How to Teach

We Teach as We Were Taught

I worked with a teacher who said  all that effective instruction required was a) knowledge of your subject, b) lots of coffee, and c) the occasional fart joke.

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.


The follow 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, 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.

Academic Philosophy
Backward Design
Keep It Simple
Make the Students Do the Work
Grouping Students
Permission Slips
Frequently Asked Questions About YOU
Weekly Newsletters
Data Drives Instruction
Grading Programs
Who Has Your Back?
Why We Yell
21st Century Skill: Organizing

Academic Philosophy

A number of teachers are openly hostile to disucssions of academic philosophy. “You just teach,” they say. Balderdash!

An academic philosophy is the compass the guides you every day, in every decision. If you create a simple one at the start of the year, it will help you fight for what you need in resources and in making hard decisions on grading, dealing with kids and parents, discipline, pedagogy and the administration.

Simply put: What do you believe?

For example, American public schools work under the philosophy of “No Child Left Behind”. If we accept that every child can learn, then we can expect every student to meed the standard. Now, say that in a meeting or in the staff room and people will laugh. “Surely,” they’ll say, “that’s unrealistic.”

If YOU take this philosophy seriously, though, it will guide every decision you make. It will cause you to consider WHY those kids cannot make the standard. A reading program based around at-home reading is depending on a) student interest in reading, b) honesty, c) parent support, d) a home that is conducive to silent reading, e) access to books…. You get the idea. As a result, you may choose to have sustained silent reading time every day so that reading happens. Problem, solution.

The naysayers will then tick off a hundred problems. Some or logistical (time in the day for SSR) and philosophical (homework is for home). Each can be solved, or you choose to disagree and do what needs to be done. But our current structure is not set up for the outliers (even when the outliers might be the majority, in some schools). So, you have to change your structure.

Philosophies can include:

All students have a voice. Solution: desks in a circle, hands to talk, call on everyone…. of which you have to teach them how to do appropriately.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Solution: Students redo assignments until they meet the standard, which requires feedback and time to hold them accountable.
Learning is fun. Solution: Reflect daily on how much time you might be doing one thing (lecturing), do student surveys (even quick 1-5 fingers), be aware of smiles….

Keep it to three or five.  Once you have a philosophy, you become a solution machine moving where kids are to where you think, philosophically, they should be.

Backward Design
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.

You 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 tourist sites are not worth the bother. As an adult, you have already taken the academic trip and are in the position to share with students that information

Basic steps:

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–forget them for now.  Just focus on the outcome.

Later, 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 forgot to teach conclusions!). But start with the outcomes.  When you start to shoehorn things into existing units you compromise everything.  I cut up the hard copy list of outcomes with scissors and move them around on a table until I have a plan for the year (I’m tactile 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, summative assignment.

Before you start your journey, a good rubric and touchstone piece will serve as a 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 formative 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 concluding 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 if researching is not a prior skill taught.  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.  Don’t grade art skills for a project if you don’t teach that.  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 music 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 analytic 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 no context and the next lesson might not even be related to a paragraph. You don’t want to lose the thread.  If you plan, every lesson, and ever unit, can build on the next.

* 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? Perhaps. 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.

Grouping Students

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.  There is a lot written about differentiation, as it can be differentiation by need, by interest, by product, or other factors.  Read up on it; it’s important.

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, ability-wise. 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–the post-reading conversations open their eyes and they make excellent choices thereafter.

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.

Choosing Pairs: Because all students need a friend/advocate, I often will offer students a chance to choose a partner that they will have while mixed into a larger group.  I do this privately, as one kid might choose another who has chosen someone else.  I’ll fudge it at times, or nix disastrous combos, but in giving them this one choice they willingly accept larger, scarier groups.

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.

You make a devil’s bargain in getting a few minutes more class time in exchange for your cleaning up the place.  It is exhausting.  Once it is the norm, kids unpack and pack up pretty quickly.

Having students do the work applies to every element of the classroom.  You can have them design tests, choose the course of study, make book buying selections and the like.  Share the classroom to the degree you feel comfortable.  The question to ask is: Why NOT have them do _________?


Several of the next items have to do with providing information to those involved in educating your students.  I had a principal who said it was easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, but take that with a grain of salt.  The fact is that a small slip can end careers.  True, there are teachers who make dozens of transgressions a day, but you don’t want to be them.  And, while you will make mistakes, everyone knowing what is going on in your classroom is the best way of protecting yourself.

It will also make you a better teacher.

I am a huge believer in the power of the group.  Sure, there are naysayers and the like, and the beginning transition while others figure out what you are doing can be bumpy, but it’ll smooth out.  Being part of a professional community means that your a surrounded by knowledge and experience.  Tap it.  But don’t stop with the teacher next door.  Get parents involved, and ask the kids.  When you have your path clear (backward design) you will remain focused, but an openness to how you travel it tends to smooth out the bumps.

Permission Slips

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 committed suicide, so “Dead Poets Society” might not be a good choice for a video). 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.

Here is an example:


Throughout our year, video and other media plays an important instructional role in teaching students about the world around them.  In addition to videos such as Lagaan, Hamlet, Whale Rider and others, including educational videos from PBS and National Geographic, a few videos we bring to parents’ attention because they best know their child’s comfort level.  Below are those titles, along with any concerns a parent might have, including content and rating.  You can find more information online, especially,, and

At the bottom, I ask for your signature for permission and/or any comments or concerns.  Please let me know if I can answer questions or concerns up-front.


The Triplettes of Belleville: An unusual French animated feature, it is rated PG-13 for a raucous cabaret scene at the start (which we do not show).

Zulu: Not Rated: 1964 pre-blood violence with victims grabbing chests with a shock expression on their face.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly: Not Rated: Werner Herzog Documentary about German immigrant turned American pilot who was shot down in the early days of the Vietnam War.  Verbal telling of harrowing experience in POW camp and his escape, and some language.

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.

Too Old to Know, Too Young to Learn: When is Young Adult Literature Age Appropriate?

I also recommend Common Sense Media and (they have Library Review and other reviews that offer suggested ages).

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 at all 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 out.

Frequently Asked Questions About YOU

When I began teaching, my two-person team cycled  through our parent conferences, many of the parents coming together or, if separated, amicably came at the same time to respect the outlay of our time.  Now, being a four person team with over one hundred students, we host a cattle call.  We are available for an eight hour block and parents simply walk in when convenient.  For many students, we have a separate conference for each of their parents, resulting in over one hundred and fifty conferences.

And many parents don’t make it in.

For them, I created a “Frequently Asked Questions” email based on what I was being asked over and over.

When I first began in the field (and I began as a high school teacher), I created a syllabus.  That was the tradition, as taught to me.  It came out the first day, and meant nothing to the students because it was all just theoretical.  Until the first few assignments came back graded, late penalties were handed out, and kids began to wonder what texts were next, the syllabus had no real meaning.

And they are so unfriendly.  Someone once told me that the syllabus needed to be intimidating in order to set the tone for the year.  We WILL do this.  Your GRADE will be determined like so.  My POLICIES are that.  And so on.

But businesses use the FAQ.  It’s friendly, even if they are snowing you into a huge disappointing rip-off.  I’m not so devious, but I recognize that most parents a) want to do what’s best for their child, b) having the parent on your side really helps the kid succeed (and makes your life easier), and c) most parents come to parent conferences just to gauge you as a person.  So, I created my own FAQ and sent it out via email following the last conference.

Here is a sample:


It was great to see parents at conferences, but I know a number of parents could not make it for a variety of reasons.  As I sat listening to and answering questions, I found myself repeating certain things.  For those who could not speak to me in person, I thought it might be helpful to offer a post-conference “Frequently Asked Questions” email.

What is homework, typically?

I assign homework on Monday and collect it the following Monday.  It is called the Packet of Fun, which can be ironic at times.  Students have one week.

We all live busy lives and this allows students to work around obligations to family, school and activities.  But, they need to plan–they will need this skill come CVU (and life).  If they struggle with planning, this assignment provides a safe way to develop the skill (see late penalties below).  I recommend they do their homework for me on Monday, if they can, and be done.  Assignments done Sunday night tend to be rushed, and not their best work.

