Teaching is hard, and the learning curve is steep. Prep and license programs get a bad rap because they can only teach you so much; it takes a few years in the classroom before what you are doing has a bit of ease and more than a good amount of effectiveness. Still, you cannot walk in off the street full of subject knowledge and even begin to manage a classroom. You may already be in the trenches, struggling as an intern, or just need some perspective.
There are some basic philosophies, and a few tricks, that should be the bedrock foundation of any classroom program. Originally, it was going to be its own blog (as of right now, it is, but much of its content winds up here), but perhaps dovetailing with Middle School Poetry 180 will be one-stop-shopping for those who hope to raise the bar academically. If you put these in place, you should be successful. With a brain in your head and some elbow grease, you might actually make a difference.
Keep It Simple
Make the Students Do the Work
Who Haw Your Back?
Why We Yell
21st Century Skill: Organizing
We teach as we were taught. Yet, as the world and education changes, we too often do not think about why we teach what we do. Backward design hones our lessons to meet current goals.
Backward design is using your learning goals to plan instruction of a unit.
In short, your design your unit from the end. It is like planning a trip: once you know where you are going, you will know what to pack, how much money you will need, and what tickets to buy. You also know what is not needed, and what sites are not worth the bother. As an adult, you have already taken the trip and are in the position to share with students that information
1. Identify the skills you want students to have at the end of a unit or course. This is your destination. Most experts suggest beginning with the school, district, or state standards assigned to you. The Common Core State Standard Initiative is getting a lot of press, but your administrator should be able to guide you to those standards your grade level or course you are expected to cover. You can find the Common Core here, and most school, district or state websites provide PDF and links to the specifics of what you are supposed to be teaching. For new teachers, this is beaten into them, but older teachers might not be familiar with their exact wording.
For example, one of the Grade 5 writing standards reads: W.5.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
With W.5.2 as your goal, you will design lessons and assessments to teach and measure mastery of that skill. Backward design: Start with the outcome, and the unit falls into place.
Note: I recommend gathering all of the outcomes for your course. You might have units already, in which case you might assign different outcomes to different units, or you could group them together as it makes sense and make each a unit. One of the beauties of backward design is that, in mapping it out now, you don’t repeat goals, nor are you left with holes. I cut up the hard copy list with scissors and move them around on a table until I have a plan for the year (old school!).
2. Determine how you will know students have arrived. Using our example of W.5.2, students might write a report independently. You must have a clear, concrete example in mind of what the finished product looks like. Backward design means starting at the end, so you begin with that last assignment.
Before you start your journey, a good rubric and touchstone piece will serve as a good marker. It will make things concrete for you. Most important, each element of the rubric must measure satisfactory completion of skill you are teaching. So, what does W.5.2 look like when successfully mastered? In breaking it down in parts, and defining the concrete outcome, it will become clear what specific skills you need to teach. When they finally arrive at the end of the unit, your grade is like stamping their passport.
3. List those skills students will need to learn in order to get to that destination. Writing a lead sentence is a skill many students struggle with. What else (i.e., evidence, analysis and final sentences)? Ask yourself if everything on that list really needs to be there (do not overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much). For example, packing a warm sweater and buying plane tickets are important; what brand of toothpaste is less so. These are your directions (turn left, go five miles…).
Note: you cannot measure what you do not teach. For W.5.2 you might give them a list of facts and bullet points to work from. Or, you can make it a research paper, but then you need to teach students how to research a topic and create a separate rubric/grade for that skill. A big mistake teachers make is a) assuming students have skills, b) thinking that content and presentation are the same, when many students can write but have nothing to say. You may find that your students’ writing issue is really a content issue, which requires different lessons.
4. That list is what you teach (follow the map). W.5.2. requires students to have a) a topic, b) convey ideas and information and c) be clear. So, a lesson on each. Three classes. Of course, your lesson on having a topic might be several lessons: what constitutes topic, how to find one, what is it’s role, how make it compelling, etc. Break it down. Your class–and what they bring to the table–determines the roadmap and how long the trip is.
