The Power of Collaboration

I was speaking with my new team of teachers about collaboration and what it looked like for them at previous schools. The responses shared were not at all what I had hoped. I’m not sure what it is about the teacher mindset, but we sometimes forget how much power comes from conversation with others. Why is it that doors are closed and ideas are “secret”? Are we all not working towards the same goal to “Better OUR students for the future”? Notice I capitalized ‘our’ because yes, they are all ours. No one can change the world on their own. We have to come together, unite and work as one. Here are a few things my team tries to do to improve collaboration:

Schedule Meetings Accordingly

When your team prepares for planning dates, be sure to have a calendar out and an idea in mind. Make sure that everyone is on the same page with time, location, and some possible agenda items you plan to discuss. If it is a meeting where a decision needs to be made, share that information prior to the meeting time. People feel less intimidated when they can see where things are going and be somewhat prepared for that journey.

Be Flexible

Understand that life happens. Yes, you just sat with your team and scheduled these meetings and sometimes, they do not go exactly as you planned. Be flexible and willing to adapt. Make room for “just in time” planning and “just in time” rescheduling when things don’t work out. At your collaboration meetings, go with the goal in mind and if you don’t get there, know that this is where you would like to start for your next meeting.

Be Honest With Each Other

Vocalize your concerns with your team. If there is something you are unclear about, share it out. If there is a decision that needs to be made and you are not on board, ask for a vote. “Fist to Five” is a great strategy and so is a thumbs up, down, or sideways. Create a way to show how everyone is feeling about the issue that is nonverbal and nonthreatening. Teachers are the most creative people, come up with something that works for you and your teammates.

Have Fun

Laugh often. It does not have to be a serious moment of deeply rooted planning every time you meet. When planning your meetings, plan for a social gathering as well. Step out of the classroom and meet at a restaurant for happy hour or in another part of the school. If you can’t have fun doing what you love, do you really have a love for it? Make time for “getting to know you betters” and find ways to connect with your team. These are the people you will see on a daily basis. The people you want to trust to share students (Check out ClassDojo’s new share feature if you haven’t already!), ideas, and values with. Take some time to create a professional relationship with them.

The value of relationships is priceless. Working together as a team allows teachers the endless opportunity for growth. This 21st Century school rings loudly in the lessons we teach to our students daily and yet we do not model what that actually looks like. In an effort to reach our common goal, the success for ALL students, let us stand by the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”



Helping students become independent!

Teachers often say they want to help their students become independent learners. But a lot of the techniques you learn during teacher training or on the job, encourage dependence on the teacher. Students do not always come to class with study skills and increasingly, social skills either. The bleak choice is to do the heavy lifting for them to avoid problems in lessons or risk wasting time on non-subject specific skills.

I think it’s worth a shot to try to get them to leave the nest! Here are some skills that I like explicitly teaching at the start of a new term.

Using search engines

We call them ‘digital natives’ but they still try to write out full questions into Google. Show them how to get the most from their searches.

Looking things up in books

Instead of telling them what page you want them to turn to, tell them the topic of the lesson and give them 30 seconds to find the page and hold it up (You might need to teach them how to use the table of contents and an index.


Give students tasks where they need to describe diagrams to a partner and then the partner needs to copy them without seeing the book. Or they have to mime out ideas.

Time Management

Give them projects where they need to organize their own time. I find that the first couple of these end up in disaster (and involve deadline extensions) but after a few failed attempts, they get much better.

Being responsible

Give them a checklist at the start of every topic with the things you want them to learn. Give them five minutes every week to go through the checklist and mark when they learned something new. This pushes the responsibility onto the right person. If there are things that they need to work on, you can support them. However, you need to know what the problems are to be able to do that! You’re not psychic and tests only tell you so much.

Sometimes you get a bit of push back as students who are confused often want hand holding, but as long as you are being clear about your objectives and providing activities that help students attain them, be firm. You already got your certificates, your students need to do the work for theirs.

