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If you are diving into the first week of the school year right now, good luck! This is one of my very favorite times to be an educator. No matter what grade you teach or position you work in a school, energy is high this time of year. Kids won't admit it, but most are excited to be back in school. And at least for me, so am I. It's a time of new beginnings and fresh slates.
This is why I think how we plan the first week and what our focus is during it is so vital. This is the week where you start relationships with students. It's where you set the tone for your class, expectations, culture, and everything else.
In the video above, I talk about some of the activities I do in this first week, and share a story about how the power of the beginning of the year can have a huge effect on the rest of it.
Sometimes you need to practice your jump shot while you're teaching. Sometimes it's with bottles of rotten milk. And if that bottle accidentally explodes against the wall, sprays rotten milk everywhere, and makes your classroom unusable the rest of the day--- you need to be flexible.
Here is another ridiculous (but all to common) story from school- and hopefully a little wisdom gained from it.
On my very first day as a teacher, I met a boy named Dave. Dave was that kid who kept his head down in the back of the room and hid behind his long hair and expressionless face. I soon found out that Dave was in foster care, and heard his backstory of abuse and suffering. As an ambitious new teacher determined to engage every single student who walked into my classroom, I fought hard to win Dave's trust and attention. I'd sit down and talk to him regularly. I would comment on his clothes and ask about his interests. Sometimes I would wait with him at the end of the day at the bus stop.
However, after over a month of this, I wasn't seeing any progress. Something was keeping this kid cold and isolated, and I took it upon myself to warm him up. I remember other, more experienced staff would say stuff to me like, "Good luck with that kid Trevor. He is too far gone, and you just can't save them all." I wanted to defy those people, and believe they just didn't try hard enough. I would not let jaded people prevent me from saving this boy.
And after several months of constantly pouring myself into Dave, he began to talk to me. And then it was like a dam burst, and all of a sudden Dave was alive. He worked hard in class. He began to make friends. Dave came out of isolation.
When he received the first A of his life in my class, I wanted to scream from the mountain tops that there is not a kid a teacher cannot "save" or rescue if we try hard enough.
In fact, I did do that:
I had another student named Gerald. Gerald also came from a broken home and unimaginable pain. He usually only got his meals at school, and those were on the days he showed. Often Gerald's seat would be empty.
But this kid had a look behind his eyes that told me he desperately wanted to "make it." He wanted to defy the odds, finish high school, and make something of his life. I spent so much of my energy on this boy. I met him on the weekends to play basketball. I swallowed my pride many times when Gerald would act out in class, knowing that with enough patience, I could see this kid turn a corner. I even expended a lot of my time and energy outside of school, away from Gerald. I carried his burdens home with me, shared them with my wife, and would lose sleep over him.
I was determined to save this boy.
And then one day, Gerald did not show up to school. His cousin had been murdered, and it shattered his world. When he finally showed after being out a week, he cried in my arms and told me how scared he was. I assured him that I have his back and that we'd get through this together.
A couple days later, he dropped out of high school.
The kindness I showed Gerald; my deep questions about his life and family; the endless amount of grace I showed him when he'd steal a phone in class or even cuss me out; the hours spent at home worrying and praying for this kid- were not enough to save him. It didn't suffice to turn his life around and help him finish his education.
Those other teachers were right, I cannot save them all.
This absolutely devastated me. I began to question the purpose of my job, and the impact teachers really can have on their students.
You might imagine I've got a silver lining coming up soon. Some type of resolution or inspiration I later had about how we can reach every kid.
But this is not that kind of blog post. In the years since Gerald, I've had many other students who entered my classroom distraught and damaged. And while sometimes I do get to see dramatic change unfold before my eyes, other times I end the school year feeling like a failure. Maybe a kid drops out. Or does not pass my class. Or leaves their time with me hating the subject just as much or even more. Sometimes at the end of the year, I find out a kid even despises me. These are the hardest parts about being a teacher for me.
When I break my back with sweat and blood landscaping my yard, I expect the end result to be a beautiful yard.
When I pour everything I have into the students in my classroom, I cannot guarantee the outcome. I can't ensure the result will be beautiful. I think this difficult reality is shared by every teacher and person who works with kids. And it's been enough at times to make me want to get out of education. All of the love, kindness, consistency, discipline, and work will not save, or transform every student
But it can for some of them.
And this fact is why I did not quit when I saw a student I care about fail. I've seen enough students transform before my eyes throughout the years- grow in confidence, adopt a hopeful view of the world- to know that love, kindness, consistency, discipline, and hard work is worth giving.
So while you can't save them all, you can still love them all. And show every student respect. And strive to engage them in your class. And let them know their potential for greatness.
Whether this causes them to overcome their past or not is not for us to decide. But the potential for this work makes it worth it.