In addition, students are to read their own independent reading book each night for at least twenty minutes.  My rule-of-thumb is a new book every two weeks.

Where is work passed in?

Any work due for me is placed by the student in a picnic basket next to my desk.  I never take it myself because I don’t want to misplace it.  From the basket it goes into my bag, is taken out only to be corrected in a single spot, and put directly back in the bag.  I keep the loop tight so nothing is lost.  The first step, though, is a student placing it in the basket.

How does my child earn a B, or an A?

The grade of B indicates a student shows proficiency on that assignment: They understand the content and can do the skill.  The B is about the student repeating what has been taught.  

To earn an A, the student needs to shift focus to the reader–the student needs to have something to say, and then focus on the needs of the reader so that the reader leaves the assignment having gained something.  The skills serve the ideas, and the ideas need to have insight.  It is a high bar.

How is my student doing?

Hopefully, you are checking JupiterGrades from time to time.  It can be set up so that you receive a grade report weekly–I recommend Friday afternoon (the default) as most grades are entered by the….

See?  Now you know the beginning of how my class works–and a little about me, too!

I would suggest sending it out to parents the first week.  Then, send it out again in October–so much stuff goes home that first week that no one remembers anything after week two.  Modify it as necessary.  You might want to send it out a third time, in January.  Again, update it so it’s “fresh”.

Weekly Newsletter

Parents want to be in the loop.  When they have an idea of what’s happening in the classroom they are more likely to be your ally.  Not only that, but they can be an excellent resource.  But how to tap that, and without much fuss?

I create a document that is simply a series of items.  A list.  Nothing fancy.  As the year unfolds, I add or subtract from the list.  Then, once a week, I email it out to my parents.

For example, when a general due date comes up I announce it.

 HIGH SCHOOL COURSE REGISTRATION FORMS DUE: 8th grade students should have registered for courses by February 19th.  Please, do not leave it to the last minute!  Make sure passwords work.  Give time for discussions with teachers and the family over the best options.  If there are issues, please contact XXXX.

I bold the topic so parents can skim.  Many of the elements will repeat week after week–this item stayed in from when the high school counselors visited until a week after the due date.  Because you are sending it via email, you can include links to forms, email addresses and the like.

The newsletter is also a good place to solicit supplies and other needs.  Although I am a believer that schools have a responsibility to supply all materials necessary for student learning–from paper to toilet paper–there are other materials that are best gotten from home.  Fabric, for example.  We put out the call for stray fabric for a project and families were glad to get rid of it.  The same was true for puzzles, coat hangers and scraps of lumber that we ultimately used for bird houses.  These were not budget issues, but community recycling.

By keeping a running list, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each week.  The above example was from an email we received from the high school–I simply rewrote it in my voice.  Then, for five weeks in a row, it sat there.  Other items more important might get put above it, and on the week the forms were due this was up top, but the only effort I had to make was cut-and-paste.  And, because it’s an e-document you can have as many items as you like.

The specifics to make it successful are simple.  First, pick a day of the week that parents can expect it.  We call ours the “Wednesday Letter” and send it out on Wednesday.  Parents expect it.  Anyone who wants an announcement put in knows to get it to use by Wednesday.  We also make it a bit like a letter–a salutation and signature at the end.  With the signature, I include an email link and a link to my webpage.

At the top, I have three to five bullet-pointed items.  These are either new items that might get lost in the midst of our large email, or things coming due.  No details, just a headline.  It directs them to look closely as they scan down the rest of the email.  At the bottom, just above the signature, I offer a host of important hyperlinks–most of them are teacher homework pages.

Your main office should have a list of parent emails and other contact information that they can get you.  Get it.  It will probably come in an Excel document that you can upload into your school’s email program.  If you have an open house or other parent night, get and/or check as many of those emails as possible.  Our online grading program also collects parent emails when they first sign up for it.  Create a database, then make it a group.  As I’m multi-age, I have a Parent 7th Grade, Parent 8th Grade and Parent All groups.  I also create a group for students (7th Grade, 8th Grade, Students All) and send the newsletter to them, too.

Use Bcc: (blind copy).  Emails are private, and some parents want them private and have very good reasons why they want them private.  Respect that.  When I address my email, I put my “Parent All” group in the Bcc: line.  In the To: line I have a group of peers–my teammates, support staff, SpEd and my administrator.

Why is works: Nearly every parent gets email.  Our poorest families have smart phones, and most parents work in offices where they receive emails.  It has proven more effective than phoning or sending home a piece of paper each week (that winds up crushed in the bottom of their backpack).  This gives them enough information to know what’s happening in their child’s life.

Be careful about opening it up to others.  Ours is a team newsletter, with the four of us having access and putting in items.  At times, a parent will approach us about putting in an item about Rec Soccer or something like that.  If it is town-related, I am willing.  When you get into other organizations it can get tricky, with other parents wondering why we are promoting this or that event.  Keep to your mission.

Data Drives Instruction

We live in a world of data.  Computers make it easy, from counting calories to tracking your favorite quarterback.  Yet, many teachers are reluctant to use data in their instruction.

I don’t teach to the test.  If the test is valid, and given as a summative assessment, why would you not teach the skills that would lead to success?  See Backward Design above.

Tests don’t tell me anything I don’t already know.  Okay, are you doing anything about the results?  If you “know” a third of your kids can’t write, are you addressing those issues.  Have you broken down why they can’t write, and are you teaching those specific skills so that they learn them?  If not, you’re not doing your job.

In fact, we all use data.  Every assignment is data.  Grades are data.  The questions are a) what data do we use, b) how do we respond to the data.  The problem with grades are that we see them as final.  But, if we see them as starting points for instruction, they become dynamic.

This dynamic data takes one down a path, though.  Having taught a student how to write, do you give them the “new” grade and dismiss the old?  Average it?  Now, you’re approaching Standards Based Grading, which has a whole philosophy about formative tasks vs. summative, the use of 1, 2, 3, 4 scores as opposed to the 1-100 F-A scale, and the ability of students to redo work as they master new skills.

At some point, a student has to be able to do the task.  True.  That was me, and I agree still.  But.  Are grades a punishment, or a measure of ability?  Does the grade reflect their skills at the end of the unit, term, semester, year?  Now, you’ve opened a can of worms.  Go back to your Academic Philosophy and ask for professional development.

After years of resistance, Standards Based Grading is starting to solve some of the problems I’ve struggled with for years.

 Online Grading Program

There was an education book years ago called “Whaddya Get?”, which blasted our focus on grades.  But if data guides instruction, then having access to data (grades) is important.  Parents and students want to know how they are doing, and why.  By offering access to timely data you are empowering families to do better in real time.

Long before online grading programs were the norm, I found that having a printable gradebook made maintaining grades and seeing progress easy.  Mainly, it did the math and, with each assignment, I could see progress (or not).  But the lesson I learned my first year was that, given a detailed printout of their own entry in the gradebook, students reacted in meaningful, focused ways.  When I expanded my sharing to parents, they got behind it, too.

Our school has an online grading program.  My gradebook is available to parents and teachers in real time–as I enter grades, they can see them.  Their overall grade rises and falls with each entry, meaning that students can see the repercussions of a missing assignment or the benefits of getting work in.  Parents, too, can hold their child accountable when work is not in.

The backlash is that people expect you to be reasonably up-to-date.  An essay written in October cannot be entered in December for it to have any meaning.  Also, a ton of grades cannot get entered the week before the semester ends.  It’s just not fair, and bad teaching.  There are a number of teachers who resent sharing their gradebook because they see it as sharing power.  It is.  But our job is to teach, not lord over others.

It also requires you to justify assignments.  I find that to be a good thing.  If busywork is sinking a student, a parent will ask about it.  Does it represent what they are doing in your class?  How so?  On the other hand, if you can show a pattern of poor writing assignments (an important skill), the discussion begins with writing and finding solutions.

It also requires you to justify the value of assignments.  Is a quick quiz really as representative as an essay?  My grading policies have changed so much over the years.  For example, I no longer penalize late work because I want my overall grade to represent proficiency and not work habits.  I also eliminated the “zero” for mathametical reasons, replacing it with a 50 (you can reading about more grading issues in Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades.  His basic ideas can be found here.

Ignore Parents

Yes, I’ve just given you a number of ways to keep parents in the loop.  To keep them informed.  They are set up to be your allies.  Great.

Except that parents cannot be trusted to do your job for you.  Those that can already are.  You, then, are left to pick up the pieces for those kids who need you the most.  Keep that in mind.  Don’t assume access to a computer, an availability of supplies or even meals at home.  And if you are going to expect nothing from some parents, why are you expected anything from others?  Design your program where parent help is gravy.

Cynical, perhaps.  In keeping parents in the loop (as outlined above) you are inviting them to help, but don’t count on an RSVP.  Calls to parents about behavior or academic concerns will be greeted with all of the right words, but often the follow through is lacking.  This is how it is.  You, then, are the last line of help for these kids.

But let’s look at a less extreme example.  A student is failing.  The parent comes in.  You conference, the parent saying this and you saying that.  In the end, an agreement is reached.  What’s missing?  The student.  Remember the advice: Make the students do the work.  Why?  When that parent goes home, they are going to repeat what you said.  The child will then tell their side of the story.  The parent, well meaning as can be, won’t know who to believe and whatever you two agreed to will go out the window.

The student needs to be part of any discussion.  The student is the engine for their own learning.  By having the student at the center of any conference, plan or casual discussion they are forced to take on the responsibility for positive change.  You and mom can chime in, but the student is on the spot and everyone else is clear about what the plan it going forward.

Take parent involvement with a grain of salt.

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 judgments.  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 judgments, 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.


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 classroom 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 would 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 scenario 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.

I did mention Ken O’Connor’s book on our broken grading system.  Again, his main ideas can be found here.  One idea is that we should not penalize late work as it distorts how proficient a student is in the class.  An essay that earns a “B” should not receive a “D” because it is a week late.  But students should not pass things in willynilly, either.  To that end, think about creating a separate Work Habits grade.  If possible, make it a separate course and have your colleagues contribute to it (Our four core class teachers each account for 25% of the grade).  You can then enter the “B” in your subject gradebook and an “D” in the Work Habits gradebook.  When parent conferences come around, the discussion is now about organization and not skills.


17 thoughts on “How to Teach

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  1. This is the best blog I have ever seen. Your words ring in my ears. I love poetry, and this is perfect for my students. Thank you and keep it up!

  2. I am thrilled to find your blog. As an english teacher who is new to middle school this year, your insights offer great insight. I am also in the midst of my masters in educational leadership, so many of your thoughts are those i share on key issues in education. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful advice. I am new to middle school teaching this year and can really use the suggestions.

    1. Miyomata Musashi, the great Japanese swordsman who retired to be a monk and wrote “The Book of Five Rings”, put forth the idea of an administrator being like a foreman who knows the various skills of his workers–because no two have the same strengths or weaknesses–and assigns them work accordingly. Part of me would love to be one of those TED talk speakers you get on inservice days that solve all of your problems in a one hour speech. Certainly, I am a big-picture systems guy who loves to create schedules, get people together and talking, and empower folks to do what they do best. I have ideas and am excellent at problem solving–which often means letting people talk and brainstorm until the solution presents itself. A facilitator, which is often my teaching style, too.

      That said, I am not arrogant enough, I fear, to think I know the answers. Perhaps that would make me good at it, but I don’t like to waste people’s time. So, no, I have not put myself out there.

      As far as putting plans together, much of my thoughts are on this page. Often, people just need someone restating it again and again and again until they give themselves permission to do it. Backward design, for example, is a paradigm shift–once grasped, it is hard to go back–but it’s hard to grasp that the first time. We so hold onto how we were taught, and what we already do, because it worked once (or so we seem to remember, or think). I’m good at asking questions and forcing a reality check that holds up, or doesn’t.

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