Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The first day and first week of class is crucial to setting the tone and establishing the foundation for the rest of the school year. This is the week where you begin your journey together with a new group of learners. In many cases, this is also the most focused and potentially organized they are going to be for the entire year. Lucky for you, it's all downhill from here. Or maybe it's uphill. However, most of them are hoping to have a good year in school, setting goals and marking academic growth and achievements, filled with friends and activities. Many have gone shopping for new school clothes as well as the supplies they are going to need for school. There is an air of excited anticipation (and inherent dread) as they enter the school grounds and eventually your classroom. They will be collectively anxious and they will, to varying degrees, be open to learning your class subject. They want to like your class, they really do. Although you may be even more anxious than the learners, NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU SWEAT. If you need to, you will 'Fake It Til You Make It. It looks a little like this: You will effect a strong classroom presence, use your firm but engaged 'teacher' voice, and command your classes like an orchestra leader. That's the goal, anyway. I'm here to help. Organization is the key to success.


We can all agree, ORGANIZATION IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS. The lesson here, for me, is that no matter how organized I may be, there's still a lot of anxiety I have to manage in the run up to the first day of class.

The best way to manage that anxiety, interestingly enough, is through ORGANIZATION. I cannot emphasize this enough.  If you are a disheveled mess, you are toast.  Snap out of it.  You must adopt (Fake It Til You Make It Rule) a Type A Personality when it comes to preparing for the classroom.  Do what you want in your 'free time' (insert canned laughter), but you've got to be a laser beam in preparing for and executing your plans in the classroom.  If you're a procrastinator, you're going to set yourself up for looking sometimes like you're lost.  Your students will pick up on this and some will exploit it, seeing it as a weakness, which it is.  Now you've lost some momentum in your lesson plan and you'll begin to lose the respect and control of the class.  Everyone is depending on you to control the class and students make the collective excuse that they are too young to be held responsible for their classroom behavior, and they test your boundaries and tolerance for chaos.  Then you become mean in your management style.

Not being organized in your approach to teaching leads to this and your efforts begin to suffer really fast.

Good news.  It's all preventable simply by being organized.

Taking and adapting a proactive approach to being organized is going to save you headaches and fatigue going forward.  40 weeks is a long time.  We've got to start strong and finish strong.  Weekends and holidays are your time to recharge.  You're going to need that time and you need to prioritize that time when it arrives because, not only is the best teaching an emotionally draining investment, you're working anywhere from 12-18 hour days.  Up at 6:00 in the morning, work your fanny off until midnight,  that's a typical day for almost any educator.


Start organizating for the next semester at least 6 weeks prior to that first day.  If you're in this education business to change young people's lives and to inspire life-long learning in their hearts, then you're always going to be looking to bring excitement into the classroom.  Your positive attitude sells it every time.

Amazing resources are truly at our fingertips and there's no excuse not to bring relevant real world experiences and the joy of treasure-hunting for clues, knowledge, analysis, and understanding.

Counting down now to the 7-10 days prior to Day One...

First, you should already know the classes and periods you're teaching, your daily class schedule, and have a school year calendar accessible.

The Importance of  Names

Next, get your class lists, the names of the little darlings who'll be eagerly hanging on your every word (Insert canned laughter).  In your paper and/or digital roll book, list students names alphabetically, last name, first. Spelling and proper name pronunciation of all your students is imperative.  Ask your students to help you on the first day with the correct pronunciations of their names.   Also, leave a space underneath each student's name to record their preferred name, perhaps a nickname or a shortened version of their birth name, when you call roll that first day.

Names are very important to our human identities and I don't know anyone without one.  And, every student is wondering how long it's going to take before you know their name. Each child's preference needs to be recorded, remembered and respected. When you call roll the first day, you'll ask everyone at the same time to tell you if they have another name they prefer to be called.  If they do, you'll record it and use it when addressing them.  Until they change their minds.  Yeah, they're like that.  In middle school, the leopards change their spots.  It's a time of big changes and your classroom has to be a safe place to experience those changes.  Addressing the emotional brain as part of your intellectually stimulating program of learning will enrich your teaching and your students' learning experience.

There are a some of exceptions for some teachers regarding the name rule.

If you teach and coach physical education, a lot of students don't mind being addressed by their last names only.  I remember that when I was in middle school and it felt good to be called by my last name in PE. Professional sports is like that with the names on the back of their jerseys.  So, it felt good to be part of a 'team concept.'  It helps if the teacher-coach-athletic department is consistent in their approach.

Consistency, next to organization, is another key to success.

Another exception is when you need to address a behavioral issue with a student after class. Then using Ms. or Mr. shows a sign of 'firm respect' and, at the same time, it also signals to the student that the teacher wants to address the issue privately.  So, just before you dismiss class (you'll remind your students that you, the teacher, NOT THE BELL, is in charge of dismissal) you'll say "Before you leave, Mr. Smith, could I see you for a moment, please?"

Unless you've decided to address them as Ms. or Mr. and then their last name. My thought is, if you're going to do that, it makes better sense for high school students. Middle school students, in my opinion, are just bigger elementary school kids, and addressing them by their first name in most cases makes the most sense.  But, really, it's fine.  Again, consistency is the key.


 Looking inside each student's cumulative record folder will give you insights into their past educational experience.  There's a lot of useful information to be found, to be sure, but it has to be viewed judiciously.  The danger is prejudgement.

Based on their past performance, you NEVER want to prejudge a child's potential for succeeding in your class.  You're going to be the one that lights the spark in your students.  Past grades are past grades.  These students have never had YOU as a teacher, so whatever has happened in grades leading up to this one, view carefully and don't prejudge.  Also, talk with other teachers about your incoming students, especially if they've taught them before.

Find out what you can find out. Most importantly, understand that whatever the other teachers have said about your incoming students needs to be taken with a grain of salt. What I mean by that is, they've never had you as a teacher. What other teachers say about each student should NEVER prejudice you either for or against a student beforehand, before you've even had a chance to teach him or her. Students are very intuitive and can tell when a teacher is being genuine or whether or not they're simply going through the motions. All students seek a connection. They may be exhausted in a sense because few of their previous teachers have had the time to connect with them. Most all student-learners are reachable, I believe. There are some students, of course, that feel they've never had a good teacher, that school is for losers, nobody hears me anyway, the subjects are boring and unrelatable, the teachers suck. Never stop trying, of course, but there are students you're not going to reach. But I have a plan to help crack even the most ardent self-defeaters. This is where your knowledge of the importance of emotional intelligence comes into play. These children are the ones who are emotionally overwhelmed and shutdown at the same time, so much so that they've given up on themselves. They are our most challenging of course, but, as I mentioned, the first week will go far in setting the tone for academic and social achievement in your classroom. Hopefully, you will end up being their favorite teacher of all time because you cared enough to try. Children are generally resilient, and in a nurturing classroom environment they can thrive. Be the one who cracks their inner code. Addressing emotional intelligence in the classroom environment will go far to unlocking every student-leaner's potential.


That's right. Never let the little darlings know how freaking nervous you might be that first day. Wear an undershirt or pit pads with deoderant that works under pressure. PROJECT confidence. Fake It Til You Make It.

This is especially true for new teachers or teachers in a new school. There is plenty of reason to freak out.  Many teachers are torn between thoughts of 'I hope they like me', 'Please don't misbehave', 'Please let me have a good class' 'Please pay attention' 'Please don't fail', you know, things like that.  I say, "Fuggedaboutit."

Compartmentalize those feelings of insecurity so you can put up a good front.


This rule is why you're not going to be sweating too much. The week or two prior to school's first day, you are an organizing machine. You've gotten your lists for each of your classes, you know your schedule, you know what content you'll be covering and the entire scope and sequence of units and activities for the year. You'll know the sequence, goals and objectives, quiz and test dates, projects and their due dates, and you'll be able to illucidate the entire course to your students, beginning that first day.


Teachers, this is your classroom. Period. No student is going to be allowed at any time to hijack your classroom. As a matter of fact, one of the things you'll cover is this: Students are responsible to you and in helping to maintain the classroom environment. There are consequences for good as well as disruptive behavior.

One of the things I remind students of is this:


Learning should be fun, but serious fun.  Distractions, detours and derailments can be minimized by reinforcing this frame: That when a student is willfully disruptive in class, they are deliberately, purposefully, and willfully stealing valuable learning time from their peers.  This thought, by its nature, empowers students to take responsibility for their learning community and that they have an important, unyielding stake in that.

This rule reinforces a pillar of leaning: We are all here together to share an amazing learning experience and we take our precious learning time seriously. No one is going to prevent me from learning and I, as a student, shall do my best to maintain that positive learning environment.


Student-learners want a structured, firm, and organized hand running the class. That's you. You're their leader, guiding them into areas of knowledge and insights previously unknown to them. To keep learning a positive adventure, framing disruptive behavior BEFORE it happens is a positive and proactive approach to minimizing or preventing the disruptions in the first place.

Setting the emotional and academic tone for this is imperative.  In reality, all teachers do both anyway.  I'm just advocating that it be a willful act with targeted objectives in mind, open not closed.   It's a school-teaching-enhancement-survival skill, in my opinion, and I credit that approach to my successes.

Along with your obviously strong leadership, your class will take greater responsibility for maintaining and reinforcing a positive learning environment.  Naturally, the little darlings are a collective work in progress. With the connections made, you and your students are going to have an amazing year of growth!

Saturday, December 28, 2013


If you want to be the best teacher you can be, in a classroom of learners motivated to achieve their own potential, then addressing the emotional brains of your students is going to help get you there. Aspire to greatness as an educator.  Don't settle for mediocrity.  Set high personal standards and continue to seek out personal and professional growth opportunities.  Be nice.

As you know, because teachers are human beings, too, (insert canned laughter) there is no singularly successful teaching method or management style.  I'll often refer to a 'mosaic' in framing challenges or experiences that are multi-faceted both in their origins and in their potential solutions.  Likewise, as many personalities as there are teachers gives you an idea of how many potential management styles there are.  A lot of management work is done through force of personality and reputation.

Teaching is a unique and, my father always said, a noble human endeavor.  His nice way of saying I'd be broke the rest of my life.  But rich in ideas, which he always supported.  He envisioned himself a man of letters and I felt his pride in my becoming a teacher.  Neither of us could have imagined this path for me while I was growing up.  I was occasionally a handful.

A noble, honest, heartfelt, sacrificial, and sincere calling are all motivations of the majority of teachers. Naturally, there are skills and approaches a teacher can develop and fine-tune over time and the best teachers are always seeking personal and professional growth opportunities.

The following is a slice of preparation bootcamp, to help achieve the first week's classroom goals and objectives. Week one is critical in setting the tone and building the classroom foundation.  You, as the teacher, can, of course, set the table any way you want.

Given the fact that there are many learning styles in your classroom, the more varied the banquet, the more flavorful the dessert.

Organization is the Key to Success.  Remember and share that little bit of wisdom.  You'll never regret it, I  promise. Organization is your primary tool for classroom management.  Students are experienced at being students.  Some can size you up and judge your ability and vision after the first class.  We're hoping for a high 'rotten tomatoes' score.  As in the movie rating service.  Not because they're throwing figurative tomatoes at your figurative head.

Interestingly, and it may seem counter-intuitive, the more organized you are, the more flexible you can be. Organization does not automatically dictate rigidity and inflexibility but organization can give a teacher their personal reason to be rigid and inflexible...or it can give them wings.  A teacher's choice.

As a management style, being inflexible can have its straight-arrow trajectory but will usually only take a class only so far.  Creating obedient, quiet, marginally expressive and peripherally participatory students may seem like a worthy goal and may lull a teacher into thinking there's active learning going on because students are quiet in their seats and seem to be paying attention.  Other teachers might even envy that kind of classroom control.  Principals are also fans of quiet, being respectful and following in an orderly fashion.

Truth be told, the path of least resistance for many teachers is the strict and orderly, usually a fear-based and fear-inducing traditional model of classroom control that we all experienced from time to time while growing up.  They were often the 'mean' teachers you 'learned the most' from.  It's tried and true.  Don't Smile Until December.  Keep them in their seats, quietly.

Traditional, tried and true, this fear-based management style is the refuge of mediocrity.  In my opinion, this is one of the many management styles that suffocate the learning experience for the sake of order and fear of engagement.  I don't want you to be afraid of a little noise every once in a while.  As a matter of fact, I urge you to build it in to your program.  There is nothing more beautiful to this teacher's ears than the sound of learning.

Students are all part of the human condition.  And some students experience far more than their years would imply. From illnesses and home disharmony, to the death of family members, pets, or friends,  to puberty, pimples, parents and peers, students can be one person one day, and another person the next day.

The best middle school teachers make an art of adaptability and being appropriately flexible.  They understand the bigger picture of life.  Plus, they are super organized and know where they're going.