WHAT TO READ NEXT
In 1970, a man named Edward Packard was telling his daughters a bedtime story about a character he made up named Pete. Every night, Pete would encounter different adventures, and Packard would make up a new adventure for Pete on the spot. But one night Packard ran out of things for Pete to do. If you are a parent, you know exactly what this guy was going through.
So with no ideas for what Pete was going to do next, Packard asked his daughters what the character’s adventure would be that night. Each daughter came up with a different idea, and so Packard came up with a different ending for each adventure.
Choose Your Own Adventure books were born.
And it went on to become one of the bestselling children’s books during the 1980’s and ‘90’s, selling over 250 million copies. The magic of Choose Your Own Adventure is that the reader gets to become a participant in the story. Rather than just absorbing the information, one gets to have a say in what information is presented to them.
Often when we lecture, the story and information is being told by one source. This can work for a time, but study after study has shown that people can only sit and listen for so long before they lose interest and the teacher loses engagement.
Having your students interact with your story, your lecture, is vital. Direct instruction does not mean that the teacher is the only one who gets to talk. Teachers can create opportunities for students to join the story and determine how it gets told. There are a number of ways to create pauses in your speaking and allow students to interact with it. Here are a few suggestions to allow students to be a part of the adventure.
Turn and Talk
At any given point in your story, pose a question to students. It could be what they think happens next, or a reflection of what they’ve heard so far. Then have students turn to the people around them and discuss the prompt. Mix opportunities for students to turn and talk throughout any lecture that you ever give.
Like Turn and Talk, you first pose a prompt to the students. However, before discussing with each other, give them time to think and process by themselves. Following an allotted amount of time, students discuss with a each other, in pairs or group. Next, the students share with the rest of the class what they talked about.
Sketch-noting, or visual note-taking are visual stories a student creates when listening to a speaker or reading a text. Rather than traditional note-taking techniques, where it can be easy to regurgitate information in text and not actually comprehend the material, the learner sketches out what they are hearing and creates images of the story. To be able to draw what one is hearing or reading, one has to have some comprehension of it. This encourages engagement with the story and active listening.
Sketch notes can contain a combination of visual and text notes. The primary objective is for the students to create notes that work best for them.
Students create two columns on a sheet of paper. Title one column: “Quotes,” and the other column, “Thoughts.” As students are listening to the lecture, they write down any quotes they hear that stand out to them in the “Quotes” column. In the “Thoughts” column next to the quote they wrote down, they write their reaction. Their reaction can sometimes be whatever is in their stream of consciousness, simply putting their thoughts on paper. They can also write down questions that they have, to be asked later or just to ponder over. The Double Entry Diary serves two purposes. First, it makes great notes for students to recap what they heard and to study if there will be a test or paper later. However, more importantly it provides another opportunity for students to engage with the story. It simulates a conversation with themselves, giving them focus and making them think about everything they are hearing.
12 word summary
At any given point in the lecture, have students summarize important aspects of a particular section of the story in 12 words or less. While lacking detail, this is a useful way to make sure students are comprehending the key points of the story. How many words are in the average tweet? If a kid can pack a thought in a tweet, they should be able to do this.
Name the story
Have students identify the different parts of the story. What is the setting, theme, and plot? What is the conflict? How do you think it will be resolved?
Be intentional with the story in your lectures or talks, allowing your students in on the fact that you designed the lecture that way. Knowing this, they will look for different elements as you tell it, creating engagement.
We don't need to abandon the lecture at all. Instead we just need to make it interactive, and invite our students to be apart of it.
The two weeks leading up to Christmas Break can be some of the most chaotic times of the year. It's like there's a full moon for 14 days in a row while students guzzle 3 two liters of Mountain Dew before walking into your classroom each day. Students can act a little nuts, and in turn can drive their teachers crazy. I'm on my first day of break right now, and I still think I'm hearing voices...
A lot of this unbridled energy before break can be attributed to excitement. Many students are naturally excited to have some time off and enjoy the holidays. I get it, me too.
But the more I've learned to listen to my students, the more I've come to realize that it is not all about excitement. Many of my students are not excited for Christmas Break. Many of my students do not want to be away from their friends, adults who care for them, a regular schedule, regular food, warm rooms, a controlled atmosphere, encouragement, joy, discipline, and all of the other things that come with being in school.
Last week I told my students to write about their favorite holiday gift ever. One student responded that his mom doesn't buy gifts for him and his sister, and that she usually just sleeps all day on Christmas since she has work off. For many students in poverty, the holiday break is not a break at all, but instead a time of pain, sadness, and hunger.
Many of these students start to feel the anxiety of this time as Christmas Break approaches, and they tend to act out because of it.
So if you are a teacher, administrator, or just know a kid who feels this way right now as they embark on vacation: what could you do to make this time special for them?
Could you send them an email on Christmas and let them know what they mean to you?
Could you call them?
If you have a little extra money, what if you spent 10 bucks on a little gift and dropped it off at their door?
