High-Expectations for 2015: Bring It.

I was at a frozen yogurt bar the other day, empty cup in hand, and I happened to see the sign “Teacher Appreciation Day: Free Yogurts of Any Size with ID Card.” Score! A free yogurt meant that I had nothing to lose if I didn’t order the usual. The possibilities swarmed me. I now had the opportunity to choose something I might not have otherwise bought. Which way was I going to go? Fruity? Chocolaty? No. BOTH. This was my chance–my opportunity to build something great. Unfortunately, with a line building up behind me, I rushed. I overdid it on the toppings, my layering was all wrong, and it wasn’t tasty. My expectations of a totally delicious fro-yo were soured by my lack of planning, the feeling of being rushed, and a little greed to want it all.

As teachers, we all have visions of high expectations for our students, but are we taking the time to think about what ingredients we should choose without overloading our students and ourselves with a sub-par flavor of success? Do we feel rushed by the new standards to make these students great? How can we take small, uncomplicated steps to create high-achieving students that surpass our expectations?

The answer isn’t all that simple, as any teacher might tell you, but here are some sure places to start setting and supporting high expectations.

1. Greet all students at the door with a handshake

Start this day one. You won’t know their names, and there may be a small build-up in the hallway, but don’t worry. Stand tall, smile, and shake every one of your students’ hands. Show them that this is the business of learning, and you’re serious about it. Once you start to know their names, include them in your daily greeting. Tell them they played a great game Friday night, you were impressed with their test score, they have cute shoes on. This is a time to set the tone as professional and welcoming, that it’s a safe place to push their thinking.

2. Use their time wisely, and tell them that’s what you’re doing.

Be as efficient as possible. How do you pass out papers? Create a system. How do you get into groups? Drill them and practice so its under 10 seconds (totally possible, with practice and a competitive vibe). How quickly do they start working? Put a warm-up, drill, or do-now on the board ,so they can begin as soon as they sit down. With all of these things, be sure to tell them that you’re not interested in wasting their time; you’ve got information that’s really important for them, and you won’t compromise that.

3. Pre-Assess before blindly teaching curriculum.

Pre-assessments allow me to see what to review and where to build. This is such a simple step of which many teachers don’t take advantage, and we can easily make the mistake of re-teaching information that students already learned. For example, I need to trust that the teachers before me taught the students how to use commas correctly, so I can build off of that knowledge. I don’t need to waste class time re-teaching commas usage unless my pre-assessment tells me it needs reviewing. Even then, it probably wouldn’t need to be a class-wide endeavour. A challenging curriculum shows the students you think they’re capable of it. When you repeat information, those that learned it have the chance to zone out.

4. Call on whomever you want whenever you want.

You are in charge of the class, and you need to check for understanding. The students need to know that they can be called on at any time. Some teachers use popsicle sticks with names written on them, some teachers just call, but the important thing is the element of surprise. They need to feel a little pressured to pay attention at all times. This may seem awkward at first, but the students will eventually get used to it.

Note- if you draw name sticks as a method, don’t put them in a discard pile. Put them back in with the rest. This avoids students being “off the hook” once they have answered, allowing them to get back to that doodle they started in health class.

5. Expect the right answer

Let’s say a student gives you an answer that’s perfectly wrong. My response used to be “Hm, Fiona, I see why you’re saying that, but you’re not quite there.” I didn’t want to hurt Fiona’s feelings. I have since learned, through using the above steps to create a safe place for my students to express their ideas, that wrong is wrong, and I don’t want to take the time to sugar-coat it. It’s not being mean; it’s saying “That’s incorrect. Can someone help Fiona?” Let someone help, and then have Fiona repeat the correct answer, so the last thing she remembers is being right (and hopefully the right answer!). This is faster than the other response and builds an atmosphere that it’s okay to be incorrect at first, but the student is eventually responsible for being right.

Take some time this summer to think about what steps you can take to make sure kids reach those high expectations you have for them. Then go reward yourself with a delicious frozen yogurt!


Adapting your teaching style

Most of us are probably holding on to some super-fun activity that our students just love. Maybe it’s one that we’ve spent three years tweaking. As these new educational shifts encourage us to reflect on our practice we might start to think that perhaps the ratio of class time spent on an activity is not proportionate to student learning. Maybe the activity is actually more “hands-on” than “minds-on”. We may argue with ourselves that the activity is worth it when deep down we are questioning whether or not it is. Change is tough. We may say to ourselves that we’re smart, and it’s not like our intelligence is measured by our ability to change, or anything.

