Monday, December 28, 2015

A Do-Over for the New Year.

We've all been there.  It's the end of the Christmas holidays and you're heading back to work, dreading the next few months with "that" class.  The class full of kids who challenge you every day, and not in a good way.  The class who, despite your best efforts, will not engage with your lessons. The class that can utterly destroy the best laid plans  - and do it at light speed. You can have a do-over with that class.  And January is the perfect time for it.

Here are some suggestions.  They won't all work for you.  None is a magic bullet.  But your thoughtful consideration of them can give you a combination of ways to start over.

My suggestion is to choose from these ideas the ones that 'ring' with you and prepare to implement them before school starts again.

1.  Implement class meetings.  I know you're overwhelmed with the pressure to "get through" your curriculum.  But just stop and think about how effective you are being right now, and the likelihood that things are going to improve between now and May if you don't make changes.

They won't get better.  They'll get worse.  So give up five minutes at the end of class once a week (or on those terrible days when the behavior in the classroom is intolerable to you), just to talk with kids. Let them know the good things you noticed.  Let them know the things that happened that bothered you.  And then be willing to listen to their critique.  Kids are not diplomatic, but they are genuine.  It's hard to take public critique of your teaching.  But if you can swallow your pride and really listen, without letting it get under your skin and lashing out, you'll learn things that will make you a better teacher.  With periodic class meetings you can communicate to students the things that bother you, and that they may not be aware they're doing.  And you can learn from them things that you can change to improve their attitudes and behaviors.

2.  Change the setup.  Civil engineers watch how people utilize spaces.  You should too. Think about the physical layout of your classroom, especially those places where traffic jams happen. Consider how you can improve the flow to get students to their seats more quickly and minimize the congestion.  Congested areas are often the source of behavior problems.  And anything that slows kids down as they enter the room means you can't start class on time. Moving furniture might be a solution, but perhaps finding a strategy to avoid having students delayed in that area of the room would be more effective.  For example, perhaps the routine is for students to pick up handouts from a counter near the door.  If kids pile up there, it delays a smooth entry to class and probably keeps you from starting class on time.  Maybe it would be better to have collated stacks of handouts ready to distribute after everyone is seated.  Think about the things that delay the start of your class and make a change for better efficiency and less congestion.

3.  Restructure the beginning of class.  In my job as an instructional coach with teachers who were really struggling, one thing was noticeable and nearly always present:  a lack of structured routine. The first ten minutes of class are critical. While you are taking care of "administrivia" like attendance every student should be in their seat and quietly working.  If they aren't working on something productive, they'll keep themselves entertained in less desirable ways, leaving you to repair the damage.  Don't let that happen.
The challenge, of course, is finding the warm-up activities.  I'll get you started with some that can be adapted for quite a few subject areas.  It's a set of questions that I originally developed to give to parents.  But I've had feedback from teachers telling me that they have used the questions successfully as writing prompts. Writing is important in every subject.  So here's a free start for your warm up activities:  Conversation Starters.  The picture below is a sample from the set.

4.  Restructure the end of class.  We all have pressure to "get through" or "cover" our assigned curriculum.  And we all have a tendency to feel more and more urgency to do that as the year progresses.  We rush through the last few minutes of class in order to "teach" everything we have planned for the day.  By doing that we might meet the goal of "covering" the material, but we're not effectively teaching it.

There's a memory effect called "primacy/recency".  Basically it boils down to the fact that students remember best what they heard first and remember second best what they hear last.  What they hear is not always what you said.  Hearing requires attention.  "Remember the quiz tomorrow!" shouted as students rush out the door will be neither attended to nor heard.

The solution is to stop "covering" the curriculum.  Discipline yourself to leave ten minutes at the end of class for a summarization activity, such as an exit card, to hold students accountable for learning something every single day.  If you hold them accountable - even with the briefest of summarization activities - their behavior during class will gradually improve.  You don't have to spend a great deal of time correcting or grading those summarizing activities.  Just sort them into three piles:  Gets It, Kinda Gets It, and Doesn't Get It.  Use the piles to help you decide what might need reteaching, and what seems to have been mastered.  Give a minimal number of points for credit.  I used three points, two points, and one point respectively, because it's not enough to hurt a student who was absent, but in my class, if accumulated over the course of a semester, it was enough to impact a grade.  Because it was based on mastery of material, I felt comfortable using those points as part of a final grade, and by having points attached to it, students felt more inclined to complete the work - especially as they saw points accumulating.

5.  Require engagement.  Sounds easier said than done, right?  Wanting it and requiring it are two different things.  One great zero-prep method of requiring engagement was taught to me by a fabulous high school ESL teacher named Ali.

It is a strategy Ali called Ask Answer Add.   She didn't use the strategy every day.  Usually at the end of a class, but sometimes when she felt engagement waning during class,  Ali would require every student in the room to ASK a question, ANSWER a question, or ADD to an answer given by another student.  She just kept a roster and checked names during the activity.  She'd start with a question about something she'd just taught. She'd ask for someone to answer.  Then the other students could ADD to the answer, or ASK a follow-up question or a new question.  Students quickly learn that it's a lot easier to ask, answer, or add at the beginning of the activity than it is at the end.  Ali simply would not allow students the choice to disengage.  She wouldn't let them leave class until they'd all responded in some way. I'm sure it took some practice.  But students in her class learned to be ready to Ask, Answer, or Add whenever Ali decided it was time.

Another great way to require engagement takes a little more explanation.  Check out the resource pictured to the right.  They're called Response Cards.  Click on the link to see more about them.

The preview of the resource will give you the general idea of how it works.  You can save yourself some time by purchasing the set of cards, but if you don't want to do that, or want to make your own, please feel free to just look at the preview and get the general gist.

6.  Review.  You probably went over your class rules and expectations during the first week of school.  But it's important to do that again after every extended break.  Take part of the first day back to school to greet your students and to have a simple conversation with them.   Then review your expectations, introduce anything new that you've decided to implement, and enjoy your "new year" with your students!



  1. I love that you include reviewing the rules/expectations in your suggestions. I also treat the first day back after Christmas break essentially like the first day of school, but I add to my song and dance what the kids did really well with the previous semester and what they need to work on (almost always it includes cleaning up their personal trash), and to be fair, what I need to work on too.

  2. I love the "What I Need To Work On" part! I had the good fortune of working in a very small town my first few years of teaching. That atmosphere led easily to a pretty informal relationship with students - we were all part of the same community and we all knew each other's families socially. So it was fairly easy for me to have "class meetings" with students and they felt comfortable talking to me because they saw me everywhere - at the grocery store, the restaurant, the football game - and in their backyard barbecues with their parents. I'm glad I learned the value of sincere conversation with students. We forget I think, that our class is just a fraction of their school life and that what we do in our class is impacted by and impacts the other parts of students' lives. We don't know how unless we listen to them. I became a much better teacher because I listened to my students.


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