Encouraging risk taking is easier than we think

Teaching a class of 33+ students is incredibly challenging. Ideally, each lesson would be crafted and tailored to each student’s individual needs, interests, and learning style. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of doing this everyday, for every lesson. We have to do what we can to create lessons that engage our students and encourage them to participate. So how do we encourage every student to participate when there are so many of them?

Whenever I have a visiting presenter, or a student teacher, my advice is always the same:

  • Get them up
  • Get them moving
  • Don’t talk too much!

If the teacher is doing most of the talking, it is very likely there is not much learning happening. The challenge here is allowing plenty of opportunities for students to speak, but also keeping them on task. The key to keeping kids on task during group or partner conversations is accountability. If I say, “turn and talk” I expect them to discuss the topic I’ve given them. I have taught them how to listen actively, and after 1-2 minutes, I expect them to be able to paraphrase what their partner said. I use the ClassDojo randomizer to select a student, and if they share, they earn a point for participation, or taking a risk. This ensures equity (since I end up calling on all my students), and rewards their hard work, which is difficult to do with something intangible like a conversation.

Some might say that putting students on the spot in this way can make them feel uncomfortable, or even humiliated. This is not the case if you promote a culture of risk taking in your classroom. From the moment my students walk in the door I tell them, “I like mistakes, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.” This elicits quite a lot of snickering in the beginning of the year. “What kind of teacher LIKES mistakes?!” they ask. “The kind of teacher that wants you to learn,” I answer. From day one, they are encouraged, and even rewarded to step out of their comfort zones and let their voices be heard. Mistakes are rewarded as highly as correct answers, especially if it brings to light a misconception that turns into a teachable moment. Holding students accountable, and rewarding risk taking are integral to inspiring participation in the classroom.

Find more “Ideas for the Classroom” from other teachers!

3 quick ways to engage and focus your students

One day, I was in the middle of a lesson and I noticed that my students were fidgety and off task. I knew that they needed more movement integrated into the day to keep them focused and excited about learning. So I decided to make the necessary changes to my classroom routines.

Being a special education teacher and a kinesthetic learner, I understand the importance of allowing movement throughout the day. None of us should be expected to stay still for two hours straight, let alone a seven year old!  Below are some of the tools and strategies I use for movement breaks that get the wiggles out while letting learning in!

  1. Warm up their brains after long breaks
    There is a wonderful new program called Go Noodle. On this site students can rock out to kid’s Zumba, dance with a funny animated chicken, or engage in great brain exercises. Each exercise is around 3 minutes and the students earn ClassDojo points and get to watch their avatar get stronger with each goal met.
  2. Integrate movement into a lesson
    As an example, spelling can easily become a stagnant weekly endeavor — but it doesn’t have to be repetitive and predictable. Give your students a letter written on a piece of paper, call out the spelling words, and have the students who have the necessary letters go up to the front and correctly spell the words as a team. It keeps the students focused and allows them to move. I also like to hand out index cards with spelling words and corresponding cards with the definitions. I then have the students walk around the room until they find their partner with the matching word/definition.
  3. Add movement to your call and response
    Getting everyone’s attention can be a challenge, but it can also be turned into a game. Asking the class to “freeze like the Statue of Liberty” or to “freeze like Frankenstein” is far more engaging then telling everyone to be quiet.

If the students are working and responding well, this is also a moment to point out and reward. In my class I say, “More ClassDojo points for you,” and they’ll respond with, “Staying on task, it’s what we do!” The students get validation of a job well done and the reinforcement to keep up the good work.

Keeping students actively engaged and allowing them the movement they need during the day decreases distractions and increases productivity, which makes for a more rewarding and fulfilling day for both the students and the teacher.

Drawing credit: Paul Callis, a special needs teacher in Oakland, CA. Follow his daily, whiteboard drawings on Instagram (@48birdo48)

Find more “Ideas for the Classroom” from other teachers!

Encouraging students the right way: building the intrinsic motivations for lifelong success

Matilda was one of my favorite books as a child, and I’ll always remember my amazement at the duplicity of Matilda’s dad, Mr. Wormwood, in using an electric drill to reverse the odometers to sell his used cars for more than they were actually worth.

