Creating a Positive School Culture So That Teachers Want to Stay

By Miriam Singer, Founder of Edcouragementor

It is no surprise that teachers are leaving teaching in droves.  It is important to underscore that first and foremost, that it is not the students that they are choosing to leave.  Furthermore, it isn’t the act of teaching that is making them jump ship either.  Pandemic took an emotional toll on many people, but especially teachers, who had the emotional work on top of the academic work to perform, and it was and is exhausting.

What can schools and school leaders do to ensure that they create a culture that sustains and nourishes their teaching teams?  Read on for strategies that you can start implementing in your school today!

Pay Teachers A Fair and Liveable Wage

Let’s not neglect this giant elephant in the room first.  Teachers are qualified experts and professionals who deserve a compensation that remunerates them for the level and amount of work they perform.  Do not say you value teachers and pay them a ridiculously low wage.  Pay teachers what they are worth.  Let’s say it again louder for the folks in the back…  PAY TEACHERS WHAT THEY ARE WORTH…. Which is a lot!

Trust Your Teachers

Do not micromanage how your team is facilitating their teaching in their classrooms.  Treat them with the professional respect that they deserve, and allow them to make decisions that let their curricular creativity shine!  This means, do not adopt scripted curricula, and allow your teachers to be the pedagogical and student expert.  When you undertake your yearly evaluation of your teaching team, let your teachers be active in setting a meaningful growth goal for themselves.  Be inquisitive rather than prescriptive in your feedback, which will help your faculty reflect on their own practice, rather than taking critique.  This helps them continue this mindset throughout their career and feel like they can identify their own teaching strategies.

Have Your Teachers’ Backs with Families (Especially Rude Ones)

In a post-pandemic world, appropriate boundaries have shifted for many people, including adults. I have had parents tell me that they think it is appropriate to get a teacher’s phone number and to call them at 9 pm at night, or to text with them during the school day, or even to enter the classroom unannounced and try to have a conversation during teaching time.  Help your team maintain balance and health by being firm with the entire community about appropriate communication norms and boundaries.  And when a parent is aggressive, establish clear expectations for how they should engage with your team.  Your teachers will show appreciation for you taking the time to protect their emotional needs.

Give Them TIME Solo to Work and Plan

Teachers need time to effectively plan, grade, assess, and work on their own.  Recognize the need for this, and build it into your schedule so it is not an “extra” that teachers have to do.  For instance, if you have a narrative report card, plan a professional development day that is solely dedicated to time to write.  Knowing they have this gift of time allows teachers to catch their breaths and not feel overwhelmed by their workload.

Give them Meaningful Collaboration Time

A large part of teaching is collaboration and sharing with peers and colleagues.  Do not add any meaningless new initiatives.  Keep collaboration/PLC time focused on something meaningful with a direct connection to a teacher’s work, whether it is faculty committees, reviewing student data, talking about DEIB integration, preparing together for student-led conferences, or planning cross- curricular projects.  Make sure that the time you give for this is abundant enough for generative progress. Twenty minutes here and there does not lead to applied flow and productivity.

No Meetings that Could Have Been An Email

If a meeting isn’t used for collaboration, discussion, or connection, don’t have it!  I know it can be frustrating because some people do not read emails…  but are those same people going to be present and listening to the same information during a meeting?  Add an engagement question like, “what is your favorite way to relax?” to the end of emails and ask people to respond so you can see who has read it or not.  Another idea is to consolidate all weekly reminders into one newsletter update so you are not sending out a glut of emails and people know they have one place to check for info.  Make meetings time to work, not time to communicate AT people!

Create True Wellness Initiatives

A lot of schools say they care about their staff’s wellness, but it is truly lip service, or shallow engagement at best.  Connect and build relationships with your team.  Send them personal communication to see who they are every few days.  Remind them to take their time off, to set healthy boundaries, and to put family first.  These are true actions that create balance and wellness for teachers.

Create a Culture of Fun and Connection

Celebrate together!  Be there through hard times too.  Use humor as a balm after difficult student and parent interactions.  Some fun ideas: create a quote board of funny things kids say.  On a white board ask teachers connection questions like “Who is your celebrity crush?” to spark fun conversation in the lunchroom and staff lounge.  Make time to acknowledge each other and give one another kudos to build each other up, like snaps and shout outs and meetings.  Create a gratitude board where people can post gratitudes for one another.  I started a tradition at my school called the “Crystal Apple,” where the recipient each week passes it along to another colleague, and then we publish and photo and the reason their fellow teacher believed they deserve it.  It feels like passing along love and support.

Show Appreciation to Your Team Using All Four Love Languages

We know that humans have different preferences for giving and receiving love.  Some people love tangible gifts, while others prefer acts of service.  Some enjoy words of affirmation, while others enjoy a hug.  Ask your teachers what motivates them and helps them rally during difficult times so you can tailor your support to each teacher using their preferred ‘love language.”

Allow Teachers to Lead and Share their Voices

Teachers are the backbone of any school.  Allow all teachers to give feedback, as they can make excellent suggestions that are student-centered and allow the school program to grow and flourish.  Allow them to give input on pivotal school reforms and decisions as their opinions can help the initiatives become more robust.  A school with strong teacher leaders is a strong school, period.

And this is just the start.  Be sure to share this article with your staff, and see if they have additional ideas that would work for your community and beyond.  And then share the wealth back, so we can all learn!


Is Grading Getting In The Way Of Learning?

by guest Edcouragementor Samuel Young

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“When asking a student what they got out of a class, they often say their grade.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools

This is tragic. The sad reality is that grading kills creativity. Just writing this will result in me losing some followers, I’m sure of it. That’s ok, it has to be said. To be honest, several years ago even I would have disagreed…

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with twice-exceptional kids in a variety of manners. What I found is that when I was wearing my academic teacher hat, I was often too rigid and focused on standards, rubrics, and grading. Tragically, I would squeeze the fun out of learning because I was so caught up in what I thought school had to look like.

Education is a funny thing, isn’t it? In a TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson, he jokes that if you tell someone at a dinner party that you work in education, they run for the hills to avoid the dull conversation. However, if you ask someone what they think about education, they will practically trap you and talk your ear off.

School is one of those things that everyone’s experienced and has strong opinions about. Within education, grading is one of those things that I, like many others, always thought had to be a certain way simply because they had always been that way. It was as if I could not conceptualize core classes being run any other way.

On the other hand, when I taught my automotive shop class or took students abroad, I focused less on grades and was able to focus more on learning. When I was focusing on meaningful, authentic learning, the kids just did better. It was like the less I tried, the better we all did. At the time, I didn’t get it. Now, looking back, it’s so obvious. My projections of how student mastery should be measured could not have been more off. I was too caught up in letter grades. It wasn’t until later that I was largely able to abandon grades.

