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:


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).


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 – 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?



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.

Help Combat Islamophobia With Thoughtful One-Liners.

ToleranceSome young people, following the Paris attacks, may try to make sense of our world via “One Liners” which they have read or heard – and thus perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and spread Islamophobia.

However, mid-class, when a student makes one of these sweeping statements, it may not be possible, appropriate or effective to open history books, launch into a lecture that covers 1000 years of history, or debate the student back and forth.

Sometimes, you need a thoughtful “one liner” to defuse, to reorient, to restore balance, or to move back to the curriculum without the Islamophobic One-Liner hanging unaddressed in the room. 

Below, I have included a sample of “Islamophobic One-Liners” I have seen circulating on the internet.

Your challenge: to compose a measured, calm, focused, and BRIEF response that a teacher may have at the ready. The teacher then has the option to say, “That said, let’s talk more about this another time,” or could use the phrase as the opening for a longer conversation.

After a critical mass of submissions, I will publish some of the most helpful responses and possibly open a second round of “hypothetical student statements.”

Reminder: the goal is not to compose a long, bombastic response or pick apart the students’ statement point-by-point, but to offer helpful, BRIEF, thoughtful responses. Likewise, the response must be appropriate for a classroom, so must avoid: browbeating, undercutting, and accusing the speaker of being an Islamophobe.

Thoughtful One-Liners only…

paris peaceCLICK HERE to participate. (And please share/re-post – the more voices, the better).

Two Hacks to Make Online Grading WAAAAAAY More Efficient

efficientYou remember the old grade books.

Alternating rows of green and white. Spiral bound. Tiny boxes. Numbers. Here and there, a red check.

On the one hand, it was efficient and elegant. You could grab it from the shelf, flip to a page, scan for a name and quickly enter a grade.

On the other hand, it lacked the functionality of today’s online grade books. You could not enter in-depth notes. After a correction or two, the little box was illegible (remember white-out?). It certainly did not average scores, link directly to assignments, or communicate with students.

I’d say, we’ve made some serious progress.

That said, as I grade papers online, I find that a lot of time is spent not evaluating papers, but in clicking back and forth between the grade books for various classes. Each click requires a few seconds of internet-patience and a visual reorientation, since nothing online stays where you left it.

This clicking, scanning and scrolling ads up. It’s inefficient and fatiguing. What’s the fix?

Tiny little bookmark. BIG TIME HELPFUL.

Tiny little bookmark. BIG TIME HELPFUL.

Solution 1: in your shortcuts bar, make a tiny folder, labelled with a % sign. In that folder, save the webpage of all of your classes.

Before grading anything more than a single assignment, open all three as tabs. Now, you can click back and forth between your gradebook “pages” (like in the good old days) with no need to load a new page.

Solution 2: invest in a secondary monitor. This way, you can drag your grade book to one page, and your student projects (or a second grade book page) open on the other. I’m AMAZED that I’m the only person in my office with a second monitor. Best $100 investment you can make.

tank ii

Me, grading papers with multiple screens.

Solution 3: Purchase DUET on your iPad and have a THIRD monitor! YES! Now, you have one screen for your papers, one for your grade book, and a third for a grade calculator, your students’ portfolio, whatever.


But, like, all pedagogical.

Free Students’ Minds with Free Association

poopedSelf. Text. Theme. Free Your Mind.

My 10th Grade Literature/Sociology students are studying classic texts to understand how the ancient questions are still relevant to their lives, and to “mine and undermine” the original for imagery they can deploy in expressing their own experiences.

Their art, therefore, must contain more than recognizable imagery from the text. It must contain artifacts of their lives.

Last year, however, many students balked at this idea, omitting references to their lives altogether or protesting/resisting/asing “is this ok?” over and over.

Q: How do you get students to include imagery in their art about their most significant relationships: friends, parents, frenemies, enemies, and longed-for love-objects? And to include this imagery in a way which is, on the one hand, authentic, and on the other hand, safe (not requiring them to over-expose their private lives)?

A: Free association

  1. triangleI explained WHY we were about to embark on a journey of free association: “Imagery from your own life might be hard to come up with, or it might feel like oversharing – unless your project uses “symbolic code” to depict the people in your lives.
  2. I told students that at any time, if they wanted to lag behind, skip, backtrack or work ahead, they were free to. And that they could interpret or “intentionally misinterpret” the instructions however they wished – the goal was to produce captivating imagery to symbolize important relationships in their lives.
  3. We turned off the lights. Each student had a piece of paper and a marker. I played the music of Tony Scott: zen flute, zither and clarinet.
  4. Students folded the paper in half, creating a 4-page “booklet” or card.
  5. Students write a name of someone on each page. Prompts included:
    1. Someone you have a good connection with.
    2. Someone you’re in conflict with.
    3. Someone who you WISH you had more of a connection with.
    4. Someone you USED TO have a connection with, but no longer.
  6. Students drew a circle around the first name, with three rays extending from the name.
  7. From each ray, students would write a word or draw “an ugly little symbol” (worded this way to reduce art-inferiority complexes) of:
    1. The first word/object to come to mind when you think of that person.
    2. Something that person wears, owns, hangs on the wall, or keeps on a shelf.
    3. Something that person loves or hates.
  8. Students then “mashed-up” two images or words from each page, creating a new word or new image, no matter how absurd.
  9. Students then imagined that new hybrid-concept “visiting” the classic text. Where would it go? What would it do? Who/what would it interact with — no matter how absurd.


