Forget A-B-C’s, I’m teaching Y-E-T’s

Tamar Benjamin


“I can’t do it.” “I don’t understand it.” How often have we as teachers — or parents — heard our children say similar things? In my classroom, our magic word isn’t “please” (though I certainly encourage that one as well!), it’s “yet.” By adding “yet” to these sentences, students realize that it’s not that they aren’t able to do something — they just haven’t spent the time to figure it out yet.

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Ideas and TipsStories

You may have seen the “no homework” letter I wrote last week. It ended up being shared quickly by thousands around the world when Samantha Gallagher, the parent of one of my students, put it on Facebook. My only intention in writing it was to explain ― to the 21 parents in my class ― that I would no longer assign nightly homework to my second graders, and to explain why I thought it was in the best interests of their children. I had no intention of sparking a worldwide conversation. But I’m grateful I did.

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Tasia Fields: “Parents and I have become partners; we’re in it together”

For teachers like Tasia Fields, connecting with parents hasn’t always been easy. Working at a Title I school in Chicago, where four in five students come from low-income families, communication barriers come into play — from language to parents working multiple jobs.

Tasia recently talked to some of our team about how ClassDojo has helped her overcome these barriers and build a classroom community for her fourth grade class.

Why do you love being a teacher?

Education is a real passion for me, so I enjoy all aspects of it. As a classroom teacher, hands down the best part is getting to help kids grow and change over a year — which sounds like a long time, but it’s really not! And the biggest changes aren’t always academic. It can be things like confidence, which is so important. It’s a powerful realization to know you can help create an “Aha!” moment for your students.

Is there a recent “Aha!” moment example you can share?

Yep! There’s a young boy in my class who is so capable of working to his highest potential but somewhere along the line he started to believe he couldn’t. This year, I’ve been encouraging him to go after challenges and push himself. Most recently we’ve been preparing for an exam and I saw he wasn’t sure of himself. But I encouraged him and he did a practice essay for me. I could tell he was nervous — but I loved it! I told him: “I told you you could do it if you practiced!” You could just feel his confidence rise as he started to believe in himself more. The next day when he took the exam he felt prepared, and he did wonderfully.

ClassDojo really helps with this – helping us all talk about these non-cognitive skills that are so critical – like confidence and not giving up. When everyone in my classroom believes these skills are important, and encourages them, students feel empowered to grow.

What does classroom community mean to you?

For me, a classroom community is a group of individuals working together – where there is trust in the environment, it’s comfortable, students are able to struggle and have success, and you have a set of shared values. It’s a community that’s not isolated to the room – it includes parents and other teachers. ClassDojo helps me build this community.

Before you started using ClassDojo, what were some of the challenges you faced in creating this sense of community – are they now easier to overcome?

Before I felt I was limited to a community within my classroom; it stopped at the four walls, and I was the only adult really involved in it. What ClassDojo does is extend the whole feeling of community so it overlaps into other places – parents and families at home, other teachers in the school. That makes us all feel more connected, and trust each other more.

Has forming a relationship with parents been hard?

I teach at a Title I school that is 80% lower income. Work schedules can be really crazy sometimes – so in the past, it has been very difficult. All that changed once I started using ClassDojo. It helps bridge that gap like nothing I’ve ever seen. Parents may not have internet access, but everyone has a smartphone. Because I’m sharing pictures and messages, it helps parents see school as a safe place, and brings them into the classroom experience. Being able to have real, ongoing conversations back and forth with parents really develops personal relationships with them, and helps us operate as a team instead of in silos. It means I’m no longer a “foreign” entity: we’ve become partners, and we’re in it together.

Are there certain features you really love?

The picture messaging capability is amazing – being able to snap a quick picture and send it home. Many parents of my students don’t speak English at home and pictures are a universal language everyone understands. Plus, I love that I can see when parents have read the messages with the ‘read receipts.’ I wear a lot of hats during the day and this way I don’t have to worry about messages reaching or not reaching them.

Have there been any benefits for you personally?

It makes teaching a lot easier for me. There are so many times that parents will send a message that says “thank you!” It’s simple but it really helps me feel that appreciation and support from home that makes a big difference!

What advice would you give new teachers?

Think about your students first – always ask yourself how will your practice benefit your students? Otherwise don’t bother with it. And relax – it’s okay if it doesn’t go perfectly to plan, be flexible and go with it!

Do you think apps like ClassDojo would have made your life easier starting out?

Absolutely! I wish it had been around then – it would have really helped me to bridge that gap between home and school, which would have made a big difference to my effectiveness.

What was the best response you got from a parent to sharing a photo or video?

The best response was, Wow, thank you so much, I love seeing my kid’s work in the classroom! !🙂

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.

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I substituted for a year after I graduated from my teaching program, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. I was working in a district with 28 schools (my home district has 6) sprawled throughout eight cities. Everything was unpredictable. Most of the time, I had no idea where the school was, unless I had been there enough times to remember the side gate into the parking lot where I was not allowed to park. Sometimes, I got called to sub for the morning, then requested for an afternoon job at a school an hour away that started 45 minutes after the morning class ended, leaving me negative 15 minutes for lunch.

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Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Dressed in his blue suit and hands akimbo, he is the proverbial super hero. He has saved the world from ultimate destruction a time or two. There is no doubt that we know that red caped man well.

Superman is cool. I don’t doubt it! He has some pretty amazing powers, but so does a teacher. Have we ever took a closer look at some on the more unique powers of an everyday superhero? Let’s just examine a few powers that will leave you in awe.

Multitask Speed Eating

I don’t know any other profession who can make 75 copies, grade tests, and eat a sandwich simultaneously. I’m just naming a few. Ask any teacher. There is way more going on in that span of 30 minutes. Performing such skill requires daily conditioning and years to perfect. It requires a strong mind to hold a running list, amazing arm strength to carry tons of items in a single bound, and the speed of a cheetah to get it all done with limited time. To see such a feat being accomplished is truly a sight to behold.

Bladder Management

It’s going on hour three and the teacher has yet to use the bathroom. How does a person do that? It’s called training. Some of the best bladder managers have the ability to train the bladder to wait for unplanned breaks in the day. There are even some who don’t even realize he or she hasn’t used the bathroom ALL day! It’s not until the end of a very busy day that the bladder screams, “Hey, a little relief would be nice!”

Then there’s the speed factor. An educator has the ability to use the bathroom in under 30 seconds. Yes, that does include locking the door, clothing adjustments, and hand washing. The most skilled managers plan wardrobes around the speed factor. Wardrobe malfunctions cause delays. One has to be fast, so one can get back to class.

Eyes Everywhere/Hyper Hearing

Yep, she heard you say that ugly word even though everyone was talking. She also saw you throw your pencil across the room. But her back was turned? It’s the most powerful skill a teacher will use. Because one of the many responsibilities is to keep her students safe, it is a necessary power to see all and hear all. After it’s developed, a teacher can redirect an off-task student from ten feet away. A teacher can correct a mispronounced word for a student on the opposite end of the room as well as listen to the student who is reading right in front of her. The power can be used anywhere at anytime and can be a life saver. So when they say “she has eyes in the back of her head”, she just might. You never know!

Of course, there are so many more talents and powers an educator has that can define him or her as a superhero. It’s not your ordinary super powers. They may be a little quirky and unique, but you have to admit that some of these powers take great skill. The teacher may not wear a cape, but he or she can do some pretty amazing things. Just stand back and watch in wonder.

I, like most teachers, have really high expectations for my students. I also work with middle schoolers, and I know the first half of this sentence has a large portion of you thinking to yourself that I’m a brave soul. But I love them, and I know that they’re capable of great things. In fact, I believe that middle schoolers are the most underestimated people in our population. But I’ve only come to realize that as I’ve learned to give my students the power of second chances.