Set the foundation for successful whole-class conversations!

Having a whole-class conversation might seem easier than it actually is. I was in a colleague’s 5th grade classroom last year, and I watched her sit at her desk, grading homework assignments, while she instructed her students to talk about the latest CNN Student News that they watched. They walked to the front of the classroom, sat down in a circle and I watched in awe as one student took the floor and spoke, and then other students agreed or disagreed and provided insight to their thoughts. The teacher was not facilitating it at all, but occasionally jumped in to authentically participate in the conversation.

This is an advanced whole-class conversation, and in order to get to this point, there are many foundational aspects that need to be in place. First of all, as the teacher, you need to prepare the students with academic discourse, specifically guidelines and sentence frames. The guidelines are pretty consistent for all circles: one person speaks at a time, everyone’s opinion is valuable, don’t yuck someone’s yum (speak respectfully of and to all opinions), stay on topic, speak from your heart, etc. Possible sentence frames vary with each conversation. I recently had a whole-class conversation where students looked at a map that showed where certain spiders lived and in what populations, and they were prompted to discuss where they would want to live.  Some frames that I used included: I would want to live____ because____. I agree with ____ because _____. On the map it shows_____ so I think______. I disagree with _____ because____.

As you might have noticed, the only time the teacher was involved here was in the preparation. I teach 3rd grade and my students have not mastered having a conversation on their own, but they have become more successful. My part is usually one where I refocus the conversation, or where I add an opposing viewpoint, or change my viewpoint, depending on where I want the conversation to go. The thing about whole-class conversations is that you really never know where the conversation will go, but if you have a teaching goal, you can always end the conversation with that, as a transition into the next lesson.

Using ClassDojo to Teach Active Listening in Partner Work

Student A: “Ok, on to number 4.”

Student B: “I think the evidence shows that Hamlet is a hedgehog.”

Student A: “The evidence shows… that Hamlet is a … how do you spell hedgehog?”

You’ve heard partner-work sessions like this. No matter how many times you may remind students that they are not going into partner work in order to dodge half the work (or, heaven forbid, simply to copy each other’s answers), teenagers are programmed to save their energy for important things with real-life value. Like scoring invitations to parties. They are not automatically invested in hearing, understanding, assessing, and responding to their assigned partner’s ideas.

Rather, students must learn, month by month, and year by year, to listen like a therapist, assess like a scientist, and respond like a friend.

It’s a slow process. But the reward can be dynamic, thoughtful discussion. And students will thank you for teaching them skills that they use in their real-life relationships.

The first step to get there is to teach Compassionate Listening.

Compassionate Listening is not one student parroting the words of the other student, though, when done improperly, it sounds like that.

Compassionate listening is where the Listener

  • asks follow-up questions to “unpack” the speaker’s statement
  • “track the deeper meaning” of the speaker’s statement
  • carefully attending to the main kernal
  • and finally, expressing it in the listener’s own words.
  • When possible, the listener my employ a metaphor or image to encapsulate the meaning.
  • Then, critically, the Listener waits for acknowledgement that s/he has seen, heard, and understood the main idea. If s/he missed the point, or there is another level of meaning the Speaker wants to share, then the cycle goes around.

I call this process “Reflect Re-reflect” and you can read more about it here. And boiled down, it looks like this:

  • Listening / Unpacking
  • Reflecting.
  • Waiting for acknowledgement.

For example:

Listening / Unpacking

Student A: I think that Hamlet is a coward.

Student B: Why do you think that?

Student A: Because he won’t do what he is supposed to do.

Student B: Why do you think he won’t do what he is supposed to do?

Student A: Because he tosses and turns over it, and no matter the decision, he feels torn about whether it’s the right thing to do, or whether it will work, and whether it will actually accomplish anything.“

Reflecting (with metaphor):

Student B: So Hamlet is sort of in a maze…and whichever direction he tries to go, he finds himself at a dead end.

