“My name is Evan and I’m addicted to Koosh Balls.” — Using Speakers’ Lists and Koosh Balls for Discussion Facilitation.

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My name is Evan and I’m addicted to Koosh Balls.

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


It all started with a peanut.

The teacher was offering salty, shelled peanuts to students who answered questions correctly. It was my turn and she asked me the question, something about verbs. Or adverbs. I blurted out the answer, and hands shot up; I watched in horror as the teacher called on another student to answer and gave him the peanut. My peanut.

The worst part was that the second I said the wrong answer, I realized my error…but I could do nothing about it. My peanut was gone.

Solution 1: The Speakers’ List

Years later, as an adult, I joined a housing cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin. The co-op system had meetings to decide everything: whether to invite an applicant to live in the house, how to invest our $10,000 budget windfall, whether to stop buying cheese.

Those meetings might have been nightmares (and indeed, sometimes they were), but one thing kept meetings orderly: when it was your turn to speak, one thing made sure your peanut was not given to someone else.

The speaker’s list.

If you wanted to speak, your name went on a list. When it was your turn, it was your turn. And you were not done speaking when someone else said you were done; you were done when you said, “pass.”

Was this abused? Sometimes. Rarely.

Mostly, it made people feel heard and seen and in control of their own words.

As a teacher, I quickly adopted this technique. I would ask a question, and instead of hands popping up and competing for my attention, I would simply assign numbers. No more than 7. The next student didn’t get to speak until the previous student said “pass.”

While this method isn’t not good for debate, per se, it’s very good for exploring ideas, which is most of what my class is about.

Solution 2: The Koosh Ball

Still, something was not complete. I was still serving as the speakers’ list keeper and calling on the next speaker, and sometimes, the list felt a little heavy handed. Furthermore, sometimes, I would ask a question and find that getting even one or two speakers was a challenge.

In a groovy book on leading “Rap Sessions,” written by somebody in the 70s with incredible, spherical hair, I encountered the idea of a talking stick. The person with the stick speaks. Everyone else listens.

But what if the next person to speak is 15 feet away? Could a talking stick be easy to catch, easy to throw, and soft, in case someone got hit in the eye? The answer is yes. If the stick is a Koosh Ball.

A tennis ball will bounce and roll, creating havoc. A hackysack is easy to throw but hard to catch. A bowling ball is too heavy. The perfect catchable, tossable, safe “talking stick” is a Koosh Ball.

They used to be made by , but you can buy them here for a few dollars each. I have one in my backpack at all times. And I only go through one or two a year.

Here are some additional benefits to using speakers’ lists and Koosh Balls:

  1. The Koosh serves as a visual reminder of who is speaking. This is one piece in the classroom-management-without-raising-your-voice puzzle.
  2. The Koosh gives you a way of correcting out of turn speakers in a concrete, non-judgmental way: “Make sure you’re only speaking when you have the Koosh” is much more clear than, “Stop talking out of turn.”
  3. Some students like to fidget with the Koosh while they speak, and while I also teach articulate speaking in appropriate contexts, the kind of dreamy rhapsodizing that comes with having something to fiddle with while speaking can actually allow for freer, more creative expression.
  4. While you can create a hybrid speaker’s list / koosh conversation, where the next person on the list gets the koosh, the koosh can also allow the currect speaker to choose who speaks next.
  5. Facilitation through speakers’ list and/or Koosh Balls allows you to step out of actively facilitating the discussion, allowing you to listen more deeply to the individual students and the class “gestaldt” — after six or seven students speak, then, offer your observations and conclusions. I call this “curation,” you can read more about “Curation As Discussion” here.
  6. Using a speakers’ list and Koosh Ball helps you focus on the quality of your questions. Fewer, clearer, open-ended questions are far more effective than many, guided, leading questions. When you get accustomed to asking questions that seven students can answer seven different ways, you’re developing your skills as a master teacher.

Conclusion: These two techniques are part of creating a class atmosphere that is lively without being frenetic, and where students feel seen and heard. Please share your tips and ideas for discussion facilitation below.

Q: You know what I’d pay you for a good idea?

A: Peanuts.


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Go Mentor or Go Mental: Top Ten Ways to Acquire and Nuture a Mentor Relationship

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, classdojo.


“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” – Rachel Carson


Besides the optional therapist and the mandatory confidant, the mentor plays a major role in helping new educators survive, and intermediate educators thrive. And survive.

  • A complaint I often hear is: I don’t get mentorship.
  • And when I hear this complaint, I know I’m hearing it from a professional.

Only a professional is willing to enter into and foster a relationship that explicitly recognizes that someone knows more than him or her, has more experience than him or her.

Only a professional is willing to trust that the differential in experience and wisdom between him or her and the mentor will contribute not to continued insecurity, but rather, to a space for growth.

Only a professional is willing to come to terms with his or her vulnerability in the plain sight of another person.

But all growth is about coming to terms with vulnerability. As the amazing Rachel Carson quote above suggests (for children as well as adult learners), for a teacher to maintain a sense of wonder in the face of anxiety and vulnerability, he or she needs someone to share the excitement, joy, and mystery. And, I would add, someone to be a port in the storm of fear, anxiety, and unavoidable occasional failure.