Except for the fact that a guy named Einstein once said, “Our intelligence is measured by our ability to change.”

Okay, so Einstein would probably say that we should adapt to the great many changes in the coming school year. But there are so many new standards, reforms, initiatives, and check-lists for teacher accountability, where do we start?

1. Embrace the changes and make it obvious

I’ve encountered some teachers who have fundamental disagreements with the changes occurring. I get it, especially if you’ve been teaching for a while. However, I would encourage all teachers to focus on the heart of the changes: more students learning more key information. Push through these changes with a positive attitude because students pick up on negativity. If they hear you bad-mouthing the new initiatives, they will be less bought-in and  ultimately make your job more difficult. Find parts of the changes that you think are beneficial and share your enthusiasm with the students!

2. Get cozy with other content teachers

It can be easy for me to stay in my English teacher comfort zone, and I highly recommend designated planning time with same-content teachers. However, if we are trying to prepare students for the real world, we need to show them that all knowledge is interconnected. I might swing by the Social Studies teachers’ rooms and tell them we’re working on compound sentences. They promise to at least mention it in their classroom (ex. “I want your response to include two compound sentences”), and they’ll usually give me a nugget of information that I can mention in mine.

Posters work, too. In my English Classroom, I have the Standards for Math Practices on a poster, and we try to reflect on these at the end of class. This was confusing for the kids at first. I heard a lot of “Um, isn’t this an ENGLISH class?” Telling them that yes, it is, and yes, these practices are important for English shows that they are worth knowing.

Tip: Share what you’re doing on a Google Doc or weekly email. This is an easy way for teachers to support each other and share information freely.

3. Set high expectations

Treating your students like they’re at the next level by telling a kindergarten class, “today we’re going to be doing 1st grade work,” or a 10th grade English class, “some of my seniors are writing this type of essay, and I think you guys can handle it,” will create intrinsic buy-in and send a message that you expect only the best. Don’t pacify wrong answers with “Hm, well, you’re almost there, Trisha.” Tell Trisha that she is incorrect but that you want her to get the answer right, and then have her repeat the right answer. Call on students who aren’t raising their hands. Greet your students with a hand-shake. Use instructional technology to engage them with differentiated, high-level content that is complicated and interesting to them. Assign authentic projects that hit twelve objectives in a single bound but have to do with real-life.

4. Print out your standards and use it as a checklist

Student learning is the ultimate goal, and the standards are a road-map to student achievement on the part of their path that is our classroom. I’ve seen great teachers at my school who have printed it out and posted the CCSS on the wall of their room. Some even have a student put a tally-mark next to each standard as the students complete some sort of assessment (not necessarily paper/pencil test) on it. What a great idea to show the students what they’re accomplishing! To get student buy-in, though, you have to have a positive attitude towards the standards, going back towards #1 on this list. If you’re excited, they’re excited!

Note: following and checking off the standards should not be looked at as a way to impede creativity. it’s an organized way of achieving the standards — this can be done in a variety of creative ways!

5. Involve the Community

At the beginning of the year, I send home a letter to my parents with an outline of our units and a brief survey of what they do professionally or who they know that might be willing to contribute to our classroom. You never know who could come in as a guest speaker, who works with a organization in need of solving a problem, who needs a Public Service Announcement written for their cause. If you find that no one has any real connections, inviting parents into the classroom for productions, lab displays, or as professional panel judges for presentations puts the pressure on students to do their best, can involve parents in the success of the child, and creates a support system that is not easily broken.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things that can be added to this list, and I’d love to hear your ideas below! What’s your plan for adapting to the upcoming changes this school year?

Do students feel safe in your classroom?

I remember one math class in high school that was dreadful. It wasn’t dreadful because the content was boring or the activities were disengaging — though we’ve all been there, too. It was dreadful because the environment was harsh, uncomfortable, and scary.

What could be so scary about a math class, you may ask? Was algebra alarming? Exponents eerie? Integers intimidating? While the purpose of class was to increase my knowledge, I didn’t feel like this was happening, and it had nothing to do with the content.

After becoming an educator myself and reflecting on this class many years later, I now have a better understanding as to why this class left such a negative impression on me. Our teacher — though clearly bright and well intentioned — did not set have clear outlines for lectures and assignments, nor clear and upfront expectations for classroom behaviors.

For example, his questions were unplanned (I suspect) and, therefore, unclear. He would call on us right away after asking an unclear question, and I wouldn’t know how to answer. He would then look disappointed in me and  some of the math whizzes would shake their heads and promptly answer correctly. Not only did I not follow the unstructured lesson and questioning, but I felt unsupported by my peers. I felt disrespected and disengaged.