Waiting for acknowledgement:

Student A: Yeah.

Student B: So, it’s less that he’s a coward, and more like he’s paralyzed.

Student A: Hm. Yeah.

Notice the difference between Compassionate Listening and “parroting?” Parroting would have ended with:

“So, you think Hamlet is a coward.”


“Ok. Question 5.”

Compassionate listening is helping the partner to articulate his/her own ideas in a deeper, more accurate, and more nuanced way than s/he could by him/herself.

How does one teach this?

At the beginning of the year, you must spend some time unpacking what Compassionate Listening is. You might want to share some articles or video clips on the power of this sort of conversation, reflect on how it’s different from simple cooperation or from normal conversation.

Then, begin to focus on Reflection.

As complex as analysis, critique, and synthesizing new ideas may be, none of it happens without the first step of careful listening and reflecting.

On ClassDojo, create two badges: “Reflects without prompting” and “Reflects only after prompting.”

Show your students what ClassDojo looks like on your tablet / smartphone (so they know what you’re doing).

And when you send students into partner work, use the randomizer to send you to a pair of partners. Quietly sit down near them – do not speak to them or let them break conversation to talk to you – and listen.

  • After one student speaks, does the second student reflect? If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
  • Does the initial speaker go on and on, not allowing the listener the chance to reflect and check for understanding?  If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
  • If the initial speaker says something that requires “unpacking” – does the listener ask questions to unpack it? Or reflect at a superficial level? Again, you can gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.

At the end of the quarter, scan the students badges, and share your observations with your students (in whatever form you usually do so – written, in reports, or in mini-meetings).

…and please enjoy your flight!

The voice comes over the intercom on the plane that you sat down on just minutes ago. The common message we have heard one hundred times comes over the loudspeaker.  “…A passenger should always put on his or her own oxygen mask on before helping children or other persons requiring assistance.”  If only this message could come on in our homes, maybe through the tv, to remind us to take care of ourselves first in all of the other areas of our lives!

There is nothing more important than taking care of YOU – physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.  Successfully taking care of ourselves allows us the ability to better support those around us from 7:30am-3:00pm Monday through Friday (and the other times as well).  However, so often the days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, and suddenly we have lost ourselves in lesson plans and paper grading, test scores and IEP meetings, progress reports and open houses.  Some may refer to the feelings that can start to arise as feeling “burned out”, “spent”, or for some even feeling “compassion fatigue”.  Whatever the feeling is, many of us have felt it before. It might be before winter break, before spring break, before summer break, or with no break in sight at all.  We may feel physically or emotionally drained.  There doesn’t seem to be enough gas in the tank to keep us running.

What do you do to take care of you?

Here is a quick list of 50 ideas (some big, some small) to help you take care of yourself.  One size doesn’t fit all.  Steal from these ideas or come up with your own!  Whatever you do… take care of YOU!  It will make you feel better, which will make you work better, which will ultimately support your students more positively and effectively.