Whatever you do to make a kid who is dreading this time feel special, know that you being in their lives in the first place is a gift more precious than anything that could be purchased. Thank you for loving the kids who need love.
Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist who mastered the study of great stories. He identified a pattern we see in most great stories called the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey starts with a hero, the protagonist or main character of a plot in which the story revolves. To sum the pattern up into the most simple of terms, Campbell says this hero starts in what is called the ordinary world. This could be considered the calm before the storm, where we get to know the hero and their setting before he or she hears the call to adventure. This is the point in a hero’s journey where their world is shaken up, and they have to decide whether they are going to do something about it or not. Often, the hero refuses the initial call, choosing to avoid danger and trials that can cause pain and fear. But in a great story, she eventually embarks into the unknown, seeking adventure.
Adventure is full of danger and surprise; tests and challenges that introduce the hero to parts of the world she has not seen before. In a great story, a hero rarely ends an adventure unscathed, but also returns to the ordinary world with new strengths to use in later adventures. Campbell calls this the Return With the Elixir. This is what makes the journey worth it. Almost every Disney or Pixar movie is about a hero taking this journey. Think about the Lion King, and what Simba learned after losing his father, running away from home, and eventually defeating his evil uncle to retake his throne and rightful place in the world. Would Simba be as great of a leader without first battling hyenas? Would the peace of Hakuna Matata entered his heart without first crossing a desert? The hero’s journey is about leaving what is comfortable for experiences that build and strengthen a character.
So often, school does everything it can to maintain the ordinary world, keeping the heroes from entering unknown spaces and potential failure. Students sit in rows to control order. Teachers call it a classroom management technique, when really it is mundane-management, a strategy to prevent the unexpected. The answers are in the backs of textbooks to prevent any surprises. We teach the same content every single year because then we know what’s coming.
There is a very wealthy school district in the county that I live that will not provide laptops or tablets to students because they are worried that new technology will distract from the learning that needs to take place. Not because of financial issues, but because the internet causes more variables than a textbook.
A hero cannot embark on their journey if they are locked in a room without a key. And a hero cannot obtain the Elixir, their new strength, knowledge, character, wisdom, skill, etc- if they do not leave the ordinary world.
So what can you do to set your students up for the hero’s journey?
Maybe try teaching with a project and give students authentic goals to strive for?
Invite in people from the community to partner with your students and create a solution for a specific problem.
What if you let them plan the next unit, and you just facilitate their learning rather than teach it?
Whatever it is, realize that your students are characters who can become heroes, and you are helping write the story that lets them do that.
I think we sometimes take for granted the skill it takes to take part in good discussion. In a world inundated with technology, distractions, Pokemon Go, odd presidential campaigns, and all of the things that modern society has created to take our attention and divert it to bright screens in the palm of our hands, good discussion can be rare. And while these technologies are not necessarily a negative aspect of our world (except maybe the campaign), they do not always facilitate rich conversation; spirited debates; intellectually stimulating discussion- some of the best defining features of what it means to be human.
Many of the high school students who enter my class obviously know how to talk and communicate, but are not always equipped to exchange ideas, or allow a differing opinion to shape their current beliefs. Every school year, the first times that I try to facilitate good discussion about contentious topics, the discussion usually turns into a debate, and those involved in the class discussion develop a single motive to “win” or convince the other side to share their same belief (It’s like internet-comment boards in real life). The loudest student in the room is heard the most, feelings can sometimes be hurt, and the timid students usually shrink into the corners of the room and add nothing to the conversation. Emotion dominates the time together, and actual discussion does not occur.
I expect this at the beginning of the year, because I know that many of the students in my room do not know how to discuss. They’ve been trained by a digital culture that is all about anonymity and one-way online conversations. Many have also been cultivated by a school culture that values compliance and silence, allowing rare speaking opportunities that only serve to demonstrate correct answers. We are not born with an innate ability to listen to other’s ideas, and consider them as valid if they differ from our own. This is a skill that must be taught.
From the earliest of the years in school sitting in a circle in kindergarten, to lectures halls at a university, I don’t think it is ever too late for students to undergo conversation-training. It starts with practice in listening.
One of my favorite discussion methods in my classroom is called a Samoan Circle. It is a great method for students to learn the skills needed to listen and discuss. This is how it works:
Place 4 chairs in the middle of your classroom, and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion (about whatever topic you’d like), but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the 4 chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for four students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out.
Every time I do a Samoan Circle, I see students wriggle in their silent impatience to get into one of the chairs and share their thoughts, engaging in the content of the discussion by listening more than talking. Samoan Circles are a great, controlled way for students to start developing excellent discussion skills.
There are many other great practices to facilitate rich discussion, and I would recommend experimenting with as many as you can. Even the quietest and most reserved student can learn the art of conversation, and your intentionality can help them attain these skills that they will use the rest of their lives.