Moving Beyond Tolerance: Teaching Students to Stand Up and Act

 

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In schools today, anti-bullying campaigns are widespread.  The messages they send are strong: don’t be unkind or mistreat others, include everyone, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.  These messages are definitely important.  These messages need to be taught.  These messages are not enough.

The issue with these anti-bullying campaigns and slogans that prioritize tolerance is that they stop woefully short of the education that students need to be a decent human being in our world.  The fact is that humans are different from one another, by accident of birth or by choice, and that beyond respecting these differences, students, and the adults they grow up to be, should feel a moral imperative to protect others who are different for the sheer fact that they are a fellow human being.  There will be bullies in life; it is not enough not to be one of the bullies.  Students must feel the need to unite against bullies, to take on oppression.  How do we as teachers encourage young minds to stand up in face of discrimination and hatred, to fight for the rights of someone who looks and sounds drastically different than them?

Learn from the Past

It is never too early to expose children to the examples of those who righteously fought for the rights of others who were different from them.  Show students examples of people who were allies, standing alongside groups fighting for equality and acting against violence and hatred.  Teach them about Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for Civil Rights in Selma.  Teach them about Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who saved close to 40,000 Jews from the Holocaust, risking his own life by issuing them visas.  Teach them about Asa Kent Jennings, an American who saved 250,000 during the Armenian Genocide.  Teach them about Frederick Douglass, who addition to being an outspoken abolitionist, attended the Seneca Falls Convention, and never wavered in his support of women’s rights.  Of course it is essential to celebrate all who are activists fighting against social oppression, but by additionally highlighting heroes who acted for those who were different sends a clear message to students: true heroes stand for all of mankind.

Look at the World Today and Act

When anti-bullying is taught, the scope is often quite narrow: students are told to look at their school and think about how to maintain a community of respect and tolerance.  A more active approach is necessary.  If students are exposed to real-world issues in our nation and world, and taught how to speak up, they will become compassionate and active adults.  

Teach students about the refugee crisis in Syria.  Teach them about the genocide in Darfur.  Teach them about racial, gender-based, and religious conflict present in the United States.  It is a given that students are already being exposed to these issues on social media.  Allow safe spaces for honest discussion and create assignments with real-world relevance.  Ask students to think of a group that is different than their own background, and to act on behalf of them.  An advocacy campaign is a great way to satisfy the common core standards on persuasion, and even a math assignment can look at statistical analysis of the refugee crisis.  Schools can, and should, become places that create our next generation of citizens. We, as teachers, need to ensure that this generation is tapped into the needs of our entire community and world, and prepared to stand up for them.

Build for the Future

What will our future look like?  Will it be one that perpetuates hatred and violence, or one that celebrates diversity and fosters a community of mutual support?  Look at your students.  They are our tomorrow.  Tolerance is not enough.  We must expect more than tolerance from them, and push them out of their comfort zones to act.  Students must tear down stereotypes, raise their voices alongside marginalized groups, and advocate for change on behalf of others.  And we, as teachers, must lead this charge. If we do so, I am confident we can build a better world and a stronger tomorrow.

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Discovering an A+ Grading Style

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I teach for free, but I’m paid to grade, I often joke to colleagues and friends when talking about my job.  10 out of 10 teachers agree that grading is the absolute worst part of the job*: it’s time-consuming, focus-intensive, and just straight up boring a lot of the time.  If feedback didn’t help promote student growth so much, I’d be tempted to outlaw grading altogether.

Here are some tips that I and my teacher friends have come up with to minimize the pain of grading.

You Can’t Take It With You (Or you can… it’s your choice)

I have a friend who teaches AP European History who refuses to leave campus until all of her grading is done.  She says that being at school helps her get into “the grading zone,” that there are less distractions in her classroom, and that she is able to enjoy her home and focus on her family much more when she leaves school with everything completed.  I, on the other hand, like nothing better that leaving school immediately with my satchel of essays and assignments, going home, putting on my jammies, making some chamomile tea, and taking out my purple pen to start grading (I even manage not to get any tea on my students’ papers most of the time).  You can decide to take brain breaks as needed (which I tend to do every 45 minutes or so), or just power through until everything is graded.  See what works better for you, and consider where and how you’ll be more focused, productive, and comfortable.

Create A Grading Oasis

Segueing off the last point, what environment is most conducive for you to focus on grading?  Sterile and efficient, or warm and comfy?  How much sound do you like, and is music helpful to your process?  Look at the space where you typically grade: is it comfy and free of temptations and distractions?  Is working with a partner who is also grading nearby motivating or distracting?  Examine your grading spot feng shui, and redesign if needed.

