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!”

 

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Easy Hack For Letters of Recommendation

letterofrecSometimes, students ask you for letters of recommendation. This is great! They are going on to do amazing things in their lives and you get to be part of that process! It shows that they trust you, that they feel seen by you, and they want you to share your thoughts!

Amazing.

There are a few times, however, when this honor presents a tricky challenge.

Scenario 1: The student knows you well enough to hope for a letter from you. But… you don’t know the student very well. You don’t want to say, “I haven’t had Madison in a class since she was a sophomore and I have no idea what she’d bring to your institute of higher learning.”

Scenario 2: Maybe he or she was a fine student, not a great student, and you don’t want to say, in a college recommendation letter, “Maximillian mostly did his homework, rarely raised his hand in class, turned in so-so papers, and squeaked by with a B.”

Scenario 3: Eight students have asked for letters of recommendation, you’ve done most of them throughout the past month, and one night — you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if one of their deadlines is approaching! Back in October, the college recommendation deadline seemed so far away…you didn’t bother recording when it was due!


 

letter of recThe Solution: A Letter of Recommendation Questionnaire (click here)

I created a survey on Google Docs which asks students their name and the deadline. Then, it asks a series of questions which you might find on an application to college:

  • What are some important things you’ve learned about life in the past two years?
  • What is one accomplishment you’re proud of in the past two years?
  • What is one challenge you’ve overcome in the past two years?

letter of rec 2And so on. With this information, I can craft a letter which gives great insight into who the student is – in the same way that a journalist might interview a subject in order to write a thoughtful, positive, editorial piece. And since I don’t need to scrape my memories for something worth saying, the writing process is quicker and more efficient, while the content is deeper. WIN, WIN!

 

done

Put an X next to completed letters.

(Oh, and, since the answers are routed into a spreadsheet, I can put an X next to students whose letter I’ve completed.)

 

Now, when I student says, “Wolk, can I have a letter of recommendation?” my response is, “Sure! I’m sending you a link to a questionairre. Fill it in, and I’ll get right on it!”

And if you’re wondering what students reactions are – they seem unphased. They aren’t offended that I want them to articulate some of their strengths, and frankly, I think they’re glad to know a little bit about what I’ll be writing!
So basically, the letter of recommendation questionnaire?

I recommend it.

Grading Time: The Wakeup Call

 

wakeup1Many students can self-correct. That is to say, they receive a bad grade on a test and know they need to “study harder.” Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that many students have no idea how to study. Let’s focus on the fact that somehow, these students seem to improve.

Then, there are students who don’t improve. They don’t turn in work, they score poorly on quizzes, they score poorly on tests. You fill in progress reports, you write home, you give them their semester grade, and there’s no improvement.

Once in a while, you will have a student who truly does not care. But this is rare. Most do care. They care a great deal, but they are paralyzed by their own failure, and by a deficit of hope for anything can change.

You say, “If you try, you will succeed.”

They think, “If I try and fail, then truly I am a loser.”

What tool do you have to work with a student who is going down the drain?wakeup2


 

The Wakeup Call.

  • Schedule a “check in” at your desk. A “wakeup call” shouldn’t happen in front of the class or in the hallway.
  • Ask the student how she or he is, and how life is. Don’t expect much in response, but give space for a response, anyhow. This is setting the table for showing you care. And you might be surprised by what you learn.
  • Ask questions: “Tell me how class is going for you. At times it seems like it’s a bit rough, based on scores, but I’d love to hear what your experience is.”
  • Ask permission: “Would you be open to hearing some of my thoughts?”
  • “Lock-in” – meaning, let the student know that the relationship is more important than the grade: “I want you to know that I’m not here to judge you. Even when you struggle. Especially when it’s difficult. I’m here to support your learning.”
  • Ask permission to be frank: “Can I tell you what I see happening down the road? If we keep using the strategy you’ve been using, it’s not going to go well in terms of the grade or your learning. It’ll be more of the same type of grades. Or worse. And I’m not sure you’re getting much for all this time you’re spending in class without completing the work necessary to help the skills sink in.”
  • Clarify: “I’m assuming you’re not happy with that. I don’t know, maybe you’re fine with it. I’m not here to judge you, like a said. I’d love to know where you’re at on all this”
  • Make plan: “So, let’s try this. This is the roadmap to success.”
  • Thank in advance and make a deal: “If you stumble on the next quiz, I thank you in advance that you will not disappear – you’ll come to the very next review session. And I will be so happy to see you, I will give you 5 Starburst. I’m not bribing you. It’ll be an expression of how happy I am you’re coming in for help!”

You’re not “confused,” you’re a teenager.

wut v2Some words are used, almost exclusively by certain demographics, and the words, as used, don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean.

Example 1:

“The Gmail.”

Demographic: retirees in the Milwaukee suburbs.

Usage: “I can’t find the file in the Gmail.”

 

Example 2:

“Random”

Demographic: people under 20.

Usage: “We hung out all day and did random things.”

 

Example 3:

“I’m confused.”

Usage: one student, after reading the instructions, blurts out: “I’m so confused!”

Have you heard this? I hear it all the time. In fact, after telling a friend about how much this utterance makes me cringe, she reported back that after a day of teaching, she’d heard it no fewer than a dozen times. Is there that much confusion in the classroom? And why can it be so upsetting to hear the phrase, “I’m so confused?”

Top 5 troubling things about this phrase, as commonly used:

  1. It’s too vague to empower you to help. Confused about what?
  2. It’s not directly addressed to you, so any intervention is a form of interruption.
  3. It’s not really true. “To confuse” either  to swap one thing for another, erroneously (that’s probably not what’s going on), or to be utterly perplexed (also, not exactly the case).

confusedcatAnalysis:

Here’s what “I’m so confused means.”

  • I am a child / teenager. I am generally disempowered in my life. I am told where to go, when to sit, when I can leave, and I need to ask permission to use the bathroom. My mind is capable of learning what you’re teaching, but it hurts – like all stretching hurts a little.
  • As a teenager, I live in a world with only three categories: cool, sucks, and weird. And being lost – even temporarily – sucks. It makes me feel stupid and out of control. And since I am annoyed at you for putting me in this situation (not you, you, per se, but adults and the adult world), I’ll blurt it out in a slightly accusatory, passive aggressive way.
  • I have not learned about “hurts so good” yet. While you were explaining something, I got bored and stopped listening (you actually are a little boring, but only sometimes). I looked at the clock to see how long this torture would be going on and I got lost. The problem is that I don’t know how to ask for what I want to know. I am not familiar with terms like, “I could use a refresher on…” or “I followed you until you said…”
  • What I want is to feel heard and that my grievance is aired. I don’t have much hope in ever learning whatever it is you’re teaching, but if your pedagogical training and the kindness of your soul combined is able to help me out of this mire, I’d actually appreciate it. And I’ll try not to hold any of this against you.

Possible solutions:

  1. Indicate that you see and register the “confusion” and affirm that it’s okay to be confused.
  2. Remind students what the system is for getting “unconfused.” Do you have a “back-channel” or “help-desk” (I use https://todaysmeet.com/) – do you use flags or a list so students don’t have to sit there with their hand in the air?
  3. At the beginning of the year, teach students that productive discomfort is good, and that real learning is hard. Teach students to suspend frustration and try to solve a problem for themselves for a certain amount of time before verbally register frustration. Teach the difference between complaining vs. asking for help.
  4. Ask the student to recount for you everything s/he understood until the point of confusion. If s/he says, “everything,” say, “well, let’s start at the beginning.” Start to recount such incredibly basic stuff that s/he gets annoyed and vocalizes where the point of confusion is.

What to do when the Whole Class “Is Confused.”

  • Don’t allow a classroom of students to groan about being confused. Students need to learn how to be “grownups” about the challenging process of learning. Collective grumbling is not a good way to communicate. Quiet the room and instruct them in the appropriate way to handle “confusion.”
  • Say: “I’m hearing that some folks are confused. Use your flag / post a comment on my helpdesk / grab a red handkerchief from the box and put it at your workstation. I will come around and help you out. But this is pretty complicated stuff, so I appreciate your hanging in there.”
  • Appoint people to who understand to assist students who don’t understand. This works best when you have identified and appointed “helpy” types in advance when possible – for example: “tech guru” or “math whiz.”

Disaster Relief Form: Helping Students Out of Quicksand

disastercatQ: How do you get struggling students to alert you to problems with major assignments so they will be prepared for time-sensitive class experiences?

Scenario: Today is presentation day. You’ve put students into groups to show their projects and receive peer-feedback. You’ve been mindful to choose groups for the most effective, for productivity. You send the students off to work, and five minutes later, three groups are deep into their work. The fourth group is acting out.

You: Guys, stop messing around. You have work to do.

Student: We finished.

You: FOUR of you shared your projects in five minutes?

Student: Three of us didn’t do the project.

You: What? Why didn’t you email me and say you needed help — days ago?

Student: I’m a teenager. I don’t know how to answer that question.


Q: How do you deal with last minute, missing student work?

Scenario: You’re grading a digital-stack of papers on a Sunday night. They’ve been emailed or posted to the school’s Learning Management System. Grades and reports are due tomorrow. You’ve been at your computer for hours. You cannot go to bed until the papers are graded. You open up the file with the final student’s work, and — it’s not there. No paper. Or you check to see if it’s been posted to the LMS. No. No email, no explanation, no information.

Now, you’re emailing this student, asking – did he forget to send it? Did he not do it? Unfortunately, the same student who didn’t turn in the work is also probably not hitting refresh on his school email on a Sunday night. How do you mark it? Late? Missing? Zero?

________

Here’s the thing about managing students’ multi-day assessments and assignments – and here I speak to you sotto voce: you might not have time to evaluate and give feedback on every step students go through before the semi final draft. Even though the step may be critical and time sensitive, like peer feedback sessions.

Say it takes two minutes to evaluate an interim step in a student’s project, and you have forty students. Are you really going to spend an hour and a half just checking to see if the students did their work, just so they can share it with peers? That’s a waste of time you don’t have.

All you want is for students to, just, let you know if they need help, to be ready for peer review, or to be ready to submit for credit. But the same students who need urgent help are the same ones who won’t email you.

Q: How do you get students to tell you that they need help? How do you get them to tell you, before you’ve assembled your teams, that they’re not ready to present?


 

disasterrelief

My Solution: Disaster Relief Form

The Disaster Relief Form is a Google Form, essentially an online survey, for students to fill in if they have had a problem either understanding or completing work. I’ve designed mine to compile the students’ names, the nature of the problem, the class, and the name of the assignment into a spreadsheet.

To avoid scenario 1 (students falling further and further behind on projects/assessments) peek at it once a day.

To avoid scenario 2 (forming student groups only to find that one or more people haven’t done the work to function productively in a group), ask students to fill it in, right away, at the beginning of class. Then, remove their names from your roster.

Create and teach students how to access a shared calendar for class.

  1. Train students to check posted announcements at the beginning of each class, even before “First Thing Work.”
  2. In the days leading up to a deadline, in announcements, request / remind that any student who has fallen behind immediately fill in the Disaster Relief Form. Link to it, right in the shared calendar.

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!