FTWs are your BFF: Using “First Thing Work” to Get Off to a Good Start

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


“All beginnings are difficult.”

  • I remember the horrendous, red track-suit I wore on the the first day of sixth grade – and discovering that it did very little for my social cache.
  • I remember the anxiety of the first day of fifth grade; I was terrified I’d be assigned to the homeroom of the witchy-looking lady I’d seen in the hallways and I prayed I’d get the the tall, gangly guy. I got my wish, but it turned out that the tall, gangly guy was sort of mean. The witchy-looking lady, I later learned, only looked witchy.
  • I remember the first day of fourth grade, where our teacher introduced us to an octopus, pickled in a jar of formaldehyde. It lived in his supply closet. If he caught anyone messing with his supplies, he said, he’d lock us in there with “Octy.”

All beginnings are difficult.

This sentence, written in the Talmud, and which I learned on the first day of my Educator’s Program, helps us to anticipate difficulty – and to grasp that the emotional challenges that accompany new chapters are normative.

Indeed, every class, four years of study, and 12 years of teaching later, features difficulty — I am both nervous and excited. I am prepared but I never feel utterly prepared from my head to my toes: there is unknown in every class.

The first 10 minutes of class is the time when students are most unruly, you are most vulnerable, and where getting down to business is most challenging.

The solution is First Thing Work. It is posted in the class agenda, it’s ready the moment students walk in, and their job is to do it first. My job is to avoid distraction, set up my computer, take attendance, and check in quietly with students who have emergencies.


Here are a few models for FTW:

Model One: Looking Forward

  • Offer one or two prompts on a theme related to class. For example, in a class on Hamlet, the prompt may be: “Write about a time when you wrestled with a difficult choice, where the stakes were high. What happened? How did it turn out?”
  • Carefully compose prompts that the vast majority of students could answer.
  • Offer a second, more general prompt: “How do you deal with making a difficult choice?”
  • A third, more general prompt, might be, “What advice do you have for people facing a difficult choice?”
  • After writing on their choice of prompts, students then work on “Anchorwork.” Anchorwork is, as it sounds, work designed to keep students focused — and not to drift away from the environment for learning you and they have created for the last five minutes.
  • Anchorwork can be a drill, a fascinating article, a creative project they have been working on for a few weeks, or even a headstart on the homework.
  • After five to seven minutes of quiet writing, ask students to share their stories, ideas, and conclusions. Offer a few summary remarks, and move on to your lesson plan.
  • Additional benefits: many students have reported in my classes that these sharing sessions help them learn about their classmates’ lives – people they see and interact with every day but don’t always really know. This bonding contributes to a warm class atmosphere and to better learning.
  • Alternate model: use an online service like Polleverywhere.com (or jerry-rig a low-tech silent poll with dry-erase markers on the board – each student leaves a check next to their choice) to poll students about something in their lives.
  • Offer a second prompt where they assess or speculate about the results of the poll. For example: why did 75% of the class feel that Kale is the new broccoli? What factors might have contributed to this? What might lead to a shift in these results?

Model Two: Looking Back

  • Use FTW as a time for summative assessment. (For those watching at home, “summative assessment” refers to mini-quizzes you do during a unit to see how students are coming along, evaluate your strategy, plan interventions, etc.)
  • For example, use an online service like exittix.com or socrative.com to have students answer some simple questions about the homework and, through the miracle of the internet, see their scores immediately. Students who struggle meet in a seminar with you for clarification. Students who “pass” move on to the next step.
  • (If you need a low tech version, prepare answer keys students can grab when they are ready – or have them grade each others’ work).

