modier

modifierFor years, I struggled with these three conundrums: it turns out they have the same simple solution.

  • Homework Accountability

  • Class Participation Grade

  • Everything Else

CONUNDRUM 1: Homework Accountability

Scenario: “Madison and Maximillian” come to class without their homework. Let’s say the homework is a series of questions designed to prep the students for discussion. To what extent are Madison and Maximillian accountable to “make up” that particular homework assignment?

Damned if you DO, Scenario 1:  Madison was busy with college apps last night and did not complete the writing prompt, but she is a conscientious student. She does not like the idea that she will a have a zero in the gradebook for missing work, and she is generally attentive during class discussion. She is cagey about why she isn’t turning in the assignment. Five minutes before the end of class, during group work time, she comes to me, using a technique perfected by hack archaeologists; like an Ikea Sarcophagus, banged around to look old, and then “unearthed” in Giza, last-night’s homework suddenly pops up at the end of class.

“I found it. It was in the wrong folder,” she says, holding up the allegedly day-old homework. Do I really want to argue about whether she did it during class?

Damned if you DO, Scenario 2: Maximillian did problems 1-3 on the preparation sheet, but at 10:45, he got into an IM conversation with Midge, who he has been planning to ask to prom since the second grade. He did not finish problems 4-235. Being overtired from the four hour IM sesh, he doesn’t have the wherewithal in class to “locate” the homework during discussion, so it never gets done. He has a zero. A month later, he has three missing homework assignments. But he’s decent in class discussion, does well on tests, and helps his classmates when their computers break down. Without grading daily homework, he’d have an 89%. If the three homeworks receive a zero, his grade in class is 64%. These homeworks were simply introductions to material for class. Is he a victim of averages? How much is homework worth, anyhow?

Damned if you DON’T: Without homework accountability, exactly one student will do the homework, and he’s the one who will one day turn himself in to the authorities for cutting the tag off the mattress. Most students – most humans – wouldn’t do it. The world’s classrooms will sink into a state of unpreparedness for class. Mass hysteria.

CONUNDRUM 2: Class Discussion

I place a premium on discussion. Many students participate. Madison is the first student to make a point, congratulate a classmate on a good idea, and take a risk, sharing a personal anecdote. Class without her would be a lifeless husk – like most Hollywood movie sequels.

Maximillian, on the other hand, raised his hand on the first day of class to ask to use the bathroom.

Said hand was never seen again.

Damned if you DO:

Madison hasn’t done so well on quizzes and missed some of the homeworks we mentioned above. She has an 89%. Well, NATURALLY, class participation must count for SOMETHING? I decide it’s worth 20% of the grade. She now has an excellent grade, and will certainly now be able to attend an excellent university.

Damned if you DON’T:

But what about Maximillian? He never raises his hand, but he gets all his work in. He also earned an 89%. Does his discussion-invisibility status in discussion earn him a 90%? 80% Zero% What is his discussion grade? If I count it, his grade plummets. That strikes me as punitive, so I decide not to count it, you know, just for him.

As a result,  he never learns how important it is to participate in class. He goes to college never having raised his hand.

He’d hoped one day to work for the Defense Department designing Stealth Jets to fly under enemy radar, but he does not pass his courses because the TAs never notice his existence.

CONUNDRUM 3: disruptive behavior, checking phone in class, tardiness, and communication

Damned if you DO: Now, it gets complicated. Madison chats with her neighbor constantly, but furtively. It’s not particularly disruptive.

Maximillian sits alone and never talks to anyone, but once a week, he tips over in his chair – “accidentally.” The crowd goes wild.

Madison peeks at her phone and sends surreptitious texts during class, but Maximillian is late to class about once a week.

Madison, when she misses a deadline, asks for an appointment, comes in and explains the situation, and makes arrangements to catch up.

Madison can’t be bothered to give her classmates a bit of help, though she grasps concepts quickly and is always one step ahead.

Maximillian will sooner help his struggling classmates than finish his own homework.

Maximillian hopes you won’t notice, and since you were behind on grading, you don’t realize how behind he is until its a week before the end of class, he has zeroes on the assignments, he has 24% in your class, and you’ll spend hours in the hours looking for him, in between classes.

Class Participation is 20% of the grade: HOW DO YOU GRADE MAXIMILLIAN AND MADISON?

Damned if you DON’T: Mayhem.