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Now, before you burn me at the stake, I’m not saying that some students aren’t extrinsically motivated and that grades don’t have their place. What I am saying it that learning is so much bigger than grading and that we need to wake up and look beyond grades.

What we need is a shift from grading to assessing. Students need to be given personalized feedback. The feedback should take into consideration students’ two halves: their strengths and areas of difficulty. While the feedback should be modeled and overseen by the teacher, it should largely come from peers.

Learning how to effectively offer and receive constructive peer-to-peer critiques is one of the most important things that we can teach our kids. Being equipped to not only evaluate the performances of others, but to receive feedback from others is a life skill that many adults don’t master, but need to 😉

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Much of the research shows that we need to empower our students to critique themselves. Programs around the world are finding that when students are able to create the criteria upon which they are evaluated, it leads to much more meaningful assessments. Moreover, when students are then asked to evaluate their own performance, they often pick up on things that their teachers do not. This form of constant self-reflection leads students to become better critical thinkers because they are often stopping, pausing, reflecting, analyzing, and adjusting.

To wrap up this open letter to the educational community I’d like to set 2 intentions:

  1. We need to grade less and learn more.
  2. We need to empower our students to evaluate themselves and better offer/receive constructive feedback with/from others 

At Young Scholars Academy, we’ve worked hard to commit to these 2 intentions. In fact, we’ve completely done away with grading. We exist as an enrichment program that seeks to do just that, enrich. We sincerely believe that the most important kind of learning is the learning that kids love to do. In order to foster this type of learning, we’ve moved as far away from grades as possible. If one were to enter our classes, they would be shocked that there are no grades, yet we get our students to work harder than ever.

How, you might ask? Because they are learning for the sake of learning! They feel safe to put take risks because they know their classmates will support them, not judge them. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a healthy level of fun competition, but it’s really all about students falling in love with learning and becoming intrinsically motivated. At the end of the day, our students know that at the end of each class they’re going to share their progress with their classmates and they’re going to be lifted-up and challenged.

Samuel Young, MEd, is a growth-minded, two-time Fulbright Scholar and Director of Young Scholars Academy, a strength-based, talent-focused virtual enrichment center that supports twice-exceptional students and their families. Samuel is a neurodivergent educator who has ADHD. Before founding Young Scholars Academy, Samuel taught in a variety of capacities—including nearly a decade at Bridges Academy—at an array of programs in the US, Europe, and Asia. Travel and culture are near and dear to him.

10 Ways to Come Back to School Post Pandemic, Inspired, Healthy, and Motivated

Let’s be real: the pandemic has not been kind to teachers.  I still remember that fateful and horrific day, Friday, March 13th, 2020 (yes, it was fittingly Friday the 13th) when our school made the decision to go home and teach remotely on Zoom.  After a heroic and maddash of two professional development days in which we came up with a plan to teach from home, we went live on Zoom.  Not knowing the serious scourge that COVID presented, we all thought we’d be back on campus in two weeks.  

Ha!  Now, more than two years later, and in a world where COVID still presents risks and challenges, we can look back and see how naive that assumption was.  And the challenges were not insignificant.  We braved students who wouldn’t put their screens on and engage, saw the raw and real home lives our students live, dealt with parents with lack of boundaries, experienced zoom fatigue, and longed for the essential human connection that being in person provides.  But we were also scrappy and resilient, learning new technological ways to empower our students and help them adapt to new learning circumstances.  We provided social emotional support in entirely new ways.  And we also learned new curricular best practices along the way.

When we were finally able to venture back onto campus for a hybrid situation in March 2021, we were masked, and it was difficult for our students to hear us behind the partitions.  Hugging and high fives were forbidden, and we had to stay 6 feet apart at all times.  This created a culture of separation and fear.  While we and students were all happy to be back, new challenges reared their ugly heads: student learning loss, social emotional challenges, and lacking a feeling of cohesive community.  Yet, teachers persevered and handled this new set of setbacks with grace and love in their hearts for their students.

Now, after more than two years, we have a better understanding of COVID, but an endemic has not been declared yet.  And teachers are tired.  The cognitive and physical stress of the constant changes and doing something that we were never trained to do have had their toll.  Teachers are leaving the field in droves seeking greener pastures or just something different.

If you decide to leave teaching, that is understandable, and this is a judgment free zone.  However, I will also say we need teachers now more than ever.  Children are hurting from pandemic and need those loving and talented folks who can teach, inspire, and support them academically and emotionally.  Although you may feel like your well is dry, many of you have made the brave decision to stay and to serve the children in your community.  Here are some suggestions for ways to preserve your own mental and physical well-being and to come back to this year motivated and ready to face the year.

Rewind and Reflect Think back, why did you become a teacher in the first place?  Is that reason still valid?  If so, what are ways you can preserve and actualize that goal?  Digging deep and knowing our “why” gives us meaning and allows us to direct our energy towards making a true difference in the lives of our students.

Find A Fan Club With all that teachers are doing and facing, it can be draining.  We need positive encouragement, just like we offer to our students, to keep up our momentum and drive. Find positive people that champion your successes and cheer you on through difficult patches, be it supportive admin, a partner, friends, a therapist, or family.  Words of affirmation can buoy us when times get rough.

Accept Your Feelings Don’t feel like you have to be positive all the time.  That is toxic.  Acknowledge your feelings, and think through how you can address sadness, fear, or anger by making changes for yourself or by talking to others about it.  If writing is meaningful to you, journal your feelings to work through them.

Be Realistic As aforementioned, students are coming back to the classroom with a whole host of new challenges.  Try your best, but do not kill yourself trying to solve all of the world’s problems.  Be realistic and set manageable goals.  Give yourself grace.  A good admin will understand what teachers are facing and have realistic expectations about student progress as well.

Connect with a Teacher Wellness Buddy Whether it’s the teacher next door or someone you meet in an online teacher Facebook group, find someone who understands what you are going through and make a commitment to check in on one another once a week.  Don’t make it a pity party, but uplift your wellness buddy with kindness and support.  Having someone who has gone through the same experience as you makes for an excellent sounding board and support.

Focus on Your Students A teacher is always juggling multiple responsibilities.  When you are feeling burnt out and exhausted, tune out the external noise and focus on connecting with your students.  Positive connections allow us to recalibrate, and give us an emotional boost.  Find something, even if it’s not academic, to allow you to connect joyfully with students.

Set a Meaningful PD Goal When you go through your observation cycle, advocate with your administrator to pursue something you are truly interested in as your annual professional development goal.  Maybe you were inspired by some new tech over pandemic.  Or conversely, maybe you are sick of tech, and want to focus on your student’s social emotional development.  Whatever would give you satisfaction to work on, pursue this goal.

Reintroduce your Passions In a similar vein, think about what gives you the most happiness to teach in the classroom, and find ways to integrate more of that into your work.  Maybe you love doing student centered work; if so, double down on project based learning lessons.  Or maybe you love teaching with games; if that’s you think about ways to gamify your curriculum.  If it sparks joy, do it more!

Relax and Recharge Although I am a natural born extrovert, being an educator and mother the pandemic made me realize that I actually need a lot more time to myself, where I do not have to prioritize or take care of anyone other than myself.  Definitely take time just for you and do whatever it is you need to relax or recharge, be it exercise, read, take a bath, nap, hike, write, or whatever your preferred activity is.

Preserve Boundaries The bizarre thing about the pandemic was that boundaries shifted.  School was home, and home was school.  We didn’t even have a commute to unwind and decompress after a day of teaching.  For those of us with kids, childcare weirdly became enmeshed with our day of teaching.  With this unhealthy, amorphous mix of time, space, and care, now that we are back at school, it is important to reestablish healthy boundaries.  Obviously we still have some grading and planning responsibilities after our day of teaching ends, but be mindful of how much time your spending working, and be prudent about how you are managing your teaching load.  And unless it’s a true emergency, it will always be there tomorrow.

I know it’s not rocket science, but I hope that a few of these suggestions were timely reminders for you as you process the past few years of your teaching career.  I hope you take care of yourself, and celebrate all of the challenges that you have overcome, for, dear teacher, are fierce and amazing!

Detoxifying the Culture of Overachievement in Education by guest Edcouragementor Michael Wilt

Problem:  The culture of overachievement can be toxic

The culture of overachievement is seemingly founded upon a positive attribute: higher expectations.  Specifically in education, however, this foundation has developed many toxic traits that often reduce the learning experience into an entirely transactional process. Students perform educational tasks and receive payment in the form of letter grades.  Their achievements in education are then measured entirely in a number — the grade point average.  The higher the Grade Point Average (GPA), the more the student has achieved.  

As educators, we know that learning is more than just a number.  GPA can be an indicator of how well a student has mastered content.  It does, however, fail to give a very well-rounded picture of the many other dimensions of a student’s performance in the classroom.  The toxicity arises in school cultures when stakeholders focus primarily on making their students’ numbers better than others.

In a culture of toxic overachievement, grades become the most important–if not only – indicator of success.   In education, we reinforce the value that we place upon high GPAs  with accolades and honors we bestow upon students–honor rolls, enrollment in honors level courses and Advanced Placement classes, as well as valedictorian distinction, etc.  These accolades and honors provide all stakeholders with status–students, parents, and schools.  

For toxic overachieving students, status drives many academic behaviors – constantly seeking grade adjustments, enrolling in a course just to be with friends, pursuing achievement in areas outside of their areas of interest, etc.  Students in a culture of toxic overachievement have learned to seek knowledge as a means of personal and social capital.  Oftentimes, they tie their self-esteem to their grades.  Some may fear parents withholding love from them for not achieving certain grades (and, unfortunately, sometimes there is truth to this fear).  Others have a fear of being academically left behind by their friends or unable to achieve their academic goals, because they are not enrolled in a certain course or program.   Any of the given statuses would motivate a student to be a toxic overachiever.  

Status drives many toxic overachieving parent and educator behaviors as well.  Faculty and parents want the status of talking about how high students’ grades are.  College counsellors want to talk about how many particular universities and colleges admitted their students.  Principals want to quote statistics about how many of their valedictorians have gone to a particular Ivy League school.  Parents want to brag about how many Honors or Advanced Placement courses their student is enrolled in.  Parents want to compare the number of after school commitments their students have, the number of sports they play, or the number of awards they have won.  Any of these examples would incur a certain amount of status upon any stakeholder in the school.  In a toxic culture of overachievement, accumulating more and more remarkability would subsequently incur exponential amounts of status—in essence, compounded status.  Since gaining status is a primary motivator for toxic overachievement, the culture seeks ways of incurring status upon status to bolster status by association for all stakeholders.  Parents and teachers thus enjoy the rosy halo effect of having a high achiever within a pool of high achievers.

As such, toxicity can be pervasive in a school culture where overachievement is the norm.  Recognizing it can be easy, but detoxifying might not be as easy.  Oftentimes, denial is comorbid with toxic overachievement.  Toxic overachievers often lack the awareness that they are indeed toxic overachievers.  To detoxify overachievement in a school’s culture, one must first recognize its existence.  Once it is recognized, then, and only then, can it be flushed out.  To do so, recognizing the solution is simple.  The implementation, however, is the tricky part. 

Solution:  Develop the joy of learning.  

Beautiful oopsies.  Growth mindset.  Whatever you want to call it, the joy of learning comes from accepting the fact that eventually we all make errors in the process and we are all on our own personal journeys of development in that process.  Toxic overachievement treats failure as the enemy.  As educators seeking to detoxify overachievement, we know that the more mistakes we make, the more we learn.  The more we learn, the more we minimize mistakes as we master a discipline.  Error can instead be the enemy that we keep very close to our chest.

Detoxifying overachievement means understanding that we learn just as much — if not more – from our failures as we do from our successes. The more we learn about a discipline, the better we get at mastering the processes that help us better learn it.  We are therefore constantly iterating better versions of ourselves as we err.  To detoxify overachievement, we must model this for our school’s community–students, parents, colleagues, etc.  We can inform students and parents on topics like student development, social/emotional wellness, and neurodiversity.  We also can seek professional development opportunities in those topics as well.  Instead of seeking out the status of having learned, we can seek out the joy in the process of learning.

This is easier written—or for that matter said — than done.  Finding joy in the process of learning can be difficult — especially when most toxic overachievers tie success to being good and failure to being bad.  This is a fixed mindset that we must overcome in order to detoxify overachievement.  To foster the joy in learning, we must recognize where our students are developmentally and validate the emotional experience that comes along with the detoxification process.  We must have an inventory of strategies and tools to support our students as they detoxify.  Below is a list of 5 strategies that will support students in a toxic culture of overachievement and encourage a more joyful learning experience: 