Summary

No matter what you do with your FTW, the following principles apply:

  1. Students must be able to access it immediately upon entering the room, whether it’s online, in a binder on your desk, or rested in stacks in the students’ work area.
  2. It should be work students can do with minimal questions or clarification, since you’ll need that time to check attendance, set up your computer, launch ClassDojo, etc.
  3. It should not be work that needs grading. You have enough to grade as it is. That said, I do have colleagues who collect and grade them and, well, I trust their rationale.
  4. Teach students, at the beginning of the year, that FTW factors into their Student Ethic Modifier. If a student is slow on the draw one day – misses a class – or misses FTW due to tardiness, s/he doesn’t need to make it up, necessarily – as long as it is not a pattern. For more on Class Ethic Modifier, I invite you to my blog, “The Most Helpful 3% In the Class.”
  5. While bell work can, without much planning, make beginnings of class “less difficult,” with practice and effort, it can become an effective way to introduce ideas and materials for a powerful class experience.
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Eating Your Pets: When To Hearken to Category Confusion. (Parshat Vayera)

eat your pet

The following piece sits at the intersection of two loves: Torah and Education. I welcome those unfamiliar with the Jewish world of Bible Exegesis to enjoy an unusual spin on an ancient text.


Kosher duck is delicious.

I’d never eaten duck before. I have owned ducks – I grew up on a farm outside Milwaukee and we had a chicken-coop full of ducks who were, basically, outdoor pets who flew away, each fall, right at the point in time when we were of sick and tired of them. Then, come spring-time, a trip to the farm-store, and we had fluffy, adorable ducklings in the aquarium, ducklings in the kitchen sink, ducks in the chicken coop.

But recently, a friend acquired a free-range, kosher duck from Grow and Behold, so in my head, my childhood pet was about to become food. This didn’t sit well with me. I had some very serious category confusion.

Category confusion is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you encounter something not only out of context, but also in a situation antithetical to the usual association. Two potentially good things, slammed together, become one uncomfortable thing: we’re all familiar with that awkward moment when social boundaries get mixed up. Or even just ideas, jumbled: a big sandwich in the bathroom. A nun with a harpoon.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Abraham and God appear in two scenes, replete with category confusion: the first shows God, who Abraham associates with justice, threatening to destroy the entire city of Sodom. The second shows the same God, asking Abraham for an offering; it just happens to be his son.

peeprs

Mr. Peepers. Pet duck … or dinner?

Abraham’s responses to the two moments of category are as essentially unlike as…well, as the concept of “pet” and the concept of “dinner.”

In response to God’s threats to destroy Sodom, Abraham steps up to confront Him, embarking on an almost absurd journey of bargaining: 50 righteous people in the town will spare it…all the way down to 10 righteous people. In response to God’s request of Abraham’s son, however: nothing. No apparent discomfort. No category confusion. Or at least, none that we can see with the naked eye.

That said, the verse reads:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. (22:6)

Yes, Abraham does ultimately take the equipment to sacrifice his son, but this story is already so terse. Why the unnecessary (underlined) details? If I was to suggest a rewrite, I could make this already concise story even more concise, excising the underlined portion: “Abraham took Isaac his son and the knife; and they went both of them together.”

What is lost, by cutting these seemingly extraneous details, is a sense of Abraham’s inner world. In Abraham’s mind, he wants the knife to be as far away from Isaac and Abraham as possible. The placement of the words mimics his internal world. In his mind, and in his relationship with his son, there is no room for a knife. This is an intolerable category confusion.

This particular reading goes deep into details to extract a particular interpretation, but it speaks to the way that we spend a great deal of energy, in our lives, saddled with all sorts of category confusions.

  • Our society want our children to be safe, to thrive, but teenagers are the most at risk group for depression and suicide.
  • Our society wants the next generation to be empowered and educated – but the economic realities that schools ensure are, in many cases, quite anti-education.
  • Our society wants clean air and water for our children…and also all the comforts of a hyper-industrialized lifestyle.

It’s beyond the scope of this piece to solve the category confusions of living complex lives with competing demands, but the Biblical language suggests that if we read closely, we may discover our true priorities.

Who knows what might have happened if Avraham had spoken his mind to God, the very words he spoke after learning of Gods plans to destroy Sodom:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Ex 18:25).

 

Perhaps the relationship between Sarah, Avraham and Isaac – effectively terminated by this watershed moment – could have been salvaged? Perhaps childrens’ well being would dwell more sacredly – and with more behaviors and laws to back up that values – at the center of our society.

Sometimes, category confusion is good. It tells us what we value… although in the case of the duck, once I grew accustomed to the idea of eating Mr. Peepers, I had to admit: my pet was delicious.

Teaching Writing Part One: The Best Way to Give Students Feedback On Their (awful) Writing

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


“Garbage.”

“Disaster.”

“Stinkolicious.”

“BRILLIANT!”

With a stack of papers in front of us, students who (in class) engender sympathy, patience, and compassion suddenly earn nasty epithets – behind closed doors, of course.

Q: Why is it so frustrating to grade students’ writing?

A1: Unlike class-time, when you and the students are face-to-face, your encounter with the student is moderated by his or her work. The students’ work appears out of the context of the student him or herself.

A2:  It takes longer to grade a paper than many tests, and the more problems the paper has, the more time it takes. And one thing teachers never have enough is time.

A3: It comes down to the apparent lack of progress many students make in their writing over the course of a year. When a student struggles with a unit, after the test, the effects of the struggle may not be apparent once there is new material (though math, science, and language studies may differ in this).

With writing, however, you take the time to boldly circle every split infinitive in the essay (see what I did there?) and write “split inf.” He or she may do a second draft. And the next paper? The student returns to annoyingly include (see what I did, again?) more split infinitives.

Does he not care? Does she not want to improve?

Hooligans!

Well, it’s not a defect in character that makes the student make the same mistake, and it’s not a defect in your character that causes you to be frustrated. It’s that you haven’t found a salient way to help the student see, understand, and catch the problem. 

While the student is not interested in learning to not split infinitives (see what I did, again?) The average student is not inherently interested in any of the feedback you give. So with no accountability, s/he is free to make the same mistakes.

This is not a matter of shouting loud enough, or scrawling in large enough red pen. Even if you threaten to boldly beat them with a Star Trek DVD box set, (again!), they will still not remember ornotice when they make the mistake. All you will do is make them anxious and ineffective.

And you will be irritated.


The Solution:

Ok, so it’s simple, but requires discipline.

If you’re new to teaching this grade or level, hand out a list of writing part fouls: these are things which every high school student should know:

For example:

  • too vs. to vs. two
  • it’s vs. its
  • Capitalizing names
  • spelling errors which even the spellchecker catches

If a student misses three “party fouls,” I note on ClassDojo with a badge, “More careful proofreading.”

Beyond this, I suggest coming up with 3-6 main writing growth areas common for students at the level(s) you teach at.

For example:

  • Run ons and sentence fragments (9th grade)
  • Passive voice (10th Grade)
  • Completes arguments effectively (11th / 12th grade)
  • Sentence structure variety (12th grade)

Whatever your subject may be, formulating your ClassDojo writing badges brings an opportunity for meaningful collaboration with other departments, establishing a consensus of the main areas where students are already expected to have achieved mastery and/or may require reinforcement.


Next Steps:

On a simple level, as you record feedback on students’ writing, you create a cache of data you can incorporate into your summative narratives and reports:

“Madison needs to work on improving her use of active voice and using correct citation.”

“Maximiliian needs to work on completing his arguments and avoiding sentence fragments.”


Further Steps:

The “grand slam” of using feedback to help students progress in their skills is to help them reflect on their own, personal writing goals before they sit down to write. For example, with access to ClassDojo’s records, Madison can review the feedback from the previous term and, in a required pre-writing statement, articulate her goals:

“I will focus on avoiding passive voice and will proofread my work for spelling errors.”

With that step in place, your feedback to the student, besides the actual edits, can touch on whether the student hit their personal writing goal. You may consider offering up to 3% extra credit for any student who successfully addresses their goal – or, alternatively, include this as part of a student’s Student Ethic Modifier.

With effective strategies for holding students accountable to clear, constructive learning goals comes a reduction in frustration and “proofreader’s animosity!”

Less: “This is a travesty of the English Language! See me!”

More: “You met some goals! Here’s what to continue working on!”


I invite readers to visit

Teaching Writing Part Two: Providing Google-Outlines

Teaching Writing Part Three: The Best Way to Encourage Revisions