SOLUTION step 1:

You need a tool to help you record instances of all these things: great class participation. Interruptions. Students helping one-another. Tardiness. Missed daily work. Reaching out to you for help. You could make an ugly spreadsheet, scribble it in a notebook which you start four times and lose four times, or use a tool like to quickly tag positive and negative behaviors. Here’s a screenshot of some of the negative badges for my class. Some are very class-specific, and some are universal things that teachers worldwide seek to eradicate. My positive badges include: “Proactively seeks help” and “assists struggling classmates.” Classdojo syncs with iphones, Androids, laptops, iPads — so it’s easy to jot notes, even during class.

SOLUTION step 2:

LET GO of percentages. Yes. Let ‘em go. Breathe deeply. And say YES to the +3/-3 STUDENT ETHIC MODIFIER. In my classes, I orient students on day two that a Student Ethic Modifier will boost their grade, at the end of the quarter, as much as to 3% – or drop it down. This is enough to motivate someone, and not enough to exert unbalanced weight on a grade. For example, 89 percent can go up to 92% (“GREAT JOB, Madison, on these specific things!”) or down to 86% (“I’d like to strategize with you, Maximillian, how to improve your class conduct for next semester with these specific notes” )- using feedback from my ongoing notes (click here for a screenshot):  If a student is sort of “meh” in class but gets his work in, fine.  No modifier, no punishment, no reward! Students know what is expected and encouraged, and I feel empowered to notice trends and make a professional, thoughtful, informed call. The 3% Student Ethic Modifier addresses many conundrums at once.

Future Steps:

While ClassDojo gives students access to their ongoing reports, I haven’t felt ready to show this to students, yet. Currently, I curate and comment at the end of the semester. One day, with proper introduction and framing, I may ask students to review their ClassDojo badges. They will assign themselves their own Student Ethic Modifier, along with an explanation of what Student Ethic Skills they’d like to work on. That sort of reflection would help them set and reach goals for themselves.

A Template for Change — and for Workflow

monstersA saying in the Israeli Army: “Kol tochnit basis tov l’shinui.” – Every plan is a base for change.

Two things strike me about this phrase.

One: the word “basis,” an imported English word, crouching down, hoping no one will notice, like a college freshmen smoking clove cigarettes because they’re supposedly cool, and impressing no one.

Two: I learned this gem over a decade ago in the Pardes Educator’s Program. I’ve quoted it numerous times, and I wanted some background. It appears, amazingly, only once on the Internet — not in the memoirs of some battle-weary Israeli commander, but rather, as quote-scraps from my friend and colleague Sean Herstein — another Pardes Educator. Now, Sean has taught for 11 years, and he has two daughters, so he is qualified, in my opinion, to quote old army phrases. That said, I think we must have both learned the phrase on the same day of class, and it makes me wonder if our mentor, David Bernstein, perhaps made it up to prove a point.

My use of it today, however, does not follow the original context. I generally read the phrase to mean that one should make plans, and yet know that reality will descend; the final plan might look nothing like the original, and yet, the ability to improvise flows best from a diagram and set of directions.

My use today is about a base for lesson planning: one solution with a million variations.

Q: How do I get students to enter class and set up, quietly? How do I take roll and set up my equipment when students are re-enacting “The Gladiator” in the back of the room? How do I start class in a way that creates community? How do I remember important information to relay to class and present it at the right time? How do I remember which student I wanted to talk to after class? How do I keep students focused when they finish activities? How do I communicate to students what the homework will be?

And the Meta-Question:

Q: How can I do all this without raising my voice?

Answer: Tochnit Tov L’Shinui.

The Template is my “blank page.” When I sit down to create my lesson plan, it’s not from scratch; even if I’m not sure what the content of the lesson will be, I know what happens when.

Here is my template: – WITH commentary: the Director’s Cut. At the end, I will include it without commentary, in case you’d like to steal it.

Each day, when I lesson plan, I paste the template into the class Google Calendar, and from there, I plan the lesson. Students log onto it as the first thing when they enter their room. They may not talk with me, except for emergencies (though we often differ as to what that means) and quick hellos –  I have setting up to do, and so do they.

The Template


Tabs are documents, pages, resources on students’ laptops. My class is paperless, so I will paste URLs of interesting articles or Evernote files, websites, or the name of a document in their Google Drive we’ve been working on. For your class, it could be worksheets. Handouts. Chapters in a book for them to bookmarks, for smoother transitions.


This allows students to alert me to issues they had with the homeowork, problems they anticipate, or anything else, without interrupting the quiet of the first 10 minutes of class. (The only other sound, at this time, is whatever music I’m streaming for ambience). I see the request for help on my iPad, and I decide, when I have a moment, whether and how deal with the issue.