Being organized and knowing where your content is going to take you enables you to be flexible.

In that flexibility is not diversion or a meaningless tangent, but rather spontaneous connective tissue that you instinctively and intuitively sew into the learning experience.  The level and kind of learning engagement will usually help determine the opportunities that flexibility can provide.  You are a master connector and don't fall for or introduce disabling distractions.  You are flexible because you see a synergistic opportunity to reinforce the concepts, facts and flow of the lesson.

In short, flexibility and adaptability allows for individualizing instruction and all three are welcome in a middle school classroom.  When a teacher takes a humanistic approach empowered by an open communication effort, the connections run deeper, the learning runs deeper, the teaching and learning experience is enriched.

Students are like most people.  They just want someone to care enough.

Collectively, their energy can be predictably unpredictable due to so many forces operating in a young person's life.  Although this reality can scare some teachers, it's a fact of their classroom that they intentionally suppress for the sake of order.  I mean, what would happen if you actually got to know your students?  That thought can be scary.

Not to you, though.  You're the risk-taker.  You're the one who actually wants to change a student's life. Well, this is the path less taken.

Good luck to us both.


Be Early to Class
Make it your habit to be the first one to your class.  Get there early so you can be ready for the onslaught. Day One students have a unique energy.  Feel it,  go with it, lasso it, make it yours.  After all, it's YOUR classroom.  No one is recorded as tardy on Day One. Reminders to be on time, of course, would be a natural statement during the review of your Classroom Rules and Semester Syllabus.  We'll get to that in a minute.

Classroom Management 101
I always have free seating for Day One and perhaps even for Week One.  My objective is to get as much social information as quickly as I can, to see the natural dynamics and interactions of my class.

One of my objectives is to test my own memory of student-name recognition.  Another is to take note of valuable social information.  Discovering where the different levels and kinds of classroom energy are emanating from, gravitating towards, and how, generally, the energy expresses itself.  In truth, this is part of the diagnostic stage.  Who's quiet, who's talkative, who's cracking jokes, who's prepared, who's sitting in the back, who's sitting up front.

Explain that one of your jobs as a teacher is as a classroom manager.  Tell students you'll get around to making a semi-permanent seating arrangement shortly.    Tell your students that your concept is that seating arrangements can be fluid and should never be seen as punitive.  You're not punishing students by moving them around the class, you're providing them with opportunities for growth.  A purpose of education is not to make you comfortable all the time.  Part of it is to get students out of their comfort zone every once in a while and, because you've created a safe classroom environment, help students view the seating arrangement as a positive opportunity, not a punishment for disciplinary reasons.

You're going to impress upon your students that you are sincere in fighting for everyone's education and that managing their energy is all part of that task.  Remember, your efforts are to maximize learning potential and minimize student opportunities for distraction.  Consistent, organized and purposeful classroom management skills are imperative in getting to this place.

In the meantime, tell them not not to get too comfy as you like to switch things up.  Tell them that their seating assignment can change at any time for reasons of classroom management or for a class learning assignment.

Variety is both the spice of life and the spice within your classroom.  Now we're cookin'.

We live in a rapidly changing world and in this process you can model the value of being flexible and accommodating and adapting to the concept of change.  By conditioning students to embrace the concept of change, they are going to have a leg up on survivingl in the 'real world.'

Student Information Cards

After greeting your students and the bell rings, the first order of business is distributing information cards to each student for them to fill in. On this two-sided 4x6 or 5x7 index card is a request from you to fill in some of their personal details: Suggestions include but are not limited to: Full name and preferred nickname, Birthday, Hobbies/ activities/interests, Siblings, Preferred Seat in class (front, middle, back), Previous Challenges in school, an Adult Profession that interests them, Goals for this class, plus Suggestions for making the class great, as well as a little space for them to tell you anything else they may feel is important for you to know about them.

While they're filling out the cards, you're calling roll, getting nicknames (yes, even though they're filling out that information on their cards), and making gentle eye-contact with every one of your students. All along, you're reinforcing connectivity and the importance of name recognition.  Don't worry.  You're going to know every student's name on Day Two.  We'll get to that in a minute or two.

After roll call, collect the info cards.  Put a rubber band around them to sort out after class or after school when you'll review and alphabetize them.  You might peek at them toward the end of class and, sharing no names of course, share the ideas elicited for making the class great.  There are usually some serious suggestions but there might be some funny ones, too.  Just share a few to let them get a taste of what it feels like to have some input in the class, even on Day One.