Really, that list is the sum of all of your lessons for that unit. If you are teaching anything that is not on that list, ask yourself why; that’s just sightseeing, and while fun it is a waste of time and gas and can distract the class from what they need to be doing. By having a concrete final product, and creating a rubric and sample, your list should be fairly tight.
Anyone who has studied backward design or read a book knows there is a bit more to it than this, but that is the gist. If you want to know more (suggested!) look at this Wikipedia entry (it has more emphasis on the beginning of the process, which I do not deny) and buy Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.
So, why is this not how many teachers plan their units? First, we all go into teaching believing we know what to do. From the seats, it seems so obvious. We also teach as we were taught, so we can rattle off plenty of lessons in our chosen field. Adults also forget what we did not know before we knew it, and once we know it we think we always did. But, let’s face facts: Teaching is tough. After a few disruptions, a fire drill, a few kids missing for lessons, an administrator dumping many more action items and skills on your lap that clear month to teach paragraphs is suddenly a minefield of distractions. Once you are overwhelmed, it becomes difficult to regroup. Instead, you play catch-up. You plug holes. And every year you think this is the year you’ll be on top of everything.
You need your road map.
Here are some examples of why things go awry:
* The question: why do we need to know this? If you cannot tell a student in a very concrete way why, in five years, they will need that skill than you need to wonder why is it being taught? That reason–the enduring understanding–is the focus on the lesson. In five years, that student should still be able to write a W.5.2 piece because clear communication supported by solid evidence is important regardless of what they do in life. Poetry, for example, teaches analysis skills while writing about it demonstrates logic. By identifying the outcome you justify every lesson you teach.
* Lessons should not be islands. In thinking about what they are going to teach tomorrow we often forget about the overall goal of a course. So, students might learn to write a lead sentence, but there is not context and the next lesson might not even be related to a paragraph. You don’t want to lose the thread.
* Teachers have a hard time imaging the end product in a concrete way. Determining, with a rubric, exactly what “success looks like” should be a natural, but it’s really hard. As the targets set by schools change, what was once clear is now fuzzy. Once you do it, though, your entire unit falls seamlessly into place.
* Often, we try and do too much. So, while grammar is really important in teaching writing, is this the time for it? If, in the middle of struggling with evidence and analysis, you start talking about verb tenses you are veering way off course. Valuable? Yes. After they can write a paragraph, the next unit might be grammar and you can clean that solid paragraph up and make it sing. This is why I suggest laying out the course or entire year before designing a single unit; knowing you will cover something important later will give you permission to ignore it now. All in due time.
In the end, backward design is about being efficient. You have only so many days, and so much to teach. You should not be taking on more than your share, and you should not be be wasting your students’ time. Once you determine the destination and make it concrete, weeks of lessons will fall into place. Your students will respond in kind.
Keep It Simple
Keeping in mind Robert Fulguhm’s Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” we see that the really important things are very basic. In a follow up to backward design, you need to keep your lessons simple.
What simple lessons provide are a foundation. Reading is essential to everything else a student might do throughout their entire career, yet by sixth grade sustained silent reading stops being a class time enjoy and becomes homework that is not done. Paragraphs are taught in first grade, yet ninth grade teachers need to repeat and repeat this skill. Those lessons can contain great subject lessons (in poetry, for example), but need to be the basis for everything you do.
More important, simple lessons allow you to see mistakes early. A student who cannot write a paragraph cannot write an essay. The ideas of a clear thesis, good evidence, citations, proper grammar, and in-depth analysis are all clear in a paragraph. Mop up those mistakes, and then move to the essay. While such lessons can be dull, by focusing on these basics in the first week you can focus on issues of style and content the rest of the year.
For this reason I am a huge supporter of poetry. Can we expect students to offer in-depth analysis of a novel, play or historical event if they cannot, or will not, venture to guess what Frost meant when writing of that snowy day? How can someone prove a geometric theorem if they cannot tackle a simple poem about a candle burning on both ends?
