Projects: make classwork like a little project, and projects like big classwork. But cooler.

kittenthornThere’s a saying: practice like you’ll play, and you’ll play like you’ve practiced. Generally, this is about the need for teams to take their practicing seriously – with discipline and intent – allowing game day to feel like a well-prepared-for challenge – and not a scramble headfirst off a cliff.

In class planning, too often I see (and have written) projects with high stakes based on skills that have never been practiced in class.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be planning awesome projects. One of the five things I remember from High School was a mythology project, wherein I created an epic radio drama. Did it contain computerized music, voices, hilarious non-sequiturs, and scraps of information from class? Yes.

Did I use it to bring learning I’d been doing all semester to the next level?

No.

Here are some guidelines to help your projects be, truly, scaffolded opportunities to “connect-the-dots” and stretch out, creatively – and not, well, hilarious non-sequiturs.


  • porkylolcatDeconstruct the various skills required to complete the suggested project. Can you guarantee that the students will know (or will have learned) how to do those things? If not, you need to build training time into class. Example: I’ve seen classes where a formative assessment is a mock courtroom scenario. I wonder: did the teacher teach how to cross-examine? Or classes where the final project is a website: did the teacher spend time in class on the basics of website design?
  • Notice some of the practices you are habitually working on in class. Is there a way to incorporate that into your project? Example: I teach reflective listening all year long. Only recently have I begun to include an interview project as part of the curriculum – but unlike most interviews where the interviewer is silent, In my class, the student reflects the main kernel of the subjects’ statements. (For more on teaching reflective listening, click here).
  • If you are having trouble composing a project that is truly aligned with the core skills of your class, not to worry. Consider this approach: use the project as a low-stakes (not graded or given a completion grade) venue for creating rich content. Students work together without fear of their project getting a “bad grade.” Students play with materials and content.  Then, after show-and-tell and critique and second drafts, teach a unit on how to interpret and evaluate other students’ work. Students get practice in comparing and contrasting, asking generative questions, and brainstorming improvements or “next steps.”
  • Finally, as a final assessment, in pairs or alone, students write an evaluation of other students’ work – using all the skills they have learned. In other words, the project is the content but the written evaluation is the assessment.

For a deeper dive into classwork as a “pooled resource,” see blog 23.

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Morning Rituals for Teachers: Beyond Coffee

coffeecatEverybody has a morning ritual.

For some people, it’s elaborate. Drinking a pressed-kale smoothie, then Yoga, then seeing what’s new on the “cosplay” thread on Reddit.

For others, it’s more bare-bones: get up, fall out of bed, drag comb across head, find way downstairs and drink a cup, look up, notice it’s late. Then, grab coat and hat, make the bus in seconds flat, find way upstairs and have a smoke, etc.

Like that.

The question is not whether you have a ritual, it’s whether your current ritual is a good idea for you as someone with one of the hardest jobs on earth.

On mornings where I adhere to my sacred ritual, I set myself up for a great day.

Does it mean I will have a great day? No. But it might that if the day sucks, it’s partially because I didn’t do my best to get it off to the right start.


calendarcatMy ritual starts the night before:

  • Review tomorrow’s calendar. This will help you mentally step into the flow of the day. When will you rush around? When will you sit at your desk and space out? When are your meetings? Additionally, this will help you catch mistakes: “I thought that meeting was next week” is an excellent thought to have the night before. It’s a very bad thought to have when you realize you’re half an hour late.
  • Put out your outfit. Make sure you love what you wear and you wear what you love. Your outfit should match the intention of the day. For me, I like to wear a black or grey suit on monday with a fan-freakin-tastic tie. Why? Well, do you remember how fun it was to go to school when your mom had just taken you shopping and you had new British Knights and a new pair of Girbauds and couldn’t wait to show them off? Me neither! I shopped at Target. But you get the idea. (For more about the interplay of style and how you feel, visit StyleForDorks.Com)
  • Talk over any worries you have with your spouse, significant other, friend, roommate, or parrot. Tell him or her what’s on your mind. Feel free to share things you’re looking forward to, as well. And if you feel like your significant other is just parroting back to you whatever you’re saying, you might actually be married to a parrot. That’s cool.

boatcatIn the morning:

  • Bath or shower. Make sure you have yummy soap. You should love the way it smells. If you don’t love it, find one you do. I like this oddly shaped sandalwood soap I got from chinatown for 2 bucks.
  • If you drink tea or coffee or yerba mate, do it slowly. Carve out 10 minutes.
  • Listen to music. At least 2 songs.
  • If you can budget the time for a stop at a cafe for coffee and journaling and music, you’re really off to a great start. You need to feel like you have a life outside of your otherwise all-consuming job and your family. I do this little “morning-spa” twice a week.

cocktailAfter Work:

  • Don’t take your stress home with you. See if you can build in a trip to the gym, a cafe, or a pint at the pub. ONE pint.
  • If you’re an introvert, arrange some “hamster-ball time” – even five minutes – with important people waiting for you at home. A five minute buffer to change into comfortable clothes, to sip a cup of tea, to journal about something in your day will make you a better roommate, partner, spouse, or parent.

Partner Learning Logistics Made Easy: The Rolling Roster

One incredibly simple model for getting students into pairs for work – and then keeping them in pairs for work — hit me this year (and it only took me 10 years to come up with it).

The Rolling Roster. Here’s what it looks like.

 How and Why?

Step 1: Give students a task, “First Thing Work:” something to get them focused at the start of class (Journal, a drill, etc.) For examples and more about “First Thing Work,” click the link above.

Step 2: After getting set up and taking attendance, conduct your “Housekeeping” since you might not have a chance to speak to the class again: announcements, deadlines, instructions, homework-heads-up, and the like. For more about “Housekeeping,” click the link above.

Step 3: Give students their assignment. The assignment should have at least two, but no more than four sections. Design the assignment with the following criteria:

  1. The individual can complete the assignment in 10-30 minutes.
  2. The assignment must be somewhat open ended, allowing for multiple perspectives or multiple solutions.
  3. Design the assignment such that students would need or spend about between 10 and 20 minutes discussing.

Examples:

  • Students might work individually on a complex problem, and then share their findings, comparing and contrast solutions and capturing further questions.
  • Students might write a mini essay or essay outline, and then share their work with a partner. The partners give one another critique or feedback.
  • Students answer a series of interpretive literary questions. They compare their answers and challenge each other to back their interpretations up with text.

Step 4: When each student finishes her independent work, she writes her name on the board (and in some cases, the number of the problem / question / task she worked on. This is how the student indicates that he or she is ready to work with a partner.

Step 5: As soon as a suitable second student puts his or her name on the board, you, the teacher, take a marker and draw a line connecting the names of two students who will work together. Yell out, “Student (name) and Student (name)!” Other students continue working quietly.

Step 6: When the two students are done working together, they get up, erase the line connecting their names, and return to their desks for independent work until they finish the next problem…to put their name back on the board. If they are done, they move on to “anchor work.”

Your task: roam the room, listen in on groups, and keep an eye on the board – for a student who is waiting to be matched with a partner. Use Class Dojo’s randomizer feature to make sure that you visit all students – not just the “problem students” or “advanced students.”

Caveats:

  1. Don’t allow the student to draw their own brackets. Sometimes, you will want to skip over the next appearing name (Student A has already worked with Student C, Student A doesn’t work well with Student C, etc.)
  2. Keep an eye on slower students in an odd-numbered room who might find that they are still working while everyone else has paired up. You might need to ask them to join a twosome even without completing their work.
  3. Keep an eye out for students who might stall in order to work with someone they like – although in the grand scheme of things, even if you overlook this, it’s rarely harmful.
  4. Be sure the anchor work for class is posted and clear. Though the anchor-work between round 1 and 2 would be preparing for round 2.
  5. If you need to start everyone out at the same time, use this fantastic, adjustable randomizer by Mr. Matera, and if you’re using any kind of digital calendar, post that day’s roster for students to check upon arriving to class!
  6. You may want to provide/allow headphones or earplugs for students who would be distracted by the sound of people talking. If headphones are allowed, spend some time at the start of the year talking about expectations with ipods: for example, students must prepare a mix of music for worktime to prevent shuffling and texting during work time.
  7. Students must have “anchor work” to work on, to prevent a student who does not have a partner from distracting others and/or from misusing the computer in class, etc. For more on anchorwork, see:

Benefits:

  1. Students never lose focus: from independent work, to partner work, and around again.
  2. Gives you extended time to collect student data. I recommend using Class Dojo to record target behaviors you have already identified and discussed with students: for example, active listening. (For more on how I teachactive/compassionate listening, see my blog post on magnetiCClassroom.com.)

Conclusion:

Students operating autonomously will streamline the extent to which you must serve as “logistic-ringmaster.” This conserves your energy, preserves your voice, and should you need to address the class, you will get better attention from the students since you have not been barking orders at them!

Differentiation Step 3: Turn class into a catalog

catalogDifferentiation Step 3: Differentiating by Interest through Credits

The course catalog, my freshman year of college, was almost as fun as a J. Crew catalog. I couldn’t fathom how many options were open to me, and the sense of choosing my own academic destiny was intoxicating.

Why must students wait until college before they can have the autonomy to choose the credits they need to meet their goals?

The most concrete form of differentiation you can employ in the classroom is to offer options to students for their major assessments. Would they like to create a poster, a NPR style radio show, or build a theme park?

There’s one problem: we all know that it takes much longer to build a theme park than it does to make a poster. Unless it’s a huge freakin’ poster.

How to solve that problem?


creditcatalogCreate a table where you delineate how many credits a student can receive for a certain kinds of work, and what grade is possible by amassing a certain number of credits. Click here for an example.

Caveats

  1. You must provide models of excellence and a few sub-par models and students must articulate what they see as the difference. They need to own what they’re getting into when they choose a certain project type, and many an amateur film-maker rued the day they chose to do film, even though it earns more credit; film can be a time consuming burden for a student who doesn’t love working on it.
  2. Tag models of excellence each year to update the student model portfolios. Yes, the first year is hardest. (I created a few of my own models the first time I allowed certain modalities.)
  3. When a student chooses to aim for less than an A (this tends to be more acceptable at the high school level where student autonomy is more encouraged), it might be wise to meet with his/her advisor (or send a note home) to make sure other responsible adults are in the know. In truth, this type of choice can be a “canary in the coal mine,” and help you find students who need more support and encouragement. They would know if this is a) someone about to fall through the cracks or b) someone who is on three teams and the school play, being responsible and realistic with time-management.

You may want to read Part 1 and 2 on Differentiating in Baby steps, here.