Next, hand out copies of your Semester Syllabus and Classroom Guidelines.  Go over the information while students at the same time read the outline to reinforce auditory, visual, and tactile learning modalities.

The Semester Syllabus is simply an outline of the class subject and content being covered over the course of the semester. If you're super organized, you'll be able to tell students on Day One when their Unit Quizzes and Tests are calendared as well as when Semester Projects should be started and when they are due.  At this point, you'll show the textbook you'll soon be distributing and using as the foundation for much of your journey together. Naturally, with all of the resources now available to you as a teacher, many online and free, you're going to bring in other voices for a multi-resource approach to teaching and student learning.


This part includes your grading procedures regarding homework and your A-F points scale for tests, quizzes, and projects.  I suggest you to consider the following points scale: Homework: 10 points; Quizzes: 30 points; Tests: 100 points; Projects, 50-300 points depending on the detail and nature of the assignment.     Have them sign it and have them take it home for their parent/guardian to sign and return to class on Day Two. Upon returning the rules signed, make a little note to record the fact in your roll book.  Be sure the students keep them as the front page of their subject divider in their notebook for easy reference throughout the semester.

General Classroom Guidelines

Socializing, texting, passing notes, talking on the phone, taking photos/selfies, or otherwise distracting behaviors sare all no-no's during class time.  Phones away, extraneous socializing done, eyes forward, ready to listen and ready to work.  You'll be reinforcing this idea throughout the year as students, by their nature, are prone to, and will on occasion, test the limits. You'll remind them of your common mission and the value of self-management, one of the quadrants of their developing emotional intelligence.


Here's what I do.  I don't give extra credit opportunities and I let them know up front, on Day One.

My rationale is this: I want students to focus and work hard for both me and themselves all throughout the semester.  I don't want them to stumble and then ask if there's any extra credit they can do.  On Day One, the answer is 'no.'  This rule also reinforces the serious nature of our learning together and that everything counts.

I also don't believe in the A+ grading choice.  An 'A' is the highest grade you can get in my class.  You throw an 'A+' in the mix and already the message is that an 'A' isn't good enough.  Bad message, in my opinion.  Students can be harder on themselves than even their parents or teachers.  So, in my class, an 'A' IS and has to be good enough.  I don't want my students stressed about fighting over a point to get an A+. It's just not healthy, in my opinion.

"Pop" Quizzes, too.  I think "Pop" Quizzes, you know, the ones that are a surprise to students and 'Popped' on them without prior warning, are more about the teacher than they are about the students, and are often given after a teacher feels exasperated with a class.  The good students most always do well.  And often, it's the disruptive ones that are the brightest.  A "Pop" Quiz that counts ends up punishing the ones who need the most support in learning the material, some of whom are quietly concentrating and really trying to do their best for you.  Plus, if a teacher gives a "Pop" Quiz and then doesn't count it, it perturbs the brighter students and the students who try hard but still struggle won't take you seriously next time.

I Never Drop the Lowest Grade.
Sure, everyone has a bad day, I get it.  But I'll be damned if I let my students think that what I'm teaching can be minimized, eliminated, ignored, or even skipped over.  Everything is important, every test, every quiz,  every class activity, every project.  So, I'm not dropping any grades, even the lowest.

Here is my work-around on each of these issues.


Nerfoop Review

As I've said, I don't give nor do I believe in Extra Credit.  However, here's a little workaround for that idea.  I tell all my students that the review is very important and their answers count for points that they collect during the semester.  When their final grade is computed, these points are added to their semester total (I always use a points-based system) and often there are enough points to get them to the next grade, for example, a C+ could become a B-, a B+ an A-.

Here's the magic.  It's called Nerfoop Review and this is how it works.

Remember, my objective is to impress upon my students that 'everything counts' and 'everything in the unit could be on the test.'  If a student asks, 'Is this going to count?'  or 'Is this going to be covered on the test?', the answer is always 'yes, expect it.'

Consistent with this concept, I have a review session before every major 100-point exam.  The review counts for bonus points.  I tell them the more orderly they are, the more questions I can ask and the more points you might get.  During the review, each student is called upon individually and, from their seat, I ask them a relevant review question.   All students are encouraged to take notes and motivated by my assertion that many of these questions WILL appear on the test.  Seems unbelievable, perhaps, but, that's right, everyone participates in the review and most everyone participates in voluntarily taking notes.  I'm encouraging willful participation in their own learning by making note-taking voluntary and suggesting they work on the skill of notetaking because they're going to be using it more and more in their studies as they progress through the grades and onto educational pursuits after high school.

