Harnessing “the Trance”

In traditional Candomble, a Brazillian religion influenced by the religions of Africa, drums play, practitioners dance, energy (axé) builds and if conditions are auspicious, a dancer is visited by an orixa – an incarnation of divine personality. Anyone can be “mounted” thus, not just the priest or the elite. An old woman, barely dancing, hobbling, suddenly is filled with incredible vigor and the whole dancing crowd receives this blessing and returns it until the moment passes.  I’ve been fortunate enough to witness portions of a ceremony like this, and it is a moving thing to behold.

Recently, the human gene for graying hair was located. Some scientists predict that within the next decade, we will be able to locate the genes for not only for health conditions, but also for personality attributes — some of the most “human” traits we can imagine.

I believe that we will discover another human legacy which connects people to the very foundation of civilization: namely, that the human capacity to enter trance. But I also believe that the selfsame human legacy which allows for the divine to dance among humans also allows us to sit, transfixed, tears streaming down their faces as our deepest sadnesses are dramatized before our eyes. Or as a violin is played, music soaring to the heavens. Or as a tribe huddles around a fire, and one elder retells the old stories, all faces lit by the orange glow.

candombleThis capacity allows individuals not only to hear their origins retold, but also it allows plans to be made, jokes to be told, instructions to be given, and ceremonies to be performed. Just think about it: people grow quiet, maintain eye contact, and give their attention (or at least appear to) to a performer, simply because “that’s what’s happening now.” It’s incredible that it happens at all. On the other hand, at a certain level, the “audience trance” has powered civilization since its earliest days.

Some teachers believe that when students are quiet, they are in “audience trance” – absorbing the message of the instruction. Not necessarily so. That may be simple conformity at work. Audience trance in a classroom is a rare thing, and it’s different from “students being quiet.” You can hear audience-trance descend on a room, even a theater, when something is incredibly fascinating. When genuine emotion (often fear, anger, or sadness) is expressed. When something profound is taking place. You know the sound of “audience-trance.” It sounds like a pin – not dropping.

In my classroom, like any classroom, there is a modicum of shushing that must happen in order for me to give the daily instructions. And no speaker is immune. A student raises her hand to speak, and while talking, the I sometimes need to shush the class.

However, like the dancer visited by the orixa, something amazing happens when students stand up before the group to pitch their ideas: the trance. Students listen, rapt attention, exploring  nuances of the students’ designs. I would claim we are witnessing something sacred – not the visitation of a spirit, per se, but the gathering of inspiration. And this influx of creative breath silences us. Students, like inspired dancers, no longer sound or look or act like students. They sound and look and act like architects. Designers. Artists. Managers. Consultants. Coaches. The are participating in a sacred ritual of transformation.

They are visited by their future selves. And everyone’s jaw hangs open. And you can hear a pin drop.

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Differentiated “Extra Credit” for Performance Levels

extra-credit-catExtra credit is a thing of the past.

In my class, there is nothing “extra.” There are opportunities, there are consequences, and admittedly, since we live in a world where grades count, there is credit. But nothing extra.

In my early years of teaching, after an assessment,  students were tempted to see what they got, jubilate or lament, and forget the whole thing. Students who succeeded came to class the next day, buoyant. Students who stumbled were demoralized.


This is not how it should be. With the possible exception of the final exam, every student should have the opportunity to see what they did wrong and learn from it.

The problem is that the same students who get As are often the same students who bother to recover credit. Some would come in to recover a single point. And as their teacher, you know this isn’t a good use of their limited time. Meanwhile, the students who stumble can avoid facing their growth areas.

How do you incentivize students who earn Bs and Cs to spend the time revising, while giving students who earned an A an informal nod to save their time and energy for other things?

Differentiated “Extra” Credit

37707671Students who wish to recover points make an appointment do a series of exercises (or answer questions, or read models of excellence) to get their minds in gear. Then we go over the principles they need to express on the assessment.

Students who earned a C or below on the assessment the first time around can earn up to 15% back. A student who earned a B can earn up to 10% back. A student who earned an A  can earn up to 5%.

The actual amount they learn is a function of how much they actually learn in the session(s) with me, factored by how much of it was their initiative.

Students who show initiative will earn the full amount. A student who wheedles for point might only get half the maximum amount.

Sure, not every student is absolutely thrilled, and not every student can go from a C to an A after a half hour meeting. But every student knows that I see growth as being more important that success, and that mistakes are opportunities for learning.

And more than anything else on an exam, that’s what I want to teach.

 

How Not to Waste Your Time: “Always Be Building”

abcYou’ve got to admire successful salespeople. You don’t need to like them, but you’ve got to admire their tenacity. And I’m not talking about the kind of salespeople who hide behind the counter, waiting for you to bring your Cold-Eeze up to the counter (which do work, by the way). Rather, I’m talking about the kind who, from the moment you walk into the shop, the dealership, the office – are selling you something, even if you don’t realize it.

The salesperson’s motto? Anyone who’s seen Glengarry Glen Ross knows it: Always Be Closing.

Not: Always Be Trying to Sell. Not: Always be concerned that the customer is about to bail.

It’s a mentality. At every moment, you are in the process of “sealing the deal.” Even if the customer doesn’t know it.

lessinsAs a teacher, I’m not so much interested in closing (not in this post, anyway). But I am interested in mindsets that allow. me to reach my goals. Given that there never seems to be enough time to do anything when you’re a teacher, how do you actually grow, year to year? How do you make next year better?

It turns out that building for next year is a mindset that needs to be active at all times to be effective. “What you’re doing now is very good. What you’ll be doing next year is great.”

Here’s how to take steps now for next year.


 

No such thing as a total waste

Some technology seems to be a wash. I once played with a website that allows students to create and vote on debates. Great idea. Too many problems.

But a tool that you don’t want to use is like an investor who doesn’t want to fund your startup. In your mind, don’t hear “no.” Hear: “Not yet.”

After playing with Blendspace.com, for example, I know much more about what students could do with a platform like this. I know the weak spots and the deal breakers. I’ll come back next year, and I’ll see: maybe it’s time to try it again? In that sense, I’ve grown and carved out space for next year.

The catch: you need, well, to catch the tools. Start a file – a note on Evernote, a file in Pocket, whatever platform you like. Call it “Tools to play with next August.” When August comes around, take a break from chasing your kids through the sprinkler to see if any last years rejects have emerged as potential stars.


 

Fix Your Resources In Real Time

When I first started teaching, I had many manilla folders full of worksheets. And in the middle of class, a student would find a typo – or I realized that a question was misleading or poorly worded. I would mark my own sheet with red in, you know. To fix later.

There was no later. Year two, it was time for that unit again, and my worksheet had the same typo and the same awful question.

Now, all my worksheets are Google Docs. And when a student sees a typo or a realize a question is unclear – projected on the board, in plain view of all my students, I fix it (or make a note to fix it).

I get an improved resource. Student learn that nobody’s perfect the first time, and that quality materials need to be perfected. And then re-perfected.

Win-win.


 

Develop Your To-do List Skills

Time management gurus often talk about the benefits that come with a trustworthy “inbox” – the “basket” which catches all the stuff your mind needs to deal with, but which shouldn’t or can’t be dealt with right this second.

You’re handing tests back and students are grumbling about how unclear a part of the test was. Or you’re grading projects and it seems like they’re just missing the mark.

Are you going to stop grading (or stop class) and fix the project? If yes, you may have an impulsivity issue.

You need a to-do list which is readily available, syncs across platforms, and is fun.

Example:  you realize, walking to your desk, that something needed fixing in the class resource. You whip out for smartphone and make a to-do item called, “Retool the dinosaur activity.”

Then, when you have ten minutes, go over all the to-do items, clarify each with a few ideas, and drag and drop them to the approximate month, next year, when you will be ready to improve the resource.

Do not: be so sure you will remember, next year.


The Educational-Scaffolding of Rome Wasn’t Built In a Year

While lesson planning is difficult, building a scaffolded unit (each step leading to the next, developing student skills higher and higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy) is really challenging. It’s astoundingly time-consuming. And sometimes, it’s hard to see all the pieces that could be there if you haven’t taught it yet.

Let go, a little. In the first year, the project will be simple. Each year, add more and more complex tasks. Be looking for areas where you assumed students could leap to the next level, and note when they stumble. Create resources for next year’s students to spend less time lost and stumbling, and more time growing and flying.

A few final tips:

  1. Not all of your materials will be useful next year, not because they can’t be improved, but because you change your goals. Changing goals is growth. Growth is good. Those old worksheets are like snake-skin, sloughed off to allow the snake to grow. And no, I am not saying that you are a snake.
  2. Whatever time you spent last year developing the project, spend this year improving it. Show it to a colleague or supervisor for wise and thoughtful changes. Add links to cool websites. Design a video to accompany it.

    Please comment below and share your own tips for “Always Be Building!”

 

Using ClassDojo to Teach Active Listening

lolcat_ListeningStudent A: “Ok, on to number 4.”

Student B: “I think the evidence shows that Hamlet is a hedgehog.”

Student A: “The evidence shows… that Hamlet is a … how do you spell hedgehog?”


You’ve heard partner-work sessions like this. No matter how many times you may remind students that they are not working with another person in order to avoid doing half of the work (or, heaven forbid, simply to copy each other’s answers), teenagers are biologically programmed to save their energy for important things with real-life value. Like scoring invitations to parties. Teenagers are not automatically invested in hearing, understanding, assessing, and responding to their assigned partner’s ideas.

Rather, students must learn, month by month, and year by year, to listen like a therapist, assess like a scientist, and respond like a friend.

It’s a slow process. But the reward can be dynamic, thoughtful discussion. And students will thank you for teaching them skills that they use in their real-life relationships.

The first step to get there is to teach Compassionate Listening.


listeningcatsCompassionate Listening is not one student parroting the words of the other student, though, when done improperly, it sounds like that.

Compassionate listening is where the Listener

  • asks follow-up questions to “unpack” the speaker’s statement
  • “track the deeper meaning” of the speaker’s statement
  • carefully attending to the main kernal
  • and finally, expressing it in the listener’s own words.
  • When possible, the listener my employ a metaphor or image to encapsulate the meaning.
  • Then, critically, the Listener waits for acknowledgement that s/he has seen, heard, and understood the main idea. If s/he missed the point, or there is another level of meaning the Speaker wants to share, then the cycle goes around.

I call this process “Reflect Re-reflect” and you can read more about it here. And boiled down, it looks like this:

  • Listening / Unpacking
  • Reflecting.
  • Waiting for acknowledgement.

For example:

Listening / Unpacking

Student A: I think that Hamlet is a coward.

Student B: Why do you think that?

Student A: Because he won’t do what he is supposed to do.

Student B: Why do you think he won’t do what he is supposed to do?

Student A: Because he tosses and turns over it, and no matter the decision, he feels torn about whether it’s the right thing to do, or whether it will work, and whether it will actually accomplish anything.”

Reflecting (with metaphor):

Student B: So Hamlet is sort of in a maze…and whichever direction he tries to go, he finds himself at a dead end.

Waiting for acknowledgement:

Student A: Yeah.

Student B: So, it’s less that he’s a coward, and more like he’s paralyzed.

Student A: Hm. Yeah.

Notice the difference between Compassionate Listening and “parroting?” Parroting would have ended with:

“So, you think Hamlet is a coward.”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Question 5.”

Compassionate listening is helping the partner to articulate his/her own ideas in a deeper, more accurate, and more nuanced way than s/he could by him/herself.

How does one teach this?

At the beginning of the year, you must spend some time unpacking what Compassionate Listening is. You might want to share some articles or video clips on the power of this sort of conversation, reflect on how it’s different from simple cooperation or from normal conversation.

Then, begin to focus on Reflection.

As complex as analysis, critique, and synthesizing new ideas may be, none of it happens without the first step of careful listening and reflecting.

On ClassDojo, create two badges: “Reflects without prompting” and “Reflects only after prompting.”

Show your students what ClassDojo looks like on your tablet / smartphone (so they know what you’re doing).

And when you send students into partner work, use the randomizer to send you to a pair of partners. Quietly sit down near them – do not speak to them or let them break conversation to talk to you – and listen.

  • After one student speaks, does the second student reflect? If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
  • Does the initial speaker go on and on, not allowing the listener the chance to reflect and check for understanding?  If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
  • If the initial speaker says something that requires “unpacking” – does the listener ask questions to unpack it? Or reflect at a superficial level? Again, you can gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.

At the end of the quarter, scan the students badges, and share your observations with your students (in whatever form you usually do so – written, in reports, or in mini-meetings).

To watch Reflect-Re Reflect in Action, watch this animated example below!