Art is very much about images which stand in for complex subjects, often contradictory in their message and use. While experienced artists are practices in developing meaningful, rich symbology, many people find the practice confusing or overwhelming.

By releasing students from any immediate expectation, they could free their minds to create the imagery that would eventually populate their projects.

At the conclusion, I told students that they could rip up their work or take it home to mine for their projects. At the end of class, indeed, a few scraps of paper sat in the recycling bin. But many more went home with the students.

Tonight, while they sleep, I hope their subconscious creativity will inspire them further.

Teaching About Israel/Palestine During Complicated Times: Using the QOL Wheel

CoexistI teach in a Jewish school. The school is committed to teaching about Israel. The school is also committed to allowing students to form their own connections, ask their own questions, and make their own connections to Israel. This means, to me, confronting the complexities of life there, right now.

The problem: any article, written for public consumption, is biased and has an agenda. And in my Jewish Studies class, while I can devote a bit of time, now and then, to grappling with the situation in Israel, I don’t have the time for a deep dive into “how to be media savvy when reading about Israel.”

Today’s Solution:

Yesterday, we had an all-school performance by the Inside Out Contemporary Ballet company which explored the voices of dancers dealing with life in Israel and Palestine.

I built on this, starting class with the music of Yair Dalal, whose has made music with Israeli and Palestinian musicians together for many years.

We then read a personal reflection by my friend, Tamara Kaplan, wherein she describes life in Israel, and speaks frankly about the tensions and the moments of hope when Israelis and Arabs come face to face in Jerusalem today, in normal – and therefore deeply meaningful – moments. Cabs. Supermarkets.

Sometimes, it’s small talk. Other times, they talk explicitly about “the craziness.”

Says the author:

Taking the risk of being with each other, breathing a sigh of relief when we know we are safe with each other, and then getting on with the business of being normal, nice people — except that for each of us here in Jerusalem right now, every normal, nice interaction that would be forgotten in a second if we were living in normal days — [all this] is now taken into the heart as a little, precious sign that all may not be lost, and that faith between [people] may yet prevail.

QOLStudents listened to Yair Dalal and reflected on the letter, conducting a Quality of Life 360 – a system I have devised for evaluating and articulating how people cope with trauma and enrich their lives.

The prompt: How have Israelis’ and Arabs’ lives been impacted by the current situation? What are everyday people doing to cope? And what are your own thoughts, concerns, hopes and prayers?

facetofaceI was surprised at the students’ ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds, and their ability to use the categories of the Quality of Life Wheel to construct their own language to understand a very scary, overwhelming situation.

We then turned to Facebook (gasp!) and students asked questions, allowing Tamara to IM back. For a few moments, we were connected to a place far away, but very near.

15 minutes later, when every who wished to speak had spoken, we listened to the final words of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “Swords and Plowshares,” sung in Yair Dalal’s Mantra of Peace.

Then, we opened our texts, and we learned about Revelation at Mount Sinai, where God and Human both quake when they come face to face.

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.” -Yehuda Amichai

Ner-Cited: A hybrid of nervous and excited

rabbitduckYou’ve seen the drawing a million times: a duck. A rabbit. A duck. A rabbit.

The brain is amazing thing: it can take ambiguous signals and interpret them in wildly different ways.

So let’s move past rabbit-ducks for a moment and consider this scenario: a teacher, Sunday evening before the first day of school. He charges his laptop, assembles his clothes. Laundered trousers. Polished shoes. Pressed shirt. Lucky tie. Goes to bed and lays awake.

Butterflies in stomach.

A few miles away, a student lays out rows of fresh, new school supplies. Pens and notebooks, a new syncing cable for her smart-phone to replace the second one she lost (one is still in her bunk and camp, and one is under the sofa cushion). She has some new, purple Chuck Tailor Converse, had her hair done, and has a new sweater for the first day of school.

She, too. Butterflies in stomach.

Are they nervous? Excited? Both?

panicThe amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that encode threatening events into memories, have done their jobs. The student and the teacher have experienced the threats of new social situations enough times to know that stakes are high. Something could go wrong: a class could be unruly. Friends you haven’t seen in three months could be fickle. Then, the unknowns: who will sit next to you in class? Who will sit in the front row? Who will make your year a living hell?

While there is no way to avoid these anxiety-provoking situations on day one, the brain has a few tricks up its grey-matter.

The rabbit can be a duck, by choice.


The feelings one gets before a big test aren’t very different than the feelings one gets before a first date, a rock concert, even opening a gift.

In all these cases: butterflies. But we call this being “excited.” Nervousness saps your energy, weakens your morale, and can spoil your day. Excitement, on the other hand, can be harnessed to accomplish incredible things. It can turn you into a superstar. Night and day. The difference, really, is just a matter of how you look at it.

As summer comes to a close, I’d like to offer the term: ner-cited. I’m nervous, sure. But I prefer to see it as excitement.

How do I feel about the new school year? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about my new classes? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about the new initiatives I’m launching? Ner-cited.

Next time we’re entering into a strange and unknown experience, lets look that rabbit/duck-thing in the eye and shout it out loud: Get down, you adrenaline-raising ambiguous stimuli! We’re ner-cited!