Whether or not you’ve read Matilda, we can probably all agree that we disagree with these tactics because they’re dishonest and unscrupulous. Yet, now as an educator, I wonder more and more if we are creating a world in which the youth are forced to adopt these strategies for survival. In fact, are we shaping our kids the same way Mr. Wormwood is fixing his cars, imprudently emphasizing external factors instead of cultivating internal strength?

It is when I move away from the topics of test scores and awards that I truly begin to understand my students. Without this omnipresence that seems to subconsciously drive every aspect of their lives, I get to see what actually motivates them. I like to not ask them about how many points they’ve improved on the SAT since our last meeting, and instead ask about what has recently made them happy, angry, proud. They begin to speak about their love for beautiful literature, for their parents who work so hard, for the miracles they’ve just witnessed under a microscope. When they raise their voices excitedly, or try to blink away tears in their eyes, I rejoice, as strange as that sounds. I grasp these moments by the reins and encourage them to think about why it moves them, to help them connect what they love to what they can do in the real world. We build and reinforce that bridge with activities and knowledge that bring them closer to the other side; and hopefully, this pursuit becomes a habit and mindset that makes diligence worthwhile, because they are doing what they love. When we peel away the numbers on their resumes this way, we are left in a space with infinite possibilities for discovery and innovation. I think that’s how it should be.

Yet, when we send the message that numbers will measure their potential and intellect, it’s no wonder they see those digits as the prize. The 2400, 1st place, 99th percentile, Top 10 become everything they strive for and everything that fulfills them. We deprive them of the chance to build tenacity, to have a reason to keep fighting even if there is no trophy in sight, because external motivation is not only limited, it is limiting. By not fostering the habit of curiosity and the grit to work for their dreams, our kids will not have dreams bigger than to earn numbers that define them.

We need to do away with cranking back odometers and begin to invest in helping our kids develop a strength of purpose. Benchmarks and standards are necessary, yet they have taken too much of the spotlight and become the sole motivator for many kids, forcing them to abandon a love of learning even if it had existed in the first place. To be honest, it is easier to teach to the test and focus on attaining the numbers, because all it takes is drilling and practice, which does teach hard work in a sense. But what about the moral fiber and creativity that we are neglecting to build in our kids, which are necessary to be successful and happy in the real world? It takes much more dedication and creativity to teach students these same traits, because we have to model it ourselves.

The good news is that we have the power to do it, to enact change and to give our kids the type of education that will build them into the best people they can be, not just the highest achievers they can be. When we succeed in teaching and reassuring them to explore their interests, they will build a work ethic towards their dreams that will deliver many, many meaningful accomplishments. It starts with us, and I think it’s time we confiscated the electric drills from the Wormwoods of the world and take a lesson from Matilda’s creator Roald Dahl about the spirit of learning we want to pass on to our kids – “If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it.”

Drawing credit: Paul Callis, a special needs teacher in Oakland, CA. Follow his daily, whiteboard drawings on Instagram (@48birdo48)

It’s never been easier engaging parents, but why aren’t we doing it?

When I first started teaching, I would only reach out to parents when their children were not doing what was expected of them — whether that was academically or behaviorally. I realized much later that I was overly concentrating on “troubled” or struggling students, and unintentionally paid less attention to students performing adequately or exceedingly well.

I eventually decided to send students home with positive notes of encouragement, commending them on their great work and behaviors. One student came in the next school day to tell me he was punished when he told his parents he had a note from his teacher. His parent apparently jumped to the conclusion that something bad happened, as they had never received a positive letter from a teacher before.

Parents want to be kept in the loop, and we as educators should be finding more effective ways to partner with them. The best relationships between teachers and parents that I’ve seen are ones formed on regular communications. In mentoring other teachers, I recommend they find out the best way each parent would like to be communicated with before school starts.  In addition to that, I suggest teachers try to send home positive messages more often than “needs work” or developmental ones. It helps build the basis for a solid relationship, so that parents and teachers can work together and help students succeed.

I also recommend teachers use a communication tool that makes the most sense for their classroom environment and dynamic. Some parents prefer handwritten notes, others email, and a number of teachers are trying out the new ClassDojo Messaging tool. No matter your method – I always recommend enabling two-way conversations, encouraging parents to respond and better understand how they can help inside the home. In creating this environment of more frequent communications, teachers always seem to find their students perform at a higher level with more enthusiasm — and that’s an outcome everyone aims for.