  1. Develop lessons and curricula based upon student interests and real life relevance.  Abstraction and rigor have their place in secondary education, but so does relevance.  As students transition from the concrete to formal operational stages of cognitive development, their zones of proximal development usually need motivation from practical and tangible tasks and problems.  Even cognitively advanced students can appreciate the depth and breadth that a practical application can contribute to the learning experience.  The joy of learning here comes from the synthesis and creation of a more personalized educational experience.
  1. Offer time and space for prompted reflection and contemplation.  Considering the intense focus upon outcomes in a culture of toxic overachievement, many stakeholders often take little or no time to consistently and intentionally reflect upon the process of learning.  Due to normalization toward neurotypical teaching and learning strategies, oftentimes many neuroatypical students in a culture of toxic overachievement can get lost in the constant focus on outcomes and status.  Instead of being present in the learning experience, students- neurotypical and atypical alike- can get pulled into a depressive state about past grades or an anxious state about an upcoming assessment.  Thoughtful, prompted reflection provides a routine for pulling toxic overachievers into the present and focuses them on the process of learning.  
  1. Offer multidimensional and growth based metrics for defining student achievement in the classroom.  As addressed above, grades are not the end-all-be-all for measuring student performance in the classroom.  Toxic overachievers value them so highly because they are based 100% in outcomes and offer a quick snapshot of status.  Those of us looking to detoxify overachievement understand that in a classroom, there is more going on than merely seeing the total number of points earned out of the total number of possible points.  Grades offer fixed points whose outcome can vary according to a student’s emotional state, the temperature of the room, or even the weather outside.  They fail to take into account the most fundamental element of learning- growth.  Toxic overachievers may be so focused on outcomes that they may fail to realize subtle improvements in their learning.  To detoxify overachievement, we have to shift the seeking of status over another to seeking growth from one’s self yesterday to their selves of today.  Multidimensional and growth metrics for learning should reference criteria and not norms.  To detoxify overachievement, stakeholders should compare a student’s learning outcomes to his, her, or their own and no one else’s.  We can assess factors such as student interest in a topic, a student’s ability to use the language of the discipline, a student’s ability to solve problems in the discipline, a student’s ability to work at a level of cognitive depth within the discipline, etc.  There is and should not be a one size fits all approach to measuring student learning and each metric should be 100% based upon the individual student.
  1. Warmly deliver social, emotional, and academic support to students with learning differencese.g. neurodiverse students, students dealing with personal trauma, or students with other developmental constraints or needs.  In a culture of toxic overachievement, students with learning differences are often ignored or disregarded.  Educators enmeshed in the toxic culture of overachievement may fail to take into account or fail to see how the unique learning needs of students with learning differences serve in the detoxification process.  Recognizing and accommodating learning differences in the classroom communicates the importance of maintaining a mindset of growth and provides equity to students whose circumstances do not necessarily set them up for the usual definition of achievement in toxic overachievement.  As teachers, we can model warmth and understanding for our students with learning differences.  We can help them recognize that whatever the inference with their learning is, it does not define their worth as a learner.  
  1. Look for reasons to celebrate learning, while allowing students the space to process negative feelings regarding failure.  During our detoxification from overachievement, we must allow for all of the feelings that come along with the experience to present—related to both failure and success.  Simply forcing a student to focus only on the “bright side” without providing them space to process their feelings regarding failure completely gaslights their experience.  Expecting students to only focus on the positive, feeds into the toxicity by providing students with another expected outcome to meet- i.e. students must only celebrate their failures because the teacher expects them to do so.  Instead, as we detoxify overachievement, we should recognize both the clouds and their silver lining.  We can provide a safe space for reflection and offer ourselves as sounding boards for processing.  We can choose language that recognizes and validates the spectrum of emotional experiences regarding learning.  We can value open and honest feedback.  We can model healthy emotional expression and processing.  We can refer students out to other professionals who are more equipped to meet their needs in extreme cases of emotional expression.  We can provide our students with unconditional presence as they develop emotional resilience and learn to take away growth from each learning experience.  

Detoxifying a culture of overachievement is by no means an easy task.  Overachievement is ingrained into a culture that values outcome over process.  Toxic overachievement is rooted entirely in the status of those outcomes for one student over another.  To detoxify a culture of overachievement requires thoughtful planning of curriculum and instruction and mindful management of student behavior.  

As educators, we can recognize toxic thoughts and behaviors and model a mindset of growth, inclusion, and authenticity.  We can create classroom routines and procedures that encourage thoughtful and reflective practices in our disciplines.  We can provide all students with a least restrictive environment that helps them better understand their own interests and learning needs.  We can develop a community of overachievers, whose primary focus is achieving more of themselves today than they did yesterday.  We can develop a community of learners who are only seeking status for their future selves over their past selves.

Michael Wilt teaches Honors Geometry and Algebra 2 at the Harker School in San Jose, California.  In his spare time, he enjoys watching television, being outdoors, anything to do with food, and exercising.  His life’s passion is helping people achieve a more balanced physical, mental, and spiritual lifestyle.

The Secret Ingredients to Catalyze Learning: Stoking Student Motivation- by guest Edcouragementor Ian Tindell

How can I get my students open to learning? As a teacher, this is one of the most crucial questions of my job. The question of motivation supersedes that of even content. It does not matter what I am trying to teach my students. If they are not motivated to learn, the content does not matter. Some students seem to be easy. These are the students who contribute actively and jump to participate as soon as the learning activities begin. If only we could clone those students. Others seem to be difficult. They zone out when you’re speaking and never seem to put in more than the bare minimum of effort, if even that. These are the ones that can keep a teacher up at night. So how do we get these students engaged? How do we motivate all of our students?

 Physical Environment

One of the most crucial decisions you can make before your students even step in the room is the desk arrangement. Do you prefer columns and rows? For many teachers, this is their natural inclination and it makes sense because if students are all faced one direction and on their own little “island,” they will be less easily distracted.  As a principle of motivation, however, I believe creating groupings can be more dynamic. First, I believe it promotes natural collaboration. Do I want my students listening to what I say? Of course. But I have found that one of the best ways for students to process information is to talk it over and collaborate with their peers and I’ve always felt the island effect makes this more difficult. 

Creating desk groupings at the beginning of the year is always a crapshoot, so you have to be flexible and adaptive if one of your early groupings clearly does not work. Once you get to know the students, however, groupings can be much more purposeful. Will a student be more motivated if they are sitting at a table group with a key friend or do they need a group that will settle them down? Will a student who is struggling be motivated by sitting next to a student who is not? Strategic table groupings can produce remarkable results. 

Emotional Environment

Even more important than the physical environment you create is the emotional one. Do your students feel supported? Are you able to connect with them? A student in a connected,  supportive environment is more likely to thrive. While there are many ways to achieve this, I’m going to focus on two easy to implement strategies centered on beginning class. 