Use a Rubric

What are the specific elements that you are hoping for students to improve upon for the specific assignment?  Pick no more than 5 key aspects, and write a rubric.  That way you can highlight and circle the areas on the rubric where the student falls, saving ample time.  If you share the rubric with your students in advance, they are clear on what they need to do to find success on the assignment, and are more likely to do well.  This website has plenty of pre-created rubrics wby teachers, and you can also create your own: http://rubistar.4teachers.org/  

Be sure to write one additional, personal line of feedback on every rubric as well to make the feedback seem less generic.

Remember, if you over-mark up a paper, students will absorb little of the feedback, so it is wiser to pick on the parts that you think are the most important for growth for that particular student.

You Don’t Have to Grade Everything

Shhhhhh.  Don’t tell your students, but you don’t have to grade everything.  I tried to grade every scrap of paper that students turned my first year I taught 8th grade English to about 200 students, and felt my free time and sanity quickly slipping away.  When a teacher in the classroom next door showed me her criteria for how she chooses what to grade, I learned how to prioritize my grading workload.  Final unit projects and initial diagnostics must always be assessed, but when you are in the middle of a unit, consider which assignments are most crucial to give feedback to to promote student growth.  Also, think with your parent hat (even if you don’t have children): how much feedback would you like your own child to get from their teacher?

Create a Schedule

When you are unit and lesson planning, think about which assignments will be graded, and build that into your schedule.  If you know that you will have family conflicts or external commitments within the time frame of your unit, also factor that in so you don’t increase your stress level down the line.  Remember, that if you wait too long between collecting an assignment and returning feedback, the efficacy of your comments loses power, so keep in mind what is manageable and feasible based on your own pace of grading.

Have Students Self-Assess Prior to Teacher Grading

While some teacher have students do peer evaluation, I tend to avoid it.  The few times I’ve tried it, I found that student-to-student feedback was either overly-complimentary or overly-antagonistic, and just not specific in terms of providing strong suggestions.  This is not to say that students can’t be trained to provide excellent peer feedback; I didn’t want to take the instructional time for the training process.  Instead, I have found that asking students to reflect on what they feel that did well on on a particular assignment, and where they want feedback for improvement is helpful to both me and them.  By attaching this reflection to the assignment, I can hone in on a specific growth area in addition to the rubric categories that I use to provide praise and suggestions.  

Use Positive Reinforcement and Rewards For Yourself

As much as we can use savvy time management, create comfortable work environments, and utilize work-smarter-not-harder tips, there is no avoiding the drudgery of grading.  There are a million other teacher-related activities I’d rather be doing like teaching, designing lessons, or collaborating with a peer.  In order to motivate myself, I use small rewards.  For instance, I’ll tell myself, “When you get through this next stack of papers, you can (do whatever activity you really enjoy).”  What motivates you to finish something you don’t enjoy? Time with a friend?  Flowers?

Find What works for You!

At the end of the day, grading is definitely not the most riveting part of the teaching job.  Keeping student growth and your own limits in mind should help you come up with a grading style that is manageable and works for you.

Teachers, what other grading hacks do you have?

*Made up statistic… but it sounds plausible!

The Best Teacher New Year’s Resoultion: Focus on Your Students’ Strengths

 

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Many people ring in a new year with the age-old custom of writing new year’s resolutions, lists of goals for changes they would like to implement in order to improve the quality of their lives.  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 their lives and skills, the process of life improvement would be an entirely different one, an empowering one.

This same strength-based lens can and should be used in your teaching practice.  As you start of the calendar year, look at your students.  Notice where you see their strengths.  Take their individual strengths and welcome them into your classroom.  Students will delight in exploring their powerful minds and abilities, and their engagement and ideas will soar.  

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.  

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, include musical, visual, verbal, mathematical/logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential.  (https://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-assessment).

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 (http://gifted.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/961/2015/09/My_LearningPrint.pdf).

Honor and Develop the Strengths you Discover

Now that you’ve found out areas where your students excel, 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.  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.

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.  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 student 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 a learner throughout their entire lives.
So this year, make a resolution that will make an impact well beyond this year; resolve to identify, welcome, and build student strengths into your instruction, and go from strength to strength.