  1. Drink a cup of coffee or tea and read inspiring words (from Brene Brown or Glennon D to name a few).
  2. Take a bath with oils or salts.
  3. Watch a stand-up comedy bit on tv or the computer.
  4. Pet your pet.
  5. Eat chocolate.
  6. Meditate for 8 minutes before bed.
  7. Do a yoga class.
  8. Go for a bike ride.
  9. Make your lunches for a week so that they are healthy, done, and ready to go.
  10. Iron your clothes for a week so that you get a few extra minutes at night or in the morning.
  11. Spend one class period with your students in silence.  Use dry erase boards to communicate with one another.  It changes the dynamic of the room completely and is neat to sit in silence that long.
  12. Go for a walk on your lunch break.
  13. Set boundaries for yourself.
  14. Set a time that you will leave school by each day, and make sure to stick to that for at least a week (boundaries are SO important).
  15. Take a day and eat your lunch in your classroom.  Create a calming atmosphere with music or the lights off.
  16. Go out for lunch if you never do, or stay in for lunch if you go out every day.
  17. Go out for coffee with someone else who understands about the stresses that may be impacting your life
  18. Cook dinner.
  19. Go to a movie.
  20. Watch the sunset.
  21. Make an art project… even if you think you don’t possess any artistic abilities.
  22. Go out of town.
  23. Visit a bookstore near you and sit and read for as long as you want/need.
  24. Watch a movie from your childhood.
  25. Eat pizza.
  26. Eat pizza while watching a movie from your childhood.
  27. Invite a bunch of colleagues and eat pizza while watching a movie from your childhood…in the school auditorium (with permission).
  28. Get the Blizzard of the month from your local Dairy Queen.
  29. Go to a play or show.
  30. Listen to the waves (real if possible, fake if necessary).
  31. Invite students to come to your room for lunch for a week, just for fun- to talk and listen.  Kids say the most amazing things when we listen.
  32. Exercise.
  33. Call your mother, or don’t call your mother- whichever feels better in this moment.
  34. Use honey- for everything.  There are a ridiculous amount of uses!
  35. Use coconut oil- for everything.  There are a ridiculous amount of uses!
  36. If you normally get up early every day, let yourself sleep in an extra  15 minutes.  It you normally do 3 snoozes and just make it to work as the kids are walking through the door, go to bed early and then get up early for a week!
  37. Park farther from the door in the morning and walk a little extra.  The fresh air is good for you.
  38. Drink a lot of water.  Bring a Nalgene to work and fill it up 3 times throughout the day.
  39. Breathe.
  40. During a free period go outside, lay down, and look up at the sky.  Changing your perspective for a bit can be invigorating.
  41. Wear different shoes or different socks one day, just because it feels good to break the mold sometimes.
  42. Say hello to 5 people you don’t normally say hello to.
  43. Listen to music loud (not too loud) in your car on the way to work.
  44. Meditate for 8 minutes before lunch.
  45. Hug someone.
  46. Tell someone you need a hug.
  47. Go to a pet store and look at the puppies.
  48. Write your thoughts down on paper.
  49. Acknowledge that you are normal for feeling how you feel.  Then remind yourself how amazing you are for doing this incredible work and of all of the lives you touch every single day.
  50. Then come to school tomorrow with your head held a little higher and continue to help create the futures of our world.

You are making a difference every single day, even if you don’t get told often enough, even if you don’t get thanked enough. YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE…

But it’s okay to take care of yourself! If you suffer, they all suffer.  Put your oxygen mask on first, and don’t feel badly about it.


ClassDojo High School: Getting Started

When I was in kindergarten, my parents went to meet with Ms. Shanebourn and brought home what I would later call a report-card. In reality, it was like the check-list you fill in at a sushi-bar: plays well with others, cleans up after snack, spicy-tuna rising sun firecracker roll.

In middle school, the list was shorter, and letter grades appeared, but there were also areas for additional remarks. That’s where I learned that I am “funny” and “a pleasure in class.”

In high school, my grade was a letter with a few electronic tics next to pre-fabbed comments. There, no news was good news.

In college, just letters. Most were good. A few bummed me out. (Darn you, Stats!)

In short, from this trend, we learn that the older you get, the less “the system” cares about helping you to learn through providing thoughtful mentoring on your growth areas, and the more you are required to guess, assess, or maybe ask why you got a B and what you can do next semester to raise it.

ClassDojo, at the High School Level, can help you provide thoughtful, meaningful assessment on both “academic” and “character skills” which can lead to meaningful conversation, feedback, and growth. (I put those words in quote because while it’s useful to employ those terms to describe the range, it may be counterproductive to think of those categories as discrete or mutually exclusive).

Below, I’ve compiled four areas for using ClassDojo to provide meaningful feedback and a few strategies for using the data in meaningful ways. Mix and match, experiment, and let us know how it works for you!

