If I were a bell: (How to shush a classroom without shushing)

obamaContrary to popular belief, children do not plan to resist the beginning of class. Yes, they chat and talk and grab stuff out of each others’ hands, but they do that because they like it. It’s not because they want to obstruct you from launching your carefully crafted lesson plan.

Q: Why is it so difficult to get order and quiet at the beginning of class?

A: It has more to do with human social psychology and less to do with non-compliance.

Reason 1: Nobody wants to be the first to stop talking with their friends.

Whether adults or children, chatting before a program begins is normal, social behavior. Of course they will talk. You would, too. The teacher is shushing, but your neighbor in class just asked you if you want to hang out this weekend. Would you not say, “Cool, let’s go see a movie? What should we see?”

If anything, refusing to answer because the teacher is shushing is the antisocial behavior!

Reason 2: they don’t really hear you trying to start class. The room is noisy and they are focused on climbing the social ladder. Guess what, your frantic shushing isn’t cutting through.

Reason 3: Shushing is annoying. At some level, a person trying to shush you is annoying. Groups of people don’t reward shushers eagerly.

How do I shush without shushing?

You need a signal that is pleasant, clear, unmistakable, and free of judgment to create a classroom that is pleasant, clear, and free of judgment. Here are some choices. 1. Play groovy music at the beginning of class. When you’re ready to begin, start counting down from 10 and lowering the volume. When you get to zero, the music is silent. So is the room.


Find a bell that’s small and cute with a pleasant sound. No need to make awful noise to achieve quiet.

2. Get a little bell that you ring to signal you’re ready to begin. This is perfect for “think, pair, shares” where students turn to each other and talk and you need to recover attention several times in a row. I have a bell and a thermos that makes a loud clank. I reserve the thermos for friday afternoons when the group is more rambunctious.

I’ve noticed that during class discussion, when students start having side conversation while another student is speaking, a few quiet. clanks on the thermos will shush the students without calling attention to them.

Not quite Pavlov, but close.

Not recommended: While many teachers and camp counselors like to use, “If you can hear my voice clap twice” (or the Hebrew School equivalent, “Sheket Bevakesha, HEY!”) I find that inviting groups to MAKE NOISE in order to GET QUIET is counter productive. But if it works for you, hey, it works for you.

Please share your favorite ways to SHUSH without SHUSHING!

(Below, Ms. Piggy demonstrates how NOT to shush).

How not to bite your student/child’s head off

From G-dcast.com

From G-dcast.com

  • There are days when a certain student might walk by you and he’ll stick out his hand for a high five.
  • Weeks, pass, and that student refuses to look you in the eye.

What happened? Perhaps you refused to accept a shady excuse for late work. Perhaps you busted her for cheating. Perhaps you told his parents about a problematic outburst in class.

Parents, too, know this feeling — the same son or daughter who, last week, snuggled with you on the sofa now won’t sit next to you in the front seat of the car.

Angry words were exchanged. The word hate may have emerged. The parent, it seems, has ruined the child’s life. Oaths were made: the child promises she will never forgive the parent.

The parent may remain silent…or perhaps the feeling is mutual. Either way, there are at least 15 minutes left to the trip to the orthodontist. It will not  be a pleasant 15 minutes.

Well, that was horrible. Now what?

What do we do with our feelings of rage and anger in moments when the most important people in our lives have betrayed us in the most unimaginable ways? The student or child who once was so adorable, you wanted to “eat him up!” has now nearly provoked you to bite his head off off!

Jeremiah Lockwood, singer of the Sway Machinery, (and grandson of the esteemed cantor Jacob Konigsberg) brings a solution to this dilemma, complete with haunting soundtrack and animation, in this week’s Torah portion Bechukotai on G-dcast.com.

Lockwood points out that parshat Bechukotai contains a mixture of blessings and curses. If the people maintain their covenant with God, Moses tells the people, then their crops will grow, and there will be peace across the land. If God is forsaken and the covenant is broken, well, the list of curses, Lockwood says, “is nearly too unseemly for mentioning in polite company.”

  • Boils.
  • Fever.
  • Carnivorous Animals.

Lockwood pauses before uttering the final curse: parents will eat their own children.

Immediately, he says, the topic of the parsha shifts,  and the rest of Bechukotai is occupied with tax codes.

Why the shift?

A better question is how the shift, and Lockwood suggests that throughout  the list of punishments, God’s rage mounts, and then through doing this, the rage is spent, clearing the way for love and mercy and, I’d add, some semblance of normal conversation.

While it can be unwise to indulge in fantasies about the harm that should come to those we love who have hurt us, I’d like to suggest that another message emerges from the juxtaposition of the horrible and the mundane.

After a wrathful conversation, after accusations and bickering and screaming have run their course, not only can there be a return to normalcy, but there needs to be a return to normalcy.

Bitter students need to be complimented on their excellent topic sentences. Furious children need to be invited down for dinner. Even spouses need to employ the commonplace structures of day to day life; they can become redemptive when returned to after the un-utterable is uttered: walks.  Meals. Email check-ins. Washing dishes. Driving. Laundry. It’s the job of the teacher or the parent to wait it out, to keep safe structures in place. Show that even un-utterables are only words, and that when followed by consistent, dependable acts of love, support, and compassion, they can fade into the past.

Next time your child or student speaks to you like he or she would like to chew your head off, perhaps you can remember that in Bechukotai, even God felt that way.

And even God got over it.


Defending the first to speak

defenderYou just saw a movie with a group of people – and as everyone is walking to the exit, someone asks: “What did you think?”

You have a few options.

A) Blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.