Simple lessons are easy to organize, grade and provide corrective action for students. Once the foundation has been laid, all of that other stuff can be laid on top of it. You will be surprised how much you can focus on the good stuff once you laid down the simple ideas first.
Because all students are different you cannot teach all students the same. In recognition of student differences, many schools track. There are many problems with this, which are covered well elsewhere.
Fortunately, my middle school is pretty homogeneous (although NCLB and RTI are eroding that philosophy). I am a huge fan of putting all of the kids together in one class and figuring it out from there. For example, have all students write a paragraph. From this you get an idea of who can write and who cannot. You also get an idea of what specific issues you will need to focus on: creating a strong thesis, building an argument, sentence structure, spelling, etc. It is torture for a student who is close to proficiency to sit through a lesson on creating a strong thesis. By offering a mini lesson, and having an activity for those who have mastered that skill, you can focus on those who need help while not wasting everyone else’s time. There are very few students who are great at everything, and few who are across-the-board lacking. My classes are true jigsaws of skills and ability.
Differentiation is the buzzword of the moment, but it deserves your attention. In short, image that you have a classroom of kids and each is unique. Instead of teaching all students the same, you group them and teach each group by their need. There is a lot written about differentiation, as it can be differentiation by need, by interest, by product, or other factors. For example, you may have a group that cannot write an introduction; instead of boring the entire class with skills they have mastered, you teach those who need it while teaching the others a skill they lack. Or, you might allow students to produce different products; some might write a report, while a video demonstrating the same information. You will find that in working with students and smaller groups, and not a whole class as a block, your day will be spent making a difference instead of simply marching through material and being frustrated that a third of the class doesn’t get it while another third is bored.
That said, you will still need to group. In identifying strengths and weaknesses you are already grouping students, albeit in much smaller and more temporary groups than tracking (in differentiation, groups last as long as the skill that separates them–this is how it differs from tracking, which is practically forever). There are, though, other ways of grouping:
Boys and Girls: Controversial, I would have hated to be grouped in the “boy” group as a child. But, you can think beyond it to what advocates are really saying: active and passive learning. Then, let their learning styles choose. I once divided groups by interest–competitive, romance and cerebral plot lines–they then each read a different text while focusing on the same theme.
Age: Like boys and girls, this has tradition behind it but little else. It works development wise, and overall, but at times it can be a straight jacket as we send kids on who just need one more year… In the classroom, this decision has already been made, but you can argue why freshmen cannot take AP classes, etc.
Appropriateness: I worked in a school that put kids in groups on their ability to be responsible. The more responsible group got more privileges (such as being able to walk the school without supervision and more field trips). Students in the lower groups could petition to move up, but it takes a lot of constant talking about choices, etc. Still, it rewards the “good” kids and is a brass ring for the rest.
Student Choice: The way literature circles are supposed to be done is that the teacher lays out the choice of books, does a book talk, and students choose based on interest. Too many teachers place students where they should go. When you give kids choices they invest in the activity. If you give time to process afterward, students are better able to make choices the next time. My big problem is never students getting in over their heads, but talented kids taking the easy route and then being bored.
Multiple Factors: My sister was always frustrated that her random groupings always produced three okay groups, one super group, and one group that was lost. Then, she realized that, statistically, this will always happen in random groupings. She devised a questionnaire to balance the groups, which I use, too. Students rated themselves using a number scale on issues such as “I like English” and “My grade in English” and “I like working in groups” and “I am good at working at groups”. Notice the difference between enjoying and success. You can add additional skills, subject areas, and the like. Students then added up their scores. You will create a list of students from highest to lowest scores. The one at the top loves the subject and group work, and is good at both. The one at the bottom… Now, if you need four groups the first four on the list go to the four different groups; now each group has a member who has skills and interest. Then you spread the next four, and the next… until the last kid is placed. Each group now has an equal number of high flying, middling and struggling students.
I believe that the key to grouping is for them to be temporary. Once a student is “stuck” they quickly decide if it is a blue bird or buzzard. More important, if the group has a specific purpose for existing (you guys don’t know fractions) students will buy in; they know what they can’t do, and appreciate you are finally giving them the specific instruction that will make the difference.