The Calendar and the Template: The Batman and Robin of Lesson Planning and Presenting

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


The hardest thing about lesson planning is the blank page.

And the hardest thing about starting class: when students enter the room, unless you make it so, your classroom is a blank page. Sure, you have posters on the wall, and you’re midway through a unit.

But unless your posters and unit are as interesting as whatever the students were talking and thinking about in the hallway on the way to class (and let’s face it, to most students, it’s not), the students walk in the room with their own agenda. Their agenda is: try not to do anything.

The good news is that most students, being social beings, will step into line as class begins, even if you’re not playing your A game. The better news is that if you’ve set up class effectively, the span of time between “blank page” and “being productive” can be shortened.

How do you get students to get into gear? How do you reduce the behaviors that make it hard to start class? How do you get students thinking, quiet, and productive — reviewing the themes of the class —while you take attendance? How do you organize your lesson planning workflow so you never forget to include essential components?

The answer is the same for all these: lesson plan with a template, and make the lesson plan available to students upon entering class.

There are low-tech and hi-tech ways to do this; allow me to share a few, and their pros and cons.


Hi-Tech — Editor’s Choice: Google Calendar

By far, my favorite way to present the days work, including the vital “first thing work” that gets students quiet and engaged for 5-10 minutes is a shared Google Calendar. While many schools have a Learning Management System that allows teachers to post their lesson plan for the day, I often find that these LMS calendars similar to, well, the free email that comes with your Cable Internet – you know: lmaluddite@Glopast.com. It works. But the tool doesn’t get updated or improved or work well across the most common devices like Google Calendar does.

I begin the year, during the first week of orientation, teaching students how to bookmark the shared class Google Calendar from a laptop, and even a smartphone/tablet.

Each day, as students enter the room, they open their tablets, phones, or laptops and see the entire day’s lesson plan. It always begins with First Thing Work, and ends with Homework and students I need to meet with. For a detailed description of the various elements built into each day’s template, I invite you to check out A Template For Change – And Workflow.

Additional Benefits:

  • Unlike some other class calendars, a student can open the class Google Calendar integrated with their own Google Calendar. As a result, if they have already begun using Google Calendar for their own lives, they can easily keep track of classes they missed and the lesson plan, homework, and announcements for that day – on the same calendar they check which day they have Disney Musical Club, their Jai Alai tournament, and their family trip to Walla Walla.
  • If you make a mistake that needs correcting in class – the link to an assignment is broken, say, or you decide you want to change the homework assignment — once you change it in the Google Calendar, it’s changed for everyone, instantly.
  • You have the same access to the class calendar from excellent smartphone apps that you do from your work laptop. This means you can COMPOSE YOUR LESSON PLAN ON GOOGLE CALENDAR! I suggest you combine the calendar with a Template – to keep your thinking organized. For more on lesson planning with Templates, I invite you to read: How Not To Cook From Scratch.
  • Referencing how you did something last year: I used to use Word for lesson planning, and by the end of the year, I had dozens and dozens of files – one for each day. I could never find anything. Now, when I want to see what I did last year, I can browse the classes on the calendar – or search for a word or phrase I know I used in my lesson planning.
  • Fast and Portable Lesson Plan Fixing and Peeking: You’re in class, moving around the students, keeping an eye on the playing field. Are you going to bring your laptop with you? No. What do you do when you need to check what’s next? You look at your smartphone, where the same Google Calendar is ready for you to look at. Or, on the way to class, you can adjust a prompt, fix a page number, or jot a note under: assignments. From your smartphone! While walking!

Cons:

Students need regular access to a device: school provided or “BYOD.”


Low-Tech — Editor’s Choice: Overhead Projector

Ah, the lowly overhead projector. It’s actually not so lowly. It has major benefits over the whiteboard (the other place you might write a Low-Tech lesson plan)

Mainly: with a teeny bit of planning and the flick of a switch, your lesson plan is ready. You can write your plans in advance, file them in a filing system, and refer to them as needed.

Benefits:

Besides being low tech and inexpensive, it’s easier to browse your lesson plans written this way, just as it’s easier to browse through a book than to click and click and click.

Rewarding students for checking the calendar: how do you reward students for coming to class, checking the calendar, and getting to work? ClassDojo! The first three students quietly working get a badge! The last two also get a badge!

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.

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.

Image

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.

Image

Memory.

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?