Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Best Laid Plans

How do you plan?

What does lesson planning look like for you? I went through a long period at school where I tried to do it in “fits and starts” within my school day.  It looked like this:
  • Enter benchmarks (by code name, not actually the words) into the template, before school, while eating breakfast.
  • Jot down page numbers from workbook while 2nd period is doing their bellwork.
  • Mention to colleagues via email where you are with regards to pacing. (“I’m on ___”. “Oh! I’ll be there next week!” “Done. Planned!”)
  • Look at resources to see what copies need to be made during lunch.
  • Go to copier during lunch and wait in line until copier breaks.
  • Figure out if there is an accompanying pre-made assessment while 4th period is working in groups.
  • Touch base with same-course colleague between class and say “I’ll plan Wednesday and you do Thursday”
  • Look at calendar and see if you can fit it all in in the pacing while 6th period is writing the answers to their assignment.
  • Afterschool, try to make copies (because the copier was broken during lunch).
  • At home (after favorite TV watching) make powerpoint to put assignments, directions, images together.

That obviously led to disjointed lesson plans -- and unprepared classes.

So then, I started blocking out my Sunday nights or Sunday afternoons, sitting on my couch and planning lessons.

But then, I ...  I lost my Sunday afternoons or Sunday nights! That was no fun and made me cranky!

After being around for a while, I’d like to offer my favorite tips for lesson planning to make it easier on you, less disjointed, hopefully give you your whole weekend, AND make the plans better...

  1. Plan WITH a colleague, if at all possible. And, no, I don’t mean “divide and conquer” (like, “I’ll make the assessment and you make the power point, talk to ya tomorrow” although that has some merit). No, I mean sit down together and look at benchmarks and curriculum guide and pacing guides together. Two brains are better than one and common planning with a colleague makes your life easier and your plans better.
  2. Close the door.  And cover your window, if necessary. Take the classroom phone off the hook and power off your own cell phone. Or go somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, like an unoccupied office that no one knows you are in. But find a bigger chunk of time in a less-likely-to-be-disturbed spot so you aren’t doing it piecemeal style. I promise you will make much better plans if you do them in bigger, undisturbed chunks of time.
  3. Bust out your benchmarks. And Curriculum Guides and Pacing Guides. And resources. Have it all out and ready to go so you’re not stopping to hunt things down mid-planning session. And then, uh, actually use them.
  4. Plan with the end in mind. What do you want your kids to know and do as a result of this lesson? And don’t say “know more about topic X”. Be specific! And be able to measure it in some way. Think “I want the kids to know the difference between y and z.”. And then ask them to tell you the difference between y and z before they leave class that day.
  5. Contingency plans: What will you do if the kids don’t get it? (Because, sometimes, they don’t. And complaining or venting don’t count as a contingency plan). But really... If you’re teaching about Westward Expansion, what kinds of mistakes will the kids make? What misconceptions will they have? Which part of the lesson are they most likely to mess up and how can you plan it so a) they don’t mess it up and b) you’re prepared to fix it when they mess it up? I think of this as an “If---Then” statement: “If the kids don’t understand ‘expansion’ then I will teach it like this....”
*I know we usually do a lot of this “on the fly”. But wouldn’t it be easier, more effective, less stressful, and more powerful if you were ready for these moments? Those of you new to teaching are often surprised by where the gaps or mistakes are. But those of you who are veterans, you usually have a pretty good handle on these areas.
5. Think of your ACTUAL kids. Don’t plan your lessons for “pie in the sky” kids that you don’t have.  Don’t plan your lessons for the kids you think you SHOULD have. Plan for YOUR actual kids. How are you going to plan for the kid who has vision trouble and needs to sit in the front? How are you going to plan for the kid who can’t sit still for more than ten minutes? How are you going to plan for the kid who finishes everything ten minutes before the everyone else? How are you going to plan for the kids in the back who struggle with motivation? How are you going to plan for your immigrant student who struggles with English? If you’re prepared for these things, you will be less likely to be caught by a surprise scenario. I used to keep a sticky note in my plans that said “Stefan” and “Keisha” to remind me that I needed to plan with those two kids in mind.
6. Use your scale. The whole point of Learning Goals and Learning Targets is to help us plan for how to get our kids from Point A to Point B and how to know if they’re on the right path. So USE THOSE SCALES. Focus on your Level 3 (benchmark) plan what steps YOUR kids need to get there. Don’t decide they can’t ever get there because Level 3 “looks hard”. Plan the steps.  If I want them to “Examine the causes, course, and consequences of Westward Expansion” then try
Step 1: Make sure they know what Westward Expansion is.
Step 2: How will I help them examine the causes? The Course? The Consequences? (these will be activities)
Step 3: How will I help them put it all together?
Step 4: How will I find out which kids learned it -- and where the others didn’t learn it?
6. Get your stuff. Make the copies. Find the handouts. Prep your board. Update a power point. Whatever legwork you need to do, do it. PS -- You probably don’t need to do this all during one of those bigger chunks of time. Go ahead and scatter this one into whatever crazy teacher-time you can carve out including lunch, before school, during passing time, whatever. Hey, I don’t judge how teachers cram 18 hour days into much fewer hours. Do what  you gotta do.
7. Teach your lesson(s). You know how to do this. Enough said.