Here's how Nerfoop Review works in my classroom: I have an open-note, open-book, open-mind review before each major 100 point test.  Students are encouraged to take notes during the review because, I tell them, there may be some questions I'm asking that will appear on the test, either as part of a multiple choice question and answer or as part of a short answer/essay question.

The review is structured so student participation is automatic.  That's right.  I'm going to call on every child individually to answer a question related to the unit material we just finished covering.  They are taking notes because some of the questions, I tell them, are going to be on the exam tomorrow.  Take good notes today, study some more tonight, and you should do well.  Put in more time and you'll probably do even better, I tell them.

I start by going around the room, one student at a time.  Because these are potential test questions, almost everyone is taking notes on everyone's questions and answers.  When a student is called upon and gets the answer correct, they get one point.  At the same time, they get to shoot for another point.  That's right.  I've got my little nerf ball and my little hoop with the hoop attached to the top of a bulletin board.  I place a line of masking tape about 6-7 feet away from the hoop.  I take a practice shot and make it of course to show it's possible.  A student gets the opportunity to shoot for the extra point (making it two possible points per student per question) ONLY after they answer the review question correctly.  Given the size of your class and the nature of the exam, make sure you have enough questions for each student to have a unique one.  Record the points in your roll book under the heading Review Points.  I tell students that the points are recorded and then used at the end of the semester to help them solidify their grade.

What about the students who don't answer their question correctly?  Well, because it's open note and open book review, if there's time after the first go around, I'll ask those who didn't get their first question correct another question.  That way, students don't feel that all is lost after the first go around because they didn't get any points.  Explaining this approach, the other students recognize a teacher's effort to be inclusive and modeling patience with their peers.  What I tell them all is this:  What's Easy for Some is More Challenging for Others.  If you're consistent with this mantra, they'll understand.  Your students are smart.

At the end of the first round of questions, I determine who hasn't answered a question correctly and go back to those students.  They're often the ones who need the extra points anyway. Ask them another question, maybe even a question that's been asked already.  Either way, you're encouraging risk-taking: speaking in public, answering the question right or wrong, being viewed unfavorably by peers).  As the teacher, you're encouraging risk-taking by creating the safe environment to do so and then giving students the opportunity to take that risk.


I know.  I show no mercy.  No, I'm not dropping your lowest grade.  I understand.  Everybody has a bad day.  I'm sorry you had a bad day.  Here's what we're going to do.

And this is my classroom policy on a student's 'bad day' grade.

You can retake the test.  That's correct.  With one caveat: I'll average the two test scores together but you can only raise your score to a 72/100.  So, if you received a 62/100 on take number one and you received a 92/A- on your retake, the highest average  there would be 73/C.  Why?  I'm glad you asked.

Because giving a higher score would penalize those who tried hard the first time.  I want to encourage hard work the first time and being responsible to yourself the second time.

I think this holds students accountable for everything and encourages taking responsibility.  You don't get a doctor's note excusing you from the pursuit of knowledge and you don't want the good students bragging that they don't have to take the final exam.  For me, case closed.


In my classroom, there is no such thing as an A+.  An A grade is the highest I'll give because the '+' sign doesn't add any value to a grade that is already the highest you can receive.  Yes, that goes for that nonsense quest to have a 4.225 grade point average.  Call me old fashioned.  An A is the highest grade I ever gave.

The 'Why?' is this.  Students, teachers, and parents are crazy enough.  You start giving A+ grades and all of a sudden, an A isn't enough.  You've got to get an A+!  Going over grades when you review a test, they will fight tooth and nail for that extra point, a 96 to a 97 for example.  It's psychologically cruel and unnecessary. In the real world, there are no A+ grades so why create an illusion of greater entitlement in the classroom?  A score of 93 is an A; a score of 100 is an A.

And, of course there's a B+ and a C+ and a D+...those are fine grades... but THERE IS NO F+ !

As a matter of fact, since you're using a points scale for grading anyway, don't even put a letter grade on a test that scores in the F range.  Ask them if they'd like to schedule a retake (see my policy on Dropping the Lowest Grade).  Encourage them to try again.  Same with all C- or below grades.  Anyone receiving a C- or below can schedule a retake.  The retake opportunity encourages my principle of encouraging the love of learning and at the same time encouraging responsibility for their achievements.