ClassDojo Category 1: Student Ethic Modifier

How do you give a grade – or reward – or penalize a student for:

1. Contributing to discussion or disrupting discussion?

2. Showing up late vs. showing up on time?

3. Surrepticiously checking facebook during group work time?

4. Showing up for an appointment on time vs. not showing up?

5. Responding to emails promptly vs. ignoring them?

6. Coming to see you for problem-solving after a D- on a test vs. allowing problems to go unaddressed.

7. Helping students struggling with their work – or their technology – or not?

8. Talking out of turn, falling out of chairs, throwing things, leaving messes… cheering up a sad classmate, asking permission to assist a sick student, cleaning up after others…

It goes on and on.

Do you give a “Class Participation Grade?” If so, do you punish negative behaviors but “neutral” behaviors get nothing? Are they rewarded? Is a 100% class participation grade exemplary or normal? How do you weigh the relative merit of a student who raises his hand before speaking when also, he is late for class. Does he earn a B+? A-? C?

The Student Ethic Modifier is, on the one hand, the place in your gradebook where you assess everything that isn’t a quiz, test, or project. Some teachers call this a “class participation grade,” but for me, it’s at once more broad (covering not only how the student contributes to discussion or labs, but also things like correct computer use) and also more specific, covering things like whether a student deals with crises as they arise or lets them slide by until you chase him down in the hallway: aka the Cafeteria Intervention.

The Student Ethic Modifier covers some of the most important learning and growth goals; unfortunately, without gathering actual data, we rely on spotty recollection and anecdotal evidence.

How do you record this data and share this data?


Step 1: At the beginning of the year, spend a class period talking about the Student Ethic Modifier. Cover how it:

1. Fosters a serious, constructive learning environment

2. Brings students’ attention to behavior patterns that can make them more or less effective in other classes, in jobs, and even in relationships.

3. Can ensure that the learning done in class sticks – and makes class worth their while.

Step 2: Present ClassDojo and the particular badges you will be assessing. In discussion or as homework, as students to review the list. What do they have questions or concerns about? What should be added?

Step 3: Present your ClassDojo Workflow.

  • Will you have the screen projected on the board for all to see?

My suggestion: at the high school level, and certainly in your first year, don’t project it. But offer that any student who wants to know what you’ve been recording about him/her can approach you after class or at your desk.

  • Will your tablet/smartphone ding or buzz when a student earns a badge, providing in-the-moment feedback?

My suggestion: for the first year, set all sounds to “off” while you get the hang of it. Then, experiment with it.

  • Will you hand out green chips for students in-the-moment which they bring to you after class to earn their badges, or will you commit to keeping on top of the badges on the spot?

My suggestion: keep ClassDojo on a smartphone for peripatetic feedback, and a tablet near your workstation for feedback during quiet worktime. If you can manage this, you may not need to hand out chips, especially at the high school level. That said, the extra visual, tactile feedback of a green chip may reinforce the behavior more effectively than a sound, and this technique might work well for certain students.

  • Will you provide them with the access code – and their families with the access code?

My suggestion: communicate with parents about the tool and your goals, field questions and concerns, but do not provide access in the first year, until you get the hang of it.

  • Will each red badge lower their grade and each green badge raise it?

My suggestion: reassure students that in almost every case, small mistakes that don’t reappear will have no effect on the Student Ethic Modifier. Trends (I usually call that three or more) will have an effect. Talk with students about what you expect of them if you inform them that they have been trending in a problematic way. For example, after 3 missed homeworks (yes, I count homework under Student Ethic), they are required to send an email to their advisor, apprising them of the situation. You and the advisor can then decide what the next course of action should be.

All this said, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” way to use ClassDojo. Make a decision you can live with and stick to it for a semester. Then reevaluate. This, by the way, is a great topic to discuss with your Mentor.