HOMEWORK WAS: (grab a pass if you need it)

They used to ask. “What was the homework for today.” I used to say, “Look it up on the calendar.” But they kept asking. It takes me 2 seconds to cut and paste, and now, they don’t bother asking. They know. More quiet time for concentrated work.


Set inductions. Journal topics. An exercise. An exitticket. Stuff to help them move from “Who’s psyched for prom” to “Who can explain the theme?”

-news and reminders:
-flight plan preview:
-homework preview:
-students I need to see:
-if you miss class:

All the stuff I used to hope I’d remember, or would write down, hoping to remind myself, and then, would forget to read my note. Now, it’s about 15 minutes into class, and I bang through it all at once. If it’s 9:45pm and I’m about to watch an episode of Mad Men and I suddenly remember something I need to mention the next day in class, I open the Google Calendar and jot it in Housekeeping.

FLIGHT PLAN (and allotted times)

I stole the name (Flight Plan) from master educator Tamar Rabinowitz. I like the explicit recognition that we’re all GOING somewhere, together.


What students do when they’re done. Extensions. Enriching reading. Next steps. “Anchor” – as in, keeps them from floating away.


You know.

I keep this Template on

Q: What’s Google Keep?

I’m not sure anyone else uses it. It’s a glorified note-pad, and the only thing i keep on there is my template. I always know where it is. I copy and paste it, and I use it as my base-for-change.

Here is the Template, for you to play with: one solution will a million variations – plus the ones YOU add.



HOMEWORK WAS: (grab a pass if you need it)


-news and reminders
-flight plan preview
-homework preview
-students I need to see
-if you miss class

FLIGHT PLAN (and times)



Ten Things I Wish I’d Known in My First Teaching-Year

“Oh, man. I was a rookie. I got sent deep. There was no way I could be ready for that.”  Screenshot 2013-12-01 at 9.48.40 PM

“I just ran and ran and kept running, throwing back everything I could – explosions are fires all around.”

“Afterwards, I spent four months in a fetal position.”

“I still have nightmares.”

Teachers who survive their first year of teaching share memories like battle-weary soldiers in an 80’s “Nam” movie. There is a faraway look in their eye – like they saw something very, very ugly, something they wish they could forget.

I, for one, had a very, very rough first year. It was not unlike going into battle. Adrenaline. Fear. Nightmares. Running down a hallway with an armload of books and a stack of photocopies because I didn’t yet think of time in terms of “blocks.” And as the months went by and years turned into a decade, I began to see this battle as many things: sometimes, it was showbiz. Sometimes, it was a journey. Sometimes, it was a fireside chat. Sometimes, it was a roller-coaster ride. But teaching continues, always, to be a battle.

It’s still a battle, but the thing that has changed, for me, is that the enemy, is no-longer the students. Or the material. Or the schedule. Or the photocopier. The enemy has become my own doubt about what is possible in the classroom, and what is possible for a roomful of people to accomplish in 55 minutes.

This battle is one I am happy to fight, each day.

  • Each time I try something new, unafraid about whether it will work, I have won.
  • Each time I bring energy to the classroom, when it’s been a long, long week, I have won.
  • Each time I find the patience to help a stumbling student, I have won.

Looking back, I couldn’t have known how much it would get better, but it does.

That is the first of 10 things I wish I had known in my first year of teaching: it gets better.

Here are another nine.

Two: Don’t stay up all night lesson planning, reviewing the material, correcting papers, or searching for the perfect Youtube Clip.

Balance your desire to “get it done” or “make it perfect” with the fact that you need your energy tomorrow, and also the day after. The day is long, the week is long, the year is long, and the only person who will care if you don’t show that Youtube clip is you.

Three: never yell.

Sometimes, you will speak firmly, forcefully, boldly, and clearly. Sometimes you will even need to put your hands down on the desk and lean onto your elbows so you look like an angry bulldog, but the moment you yell, it’s over. You lost.

Four: create a persona — an authentic persona.

First, here is how to create a persona:

Take your last name, add Ms., Mr., or Mrs. to it. Done.

Then, do research. As you teach, note which behaviors feel good. Which don’t. The ones that work, add them to this image of who you are in the classroom. Then, when you’re in a pinch, you will know what to do or say: what would this patient, thoughtful, flexible persona (that you’ve created) do? Like every other venue in life, you need to be authentic. But authentic can also mean vulnerable, prone to moodswings, fickle. None of this belongs in a classroom. Students need someone consistent. Someone they can count on. For me, I leave “Evan” at the door.