The Greatest Gift for Your Students: Time

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Hurry up!  Do it now!  We are waiting for you!  Why are you so slow?                                                

Can you imagine if someone was shouting this at you while you were trying to do something that was new or difficult for you?  At least for me, it would be completely demoralizing.  Our culture is laser-focused on displaying knowledge quickly, as seen by our emphasis on timed tests.  Think about your own teaching practice: Are you ever guilty of thinking the kid who consistently raises his hand first is the smartest or has the best answer?  All too often, we equate speed with smarts and excellence.  Some kids take a little while longer to process and think about questions or to create quality work.  As long as students are committed to finishing their work, why do we continue to push for speed?

Here are some suggestions to help students who process at all speeds:

Wait Time

When you ask a question or call on students, don’t call on the first hand thrust into the air.  Wait anywhere from thirty seconds to a minute.  You can even tell the students, “I am going to ask a question, and then I am going to wait for a little bit to give you a chance to think about your answer.  This will allow you to think of a deeper, richer answer, and to think of evidence to support your ideas.”  Giving students wait time therefore doesn’t just benefit your slower processing students, but also allows speedy students to add nuance and complexity to their thoughts.  It also shifts the emphasis from speed to quality of thinking.

Working Drafts

When you give a paper, you set-up a due date.  Some students miss the due-date consistently, and written production with the expected or “normal” speed is a challenge for them.  Let’s take a moment to examine why students meeting deadlines is important to you: from a workflow management perspective, is it because you need to manage your grading schedule?  That is fair, especially when you have a large class size.  Consider then, is it possible to have students who have trouble meeting deadlines with the speed you expect to show mastery in other ways?  Are you having them turn things in just produce, or are you measuring specific skills?

Implementing the idea of “working drafts” rather than a “final draft” shows students that work can always be refined and improved.  It also allows students to turn in whatever work they were able to complete within your timeframe with little stigma.  It is great to set benchmarks for completion, while also encouraging them to think of the quality of their work.  

Focusing on Growth Rather than Achievement

This idea is connected to point above.  Students are all at different levels of intellectual development.  Although we have ideal levels we’d like students to hit at certain ages, some students may easily exceed these benchmarks, while others may need more time.  Therefore, it is essential to focus on a student’s growth rather than an arbitrary level of achievement.  Do a check at the start of the learning process, and consistent checks to track growth.  Be specific in reporting their areas of need and support, and in celebrating their achievement.  

For Speed Demons

I was always the kid eager to have her hand in the air first, who sped through the process, ready for my next challenge, so I intimately understand that many students like a quick pace.  What one brilliant teacher helped me see was that by rushing through my learning journey, I was cheating myself of the ability to go into the depth of thought of which I was capable.  For students who enjoy a fast pace, it is essential to honor their desire for engagement through the presentation of frequent new concepts as well as to balance the introduction of new ideas with helping them uncover the many levels of rigor and challenge in a learning activity.
So remember, slow and steady can always win the learning race and allow students to develop depth of knowledge.  The best (and free) gift you can give your students is the gift of time, so try one or all of the strategies above, and watch your students and their ideas shine.

Tasting the Soup: How Formative Checks Lead to Better Learning

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A famous five-star chef has made the same delicious gourmet soup for years.  She is so well-renowned for this soup that people come from far and wide to savor her amazing concoction.  Although she’s made the soup thousands of times, she never grows complacent or relies solely on the scent wafting from the pot: every few minutes, she samples the soup to ensure that it is just the right blend, texture, taste.  She would never dream of waiting until it is done to taste it.  If there was a mistake, it would be too late at that point.  However, if she tries a spoonful every few minutes, she can ensure that the soup is on course to its award-winning finish.  This is what makes her soup consistent, and this is what makes the soup delicious.

In a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor, think of making the soup as your teaching.  Many teachers wait until the unit of a lesson, or even (egads!) to the end of a unit to check for their students understanding, resulting in uneven student learning.  The danger in only assessing learning at the end is that the teacher cannot assess whether each student is grasping the concepts at each stage of learning along the way.

When a teacher does a check for understanding during a lesson, it is also known as a formative assessment, whereas as a final test, project, or other type of final product is known as a summative assessment.  Formative assessment is helpful for several reasons: by letting a teacher see where each student is at any given point in a lesson, it makes it easier for a teacher to tailor her teaching to individual student needs.

Here are 5 great ways to do formative checks during your lesson:

Think-Pair-Share

After teaching a new concept, ask a question about it.  Have students meet with a partner to discuss the answer, and as they do, circulate while listening to their answers.  This will enable you to get a sense of whether all of the students comprehend the topic, and if not, what they are missing.

Whiteboards

As you are teaching or modeling a concept, have the students follow along on their own mini-whiteboard.  Periodically, do a formative check by asking the students a question to answer on their whiteboards.  When they hold up their answers, you can check to see who is on target, and who might need a little bit more help or re-teaching.

Observation and Individual Guidance During Activity

While students are working independently or in groups, this is prime time to check their work for understanding.  Especially for students who need differentiation, extra help, or enrichment, looking at their work when you aren’t doing direct instruction allows you to offer more personalized instruction.

Braindump

After teaching a new concept, give the students 2 minutes to write down/ draw everything they understand about it.  This will give you a quick snapshot of student understanding.

Exit Ticket/ 3-2-1 Ticket

A great way to see if students are on track at the end of a lesson is to have them fill out an exit ticket.  You can ask them a specific question from the lesson, or leave it more general and have them sum up the biggest takeaway from the day.  A specific type of exit ticket is called a 3-2-1 ticket.  Students write down 3 things they learned, 2 questions that they had on things they either did not understand or wanted to know more about, and then the one thing that they liked the most/found most interesting.  This is a great type of exit ticket because it allows room for not only displaying their mastery, but also to ask questions and say what they liked.

Chart Learning

This isn’t a specific strategy, but rather an essential point.  While you may not be giving a formal grade to your formative checks (and often times it is better not to grade them to promote more growth), it is essential to note the results of these checks for each student in order to track their growth.  Knowing where each student stands and having a record of it is helpful in talking to your students and their parents about the student’s learning progress.  Having a formative check clipboard with a space for each student to jot down notes during the lesson is a helpful technique that I use.

At the end of the day, formative assessment is about gathering information to strengthen your instruction for every child, and ensuring that every student’s mastery of the subject matter and skills is solid by the end of a unit.  So when you are making learning soup, taste away, in order to serve your students the tastiest dish possible!

Create a Gratitude Folder: Carry the Feeling of Teaching Gratitude Throughout the Entire School Year

 

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On Thanksgiving, we take a moment to pause to reflect, to count our blessings, and to express our gratitude.  This, aside from the pumpkin cranberry bread and spending time with my crazy-but-lovable family, is why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year.  At this point in the school year, it can also be a necessary respite for a teacher’s sanity to have a few days to refresh and recharge.  I’d like to share a teaching tradition that I started early on in my teaching career that helped me sustain my feeling of gratitude not only on Thanksgiving, but throughout the entire school year, especially during hard moments (we’ve all been there).  I create what I call a teaching gratitude folder, a file full of things that remind me of all of the reasons why I teach and what I love about it.  Just looking at mine can pull me out of a funk after a cruddy day of teaching or raise my spirits from a temporary setback.

Here are some ideas of things that I include:

Notes and Cards from Students

Sometimes students will surprise you with their thoughtfulness and leave you a note articulating their love and appreciation for you.  Be sure to save these notes.  For every one that is written, know that countless other students also feel the same way, even if they did not take the time to express it in writing.

Kind or Funny Things Said in Your Classroom

Any positivity that fills your class, not just a direct compliment, is a reflection of the culture that you create as a teacher.  When students say kind words or something just darn right hilarious, write it down to enjoy for a long time come.  I’m still cracking up about a kid who wrote made up a “frijoles” dance in my classroom ten years ago (maybe you had to be there?).

Happy Parent/Administrator/Colleague Emails

When an adult sends kudos your way, celebrate!  Reading these words the first time surely made you glad, so be sure to print these out and put them in your folder.

A Description of a Lesson That Went Well or had a Wonderful Learning Outcome for Students

Remembering a lesson that inspired and brought out your students’ greatest potential is a great way to feel filled with love for yourself as a teacher and with gratitude for the profession.  Note your successes so you can revisit them and reinvigorate yourself with the joys of a job well done.

Joyful Photos of Your Students/Classroom/or an Influential Teacher

A picture can inspire as much joy as a personal connection or a success story.  I have a picture of my grandmother in my gratitude folder: she taught for over 30 years and was my impetus for becoming a teacher.  Seeing her face re-inspires me to live up to her standard of impacting students.  I also have photos of my old classroom set up like a pirate ship and photos of students dressed up for Colonial Day.  Seeing the joy in learning never fails to make me smile, even on the worst day, and reminds me why I am in this field.