Make the Students Do the Work
Once, when I was teaching simple machines for a science class, I was stressing about how to get to the lumberyard to get materials. A more experienced teacher gave me the simple advice, “Have the students do the work.” Instead of building, our class walked to the lumberyard and carried back the materials. On route, I explained what we were doing and why. Having been involved in the early stages of the project, my students owned their work throughout the project.
Now I have students do everything, from cleaning my room to helping with planning out units. Whereas I used to stand up in front of a whiteboard and wave my arms around, I now facilitate. We create projects where they work and I advise. Of course, I structure the unit and hold them accountable, but they are good at constructing authentic ways to learn the goals I set out and managing their time. Instead of my running to the art room, debugging the computers or wondering who wrote on the bathroom walls my students do this. In return, I have time to work with students who really need my help.
One teacher told me she loved middle school because one kid would be playing on the slide while his friend talked about his newly grown facial hair. These are children, and the appropriateness of the material you teach is often tricky to peg. One student I had watched nothing but violent and sexual videos at home, yet was shocked when a poem contained the word “crap”.
Regardless of what you determine is appropriate, have parents sign a general permission slip at the start of the year.
If you know the poems, books and videos you will use, list those that are controversial, but still cover general topics and language that might arise over the year. Cover yourself, but it is good for the kids, too. Remember, your school and community are allies in doing what is best for kids. While you want to push them, the community tends to know things that might go too far (i.e., someone who was molested as a child). Knowing in September that options or alternatives are needed makes planning easy. When parents can support your inclusion of poetry and literature, classes are win-win for everyone involved.
Yes, I know those of us who travel in literature are sometimes amazed by the views of others, but it can be an opportunity to have a larger discussion. We all say we want parents involved, and then we get upset when they try and do what is best for their child. By putting it all on the table, though, we open up rich dialogues that go in very interesting directions. It is a much more powerful technique than relying on student ignorance.
Concerns can come from many corners, too. I once played Allen Ginsburg reading “America”, which contains an f-word. The students did not notice, but the aide in my room did. She told the nurse, who told an administrator, who spoke with me. A few yeas later, a new principal came to our school with a K-4 background. When a controversial reading came up, she was shocked to learn that our library was filled with books like The Chocolate War and Speak. Parents were my allies, in part because they trusted me and knew the context of what we were doing. How did they know? I sent home a detailed permission slip with every possible text and video we might use, and, more important, the rationale.
If you are teaching middle school, or have questions about appropriateness in general, the following link will take you to an article I wrote about when middle school students are ready for the racier subjects, language and literature you might throw at them. So, before you try Whitman or Ginsberg take a gander at this article.
I know a teacher who relied on student ignorance when it came to inappropriate material. When I asked him how he taught a raw and brutal scene in Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die, where a breeding of pigs represents the harsh reality of animal life and the larger “loss of innocence” moment (it reads like a rape, with the adult justifying it as natural; I find it disturbing, but can imagine a great discussion about it), his reply struck me. He said, “Oh, most of the kids won’t get it”, meaning that he was hoping for their obliviousness to keep the book appropriate. Not exactly a safeguard, nor what we might want as teachers stressing a close reading of the text, or even basic comprehension. That this scene was the main illustration for the book’s theme made me wonder what he WAS teaching.
So, put together permission slip and run it past an administrator (then they know what you’re doing, too, and you can later say, “but I ran it past my boss” and pass any stink onto them). Send it home, and have getting a parent response a homework assignment. A “response” is different from a signature; leave a space for concerns and a check-box if parents want to speak to you about concerns. The concern space is often blank, but I always get one concern about showing any videos and another showing appreciation for pushing their kid to think. Every other student will tell you their parents are “fine” with any movies, but put on paper they can sing a different tune. Follow-up on any that do not come back, and then put everything in a drawer.
I have never needed to pull them.
Who Has Your Back?
You will be questioned. Someone is going to question you about content, grading or other elements of your class. There are healthy versions of this, but some of the questions are really judgements. People will attack you, both verbally and, at times, physically (yelling, closing space and finger pointing). Your perception of civil discourse does not always match others; I’ve heard frustrated people make real physical threats. People can be abusive and justify it.
Make sure someone has your back.
Every new teacher should have a mentor. The purpose of a mentor is for an experienced teacher to guide a new hire into their new position. Some schools set up that relationship, and often the mentor is paid for performing that task. This does not ensure a good fit, or a helpful experience, but it’s a place to start.
A good mentor should be able to put you six months ahead of the curve. They should do everything from explaining how the copy machine works to the politics of the school and community. If your mentor does not do this, find someone else who can fill in those gaps. Before you pipe up in a committee or faculty meeting, or sit down with parents, someone should brief you about what to expect. Where are the minefields? Even if your school does not provide someone for you, find someone you can go to for advice. Use them.
In most schools, the administrator is you ally. They are there to help you. After all, they hired you. They have a vested interest in your succeeding.
Too often, teachers see administrators as the enemy. Being called in by an administrator feels, to many, like they’re in trouble (just like the kids feel). Observations often feel like judgements, not an opportunity for guidance and getting better. Many feel that if they go to the administration for advice they will be perceived as weak, or unable to do their job. These are natural fears, felt by veteran teachers as well as noobs. Speak to colleagues and your mentor about your administrator. Then, speak to your administrator early (before you need them) about when it’s appropriate to come to them. Every administrator is different.
Because you will be questioned. And when you are, it is important not to be in it alone.
When replying to an email that concerns you, it is a good idea to CC: the administrator who is your supervisor, your mentor or a trusted colleague (speak to them first, so they know it’s more of an FYI inclusion instead of a call for help). It keeps them in the loop if things blow up later. No one likes surprises, and its hard to explain how things got that far when they’ve gone that far.
If the administrator offers advice, consider it seriously. Their job is to convey the big picture, and experience is on their side. There is no worse feeling than having an administrator undercut you in front of a parent. You can disagree with their advice or decision, but both of you should know what the other will say before any meeting. In the end, the administrator will make the call; that’s what they are paid to do. If you have deep philosophical disagreements think about another placement.
Having different opinions is okay. Not being supported is dysfunctional. Know the difference.
If you find you are alone after trying to reach out, think about another placement. If your administrator is hostile, think about another placement.
It is your responsibility as a professional to know the lay of the land, to make the connections and to find supports before you need them. Everyone has their own problems; after you’ve dug the hole you can’t expect everyone else to drop their shovels to find you a rope. Do that work early.
Why We Yell
I am in the front yard, working at the corner of the house. My son is playing by the front walk, when suddenly he runs for the road. As he is ten feet from the road, and I am at least thirty feet from him, I am quite sure that he will run in front of the pick up truck before I can physically stop him. So, I yell. STOP!
Yelling is what we do when we have run out of options.
It is really that simple. Most of our relationship is spent talking, teaching, showing, hugging and being civil to each other. With him, I find a lot of patience. When I have the time, we use that time to learn lessons that will last a lifetime. Except, when there is no way I can stop him from running into the road I use the one thing I have left: I yell. And he stops.
For many teachers, this is the moment they yell. In their minds they have made the rules clear, allowed this student to get a drink of water or that one to go to their locker. A third of the class is not reaching their potential, and a spate of dry ink cartridges has prevented seven essays from making it in by the due date. Then, someone complains that class is boring. They want to go outside. The worst part of it all is that they are only expressing these thoughts out loud because they trust you enough–you have built a relationship and responded to their fair minded criticism–but today someone would not understand that their language offends you, and you are a part of the class and community, too. So, you blow it. You are out of options.
IF YOUR WATCH ALARM GOES OFF ONE MORE TIME! you scream at the child who is running towards the busy street of life and is too distant for you to reach. Or, perhaps, you meant it for him or her, but instead screamed at the unlucky child who put that last straw on your back eight straws after that kid you felt really deserved the warning. In the end, your tricks all played, yelling was your only option.
Now, with my son, I could have been preventive. At all times I could have been closer to him than he was to the road. When our older son was two, we laid down a low stone wall. In part, it was decoration, but it was also meant to slow him down a step so that we could catch him before he got to the street. We do have a nice backyard for him to play in. Life, though, is fraught with danger. Even had we done it all, another life threatening situation would probably have reared its head.
Prevention is important, which leads to the second reason we yell: to make a point that sticks.
YOU NEVER GO NEAR THE ROAD!
This was not a patient response that treated my son as a partner, but a directive I did not want my child to forget. This was a non-negotiable rule, and the next time he even thought of doing it I wanted him to wonder if the wrath of my entire six feet-four was worth it. Perhaps it is the bullying of a child, but if it keeps him from running into the road I weight the ends over the means.
Thus begins the slippery slope. Even as I try and undo the scare with hugs and a rational discourse about the dangers of traffic and dashing towards it, I know that my child is afraid of me. While the ends are justified, I wonder if there is another way.
YOU SIT IN THIS CLASS LIKE YOU DON’T CARE, BUT YOU AND I KNOW THAT IF YOU KEEP GOING DOWN THIS PATH YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET JACK FROM THIS LIFE! ARE YOU READY FOR THE WORST JOB IN THE WORLD?! This is a toned down version of what I have said. I can go longer, into much more personal detail, asking rhetorical questions that make the point: Stop screwing up. Nearly every child I have said these things too has agreed that it was justified, even as they did not like to hear it. Still, I know that they were afraid of me. They have said as much. And they already knew it. They knew, before I uttered a word, that what they were doing was wrong.
In the end, the bottom of the slope is filled with laziness. My younger son is kicking my older son, and while the latter uses his words and is the good big brother it does not stop. STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER! I yell from the other room. It is easier than getting up. When my older son was four, I realized that much of my discipline was yelling from across the room because stopping the behavior and talking it through was too much work. As he threw blocks, jumped on the couch, or sang at the top of his lungs a yell stopped the behavior.
At first. Then, it became noise. Unlike the road, which worked because of pure novelty and shock of the situation, the ten yelling corrections a day wore off. Instead, he started pushing buttons. And yelling. Now, he yells down the stairs and from other rooms. We realized, quickly, that we need to get up and correct behavior, and it worked, but the yelling is still with us three years later.
My classrom has not become one of the classrooms that are famous for yelling. In our high school, one teacher used to stop teaching when the teacher in the neighboring classrooms began his rants. Knowing that no one was listening to him, he would stop mid-sentence, sit at his desk, and read the New York Times until it calmed down. Then, the lesson woudl resume. Having been in that class next door, on the receiving end of the yell, it amazes me that he could have a job. In fact, he was head of the department, a coach of football and track, and well respected in our community. Ah, the old days.
Each year I have learned to hold it together a little bit more. Planning has been very important. When I have systems in place, and am able to stop my proclivity towards co-dependence (my thought that, this time, they’ll listen), I maintain order because I have options. Three years ago I took a Responsive Design course, which gave me many more strategies for the good of students and my sanity. I have, in many ways, the low stone wall in place. And, at the end of the day, running into the street (in an academic sense) can be a tough love learning experience, as long as you are ready to scrape them off the tar and start fresh the next day.
Know where your yell comes from. If it is laziness, get some systems, get off your behind, or get a new job. On the other hand, if you feel you are out of options you need to take a breath. Then, before you correct or even plan your next lesson, imagine every senerio and what you will do in response. Be happy with that response. The next day, play it out calmly. If you do it right, you are in charge. The child will not make it out of the yard on your watch.
21st Century Skill: Organization.
I don’t want to restate what I have said elsewhere in this blog. Our students are overloaded with information, and instead of teaching them more we need to teach them to organize it. Once done, everyone can see the gaps and fill them out.
Check out my post here. It’s technically about a haiku by Basho, but the reams of words that lead to that poem convey and important new paradigm in thinking.