My advice for finding and fostering a relationship with a Mentor:

  • If you are assigned a mentor, that’s great. And you may luck out. But if the chemistry isn’t there, or the availability is not sufficient, be okay with looking elsewhere. You can have more than one mentor.
  • Communicate with your mentor about what s/he expects from your meetings. Suggest what you, too, hope to get.
  • Treat mentoring sessions like an expensive session with a trainer or therapist. Come to sessions prepared. Set an agenda. Keep an eye on the time. And put the trickiest, most difficult stuff first.
  • Build in time, also, for shmoozing, and celebrating victories.

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And some more subtle does and dont’s about working with your mentor:

  • Don’t be defensive. If you trust your mentor and you’re getting difficult feedback, explanation or apologies should be the last thing on your mind. Instead, demonstrate your understanding of the feedback by putting the feedback into your own words. Then, adopt a posture of, “That’s challenging to hear, obviously. But I will think about it and work on it.” – That evening, be sure to vent with your confidant. (See blog post 8).
  • Do accept compliments fully. It’s not flattery: your mentor is training you to notice what the areas for growth are. Adopt a posture of, “I’m glad to hear the work I put into that is paying off.”
  • Do bring specific concerns to your mentor. Just as a class session with unclear goals can be interesting but won’t lead to measurable growth, sharing general gripes with your mentor are less productive than specific questions or case studies. Bring students’ work to help focus your session.
  • Don’t allow the year to slip by. Your mentor may become busy and cancel sessions. For that matter,you may become busy and cancel sessions. In the same conversation where you cancel a session,reschedule your session.

Lastly, the classic Jewish Text, Pirkei Avot, says, “…Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: ‘From all those who taught me I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).”

In this spirit, I invite all readers to share: what advice do you have for effectively working with a mentor?

The Therapist and the Confidant: Optional / Required for Teachers

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This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, classdojo


For teachers, therapy isn’t a terrible idea.

Let me back up. Many psychoanalysis programs require new practitioners-in-training to undergo a course of analysis of their own.

The rationale makes sense: journeying with the patient through the muck and mire, the fear and anger and pain, can cause memories to bubble up, complicated feelings, in the analyst. The analyst’s needs and emotions, however, are not relevant in the therapeutic encounter —  they can undermine the therapeutic relationship.

The analyst needs to learn how to keep memory and emotion in check – to deal with them appropriately.

True, also, for parents.

A friend recently confided that when he sees his young children struggle, it brings up memories and feelings from some long-forgotten places.

“Some of the feelings,” he admitted, “are ugly. I need to keep them in check. Process them elsewhere. Shield my children from them.”

So there we are, teachers, in front of a class, day after day. No one can see our flaws better than a room full of adolescents. They see, inevitably, setback, frustration and failure – even in the best of us. They see us wince when someone says that one thing we can’t stand. (Commedian John Mulaney has a hilarious sketch on the uncanny ability of middle school students to zero in on the one thing that we don’t like about us. Check it out).

When the students complete a project and demonstrate that they’ve learned something valuable, we fly.

When the computer network shuts down and erases an entire period worth of work, we fall. We can fall, hard.

And that’s just in the classroom. There are deadlines. Budgets. Parents. Testing. That one colleague we can’t stand. Performance reviews.

There is wiping up glue and glitter and cottage cheese from a desk.

Like many high-stress professions, burn-out is an issue. Compared to doctors’ attrition rate which has hovered around 6.5%, around 50% of teachers quit in their first five years, bringing the overall attrition rate to 17% (and as high as 20% in some areas).

Some research shows that improved induction programs can mitigate some of this attrition rate (mentoring, reduced course loads, etc), but there isn’t much we, the teachers, can do about that. good times

What we can do, however, is powerful.


Optional:

  • Consider therapy. Consider starting a few weeks before you begin teaching. Consider staying in therapy for the year. Work through the baggage, the emotions, the setback. If you feel any sort of stigma about it, take comfort in this: according to a Harris poll in 2004, 27 percent of Americans were in therapy within the last two years of the poll.
  • Consider meditation.
  • Consider listening to a guided imagery tape like one, by Dr. Belleruth Naparstek, at least once a day for the first several weeks of teaching (Her voice is sort of weird, but it works).

Required:

Find a Confidant

You need to find someone who is unequivocally on your side. Someone who you can complain to without fear of judgment. Someone who will learn the names of the thorns in your side, and reflect your best self back to you when you’re done venting. Someone you can IM in the middle of the day: “Guess what (insert name) just did/said/threw at me.”

The effective confidant will help you to find your sense of humor and prop you up a little when you need it – and is ready to assess solutions and interventions. If your rapport is strong, s/he will know when you need a little “tough love,” and when it’s time for that, will offer it like a cool drink from a garden hose. Not a firehose.

The confidant can be a colleague, but does not have to be.

And honestly, the confidant is not optional.

Works Cited:

https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&es_th=1&ie=UTF-8#q=teacher%20attrition%20rate%20vs

http://www.nea.org/home/12630.htm

http://psychcentral.com/lib/9-myths-and-facts-about-therapy/0009331