Pay it Forward: Write a Note to Another Teacher

Recently, I had my students watch a short video called the Science of Happiness.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Essentially, the main idea of the video is that we can increase our own level of happiness by showing gratitude to others.  Following the video, the students each wrote letters to someone who was a large influence in their lives.  While they wrote, I wrote letter of gratitude for their teaching to several of my colleagues, including specific, non-generic praise in each note, so they knew my appreciation was sincere.  On the top of each note, I affixed a little note that said, “Be sure to place this in your gratitude folder.”

What teachers can you pay it forward to?  Remember, doing so will also increase your happiness!

So, in short, it’s great to be show gratitude and feel gratified at Thanksgiving, but remember to carry that feeling with you throughout the year, and to show self-gratitude for being the great teacher that you are!

Thank you for reading and supporting Edcouragementor!  I am grateful for you being a part of our community.

Athletic Teaching: How to Become A Stronger and Stronger Teacher

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Sometimes, teaching can feel like a grueling athletic event.  Like an ironman race, a teacher must slog through long days of teaching, supervision, and, worst of all, grading.  Like a sprinter, a teacher must be ready to race physically and mentally to meet her students’ every need.  Like a team sport athlete, a teacher must communicate and work actively with her entire teaching team and students.  Seeing that a teacher embodies many of the important characteristics of an athlete, it is invaluable to take some important lessons for teaching from the world of athletics.

Eat Right

It’s important to fuel your body and brain for a day of unexpected challenges.  Make sure you always eat a filling nutritious breakfast, healthy snacks, a solid lunch, and a dinner that is good for you.  Treats on occasion are great, but remember, garbage in garbage out!  Not eating right can impact your energy level and mental well-being.

Get Enough Sleep and Rest

Sleep?  What’s that? some teacher might joke.  Or they might tell themselves, I have just five more papers to grade and then I’ll get to bed.  Prioritize to get at least eight hours of sleep a night.  With significantly less the quality of your teaching performance suffers, and so do your personal interactions.  Skimping on your sleep ultimately doesn’t benefit you or your students.  What can you cut out to prioritize sleep?  Watching a pointless tv show?  Spending too much time on social media?  Maybe you can cut back on graded assignments and give stronger feedback on the ones you do grade to free up some time.

Also, just as athletes sometimes take rest days to relax their muscles, you should do the same with your teaching.  Take a day just for yourself, when you do absolutely nothing related to your work.  You will come back refreshed and energized to tackle the next teaching hurdle.  

Set Goals and Envision Success

When an archer notches an arrow into her bow and stares down at the target, she envisions success with every fiber of her being.  This is also a healthy practice for your teaching.  Think actively about what teaching success looks like: engaged students meeting learning objective in a healthy, vibrant classroom.  Set feasible mini-goals to get you there, and constantly evaluate and reflect on your performance and you get closer and closer to reaching your personal best.

Work With Coaches

Just as athletes get support from coaches, teachers should also seek encouragement and feedback from someone in the know.  Avoid getting trapped in a teaching silo and find coaches that hold you accountable, push you, and help you grow.  Find the style of coaching that is most motivational for you, and build a relationship with that person.

Keep Teaching and Practicing Teaching

Remember, continued teaching builds your teaching “muscle” and makes you a stronger teacher.  Practice makes better!

Knocking Your Formal Observation Out of the Park

 

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As a school administrator, part of my job is to observe teachers in their classrooms everyday.  Even though most teachers feel incredibly confident in front of their student audience, having another adult in the room, especially one who could potentially be evaluating them, can be extremely fear inducing.  Here are some insider tips to help you make best impression and to quash your fears.

Your Admin Wants You to Succeed and Grow

If you don’t know your administrator very well or are afraid of them, it might seem like they are waiting to catch you slip up.  The reality is that any good administrator is looking for things that you are doing well, as well as areas to help support you in your growth as a teacher (bad administrators are another issue.  Read the point below for advice about that). When the admin comes in, smile, take a deep breath, and try to put your best foot forward with growth in mind.

Be Proactive with Your Observer

If it’s a scheduled observation, be savvy about the lesson that you choose to present.  Make sure it is something that can show off your strengths as an instructor.  Even if it’s not mandatory at your school, find a time to meet with your administrator in advance of their observation.  Let them know areas that you think that you are doing well in, as well as areas you are looking to grow in, so they can collect specific evidence as they watch you teach.  Similarly, meet with them afterwards to receive feedback.  Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself or to mention things that occur in your class that the observer didn’t get a chance to see: this information is also helpful to your admin, as it fleshes out their understanding of you as a teacher.