Step 4: At the end of the quarter and semester, when you sit down to grade and write progress reports or narratives, review the ClassDojo Student Ethic data, especially focusing on trends, shifts, and anecdotes noteworthy enough that, well, you took a note.

By the way, if you’re curious to learn more about the Student Ethic Modifier and would like to read more in depth about what adopting a Student Ethic Modifier can do for your class, check out the blog, here.

Having trouble motivating your students? Get to know them!

When I think about teachers who truly influenced me, they all had one thing in common: they knew me. They understood my strengths, weaknesses, sense of humor, encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, and took interest in my life outside of school. They cheered from the stands at my championship soccer game, held high expectations for me academically, and would never hold back from calling me out when I was slacking off.

Of course I also had many teachers who weren’t as influential – they didn’t know me. I remember sitting in their classes, staring at the clock waiting for the bell to ring so I could run off to my next class where I would get a friendly ‘Hello’, was asked how my SAT prep was going, and received a well thought-out lesson that was both engaging and challenging. I had an immense amount of respect for these teachers. They clearly worked hard to master their content, develop creative and effective lessons, and went above and beyond to form real connections with us. That is the type of teacher I want to be.

Knowing your students doesn’t mean you have to be the basketball coach or start a robotics club (although that would be fantastic). Knowing your students means understanding students’ strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what engages them most. Knowing how to push them to be the best they can be. Providing opportunities for students to think outside of the box and show their creative side. Challenging them. Treating them with respect. And of course giving the occasional high-five 🙂 You get the idea.

Remember, school isn’t everyone’s ‘thing’. Some teachers forget that the reason we are here isn’t just to teach students about DNA or the quadratic formula. Although academics might be the reason our profession exists, we must remember that we are also teaching students how to be be hard working, persistent, self-motivated, and respectful individuals – which in turn will lead students to success in life, whatever that might look like.

Avoiding the ‘November Dip’ and maintaining your sanity

The November Dip is an annual occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere school year where teachers start to lose motivation before the big holiday at the new year. November is physically hard for most people in the North. You go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. The daylight hours, such as they are, are brief and shrouded with clouds.

For teachers, the high enthusiasm of year planning in early September has started to run dry. The new year seems like an age away, even as the shops play holiday songs on repeat. The students are tired, the teachers are tired. It’s a tough month. But if you know what’s coming you can prepare:

1) Get your lesson plans in order before November. If you make a medium-to-long term plan until the end of term, you can fall back on it when your energy starts to flag.

2) Invest in box sets or streaming subscriptions. You are going to need entertainment when the evenings draw in.

3) Have a day off. Once a week, do nothing for school. If you’re feeling adventurous, unplug completely from technology to give your head some space.

4) Teach your students self-reliance and independence when you have the energy at the start of the year so that they can take over some of the legwork later! One of my greatest teaching moments was when a child walked towards me, then turned left, picked up a dictionary, said “OH!” and sat back down again. It seems like nothing but I had done a lot of scaffolding for that moment to occur.

5) Be prepared to give your students a break too! Have lessons in November that are relaxing for learners. For example, students like to make their own e-books, videos or design their dream ‘x’. These lessons are relaxing because students can set their own pace and work on things they find most interesting.

6) Consider having some instructional videos that students can watch outside of class/during class if they need you to explain something again. This saves your voice and has the bonus of a pause/rewind button for students who are probably finding it just as hard to keep focused in November.


FTW is your BFF

“All beginnings are difficult.”

I remember the horrendous, red track-suit I wore on the the first day of sixth grade – and discovering that it did very little for my social cache.

I remember the anxiety of the first day of fifth grade; I was terrified I’d be assigned to the homeroom of the witchy-looking lady I’d seen in the hallways and I prayed I’d get the the tall, gangly guy. I got my wish, but it turned out that the tall, gangly guy was sort of mean. The witchy-looking lady, I later learned, only looked witchy.