B) Hold back and get a sense of other people’s responses, formulate your ideas, and decide what your social goals are.

Isn’t it awesome to have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex? To be able to moderate your mouth, to make complex decisions about conversational cause-and-effect?

Teenagers: Brains are in not fully developed. Hormones are pretty darned developed.

By the time they realize what they want to say, they’ve already said the wrong thing.

Classroom Scenario

You offer a prompt or a question – perhaps on a controversial topic. The whole class is silent and still, except for one hand. You call on that brave soul.

The idea is half-baked. Maybe a little offensive.

A flock of hands now flies up. Students launch an offensive on the first speaker.

True, his idea was lacking. But after critique number two, nearly any student would become locked, defensive, and want only rescue himself from the onslaught.

What do you do?

After two or three critical comments directed towards a student, give him/her the courtesy of responding, clarifying what s/he meant, or defending his/her point.

Afterwards, it’s your job to highlight whatever grain of truth is in the idea. [Then, move on.]

Not only is it the fair thing to do, but also, it might allow him/her to invest less in protecting him/herself, and more energy in opening up to a new perspective.

He might even learn something.





Rest and Relaxation Are Not the Same

rest vs relaxationThe following is a “D’var Torah” – an essay written by me, but inspired by the weekly Torah Portion. Though it comments on a 3000 year old, classic Jewish text, the I hope the message is current and universal… Although it’s really for teachers.


Parshat Behar

A few days ago, after a particularly challenging day at work, after the commute home, after the schlep up the stairs, the first thing I did was to drop my stuff in a heap by the door. Briefcase, jacket, tie. An hour later, I’d eaten half a bag of Trader Joe’s snack, checked my email eight times, and watched the latest You Tube “must-see cat videos.”

The thing is, I still didn’t feel rested, I didn’t feel nourished. Naturally, I was happy not to be at work, but I wasn’t exactly happy to be at home, either. I made some phone calls, I lay on the sofa and spaced out, I was suspended between exhaustion and chasing a feeling of relaxation I couldn’t quite achieve.

As it turned out, that feeling persisted until well into night-time. I made a mental note to myself.

 “Rest and relaxation are not the same thing.”

As I posted this note in my head, I found a bunch of other Post-Its there. Surprise, they all said the same thing. Apparently, I’ve learned and relearned this lesson many times. I am tempted, in the first moment of freedom, to let everything go, not in a Zen way, but in an uncontrolled way, a drop everything and pretend the world doesn’t exist way.

One of us is relaxing. The other is resting.

One of us is relaxing. The other is resting.

Ironically, my most restful after-work hours are spent in a bustling café, drinking coffee, people watching, and journaling. I’m still in my work clothes, my tie, but I am at peace.

The key to understanding this paradox is found in the wisdom of this  week’s Torah Portion:

Leviticus 25:1-5  TNK Leviticus 25:1 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD.  3 Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  4 But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest [Shabbat Shabbaton], a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

This ancient Mizvah (commandment) goes far beyond the practical “laying fallow” of modern agriculture. The Miztvah is not just to desist from planting. It is to actively achieve a “Shabbat Shabbaton” – an extreme rest. It is not about stopping something. It is about starting something new.

resting with coffee. not a paradox, at all.

My hour in the café, writing or drawing, turning on the right side of my brain, is about rejuvenating a part of myself that has been on hold during the busy work day. The Land of Israel transitions, during the Jubilee Year, from being used for production, to being a sacred space with its own spiritual value. Likewise, I can experience the joy of being separate from my value as a producer:  not by letting go, but by celebrating.

This is, on the one hand, the essence of Shabbat. A time to celebrate the joy of being. And at this time of the school year, this is what our students have at their fingertips… two months to enjoy the celebration of being. The challenge is: will they know the difference between relaxing and rest?

We should be blessed to know and show what rest looks like. We should be blessed to guide our students towards experiences that nourish. We should be rejuvenated from our time with family and friends.

And still, we can leave time for You Tube piano-playing cats.


Teacher Self-Assessment

exittixv2It takes a lot of guts to be a teacher.

It takes even more guts to ask the students for feedback on an activity. Every teacher wants to believe that they “rocked the house,” but it’s easy to convince yourself, in the absence of actual data, that an activity was fun and helped students learn because…well…it looked fun.

And it looked like students were learning the material. Recently, my students needed to learn a timeline for a history unit. I “gamified” the process by breaking them into teams, instructing them to design games which would incorporate essential information. The next week, we played them. Finally, they took the quiz. I don’t a 10 year longitudinal studies with a control group to determine if Gamifying the Timeline was objectively effective in teaching the material. But I am very interested in whether the students perceived it as fun and productive.


Candy Land – but all intellectual.

It certainly looked fun.

But it was a 2 class investment, and if it didn’t meet the goals, well — I needed to know.



Was it actually fun? Did they learn anything?

exittix text

4 Choices, using the exitticket.org website

I used a non-graded “ticket” from exitticket.org  (an excellent platform for formative assessment) to ask:

  • Did you have fun?
  • Did it help you learn the material?

(Caveat: some students may have said “yes” because they prefer making and playing games to whatever they imagine the alternative to be – but I generally find that when they don’t like something, they’re happy to tell me. Very happy to tell me.)

Here’s what I learned about “Gamifying the Timeline.”

exittixv2The second question asked, “What would you do to make it better, next year.” From the 10 minutes it took to create the poll on exitticket.org, I gathered enough feedback to know that it was worth investing 2 classes into the activity and I gleaned 5 ways to make it more efficient next year.

What activities have you designed that you’d like fast-feedback on?