8. Reflect. How did it go? Did they learn what they needed to learn? Which kids did? Which kids struggled? Which kids missed the mark? Which parts went well? Which parts didn’t? Which parts were worth the time to prepare? Which parts weren’t? Evaluate it and find a way to make a note so you don’t have to jump over the same barriers next time you teach this.

Do you do this every day? Heck no! You do this as YOU do this. Some people will hole up in a storage room once a week and bang out a week’s worth of lessons. Some people will meet with their colleagues every other week and talk through the plans together for the month. Some people can only give this twenty minutes before school on alternate Tuesdays plus first lunch on B-days.  

I know. Being a teacher is a crazy time-crunch of a job. I wish I could give you more hours.

And yes, lesson plans take time. And yes, every school seems to have a different format, style, schedule for lesson planning. But behind all that are good plans that lead to successful lessons and better and more knowledgeable kids -- who hopefully become both good citizens and decent on tests.

Which parts of this do you do? Which parts do you fly through -- and which parts take more time? Which parts of lesson planning do you like? And which parts make you nuts? As always, I love to hear from you! Email me

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Shut Up and Talk With Me

If you haven’t been hiding from pop music in the past year or two, you have heard the earworm  song called “Shut Up and Dance With Me

Aaaand ... You’re welcome!  for getting that stuck in your head when you thought it was gone for good!

It’s a fun pop song but  I’d like to change it to “Shut Up and Talk To Me”

How do you shut up AND talk at the same time?

It’s every teacher’s favorite strategy -- the Silent Conversation!

Silent Conversation strategy is the best of both worlds -- quiet, peaceful classroom management AND collaboration between students. It’s where the students write their conversation -- like a pencil-and-paper note passing session -- about content

How do I do it?
  1. Kids move into groups of four (three or five are okay, but four tends to work the best)
  2. Have something multi-dimensional, intriguing, and interesting for the kids to write about. Try a photograph of Gold Rush Forty Niners  in California, a primary source on Franz Ferdinand, or a political cartoon. Find something that has some depth and interest. A textbook section is rarely going to inspire good academic conversation.
  3. Each kid takes out a sheet of paper and signs his/her name at the top. He/she then starts writing about the topic or prompt. Each kid writes for the whole announced time until the teacher says “pass”.
*Hint - -use the or something similar to keep time on your screen. Start out with a short period of time - -two or three minutes, and add time next time you do it, or as the topics grow more in depth.
  1. When the teacher says “pass”, the students pass their papers to the left (or right, whatever you choose) and the kids write new entries, responding to the previous entry on the new papers.
  2. If they have trouble responding, compare this assignment to a low-tech version of a Facebook conversation. People comment and respond to each other in “threads” online all the time. This is just on paper. Remind them to keep it on topic – you have proof (written proof in their own handwriting) if the kids start talking about their video games or other stuff.
  3. They write for the whole time - - two minutes or whatever you tell them.
  4. They keep passing until they have written on each paper at least once.
  5. When done, allow the class to have a few minutes to read their papers and then continue their conversations out loud. The more often you do this, the better the kids get at having informed academic conversation!
  6. Wrap up by having each group report out to the whole class about one thing their group discussed.
How do I keep my kids on task? This is fixed once they realize that you now have a written (and graded) record of their conversation about each other’s mommas (or whatever)

Why should I try this one? We know that when kids think deeper about things, they learn those things better. They retain them better. They process that information better and more thoroughly.
This may be easier the first time with higher-level kids, but it’s more beneficial for lower-level kids. It just sometimes takes an extra practice or two before struggling kids really get used to the procedure. Stop, take a deep breath … and try it again. The more they practice, the better they will do with it and the easier it will become for them.
Struggling kids don’t always “get it” the first time. But if you give up and you don’t try it with them again, they’ll NEVER get it. Try it again until they get the strategy.
What could go wrong? Well, maybe we don’t choose a discussion-worthy topic... Maybe your kids don’t take the assignment seriously. That will be fixed easily as a grade is given or as you the teacher respond in writing in the margin of the student conversations. What about handwriting? They kids will fix that when they write back to each other things like “Man, I can’t read that!”