The daily transition into class is probably the most important five minutes of a teacher’s day. This is when you set the tone and tenor that you hope the rest of the day will mirror. In every class I teach, no matter the grade level or subject, I always begin with a “transition challenge.” In principle, it functions the same as “bell work,” which is making sure that when the students come into the classroom, they immediately have something they can work on. I’ve done bell work directly tied to the curriculum and it has worked well. If you have a shorter class (50 minutes or so) then this is a great place to start. My classes are on the longer side, however, (70 minutes) and I’ve discovered that the transition challenge works even better as a source of emotional motivation. Transition challenges are fun. They’re rebus puzzles or anagrams or riddles or lists (how many states don’t contain the letter ‘a’?), etc. I have a variety that I pull from and I rotate them around so that I don’t do the same type of puzzle back to back. My students love starting class this way. Not only does it immediately focus them and get them critically thinking, but they have a chance to start with something fun. It might seem odd to say that having fun is an emotional motivator but doing activities such as these provide a way for students to connect with the classroom environment in ways they might not otherwise. What kind of environment are you creating? If fun is part of that equation then your students will more readily emotionally connect with you as an educator as well as the course as a whole. 

After the transition challenge, we always do a moment of reflection. At the beginning of the year, I have students respond to a prompt by writing something on a notecard. The first prompt was what they were hopeful for as we entered a new school year. Another prompt was for them to find a meaningful quote. Most recently, my students had to write something they liked about themselves. When we get to the moment of reflection, I choose one of the previously written cards and the student who wrote the card has to stand up and read it aloud to the class. This can be a little scary for some kids, especially at the beginning of the year, but I’ve found that as the year has gone on, many of the students actually look forward to reading their cards. As the spotlight is on them for a moment, I take the time to ask them questions about what they read. One of my students recently said that the thing he liked most about himself was the fact that he was athletic. So I asked him what sports he plays. This led to a mini discussion about football, how he wants to try out for the high school team next year, and that he really wants to be a running back. This is a student who typically does not speak much in class. Yet in this moment, I got him to speak about himself and demonstrated that I cared about who he was outside of his ability to complete assignments for my class. 

These two transition techniques are rather simple but they are effective. By getting the students to start with something fun and putting aside a moment to learn about who my students are as people, I’ve created an environment in which the students can feel connected emotionally. By hooking them before we’ve even started to discuss content, I’ve already motivated them to listen to what I have to say. 

A Student-Centered Approach

There is no greater way to motivate your students than to provide them with voice and choice within your classroom. While this can take on many forms, I’ll keep my focus on one of the most simple: asking questions. In one form or another, the standard practice of many teachers is to assign questions that students have to answer. Teachers probably do this at every grade level and in virtually every subject. And, sometimes, this is absolutely the necessary way to go. Often, however, I like to flip this technique on its head and take the student-centered approach. 

Ok, assign the reading, sure, but instead of assigning questions for the students to respond to, their assignment here is to ask the questions and provide the answers themselves. The first time I ever give this assignment to my students, they’re equal parts blown away and confused. “You mean, we can ask whatever questions we want?” As a teacher, it actually makes a lot of sense. If I teach 6th graders about ancient Egypt, what do I really want the long term result to be? Do I want them to remember Queen Hatshepsut and why her reign was unique? At the moment, sure, but long term? There will come a point in their lives where that bit of knowledge will be rather useless. As a history teacher, I have to admit that point will probably come sooner than I would like. Maybe even tomorrow. But what if I taught my students to be critical thinkers? What if I taught them to ask questions while they read? That, I would argue, is far more valuable and long lasting than any particular fact. “You mean, we can ask whatever questions we want?” Yes, that’s exactly the idea.

Naturally, the next instinct is always, “so we can just ask easy questions then?” Ah, there it is, the loophole. I haven’t motivated my students to properly use this technique yet. In order to motivate them to do it well, first, it’s always a good idea to demonstrate the difference between a good question and a poor question. Provide your students with a small reading sample on the board and follow it with two questions. Which question is the better one and why? On top of this, however, I do two things. First, I make a rule – you can’t ask questions where the answer is a name or a number. Next, I say that the best answers will be chosen to go on a quiz or a test. This is when my students really perk up. Now they know they have to hit a certain quality and, if they do, the test is going to be way easier for them. One of the great things I’ve discovered using this technique is a pattern often emerges among the answers, many of the students asking generally the same things. This clues me into what they’re focusing on and it allows me to generate a more meaningful assessment. If they seem to be skipping over something I want them to focus on? Great! Now I can adapt future lessons accordingly because of the student feedback I’ve already gotten about the effectiveness of the text. Overall, I have found this technique to motivate my students to read and respond to text in a much more natural and meaningful way as they become an active participant in their own learning. 

In Summary

Motivating students can sometimes seem like an impossible challenge. If they don’t already care about what I have to say, how can I ever get them to come around? Thoughtful seating arrangements, creating personal connections, and a student-centered approach are great places to start. These techniques are not exclusive, however, and they are certainly not exhaustive. Be critical of your approach. Be open to trying things differently or admitting that one approach might not be working at all. The more you ask questions and experiment, the more likely you’ll find the right fit between you and your students. Remember that you should never start by asking “what am I teaching my students?” Start with “how and why?”

Guest Edcouragementor Ian Tindell has over a decade of experience working with many different types of students throughout the greater Los Angeles area. As an AmeriCorps member straight out of college, Ian worked at a K-8 school in South Central, which was his introduction to the world of education. Later, Ian became a lead Humanities teacher working with twice-exceptional students for 8.5 years at Bridges Academy where he was also the head cross country and track coach. He has a teaching credential in English and a Master’s Degree in Education. He currently teaches Social Studies at Chaminade College Preparatory Middle School in Chatsworth, CA while raising two young boys of his own with his lovely wife. 

“Science Is Something Anyone Can Do!”

Post By Guest Blogger Kyle Rubalcava

On the first day of school every year, I like to open my classes with a simple question: “What is science to you?” Admittedly, it’s an opportunity for me to get to know the students’ names, but it also presents an opportunity for me to gauge where the students are at in terms of their understanding of and perspective on science. Unsurprisingly with kids, their answers are wide and varied. Boilerplate responses checking off the different fields such as “Chemistry,” “Physics,” and “Biology” crop up frequently, and I would posit such answers are a result of the traditions and thinking of an older generation that defined “Science” as such. Other answers will genuinely astound me; I have had students discuss the composition of matter in detail or note connections between various processes like the water, carbon, and rock cycles.

What the latter answers demonstrate is an emerging grasp of the interconnectivity of scientific understanding. There is an interplay between the various fields of science, such as how chemistry follows the laws of thermodynamics outlined in physics. Science can interact with other fields outside of the traditional STEM umbrella in areas like literature, art, and architecture (hence why I emphasize the importance of adopting a STEAM-based approach to learning). In truth, all of these answers are technically correct but I find them to be a bit strict in their thinking, a sort of “in-the-box” approach to the question.

Ultimately, what I strive to impress on my students is that science is all around us. Science is not bound to a specific field of study, but rather a systematic approach to critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving. I tell my students that I am no scientist, that I equate that sort of role to someone doing actual research in a lab setting, publishing papers, and engaging with the general rigmarole of academia. What I emphasize is that I am a “sciencer”—a faux word for someone who is innately in love with learning how the world works and operates.