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For the past few weeks, Mr. Burnaugh’s students have been experimenting with simulated parallel and A/C circuits, chatting with him and each other, answering poll questions, and uploading graphic organizers on their LMS (Learning Management System)—all online and before they even enter the classroom. When they meet with him IRL (In Real Life), they have an opportunity to really dive into Ohm’s law and the algebraic recipe for calculating current. In their labs, they use a resistor, a battery pack, an ammeter, and a voltmeter to explore how this equation applies to real life. They have the opportunity to ask Mr. Burnaugh questions, receive 1:1 and small group help, and connect with peers. When they go home, they can review what they learned in class by accessing teacher notes, re-watching a recorded lecture, downloading a helpful video on TeacherTube or Khan Academy, and completing practice equations. Following classroom learning sessions, they return to the LMS and review, practice, and process what they did in class. A drone delivers college acceptance letters and scholarship offers.

Okay, maybe there’s no drone, but flipped instruction is not science fiction—schools all across the country and world are making this model work for students.

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A few years ago I was teaching four sections of AP Economics at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, a top ranked school in the nation. I needed to prepare my students for the Microeconomics AND Macroeconomics AP tests at the end of the year. Most schools only prepare students for one of these two tests so, needless to say, my students needed to learn many concepts in a short amount of time. Everyday my lesson was well crafted as I wanted to make sure to make full use of the 58 minutes of instructional time. I noticed that as major assessments approached, such as a unit test, a midterm, or the actual AP tests, my students weren’t able to learn at the pace and depth that I was hoping they would. I figured that perhaps it was due to stress or anxiety, but what could I do about it? I barely had enough instructional time to cover all the material that they needed to learn. I knew that if I trained my students to meditate regularly, my students would see tremendous benefits from it in the long term. But I still didn’t do it. I resorted to the very common excuse many of us teachers use: “I just didn’t have enough instructional time.” My students ended up doing just fine on the tests but at a great cost. I saw some very bright students work themselves up and question their intelligence simply because they had no mechanism or techniques to regulate themselves physically, physiologically, and psychologically.

I reflected over this the following summer and decided to give myself permission to meditate with my students for the first week of classes in the upcoming fall semester. I had some serious concerns.

What if my students think meditation at school is stupid?

What if their parents accuse me of initiating them into a buddhist monk cult?

What will my colleagues think of me?

And most importantly, how will I cover all the material that I’m expected to cover with less instructional minutes?

I told my students that for the first week of class we are going to meditate everyday for two minutes at the beginning of class. I remember their faces — sheer excitement and curiosity. They were surprisingly excited to try this out. Here are some of things that happened right away:

  1. None of my students were late to class because they wanted to meditate or they were afraid to interrupt the meditation.

  2. They thoroughly enjoyed this moment of peace and calm in their very hectic day.

  3. By the end of each meditation, my students were fully there. Not just their bodies, but their minds and hearts as well.

With the 56 minutes of instruction that I had left, I was able to cover the amount of material that would take me 75 minutes previously. My students were more engaged, and willing to participate in our classroom discussion more readily. What their boyfriend or girlfriend told them during lunch was not in the forefront of their mind nearly as much (alas, you can’t eradicate that stuff completely), rather, the Law Of Diminishing Marginal Utility was what their prefrontal cortex was processing. At the end of the week I asked my students whether they wanted to continue meditating everyday. Out of 120 students, 118 wanted to continue meditating. And so we did. For the rest of the semester, we meditated every day before class for 2-5 minutes.

This allowed me to recognize the long term benefits of attention training exercises such as meditation. By November my students demonstrated real behavioral change because they were able to self-regulate and develop an ability to clear their mind from external events or internal negative voices. This skill obviously helped them intellectually, which deepened the discourse in our class, improved their ability to student and take tests, and allowed them to be more creative when working on their final projects. More importantly, this newly formed ability allowed students to build resilience and emotional intelligence, skills that are significantly more important for happiness and success in life.

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