Please don’t call it “Shut Up and Talk”. Some parent or administrator is going to be upset. But do call it the “Silent Conversation” And try it with your kids!

As always, let me know how it goes! Email me

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Speed Dating is Totally a Better Option

I always loved doing “jig-saw” activities with my students. You know, jig-saw projects! Where kids get in small groups and they all take a piece of info (or a section of the chapter)  and they learn that one topic or page and they teach it to the class. They loved working in small groups on specific topics.

I loved it, too ... until we did an assessment afterwards.  (cue the sound effect: dun dun DUNNNN)

And then I realized that each group learned the stuff they presented REALLY well -- but must have tuned out their peers’ presentations. Because they didn’t learn a darn thing from the other groups.


This was always a super frustrating conundrum. The kids learned their topic deeply and did “okay” on their presentations (I know plenty of kids don’t enjoy presenting). The activity was focused and engaging. But no matter what I did --nothing seemed to help.

And I tried ...
  1. making handouts for taking notes from the other groups
  2. better structuring the presentations to make more sense
  3. giving better rubrics
  4. giving “notetaking” points
  5. giving a quiz

But nope. None of these adjustments helped.

My kids really struggled to present well. And they REALLY struggled to learn from each other.

So I put the idea on the shelf for a few years until I came across this gem.

Speed dating ... as a learning strategy!

Speed dating is totally an option (for your class. I don’t pretend to know anything about your personal life ...)

No, I’m serious! Stop laughing!! (Feel free to change the activity name so your kids don’t get the giggles too much! It’s pretty similar to AVID’s One-Minute Expert strategy)

Here’s how it works.
  1. Put students in pairs.
  2. Give each pair of kids a different chunk of information -- maybe a different historical reformer or a section of the chapter or a philosopher or whatever.
  3. Give the kids structure to what you want them to know about the topic (such as: main idea + 2 details OR the reformer’s basic ideas OR five most important facts OR whatever)
  4. Give the pairs time to read the info and process it together and write down whatever you  want them to write down with the structure from #3
  5. Then, arrange your classroom in two concentric circles -- an inside circle facing outward and an outside circle facing inward --  so that the kids can sit with the two partners facing each other. *You might want to do this before class, depending on the rest of your class agenda for the day.
  6. The kids are about to teach each other, one-on-one, face-to-face, like speed dating. Maybe we should call it speed teaching? Have the two partners “practice” together what they’re going to say to the others.
  7. Now -- make sure you set effective logistics -- no looking at each others’ notes (otherwise, it’s speed-copying), kids DO have to take their own notes, and they have thirty seconds or one minute (for example) for each partner to speak. I suggest using a timer to keep it speedy. Hence the SPEED part of the speed dating.
  8. Have all of the kids in the outer circle move one seat clockwise. Now, each kid is speaking to a kid who IS NOT her original partner.
  9. Have each Inside-Circle-kid take his thirty seconds or one minute and teach the other about his topic. When the timer rings, have each Outside-Circle-Kid take thirty seconds or one minute to teach her topic.
  10. When the timer rings again, have the outside circle move one more seat clockwise. Now each kid has a  NEW partner! Have them repeat the part where they each get a certain amount of time to teach each other. Keep using the timer.
  11. Repeat this process until every kid has learned each part.

This has a couple of advantages. First, all the kids are accountable. No one gets to hide behind his or her group. Second, the kids become experts in a particular area, so they are confident about their content (like in the jig saw). Third, kids are more engaged in the learning of the OTHER parts of the content because they can’t “tune out” face to face. Finally, it has decent structured movement and collaboration.

I wouldn’t try this for the first time with my wild class. I’d try it with my easier group so I could work out any kinks before I tried it with that crazy period.

What do you think? Are you up for “Speed Dating”? Have you tried it before? If you need tips or ideas, let me know! As always, I love to hear from you! Email me

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

I Hate Running

I hate to run. HHHAAAAAAAAAATTE to run.