The Next Generation Science Standards seek to impress a similar approach to science. Emphasizing critical thinking, adaptive evidence-based learning, and looking at the crosscutting science can have with other fields, it has truly redefined what science education can be. However, standards are just that—standards. They are guidelines to follow, but it is up to teachers to develop a curriculum to meet those standards, encourage inquiry in their students, and get kids to love science.

In my seemingly brief seven-years-and-counting as an educator, I have developed and taught a variety of different curricula with Chemistry and Earth Science being the more vanilla of the options. Biomimicry was a fun unit exploring how life can relate to and inspire our modern world. However, what I am truly most proud of as an educator was my Physics/Engineering course: Maker’s Space. It fully encapsulated the strengths and framework of the NGSS and truly gave students an inquiry-based approach to learning. While I no longer teach the course as I have since moved on to newer pastures, I still reminisce about the days in those classes.

A unit often began with a central theme, topic, or concept. From there, students would receive an introductory lesson exploring key vocabulary and the theory of the central topic or idea. After that, they were given a challenge to meet and the materials to craft a project that they would then design, build, test, assess, and refine. When the class could meet the requirements of the first challenge, a new one was given to them that built upon their new knowledge. This series of increasing challenges kept students on their toes while adapting to new insights and boundaries.

Key amongst these units was the “Aerodynamics” unit. Students were introduced to the basics of Bernoulli’s Principle (that slower particles pushing on the bottom of a wing create lift) before being tasked to construct three different paper airplanes. While I provided the paper and folding assistance when needed, the students were otherwise on their own to gather designs and build their airplanes. Once the class had a complete set, I had them go outside and throw their planes.

Now, as much fun as chucking a paper airplane may be, it was not for nothing. During these tests, I provided a sheet to my students for them to draw and describe individual plane designs while writing down observations about that specific plane’s flight path and trajectory. I told them to make careful observations about speed, airtime, and any sorts of spins or turns they saw. They would jot down notes, share their feats and glories amongst each other, and we would have a class discussion at the tables outside about their notes. Correlations would be made about how nose/wing shapes affected the speed and path of a plane, but to test those hypotheses, I would invite them into two additional challenges. One was to see whose plane could go the farthest, and another to see whose plane could stay in the air the longest. This required them to reflect on their tests and make a decision based on the data they had gathered. This also invited further discussion amongst them when looking at the general form factor of each plane they chose for each of these new challenges and assessing the winning plane compared to the others in the group.

It is through an activity such as this that the act of making and throwing a paper airplane (something that would have assuredly gotten a kid in trouble in another era) could be turned into a student-led, inquiry-based approach to exploring concepts within aerodynamics. Following our paper airplane activities, we would dive into making foam gliders, which then presented its own set of trials and tribulations. Students had a more rigid material and creativity in wing design to work with, but it also meant there needed to be more precision and intent in their designs. From there, we explored alternative modes of flight with boomerangs and introduced the concept of angular momentum. We explored the similarities of boomerangs to planes and how boomerangs are essentially two wings connected at a single point. As before, students were allowed to build and test their own boomerangs, often to more varied results than the planes.

The unit culminated in an exploration of rockets. On a fundamental level, they follow the same laws of aerodynamics that planes do, but their inherent design acts in a different measure. Whereas a plane’s wings provide lift and keep it in the air, a rocket’s winglets are for stability. Whereas students could throw their planes, we were now launching rockets using the launcher from a “stomp rocket” set. Whereas students could build any shape they wanted in past activities, they had to build around a 500-mL bottle and turn it into an aerodynamic shape.

This is where the students’ creativity in designs truly flourished, and it was always great to see what they could do. Some students elected to use the opening of the bottle as the launching point, adding a pointed cone to the bottom. Others elected to cut off the top quarter of the bottle and attach it to the bottom, creating a pointed nose in the process. One year, I even had a group of students create a rocket that evoked the shape and form of a squid. It, unfortunately, did not fly all that well, but it sure looked good while I was airborne.

Regardless of what they built, students were encouraged in every challenge to gather data, discuss amongst each other, and refine their projects for another test. What they were often engaging in, whether or not they knew it, was the scientific method. The design and scope of the course were never as simple as a standard lab report denoting the various sections of the scientific method. I made every effort to organically weave those components into various aspects of the challenges and projects.

Beyond that, every project was designed to allow students to explore other facets of the science. If a student was still developing their fine motor skills, they could draw up a design for someone else to build. If they had difficulties thinking and working abstractly and designing/building came to them secondarily, I would encourage that they put together the end-of-unit presentation for their group’s final project detailing the more concrete aspects of the creation process. This was in an effort to empower their own individual learning style and help them realize how they might best work within a group setting. This also helped them recognize areas they needed support in and how to develop groups with others based on the strengths they could provide.

Other units in the course included kinematics, fluid dynamics, electricity, and engineering. Each unit followed a similar framework as noted above with accompanying challenges building off of the knowledge and successes of past ones. While my own true passion will always lie within the realm of ecology, Maker’s Space was an encapsulation of what I love about science and what I hope my students will love about it too. It was a course designed to encourage creative thinking, evidence-based decisions, and problem-solving. It emphasized collaboration, communication, and crosscutting amongst the students. While NGSS has been around longer than I have been teaching, I reflect back on my education in the absence of NGSS and wonder if a class like Maker’s Space would have been allowed in an earlier time. How would my view on science be different if my own education emphasized scientific exploration as opposed to rote memorization?

But with where we are now, we have to ask ourselves, “how can we continue to make science fun and engaging for our students? How can we continue to challenge them in new and innovative ways?” Every year, I open up my classes with that same age-old question, “what is science?” One year, I hope to see all of their responses be something akin to “Science is something anyone can do!”

About Our Guest Blogger

Kyle Rubalcava is a proud UCLA graduate and passionate middle school science teacher. Having started his career teaching Chemistry, Physics, and Biology to twice-exceptional students in Studio City, CA, he is now teaching Earth Science at a private school out in Pasadena, CA. In his off time, he enjoys long hikes, longer drives along the coast, and taking photos around Southern California.

Why Restorative Justice and Community Matter More than Ever in the Era of School Shootings


This morning, like every morning when I park in the lot of the middle school where I am an assistant principal, questions flood my head in anticipation of the coming day. Which students will need academic support and interventions today?  How can I best coach that teacher with her long-term lesson planning in our meeting to increase her students’ learning?  On which students should I perform an in-class observation to offer extra feedback? Never in all my years as an educator did I consider that a new question should now come to mind: How do we as a school keep our students safe from gun violence?  