Here is where you include your general classroom guidelines, including your Rules For Discussion (which I encourage you to post in the classroom so it's visible at all times.)  General Classroom Guidelines cover such things as a teacher's policy on Tardies (how many will result in an N or a U in work habits, for example. You might also consider a way students can work off one of the Tardies per semester), your policy on absentees (I allow students the same number of days they were absent to make up any missed work.  If they return after being absent for for 3 days, they have 3 school days in which to make up their missed assignments or tests.  It works most of the time.  Being flexible is an asset when dealing with young human beings.)


Finally, distribute textbooks, record the numbers next to the child's name in your roll book, and, along with your classroom syllabus introduce the text, going through all the parts of the book:  Table of contents, index, glossary, all the important parts of the text you're using.   Some students don't like reading and tactile, visual, and auditory familiarity is a good thing.

Then, introduce the first unit of study. Explain the objectives for the unit, give some vocabulary, some index work, some table of contents work, some photo identification work, to engage in a brief activity to highlight an aspect of the unit and to prompt some excitement for the material.   Add a little overnight reading assignment, and maybe include a little open-book assignment the following morning to reinforce your textbook introduction.

If your class is 45-55 minutes long, prepare 4-6 reinforcing segments of learning. Students have a maximum attention span of 10 minutes or less.  If you're thinking you're going to dazzle them with your long-winded yet fine-tuned oratory skills, forget it.  Yes, they'll turn you off and, no, you won't be the exception.  You'll just prove the rule: Do not lecture.  Lecture is death.  Their brains will fill up quickly and your voice will soon become droning in their heads.  That's right, just like when pets hear you talk: blahblahblahwannacookie?blahblahblahwannagoforawalk?blahblahblahcanopenerfood!!?

What's the approach then?

Prompt, engage, guide and interact with your students.

The best learning occurs interactively.  They don't really care what you have to say.  Students are by nature explorers.  They're inherently curious.  It's just that some teachers don't like curiosity because of the tendency toward classroom 'chaos.'  And I'm telling you, prompting opportunities of 'controlled chaos' is where the best learning takes place.  And tapping into that curiosity is the sweet spot of what you're swinging for.  Remember, you're always in charge.

So, you're never going to be lecturing to middle school students. You're going to use and specializing in 1-2 minute prompts that motivate students to take responsibility for their own learning.   Lecturing for even 5 minutes can put your lesson in jeopardy.  Involve your students in learning.  We already know how smart you are.

DAY TWO:  work in progress

Friday, December 27, 2013



It's the week before school starts. That's when I have my annual dream nightmare. You can probably guess where I'm going here.  In my dream, it's the first day of school. Naturally, I'm late and panicked, I'm disorganized and I haven't prepared a thing.  I speed down the freeway trying to make up precious time, but to no avail.  Amping up my anxiety, I arrive late to school (a great first impression on the first day), and, with students waiting for me of course, I rush into my classroom, students following suit,  and now, sitting at my desk, an article of clothing, my pants, has disappeared.  I'm in my boxers sitting behind my desk, bewildered and trying to maintain my composure.   I've concluded, of course, that, in my haste, I forgot my pants at home! I can't believe it and I'm just trying to not be noticed and pretend everything is ok.  Because this is NOT OK!!  My heartbeat is off the charts.. And I keep telling myself in my dream that "This better be a #!?!#*! dream!!" only because somewhere in the deep recesses of my anxiety lies a feeling of deja vu, that I've had this dream before. I'm begging my subconscious to please please please make this a dream and wake me up because my dream is just so awful. And it is so vivid at the time, full color, long sequences, and the anxiety I feel is very present. And that's because, for me, it obviously is!

I would always wake up at the peak of that anxiety and breathe several grateful sighs of relief. And then I would yell at myself for having that awful dream again.

Am I alone on this?  Please tell me I'm not alone.


Emotional Intelligence is often overlooked or minimized in the classroom environment. Neuroscientists are discovering that the Limbic System part of the brain, the part of the brain that contains our emotional intelligence, is just as important as our Neo Cortex part of the brain which contains our 'thinking brain' and individual IQ. According to Daniel Goleman, there are five aspects to Emotional Intelligence: Self-Awareness, Managing Emotions (anxiety, fear, anger), Motivation, Empathy, and Social Skills (conflict resolution, relationship building) Giving teachers the skills and awareness to navigate and understand their own emotions as well as helping their students through their own emotional growth, is part of what this blog is about. Take notes on this video. It's a keeper.