When I’m at work, I’m “Mr. Wolk.”

He is much more patient than Evan.

Five: handle “problem students” on your turf.

I’ll start by saying there is no such thing as a problem student…but here’s how to handle them, should you have one.

Invite him/her, via email or a quiet comment as s/he is packing up, to chat with you for a few minutes – preferably at your desk, at whatever time today is convenient for him or her.

Start the conversation asking how things are, and if everything is okay.

Then, ask permission to speak freely: use the line, “When I look at you, I see a student who can often be very (insert positive traits here), but who, time to time, has problems with (insert problematic behaviors here). Would you help me figure out how to solve this problem?”

Very often, this student will switch sides: s/he will begin to see you as a full human being, or will so fear authentic conversation that the problem behaviors will taper off.

Repeat as necessary.

Six: memorize “mini speeches.” Use and repeat as needed.

For students, memorizing is the lowest form of learning. For teachers, it’s a lifesaver. Check it out:

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

(This reminds me of how, in my first post-college job as a Wedding DJ, we were taught to start every microphoned speech with, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is [name] from Music-4-You…” – since no one hears the first 10 words of a speech, anyhow.

To see this tool in action, check out this cartoon I created on

Seven: Reveal the Personal, Never the Private

Your rapport with students depends on them feeling a bit connected to your persona. It is not, however, an equal relationship, and no matter how grown up they act, students are children. Think of them as brilliant babies. Don’t tell them anything you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard. They will do so.

Eight: Give the Benefit of the Doubt

You will be played. You will be taken advantage of. Your good nature will allow students to “get away” with things. And though you will not intentionally “let students get away with things,” no student’s life has ever been transformed by a teacher whose main goal was to be right, catch him in the act, or prove a point. At times, embrace being a loving, supportive, nurturing sucker – one that students might feel shameful to disappoint – not because you’re naive. Because you’re good.

Nine: Have Great Policies and Know What They Are

Nothing depletes your credibility and energy like not knowing what the response is for various actions. Write up a very thorough “class guide” for the Second Day of Class (stay tuned for a post on the First and Second Day of Class). Know the rules. Be sure they’re firm and fair.

Ten: Find and Eradicate Catch 22s.

Nothing is more debilitating to a teacher than a catch 22. Catch 22s can make you feel like a fool, they can knock your confidence, they can make you feel like you have no integrity. But it’s not your fault – it’s a catch 22.

Example 1: A project requires students to work in groups, but a student misses a day.

Q: Upon the students’ return, does s/he rejoin the group that has already gone ahead, possibly being lost and disrupting workflow…or does he do a different task, and lose out on the benefit of the group work?

Example 2: A student forgets to study for a quiz.

The student has struggled in the past. If she takes the quiz now, it will be a humiliating failure for her, and content-learning will be lost. If she takes it later, she has an advantage over the other students.

Q: Do you offer an extension with a built in penalty? Do you insist she take the quiz, but allow a re-take where you average the scores?

Example 3: At the end of class, a student is slowly packing his things.

Q: If you leave him in the room, he is unsupervised in a classroom – against school policy. If you wait, you will be late for class. If you rush him/her, you will likely not accomplish anything.

What do you do?

Not-quite-an-answer:  In every case, decide, in advance, how you handle these things. Whatever you come up with, flawed as it is, it’s less stressful and harmful – and more creative in its scope — than suffering through that catch-22 again, unprepared, again. And again.

Suggestion to Example 1: As you design the group lesson, build into each day what absent students’ roles will be so you won’t be surprised. Whatever you chose will be fine. Just don’t make yourself choose on the spot.

Suggestion to Case 2: Have an a-priori policy that a student who declines to take a quiz can retake it with a 15 percent penalty. It is recorded as a zero. This – and other policies that allow choice – often aid students in feeling responsible for their grades.

Suggestion to Case 3: The first time, you’ll have to stick it out and be late. The second time, set up an appointment to help the student plan the class “exit” – with rules such as: no conversations with classmates until the desk is cleared and the bag is packed.

Conclusion: Of course, it took me 12 years to develop these principles. I’m not sure I could have “known them” in my first year. But hey, we believe that education and reflection can accelerate personal growth, right? So if they are helpful to you, great. As for me, I hope that If I reflect on them a little bit each day, by teaching-year number-24, I’ll have ten fewer things to worry about.

For 10 Things to Remember at the End of the School Year: Click Here.