I’m not fast. I’m not athletic.

I’m not even funny, like Phoebe on Friends

As a kid, I could sprint across the playground during a game of tag, but I never enjoyed it. When we ran the mile in PE in elementary school, I always came in last.

My PE teacher or coach would holler across the track at me, “Tracy! Pick up the pace!”

And I would scowl. And grumble. And probably jog or walk a little slower, just to protest.

Just in case you wondered, here is a partial list of things at which I am terrible.
  1. Running
  2. Cooking
  3. Making “cold calls”
  4. Throwing and catching anything
  5. Doing mental math without using my fingers
  6. Getting my kids out of the house in a timely manner in the morning.
  7. Sticking to “the list” at the grocery store.
  8. Pulling “all-nighters”
  9. Measuring and being precise.
  10. Drawing things others can recognize.

So I want to ask today ... what are YOU terrible at?

Now, chances are that, as adults, you have found work-arounds for the things at which you are terrible. If you hate to run, you probably don’t have to. If you are a terrible cook, you have probably found a roommate or a significant other or a take-out menu to take care of that for you. If you are terrible at mental math, you now have a calculator in your pocket to help.

But you’re an adult. So you have a lot of independence to make choices about your life.

Kids have a lot fewer choices. They don’t get to choose where they live or what chores they do or (often) what they get to eat and what classes they are in.

And every time I see a kid who replies “I don’t know” (or worse, “IDK”) at every question he comes across, every time I see a kid put her head down and refuse to work....

I think of running. And how much I hate it.  

And I think of what kind of student I would be if I had to go somewhere I didn’t choose every day and if I was forced to do something I disliked which I also happened to be terrible at.

Meaning, what if I had to go somewhere and run every day? What if I was evaluated on my running? What if I was  rewarded or punished based on my running ability?

I would hate life.   

I would put my head down. I would fold my arms across my chest and make snarky remarks under my breath. Maybe some of those snarky remarks would even bust out loud. I would run as slowly as humanly possible. I would fake sick and ask for a hundred bathroom passes and skip class and forget my running shoes. I would have a terrible attitude.

What are YOU terrible at?

How would YOU feel if you had to do that thing every day?

What would motivate you to work hard at something you hated and stunk at?

I’m pretty sure that if you put me back on that PE track in fourth grade, the only things that would motivate me would be either extrinsic rewards or a powerful relationship with that PE coach.

I don’t pretend to know what will motivate every kid. But I do know what it’s like to be terrible at something. And I do know how awful it feels to have to do that thing I hate every day.

Here are eight suggestions for increasing student motivation (but not a single “magic bullet”)
  1. Become a role model for student interest.Use energy and enthusiasm.  your passion can motivate your students. Make the course personal and show why you are interested in the material.
  2. Get to know your students. You will be able to better tailor your instruction to the students’ concerns and backgrounds, and your personal interest in them will inspire their personal loyalty to you. Display a strong interest in students’ learning and a faith in their abilities.
  3. Use examples freely. Many students want to be shown why a concept or technique is useful before they want to study it further. Inform students about how your course prepares students for future opportunities.
  4. Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. These activities directly engage students in the material and give them opportunities to achieve a level of mastery.
    1. Teach by discovery.  Students find it satisfying to reason through a problem and discovering the underlying principle on their own.
    2. Cooperative learning activities are particularly effective as they also provide positive social pressure.
  5. Set realistic performance goals and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals. Design assignments that are appropriately challenging in view of the experience and aptitude of the class.
  6. Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. Tests should be a means of showing what students have mastered, not what they have not. Avoid grading on the curve and give everyone the opportunity to achieve the highest standard and grades.
  7. Be free with praise and constructive in criticism. Negative comments should pertain to particular performances, not the performer. Offer nonjudgmental feedback on students’ work, stress opportunities to improve, look for ways to stimulate advancement, and avoid dividing students into sheep and goats.
  8. Give students as much control over their own education as possible. Let students choose paper and project topics that interest them. Assess them in a variety of ways (tests, papers, projects, presentations, etc.) to give students more control over how they show their understanding to you.

As you start fresh this semester, I would encourage you to think about what  YOU are terrible at. I would encourage you to imagine having to do that thing you hate every day.

And I would encourage you to use empathy from that position and think about what would motivate your students who feel about your class the way I feel about running. See what you can do to increase student motivation in 2017.

As always, I love to hear from you! Email me