Hot Spots: don’t wait until the end of the semester for student feedback.

hot spotsMy inner voice upon reading student evaluations of my courses at the end of each semester: “Aw, man. I wish I’d known about these issues earlier.”

Assessments go into 2 categories: Formative: low stakes quizzes and “dipsticking” to see if students are on track; to give us a “heads up” for students who need intervention or additional support. Summative: the final exam. In many schools, teachers get a summative assessment in the form of course evaluations. But it’s hard to do anything about it by the end of the semester. After four months, we’re locked into our habits: good and bad. Whatever troubles our bad habits have cause are entrenched. Lets do formative assessments on ourselves! Low stakes, simple, easy check-ins!

Hot Spot Check-in


Just as a “hot-spot” is a place where your shoe is rubbing and about to form a painful blister, a hot-spot is something you’re doing (or not doing) in class that students want to bring to your attention.

I use Socrative every three weeks for this purpose. It takes three minutes to do, builds trust, and allows you to improve your practice month by month, and not just year by year.

One note on anonymity. I have always been a fan of feedback with names. (For an interesting article on the down-side of anonymous e-feedback, click here).

Before the first hot-spot check in, I speak with the students about the goal of the check in. I tell them I hope to gain their trust so that they can be honest with me, that no harm will come from sharing their experiences, and that they are assisting me in my growth – as I assist in theirs. We talk about my response to the check-in. I may offer more support, “parking-lot” the complaint to see what happens down the road, or immediately change my approach.

It also allows me to send an email like this:

Dear (student) Thanks for the honest and open feedback today!

Would you like to come in for an apt. so I can give you clarification on: (insert issue here)?

Q: Students and teachers learn and teach each other?

A: You betcha.

If you would like access to a Google Form version of the Hot-Spot Check in (to copy and adjust for your own needs), click here. 

Top Ten Things to Do In Your First 3 Weeks of Class

Behold, the living embodiment of Teacher Anxiety.

Behold, the living embodiment of Teacher Anxiety.

Labor Day has come and gone.

Away go the white pants, seersucker, and mint-juleps of summer.

Back again comes “Sunday Night Tummy” – the ambiguous excitement/nervousness/dread that many teachers feel around 4pm on Sunday afternoons, even if we looooove children and teaching and whatever our subject is. (My mother, a veteran kindergarten teacher, reports that she got Sunday Tummy from the first week of her career until the final week before her retirement.) We get nervous. Overwhelmed. Except this is the beginning of the year, not just the week, so it’s less like a butterfly in there, and more like a pterodactyl.

How to tame the pterodactyl?

With a check-list!

Here are 10 things for you to do, tried-n’-tested components to launch in your class during the first three weeks.

May they tame your pterodactyls.


1. Decide what your policies are for every possible conundrum you’ve encountered, including a) late work, b) making up quizzes and papers, c) tardiness / acting out in class, and d) texting / facebook during work time, etc.

2. Put these policies into a “Class Norms” document (click here for a sample) that ALSO includes positive messages about: a) how much you respect your students, b) how much you love your subject, c) how you are constantly improving your practice and d) how you want this to be a great year. Design an in-class activity where you ask students what they need from 1) each other, and b) you, to make this a great year.

When they say, “No homework!” tell them you sympathize, but that you wouldn’t get paid the big bucks if you didn’t give homework. The rest of your job you’d do for free.

Lesson planning on the bus is exciting and fun! #stayeduptoolate

Lesson planning on the bus is exciting and fun! #stayeduptoolate

3. Pick a way to communicate to students the first thing for them to do when they get to class and the homework. This frees your attention at the beginning of class to handle things like attendance, getting set up, and brush-fires. I use a shared Google Calendar so it’s editable from my phone. Lesson planning on the bus!

4. If you do partner work (which you should), you need an easy way to assign students. I recommend Mr. Matera’s excellent Super-Grouper. It’s a Google Doc script (don’t worry about what that means) so you can put the link into your daily calendar and students can a) check their partners / groups, and b) go to their preassigned work areas without you verbally instructing them. That saves your voice for witty one-liners.

5.  Get a plastic box with a lid and a pile of popsicle sticks to make “homework passes.” Students get two per quarter (their names written on them). If they come to class, check the calendar, and realize that they haven’t done their homework, they grab a pass from the box and set it on their desk. If they don’t use a pass when they should (or miss more than two homeworks), they get an email or call home to “check in.” My students found this to be incredibly generous. I think it just makes sense.

6. Pick a few weekly rituals to make class special. On mondays, for example, 1-5 students can dedicate their learning to someone who has made a difference in his / her life, or even in someone’s memory (or to someone ill, who they’d like to “send strength to.”) On Friday, each week, a student gets 3 minutes of “This I believe,” to speak about his / her own thoughts on life, relationships, reality – anything. Set up the roster in advance, and remind the next person at the end of the previous class.

7. Design your entire first unit right away – even if you spend all day saturday and sunday doing it. Texts, supplementary videos, games, assessments, everything. Wait to design your second unit until you can catch your breath – (and catch up on laundry, dishes, etc.) towards the end of September.

8. Have a meeting with every student who misses / forgets some low-stakes assignment (or shows signs of acting out), early on.  At the meeting, give the clear message that you are never here to judge, you are only here to support. Express how eager you are to clarify and help. Be positive and enthusiastic.

For a demonstration on how to set make this happen:

9. Send a “contact survey” to your students, asking for their preferred email, cell phone, name of faculty advisor, parent(s) contact, what to call their parents, which parent to reach, facebook (if they are willing), etc. Explain that you will use whatever means of communication they prefer to communicate with them in the case of something urgent (a major paper is overdue and you want to make sure they know). For facebook, create a teacher account with no personal information. For texting, use Remind, a program that allows you to text the call with urgent updates. They will not be able to respond. You might also create a Google Voice account for urgent messages from and to students. That number can be cancelled if it becomes a problem.

10. Introduce Poll Everywhere and Socrative in class. Poll Everywhere allows students to respond to a question via their laptops, tablets, or cell phones, and the results of class polls are great introductions to the topic of the day. Socrative allows you to set up fast, easy “dipsticking” questions – to check for understanding about the homework, the lecture, or the previous class objectives.

I’d love to hear from my readers! What’s in your first three weeks “top ten?” tame ptero