As disheartening as that question is, I find it equally alarming that for many the kneejerk reaction is to create a system where they judge their students and the potential level of threat they warrant.  I instead would like to seek alternatives to creating communities laced with fear. It is natural for a student, parent, or teacher to feel fearful in the wake of senseless school shootings, but I personally cannot let that fear govern my bedrock belief that all students come to school to seek personal betterment and belonging.

A sociological article that I read examining the recent wave of school shootings asked the important question of why these shootings are happening.  It also asked the reader to explore what teachers’ and schools’ responses to children are. The article opined that “how teachers understand the children and youth they teach has important educational consequences. Are students budding citizens or future workers? Are they plants to nourish or clay to mold?”  The article mentioned that some schools are now undergoing staff trainings on “threat assessment,” or telling teachers what troubling indicators to look for in their students that might be the telltale sign that a student is a shooter. I have to believe that there is a better way of preventing violence without dehumanizing our students and viewing them as warning indicators and statistics.

I am not naive to believe that there is a quick fix or magical solution for eradicating violence in our schools, however there are several approaches that I am committed to because they not only make schools safer places to be, they also make schools better places for students to grow and thrive.  The first approach is ensuring that schools are communities of caring: a school should be place where every child feels connected to at least one adult who they know will care for their basic needs and advocate for them. In order to make this a priority at our school in the days after the major shootings we designated a professional development session where we posted every student from our school’s name on the wall.  Teachers silently walked around marking up the pages with two different color pens. One color ink indicated consistent positive interactions with the student. A second color indicated negative interactions with the student. When all of the teachers and staff had circulated around the room and identified their relationships with the students, we highlighted any student who had no positive markings or no markings at all by their names.  We then had a teacher step up to volunteer to become an advocate for the neglected student. We, as a team, are committed to the idea that every student should have a positive interaction with an adult at school every day. And I know some students are challenging, and take a little bit more patience but I have seen time and time again how this demonstration of care changes student’s perspectives and motivations.

Our school champions another approach to making our community safe for all members through the faithful implementation of restorative justice circles.  These convenings are based on the ideology that through safe and honest communication our staff can foster conversations among students, teachers, and community members to repair harm done and to build understanding among the participants.  In a circle, there is no hierarchy, and the facilitator supports participants in speaking about how they feel and their motivations, and how they can repair broken trust or relationships. Some construe circles as “touch-feely,” ineffective, or not “true justice.”  I’ve heard the critiques before, but believe that they come from a lack of understanding of the process. Students still receive consequences for breaking the rules; the circles merely supplement the discipline process by going to the root causes of altercations and allowing students to rebuild trust through healthy communication patterns.  Having students and adults meet in places of understanding and strengthen their relationships is imperative to making a school a functional place of learning, since as educational theorist Maria Montesorri stated, “learning is a social act.”

Our amazing counselor, Alyssa Campos, is committed to training our staff in running these circles, and the results that she has collected speak for themselves.  She reports that over a third of the circles that are held are requested by our students. Additionally, in the follow-up survey she gives students who participated in a circle, 96.6% percent report that they feel that the circle made the situation better.  She says that, “One of the greatest benefits of circles is helping students learn how to communicate effectively and manage their emotional responses. I always tell students they are entitled to how they are feeling, but they must communicate those emotions in a way that is respectful and helps the other participants understand why they are feeling that way. I will guide them in the way they speak to one another so that conversations can occur in a manner that helps everyone to feel safe and valued. This helps students who may otherwise act out to express their emotions in a way that is constructive and moves them toward solving the problem. I also feel that circles have helped to foster empathy.”  

In addition to fostering empathy, circles have a larger impact on our school’s culture and level of safety.  Ms. Campos agrees stating, ”Restorative practices and circles make our a safer community by helping staff and students connect and build relationships with one another. Students who feel connected at school are less likely to act out negatively or violently. Further, circles give students and outlet to express their feelings in a way that is effective and positive.”  

I am proud that restorative justice circles and intentional planning of professional development focused on support students’ socio-emotional needs are two parts of my school’s core values.  By consciously thinking about how to value every community member, we create a climate of caring that is intrinsic to shaping whole and functioning young humans. I encourage you to think about the practices in place at your school and to uncover how you might increase your own community of caring.  The life of your students depends on it.

Start with Student Strengths to Promote Learning

This post was recently published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Gifted Education Communicator.


Many people strive to improve their lives and grow through goal setting.  They look at the negatives and think about how to eradicate them.  A few pounds too many?  No more chocolate.  Strapped for money?  No more dining out.  Procrastinating too much?  No more putting things off (I’ll do them soon, I swear!).

The reason why these well-intentioned resolutions often do not have staying power is because they are firmly entrenched in a place of dissatisfaction, rooted in a negative focus.  Notice that the answer to all the previous problems and qualms start with the word ‘no.’

If one were instead to focus on building on strengths that already exist in one’s life, or on using a strength to target an area for improvement, the results would be decidedly different.  If one were open to the power of ‘yes,’ and to building on the positive strengths already existing in one’s life, the process of life improvement would be an entirely different one, an empowering one.

Many of the children at my school, a school where students are twice-exceptional (presenting with gifts and learning disabilities simultaneously), have been cast in light of their “deficiencies,” and told that “you cannot do this” or “you are not enough.”  While it is true that they are not neurotypical, and that they process information more slowly or differently, they have so many strengths to be celebrated that we use these as access points to learning and engagement.  Strengths-based education is predicated on the belief that every child has the potential to learn, and that the best way to progress in learning is through a positive lens.

This strength-based lens can and should be used in your teaching practice.  Think about your teaching, and take a look at your students.  Notice where you see students’ strengths.  Take these strengths and welcome them into your classroom.  Students will delight in exploring their powerful minds and abilities, and their engagement and ideas will soar.

Below, find a few tips for how to get started in creating your very own strength-based community in your classroom.

Find Out Where Your Students’ Strengths Lie

In order to harness student strengths, you need to accurately identify what the students’ strengths are.  There are a variety of tools and informative diagnostics that can be utilized for this purpose.  One such tool is educational psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which contends that intelligence does not reside in one or two domains, but multiple arenas where smarts can emerge.  His list, comprised of seven types of intelligences, includes musical, visual, verbal, mathematical/logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential.  You can use this online tool with your students: (

An educator can also look at strengths in learning preferences, social strengths, and emotional strengths.  Education Professor Robin Schader created a diagnostic called “My Learning Print” that helps educators and their students think about strengths in the classroom (

Honor and Develop the Strengths that You Discover

Now that you’ve found areas where your students excel and their learning preferences, you have reached the point where you use this information to inform your teaching.  Think about ways that you can differentiate your instruction to make it a meaningful experience for a variety of learning strengths, and where a strength can be incorporated to address a student’s area of need.  Some students learn well by listening, but others learn well by viewing, building, speaking, or even teaching others themselves.  This idea is also important during independent and group learning times.  Could there be multiple processes to learn the same content that work well for different students in your class?  For instance, if your students are learning about photosynthesis, some students might benefit from watching a video, while other might do better reading a comic about the process.  And do not forget to include student strengths at the end of the process, when assessing student learning.  There are many different ways to display mastery.  Embed a student’s strengths into every part of the learning experience and watch the strengths and the student’s engagement increase before your eyes.