Prepare Your Students

It’s ok to let your students know why the administrator is coming in advance of their visit: just as students constantly learn and grow from your feedback, you also continually learn and grow to be the best teacher possible for them.  If you are honest with your students about why teachers are observed, it increases the likelihood of their cooperation during an observation.

Make It Student Centered and Active

There is no greater kiss of death for an observed lesson than presenting a lecture for the entire block.  While some direct instruction might be necessary to set up a learning activity, it is important to keep it limited (this is a good rule of thumb in general).  Make sure that you are not lecturing for more than seven minutes, as, after all, the human attention span is a measly seven seconds long!  Think about learning stations, cooperative groupings or partner activities, or some active, hands-on activity.  Don’t forget to do formative checks for understanding, and to make sure that all students are engaged and participating.

If You Make A Mistake, It’s Ok, Keep Going!

Most admin are former teachers, and still remember the stresses of being observed, so they aren’t looking for perfection or a stepford teacher.  They have your success in mind, so if you make a blunder, either acknowledge it laughingly or just quickly shrug it off and move on.  Nobody is perfect, and chances are, the mistake is bigger in your mind than it is to them.  Unless you are grossly negligent or unkind to a child, you should be just fine.  

What to do in a Hostile Observation Situation

Unfortunately, just as there are bad teachers and human beings out there, there are also bad administrators out there too.  They fall into two camps, the lazy/unprepared sort, and the mean sort.  For the lazy category, they are just looking to check off the box that they came in to observe, so still try your best, but don’t worry too much about their feedback.  For the admin with whom you might have personal friction, I might advise trying to get another administrator to perform your observation.  If this is not possible, make sure that all follow-up conversations focus on objective facts rather than opinions, and try to keep the conversation as brief as possible.  If necessary, have the conversation in a public place, like the teacher’s lounge, or ask for another adult, like a co-teacher or a union rep, to be present.

At the end of the day, remember that an observation is only a few still frames in the film of your teaching, and that one day does not define who you are as a teacher.  Try to look at it as an opportunity to receive feedback to help you grow, and try to have fun!  If all else fails, reward yourself with a treat at the end of the observation!

To Give Homework or Not to Give Homework?

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The question above is one almost as old as the notion of teaching itself, and the pendulum continues to swing back and forth about the answer.  Homework is detrimental to kids’ development proclaims one recent study, while another, released only a week later, states homework has shown to bolster student achievement.  Who is to believe?  

Here are my two cents based on my experience and those of my teacher friends.

Homework can be useful.  Notice that operative word here is can.  If it isn’t done right, it can be equally as useless.  Here are some tips to actually make homework a useful endeavor that promotes student learning.

Make it Meaningful

Don’t give homework just to give homework.  Homework is a great way to reinforce a concept, to lay a foundation for an activity for the next class, or to have the students explore something in greater depth that they did not have the time to fully explore.  Students will see if you are using homework for one of those purposes.  They (and their parents) will also see if you are giving pointless homework that doesn’t stimulate thinking.  In order to increase student buy-in, make sure that what the students are doing for homework is worthwhile, and not busy-work.

Make it the ‘Just Right’ Amount

It is crucial to tailor the amount of homework that you give based on your students’ ages, processing speeds, and current level of mastery.  Homework can also be differentiated based on different levels or interests for your class, as long as it is all supporting the same learning objective.  So be the Goldilocks of homework, and find the amount that is just right for your students.

Make it the Right Level

Homework should be something that extends learning, but also something feasible for a student to complete independently.  For this reason, don’t assign anything that is radically new as homework, where students have to teach themselves entirely new concepts.  To avoid student frustration, and to ensure that homework is independently achievable, write clear instructions printed on the homework and go over it verbally with students when previewing it in class.  For accelerated students, it is also important to make sure that there are options for challenge or enrichment to keep engagement levels high.

Make It Exciting and Active

While homework is good skill practice and reinforcement, making it repetitive and lifeless makes it less joyful for your students to do.  They will be less likely to do it, and less likely to come back the next day energized for your class.  So avoid “drill and kill” worksheets, and make it an active learning opportunity.  Another suggestion is to tie in real-world applications when you can.

If you were going to go home and continue to work on something, what would you want it to be like?  Take that into consideration when designing a learning experience for your students.

Teachers, any other good tips for making homework meaningful?