I remember the first day of fourth grade, where our teacher introduced us to an octopus, pickled in a jar of formaldehyde. It lived in his supply closet. If he caught anyone messing with his supplies, he said, he’d lock us in there with “Octy.”

All beginnings are difficult.

This sentence, written in the Talmud, and which I learned on the first day of my Educator’s Program, helps us to anticipate difficulty – and to feel that the emotional challenges that accompany new chapters are normative.

And every class, four years of study, and 12 years of teaching later, features difficulty – I am both nervous and excited. I am prepared but I never feel utterly prepared from my head to my toes: there is unknown in every class.

The first 10 minutes of class is the time when students are most unruly, you are most vulnerable, and where getting down to business is most challenging.

The solution is First Thing Work. It is posted in the class agenda, it’s ready the moment students walk in, and their job is to do it first. My job is to avoid distraction, set up my computer, take attendance, and check in quietly with students who have emergencies.

Here are a few models for FTW:

Model One: Looking Forward

Offer one or two prompts on a theme related to class. For example, in a class on Hamlet, the prompt may be: “Tell a story about a time when you wrestled with a difficult choice, where the stakes were high?”

Carefully compose prompts that the vast majority of students could answer.

Offer a second, more general prompt: “How do you deal with making a difficult choice?”

A third, more general prompt, might be, “What advice do you have for people facing a difficult choice?”

After writing on their choice of prompts, students then work on “Anchorwork.” Anchorwork is, as it sounds, work designed to keep students focused – and not to drift away from the environment for learning you and they have created for the last five minutes.

Anchorwork can be a drill, a fascinating article, a creative project they have been working on for a few weeks, or even a headstart on the homework.

After five to seven minutes of quiet writing, ask students to share their stories, ideas, and conclusions. Offer a few summary remarks, and move on to your lesson plan.

Additional benefits: many students have reported in my classes that these sharing sessions help them learn about their classmates’ lives – people they see and interact with every day but don’t always really know. This bonding contributes to a warm class atmosphere and to better learning.

Alternate model: use an online service like (or jerry-rig a low-tech silent poll with dry-erase markers) to poll students about something in their lives. Offer a second prompt where they assess or speculate about the results of the poll. For example: why did 75% of the class feel that Kale is the new broccoli? What factors might have contributed to this? What might lead to a shift in these results?

Model Two: Looking Back

Use bellwork as a time for summative assessment. (For those watching at home, “summative assessment” refers to mini-quizzes you do during a unit to see how students are coming along, evaluate your strategy, plan interventions, etc.)

For example, use an online service like or to have students answer some simple questions about the homework and, through the miracle of the internet, see their scores immediately. Students who struggle meet in a seminar with you for clarification. Students who “pass” move on to the next step.

(If you need a low tech version, prepare answer keys students can grab when they are ready – or have them grade each others’ work).


No matter what you do with your FTW, the following principles apply:

1. Students must be able to access it immediately upon entering the room, whether it’s online, in a binder on your desk, or rested in stacks in the students’ work area.

2. It should be work students can do with minimal questions or clarification, since you’ll need that time to check attendance, set up your computer, launch ClassDojo, etc.

3. It should not be work that needs grading. You have enough to grade as it is. That said, I do have colleagues who collect and grade them and, well, I trust their rationale.

4. Teach students, at the beginning of the year, that FTW factors into their Student Ethic Modifier. If a student is slow on the draw one day – misses a class – or misses FTW due to tardiness, s/he doesn’t need to make it up, necessarily – as long as it is not a pattern. For more on Class Ethic Modifier, I invite you to my blog, “The Most Helpful 3% In the Class.”

5. While bell work can, without much planning, make beginnings of class “less difficult,” with practice and effort, it can become an effective way to introduce ideas and materials for a powerful class experience.

“My name is Evan and I’m addicted to Koosh Balls.”: Using Speaker’s Lists and Koosh Balls for Discussion Facilitation.

It all started with a peanut.

The teacher was offering salty, shelled peanuts to students who answered questions correctly. It was my turn and she asked me the question, something about verbs. Or adverbs. I blurted out the answer, and hands shot up; I watched in horror as the teacher called on another student to answer and give him the peanut. My peanut.

The worst part was that the second I said the wrong answer, I realized my error… but I could do nothing about it. My peanut was gone.

Solution 1: The Speaker’s List

Years later, as an adult, I joined a housing cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin. The co-op system had meetings to decide everything: whether to invite an applicant to live in the house, how to invest our $10,000 budget windfall, whether to stop buying cheese.

Those meetings might have been nightmares (and indeed, sometimes they were), but one thing kept meetings orderly: when it was your turn to speak, one thing made sure your peanut was not given to someone else.

The speaker’s list.

If you wanted to speak, your name went on a list. When it was your turn, it was your turn. And you were not done speaking when someone else said you were done, you were done when you said, “pass.”

Was this abused? Sometimes. Rarely.

Mostly, it made people feel heard and seen and in control of their own words.

As a teacher, I quickly adopted this technique. I would ask a question, and instead of hands popping up and competing for my attention, I would simply assign numbers. No more than 7. And the next student didn’t get to speak until the previous student said “pass.”

This was not a good method for debate, but very good for exploring ideas, which is most of what my class is about.

Solution 2: The Koosh Ball

Still, something was not complete. I was still serving as the speaker’s list keeper and calling on the next speaker, and sometimes, the list felt a little heavy handed. Furthermore, sometimes, I would ask a question and find that getting even one or two speakers was a challenge.

In a groovy book on leading “Rap Sessions,” written by somebody in the 70s with incredible, spherical hair, I encountered the idea of a talking stick. The person with the stick speaks. Everyone else listens.

But what if the next person to speak is 15 feet away? Could a talking stick be easy to catch, easy to throw, and soft, in case someone got hit in the eye? The answer is yes. If the stick is a Koosh Ball.

A tennis ball will bounce and roll, creating havok. A hackysack is easy to throw but hard to catch. A bowling ball is too heavy. The perfect catchable, tossable, safe talking stick is a Koosh Ball.

They are no longer in production, but you can buy them here for a few dollars each. I have one in my backpack at all times. And I only go through one or two a year.

Here are some additional benefits to using speakers’ lists and Koosh Balls:

1. The koosh serves as a visual reminder of who is speaking. This is one piece in the classroom-management-without-raising-your-voice puzzle.

2. The Koosh gives you a way of correcting out of turn speakers in a concrete, non-judgmental way: “Make sure you’re only speaking when you have the Koosh” is much more clear than, “Stop talking out of turn.”

3. Some students like to fidget with the Koosh while they speak, and while I also teach articulate speaking in appropriate contexts, the kind of dreamy rhapsodizing that comes with having something to fiddle with while speaking can actually allow for freer, more creative expression.

4. While you can create a hybrid speaker’s list / koosh conversation, where the next person on the list gets the koosh, the koosh can also allow the currect speaker to choose who speaks next.

5. Facilitation through speakers’ list and/or Koosh Balls allows you to step out of actively facilitating the discussion, allowing you to listen more deeply to the individual students and the class “gestaldt” – after six or seven students speak, then, offer your observations and conclusions. I call this “curation,” you can read more about “Curation As Discussion” here.

6. Using a speakers’ list and Koosh Ball helps you focus on the quality of your questions. Fewer, clearer, open-ended questions are far more effective than many, guided, leading questions. When you get accustomed to asking questions that seven students can answer seven different ways, you’re developing your skills as a master teacher.

Conclusion: These two techniques are part of creating a class atmosphere that is lively without being frenetic, and where students feel seen and heard. Please share your tips and ideas for discussion facilitation below.

You know what I’d pay you for a good idea?