Address Areas of Need Using Strengths as an Entry-point

This is not to suggest that you neglect areas that they need to build or develop.  In many cases, you can use an existing strength or interest to target these areas of need.  For instance, a child who has difficulty learning to write letters, but who is an excellent builder, should be encouraged to build letters using clay or pipe cleaners.  Furthermore, when students feel like they are part of a strength-based community, they have been shown to be more resilient when facing learning challenges and to persevere through academic adversity (Alvord & Grados, 2005).

Create a Classroom and School Culture that Celebrates Strengths

When you banish ‘no’ and ‘you can’t’ from your classroom, and replace them with a culture of ‘yes, ‘you can,’ and ‘you are strong’ instead, students notice.  They begin to celebrate themselves and their peers, to encourage one another through difficulties, and to approach learning with a positive attitude.

To integrate this cultural shift, be conscious of the language that you use, and make sure that it is positively framed.  Be honest about challenges, but model for students how you can use academic and social emotional strengths to persevere.  Create spaces in the classroom to explore, display, and celebrate strengths; inquiry/discovery centers that are strength aligned, bulletin boards, and strength sharing times are all practices that make it clear that your classroom is a place where strengths are prized.

Talk about your students’ strengths to your students, your administrators, other teachers at your school, and to the world beyond.  By doing so, you will meet other strength-based educators and learners with whom you can learn and strengthen your own teaching practices.  You can also teach your students to identify their strengths, a skill that will allow them to find success as learners throughout their entire lives.

In order to become an even stronger teacher yourself, resolve to identify, welcome, and build student strengths into your instruction, and go from strength to strength.

Teaching Critical Thinking in the Age of BS, a guest post by media literacy educator Deborah Pardes


#FactsMatter. Yes, they still do. But what matters more in this dystopian period in which we find ourselves is the ability to critically think. Finely-tuned minds have more muscle to rip through “alternative facts.”  It’s not a walk in the park – it’s a slug through mud. But as educators, it’s our job to pull each other along in support and in partnership.

I’m not teaching in schools K-12 on a regular basis. I find myself engaged directly with the public in what I call “family literacy” engagements.  It’s clear that critical thinking is not just a buzzword used to bring validity to disruptive teaching methodologies.  It’s a thing. It’s a hard-wired skill that is useful at all stages of life, in all contexts. In this discussion, critical thinking is the antidote to not thinking at all. It’s the lifeline that may save millions of people from becoming statistics in polls that measure who got fooled by whom and what advertising agency, political party or news outlet gets the credit for its brilliant ability to “frame” things for the lowest common denominator.

Before we can critically think, it’s critical that we know who we are – and what makes us tick. From this self-awareness comes an understanding of how confirmational bias works. So to bring this down to the street level – context is everything.  When I have a stuffed nose – what makes me tick is my need to un-stuff it.  When I bump into a piece of media that’s shouting about cold medicine – I will sit up at attention because I’m in the “help me” zone – I’m in pain – I need help.  My critical thinking is bypassed by my desire to believe in a solution. I’m pulling out my wallet. I’m buying it.

This scenario can be mapped onto anything – coal miners hearing that coal is finally coming back, alcoholics hearing that wine is good for the skin, vegans hearing that all meat causes cancer, etc.  Media will always and forever serve up healthy portions of both solid facts and constructed truths. That machine is well oiled.  It’s been running since the Guttenberg Press drank its first bottle of ink. As educators, we’re not going to stop misleading media from barking at us. We are going to encourage the life-long study of counting to 10, thinking critically during that time, employing basic media literacy tools, and doing the best we can at protecting ourselves from bullshit.

Here’s a great “Who Are You?” exercise for all age groups. It does a few things at once:

  • It helps people drill down to the 5 nouns that describe how they identify themselves as they unconsciously move through time and space. (Notice I said nouns, not adjectives.) Now they know who they are.
  • It prompts the discussion of the cost of seeing life only through one lens. This results in narrow-mindedness, more echo chambers, silos, etc.
  • It invites a 101 talk about the technology of algorithms, which track and map online behaviors to strengthen as oppose to challenge extreme bias
  • It allows for people to exchange identities as a mind-expanding practice.

Steps for “Who Are You?”:

  1. Each student gets an index card
  2. In elbow partners, one student asks the other “who are you?” 5 times.
  3. 5 nouns are written down (sister, fisherwoman, Christian, queer, artist, etc.)
  4. Partners switch to ask the other 5 times with the same process
  5. Index cards are handed to instructor
  6. This stack of cards is described by the instructor as the DNA on which marketers feed. Explain how online behavior –every click, snap and swipe is recorded and is informed by the nouns by which we describe ourselves. We read and respond to news, ads, and entertainment based on these nouns. We shop based on these nouns. Know that this awareness is now your POWER.  Know that you limit your world-view if you ONLY look at life in terms of these 5 nouns. Know that you give away a blueprint about yourselves if you are consistently living inside the constraints of your own bias.  This awareness is part of our commitment to critically think about both our smallest and biggest behaviors around consuming and sharing media.
  7. Pass back the index cards, making sure the students do NOT get their own index card back.
  8. Instruct them to take 15 minutes  to look at life “as if you are defined by these 5 nouns. Interact with all MEDIA as this persona. Surf online with this persona guiding all your decisions.” (This will flummox the algorithm in a good way)
  9. Give them index cards to take home to do this same exercise with their families to extend the conversation.
  10. Give credit: This specific process was architected by Arresting Knowledge

Understanding our own personal bias is a crucial first step in the more extended process of critical thinking about media. We are what we believe. We believe based on who we are.  News and information will always be hurled our way at an alarming rate. It’s powerful to know that there are tools to control and filter media as in approaches our most sacred space – influencing how we spend our time, how we spend our money, and how we cast our votes.

Deborah Pardes is the founder of Artists for Literacy. Her corporate, artistic and academic work focus on leveraging the power of artful communications to break down silos that limit our potential. Her portfolio of projects can be seen at

Arresting Knowledge is a community engagement tour designed to spark and document a national conversation about media (news, social, entertainment, advertising) and its impact on our personal choices. These 90-minute live broadcast events will teach media literacy skills in the context of real-world examples.  We are a collaborative project, celebrating the contributions of dozens of teachers, artists and journalists. Without support and funding, this project will not thrive. Please join us.