Here are some ways to ensure that you are creating a safe, respectful classroom culture!

1) Start the year with clear procedures and directions

When everyone knows what’s expected at all times, there is less room for misbehavior, ambiguity, and off-topic questions. Drill these practices and procedures, just like you would a fire drill, your first few weeks of school. Start the class the same way every day. Keep an agenda and cross off items as you complete them. Always end with some sort of check. Consistently practicing these procedures and structures creates a culture where students know exactly what’s expected of them at all times. Less ambiguity = less frustration.

2) Everyone participates!

One of the easiest pitfalls teachers can fall into is calling only on students who raise their hands or, on the flip side, calling on students whose hands are not raised as a “gotcha” moment. Both of these strategies are ineffective. Rather, use a system to call on students randomly, so everyone’s always responsible for the answer.

3) Wrong answers are okay, but everyone always finishes with the right answer

If a student gets an answer wrong, you need to walk that fine line between “You tried, that’s the important part” which communicates low expectations and “No. Wrong!” which makes kids feel like its unsafe to try a wrong answer. Use lines like, “It’s on the tip of your tongue, I can tell — someone help him out,” or “That’s wrong, but I’ve heard you say it before. Mark, help him out?” Then always go back to the original student, have him or her repeat the correct answer after hearing another student say it. This will allow them to leave feeling successful, knowing it is okay to try in class, even if they are unsure of the answer.

4) Wait time

If you’re asking a difficult question, give students the appropriate amount of time to think about it before calling on a random student, or let them write or talk with a partner about it. If you build in this wait time, it becomes a part of your class culture and students will feel more comfortable voicing their answers with confidence.

5) Positive responses — from students!

As teachers, we are responsible for providing positive feedback, but let your students do the work! After debriefing partner work, try asking, “Who would like to call out a glow of something their partner did well?” Also, within the last months of the school year, I recently started incorporating snapping when a student would say something poignant — and the rest of the class was allowed to snap as well. One snap for something great, two for a comment that was downright insightful and awesome. They loved the positive encouragement from not just me but their peers, and many of them wrote in their end-of-the-year surveys that they strived to get a right answer so the class or teacher would snap for them.

Would love to hear how other teachers create a safe, respectful classroom culture? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Reflecting on Reflection

I always knew that reflection was an important part of being an excellent teacher. I teach reflection to my students when I pass back a test, essay, or other assessment. I stress the importance of it and I’m disappointed when my students don’t take it seriously. Harvard’s Business School hails the importance of reflective practice. Education gurus have written about it for decades. I always thought of myself as a reflective teacher, but last year I realized that I really don’t reflect too often. I was more of an, “I’ll do that differently next year!” type of teacher. Then next year rolled around and I forgot.

Last year I got in the habit of reflecting every day. Even if it was only for 10 minutes right after school, I made sure to reflect. I use PowerPoint almost every day during my instruction, so I decided to reflect by taking notes in the PowerPoint notes section. I would write what I would change about the lesson for next year. If I had time I would even tweak the presentation itself. Sometimes I would pull up handouts on my computer, make a few adjustments, and write a quick note in my planner. It never took me more than 10-15 minutes and was an investment that really paid off!

My 8th grade team meets as a group twice a week, giving us an opportunity to reflect on our practice with each other. If you are not given weekly collaborative time at your school, find someone in your content area to meet with regularly. Start the conversation in a safe place and reflect on the areas of your instruction that are working and areas that aren’t. For example, l was having a hard time teaching complex sentence structures to several students. After reflecting on this issue and talking with another teacher, she suggested an alternative way to approach the situation, and it worked! The experience of admitting you need help can be incredibly humbling and ultimately will help your students succeed.

There are many procedural-type of tools that teachers pick up throughout the year. Some of them are easy to implement at different types of the year, while some of them require a fresh start. I have a document titled “Do This Next Year”, where I keep a running tab of all the great things I want to try a bit differently. For example, I learned a great technique for forming student groups by giving each group a color and each desk a number of 1-4 , both noted by a sticker on the top right corner of the desk. This would allow me to group students in a variety of ways simply by saying “Get into your color groups. 1’s come up and get the papers…” This would work for an endless amount of activities. Though I adopted parts of it, the entire procedure was too much to implement in April. Into the list it went!

Reflecting is an investment that is well worth the time. It will improve your practice, professional growth, and most importantly, student achievement.