As teachers, we often focus on the thinking brain, or the Neo Cortex part of the brain.  This inspiring lecture covers the importance of the Limbic System part of the brain, the part that contains our emotional intelligence. There are positive consequences for addressing the emotional intelligence of children in the classroom.

A brief overview of addressing emotional intelligence in the classroom.


Hi, my name is Graham Becker (nice to meet you) and I want to thank you for checking out my blog, "Heavy Mettle: Surviving Middle School, Teacher's Edition."

This will be a place where educators, parents and community can find powerfully simple ideas for connecting with learners and creating an alive, relevant, dynamic and human-connected,  classroom experience.

Regardless of subject taught, this blog is intended to have broad spectrum applications that are independent of subject-matter and thinking-brain boundaries. What is not being addressed will be embraced here: Emotional Intelligence with the emphasis on using that knowledge in the pursuit of creating a healthy, Human Relations Empowered classroom environment.

I love to teach and this blog is going to reflect an optimism and idealism that I've always sought to project and nurture in the classroom.  I understand the sacred trust that total strangers (parents) have placed in me to care for and educate, to instill a sense of wonder and a desire for lifelong learning and, over the duration I have their children in my class,  I uphold that trust to be unshakable and unbreakable.

When I made the decision to become a teacher, when the decision to teach evolved from my journey of self-discovery threaded into my intellectual pursuits, from that moment on, teaching was a calling for me.  With a social consciousness burnished by growing up in the '60's and 70's, teaching became my passion, my calling, my reason for making a difference. And, from that day on, I always felt I could make a positive impact in my students' and their families' lives.

This blog will hopefully inspire others to be the best educators and parents they can be, imbued with the love and wonder of learning and discovery, the intrinsic rewards found in guiding and growing developing minds, and the passion for the broad spectrum of life and its many expressions by humanity's children.

In that pursuit, I'll be sharing practical, time-tested strategies for building a human-driven classroom.  I'll be sharing the challenges, experiences and the lessons I learned along the way, as well as insights into the mosaic that makes up the middle school learner.

I'm also going to be inspiring you with the voices of others. My mission is to reach out to the heart of education and address how to build and maintain the relationships in the teacher-learner-parent dynamic that make up part of the complexity of a teacher's experience. I'll help sensitive you to the multi-faceted middle school learner's world experience, to know when something might be wrong, and to be firm, fair, and always respectful and professional.  "I am not your friend," I tell them.  "But in this classroom, I am your BEST friend."

"Why am I your best friend in this classroom?"

"Because I am the one who enforces the rules of respectful behavior and interaction.  I am the one who is going to guide us all to the finish line.  We're like a big team, and all of us players are needed to finish strong. Before an exam, help each other.  During an exam, do your own work   It needs to be safe for all my students to make mistakes and learn from them.  Learning isn't always about getting the answer right the first time.  If it was, we wouldn't have science or art or music. Like baseball, learning can involve failing most of the time only to finally succeed beyond your wildest imagination.  Learning in its purest form is about process, not destination.  And learning must always be a journey, never a destination."

I want to encourage a gentle sense of humor and the ability to take joy in learning, your own as well as your students.  Along with a team/family concept of learning, that we're here together in this classroom to learn together, empathy is a powerful tool empowering teachers to lengthen and strengthen their human-educational bonds.   I especially wish you patience and deep breathing.

You need to also understand that you don't need to have every answer.  It's better to always have an organized academic journey planned with questions that need answering.  But when you join in the discovery that the best lessons allows, your joy and excitement is contagious.  As much as we think this is about us, it isn't.  Check your ego at the door of your classroom.  Except to get in the way, your ego won't do you any good once you're inside anyway.  Counter intuitively, the more you can leave your ego outside, the stronger your self-esteem becomes.  It's funny, but that's how it works here.

You're going to be learning a lot more than you're going to be teaching. With your involvement, and I would love to hear from you, we can make this a very interesting place to visit. It's going to be a place to laugh, to cry, to brainstorm and problem-solve, to share failures and triumphs, to be supported, and have your spirits lifted. Here is a voice of inspiration: