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

No comments: