Co-Teaching: Wedding Bliss?

Yesterday, I attended a beautiful wedding for my friend and colleague, Meagan.  Meagan and her new husband have all the ingredients for a successful marriage–mutual respect for each other, shared values and beliefs, the ability to compromise, and a commitment to each other through thick and thin.  Before this wedding, Meagan and I were also married in a sense.  We team-taught a class of thirteen students with intellectual disabilities (ID) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  And we, too, shared all the ingredients for a successful partnership.  Our class excelled, and we experienced tremendous professional and personal learnings during that year of teaching. It worked so well, that I found myself being paired with a very unlikely co-teacher the next year–my brother. Those were my two best years of teaching.

Co-teaching is a highly beneficial scenario for both students and teachers, but as with any relationship, co-teachers have to work hard to cultivate mutual respect and understanding. Below are five keys to a happy and healthy co-teaching “marriage.”

1.  Small talk is a big deal

You will spend 8 hours a day within arm’s length of your co-teacher.  You will see them more than your real spouse or partner during the week. Get to know them as a person rather than simply another colleague.  What are their hobbies?  Are they married?  Do they have kids?  Are they a morning person? Do they prefer to use their prep period to work together or quietly on their own?  Get these conversations out in the open from the start, because they are more difficult to have later on; nobody wants to learn the hard way.

2.  Identify personality type and teaching style

Meagan and I were both extroverted teachers who preferred to move around the room, engage students in group work, and keep a high-energy classroom. We preferred to improvise and plan more on the fly. My brother, on the other hand, is a thoughtful and subtle introvert who levels out a tense or hyperactive classroom with a sense of competency and calm. Our lessons were highly structured and very detailed. Some co-teachers will energize us while others will balance us out.  Like any relationship, it’s best to go in with an open and positive mindset.

3. Identify strengths and weaknesses

If you’re not comfortable enough with your new co-teacher to have a conversation, it might be helpful for you both to make a list of strengths and weaknesses.  It’s likely that there won’t be too many areas of overlap, so taking a look at this list and agreeing upon duties and responsibilities will offer a sense of control and security to both of you.  A strong partnership relies on someone who is willing to take out the garbage and someone who will clean the bathroom. In this case, it’s probably agreeing upon who will grade tests and who will develop them.

4.  Establish procedures and expectations

We like to think we’re all snowflakes in the world of education, but when it boils down to it, most teachers have the same behavioral expectations and classroom procedures.  Compare paperwork, discuss homework, grading policy, and how you will communicate home. Know that you both will have to make adjustments to the way you ran your classroom before; be open to doing things a different, or perhaps better, way.

5. Agree to make mistakes

It’s hard enough to misspell a word or botch an historical fact in front of students, but when you do this in front of a colleague, it can be downright demoralizing.  Agree from the start to screw up occasionally, support each other in correcting mistakes, and move on.  Remember that we are constantly modeling for our students, so this is the time to show them that we’re all lifelong learners.

 

5 ways to improve your technology skills!

If you’ve been to Pebble Beach in California, you’ll see the smooth stones. The pounding surf has rubbed off all of the rough edges and made them so smooth. So, they become something collected and touched. They have polish.

Just up the road in a quiet cove there are rocks that no one wants to touch – it is a very quiet cove with no surf to polish down the stones – so the stones are rough and while people may visit, there is no great beauty or anything to share.

The world is clearly divided into two kinds of people: learners and non learners. No mistake, as a professional whose job it is to help learners, learning is hard and requires work.

And yet those who have the best skills for technology are those who have been polished by tough problems. You become better with your computer in one way: by troubleshooting problems. Some people when they have a problem choose to ask me or another. Sometimes I get tweets from people asking me questions that they could find with a quick Google search.

Here are some of my tips for solving your technology problems.

1 – Try to get familiar with the terms

If you want to search for answers on YouTube or beyond try to figure out the terms of what things are called. While the very few pages that come with iphones or computers don’t have much, they do tell you what to call things. With every device I purchase, I review every button and what it is called. I snap a picture of any diagrams and put them in my electronic notebook: Evernote. You could also just keep them in a file.

2 – Be aware of things that change

One of the biggest signs of getting a virus or malware on your computer is a sudden slow down. If you’ve installed nothing and have done nothing on your computer, this usually means something has happened. Keep a current antivirus subscription (like AVG or Avast) on your computer. I also invest in Malwarebytes which you can download and run for free. Malwarebytes snags those little pieces of malware that might download as part of a picture or when you go to a site. On my computer at home it snags 3-4 pieces of malware a day.

3 – Look for answers

If I want to know how to do something in software, I first go to the help button and type in what I’m trying to do. The procedure to do a mailmerge changes quite often, for example, so often I’ll start there in Microsoft Word instead of looking for it.

Secondly, I’ll look for tutorials on YouTube. When I update my favorite filmmaking program, Pinnacle Studio, I’ll watch the tutorials on the program on YouTube first.

4 – Know how to search

One problem is that many of us need to learn basic search engine math.

For example, if you want an exact phrase use quotes: “iPhone 5S” for example will give you that exact phrase. If you want to add something to that search you can use a plus and to remove something you can use a minus.

So, if I want to find out all the latest tips for searching on Google I might type in “search engine” +tips +Google -Bing

5 – Give yourself time

It takes time to troubleshoot. The problem is that many people just want someone to tell them the answer. When they are told the answer, they don’t even write it down or try it for themselves. The problem with this method is that you are promoting dependence on others instead of independence.

The bottom line is that if you want to be a polished technology user, you need to take the time to troubleshoot some lower level problems yourself. You can do this. The funny thing is that technology experts like me are usually not the experts, we just know how to find the answers. We know where to look and we work at it until we find something that works.

With the wealth of knowledge on the web, take time to polish your skills and it may mean taking on problems sometimes.

Come Together: Building a Global Teacher

Being a child of the 80s and 90s (Can I get a what-what?!), rap was a big part of music and pop culture growing up (and it still is today). While the music was fresh and funky, one thing that first comes to mind about the early era of rap music was the constant feuding, tension, and “haters” associated with this music movement (R.I.P. Tupac and B.I.G). Then, finally, someone realized rappers needed to (in the ever wise words of the Beatles) “come together,” stop hating, and start collaborating.  My first recollection of this was a Jay Z collaboration that blew my mind. This collaboration model concept caught on, and not only did more and more rappers start joining forces to bring better beats than ever before, but their songs (endorsements, and other products) soared to the top.

What’s my point? (…other than having a bit of a “Throw back Thursday” moment)

I feel like we are seeing an awesome teacher-collaboration movement in the education community.  Our industry has and most likely will always have controversy, opposing sides, endless change, and even some haters that you will inevitably encounter.  Even in my twelve short years as an educator, I’m happy to say that I have seen and continue to witness a shifting culture of increased support and collaboration.  Let me be clear: I’m not saying teacher collaboration is a new trend.  Rather, I feel that technology, ease of travel, and sheer necessity to collaborate (due to ever increasing demands on we teachers) has forged a fantastic network of educators reaching beyond the four walls of their classroom, the buildings they work in, and even states and countries to hold hands together, share, support, inspire, and collaborate through the endlessly challenging task of being a teacher in today’s world.  As we are more closely scrutinized than ever by the outside world, media, and politics, we must “come together” with our colleagues and fellow educators.  Doing so is proving successful for teachers, just as it did in the rap world. Teacher blogs abound with countless followers, districts are tackling Common Core together, educators are trusting other teachers for classroom resources and making major bucks in the process thanks to sites like TeachersPayTeachers.  All in all, connection + collaboration = teacher success in numerous ways!

So, how can you create your own collaboration?

Blogging Besties: If you are already a teacher blogger, you have likely experienced the surprisingly wonderful friendships and professional bonds you have formed with fellow bloggers and your blog followers.  Last summer I began my blogging journey as a Scholastic Top Teaching blogger and instantly met two fabulous ladies (Kriscia Cabral and Erin Klein) who became fast life-long friends and excellent educational collaborators.  If I have a question about teaching or need some inspiration to get out of a curricular rut, I reach out to those ladies, even though they might be in Michigan and California.  Getting outside perspective from teachers cross-country is an amazing way to shake up your instruction and stay current on national education issues. If you are not already a teacher blogger, follow and comment on other teacher blogs for the same type of advice and connection, or start your own blog… why not?

Recently I attended a national teacher-blogger meetup and it was amazing! Not only was I able to reunite with blogging bestie Erin Klein, but I made new friends like these lovely ladies from GoNoodle, and connected with both new and veteran teacher bloggers from across the country, including Angela Watson from The Cornerstone (we had a blast together!).  I can’t wait to reach out to and collaborate with these inspiring educators!

Local Connections: Don’t overlook the importance of starting new local teacher connections and maintaining existing relationships.  We are all so busy as teachers, that sometimes it is difficult to tend to our collegial friendships. Make it a goal to do something special for your teammates, keep in touch teacher friends from past grade levels or schools taught at.  If you want to expand your local circle of teacher connections, challenge yourself to reach out to teachers beyond your team, grade level, school, or even district. Within your school and district, make a point to talk to new people at meetings or times provided to collaborate. Beyond your district, join local educational organizations or tap into social media to make those connections (see below).

Webinars, Blogs, Social Media, Oh My!: If I had to pinpoint a singular catalyst behind this web of teacher connectivity, I would credit technology. You have so many vehicles for collaboration without boundaries thanks to online webinars, teacher/educational organization blogs, and social media. Check them out and mix up the way you follow and connect with people. Don’t limit yourself to in-person teacher relationships. Below you will see how I utilize different social media tools to connect with teachers beyond local borders.

  • Facebook gives me quick peeks at updates on blog posts, products released, reviews, and tips from teachers around the world.
  • Pinterest is one of my biggest obsessions. I search Pinterest for classroom ideas, resources, decor/bulletin board ideas, and organizational tips.  I’m super visual, so purusing through pics is a winning approach for me.  I could Pin away hours of my life and have gleaned some of my best teaching ideas from this source!
  • Instagram is my newest social media love, as it plays to my visual nature much like Pinterest.  I love Instagram because it allows me to often see more personal glimpses of the life and classroom happenings of teacher bloggers and fellow colleagues.
  • Twitter is the perfect forum for me to soak up top educational trends and tidbits, and then further explore via links provided if I so choose. I don’t have time to read every educational organization website, journal, or news report.  The people I have chosen to follow on Twitter provide short blurbs that keep me up-to-date and lead to further exploration of topics most relevant to my professional growth. Also, watch for and engage in top weekly educational Twitter chats that will provide a more personal interaction with Tweeting teachers.

Take a moment and choose even just one of these suggested ways to further connect and collaborate with other educators. If you do so, you’ll see that everyone wins…and most importantly, your students will benefit from the wealth of “good things” that emerge when we as teachers “come together.”

Don’t know where to start?

Connect with ME! I’d love to collaborate together.

Teaching independence through open-ended projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

The process of learning how to manage time and own behavior is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the “Big Date”. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.

 

The Importance of Schedule Once

The worst thing is… a student not getting the help he needs.

The worst thing is… a student going from struggling, to drowning, because she lets a small problem become a big problem.

The worst thing is… a student letting go of the chance to correct mistakes because of the hassle.

That’s a lot of worst things. But it happens way too often.

Here’s how I dealt with this for eleven years:

  • I lectured students on the need to meet with me, especially when things didn’t go well.
  • I told students to meet with me.
  • I told parents to tell students to meet with me.
  • I threatened students who wouldn’t meet with me.
  • I exacted consequences on students who should’ve met with me but didn’t.

Here’s what happened: students who had the proclivity to ask for help met with me and thrived. Students with social anxiety, who were afraid of my bow ties, or who were too busy never met with me, and paid the consequences.

What did those students learn about the importance of meeting with a teacher? Probably nothing.

Then, there was the other side of the problem. Students would email to ask if they could meet.

Email 1: Student: Dear Mr. Wolk. Can we meet to go over my project?

Email 2: Me: Sure. When are you free?

Email 3: Student: A block and B Block.

Email 4: Me: I teach A, B, and D.

Email 5: Student: How about Lunch?

Email 6: Me: I’m free Tuesday and Wednesday.

Email 7: Student: Wednesday Lunch works. See you then.

That process would take 2 days.

Then, on Wednesday, I would sit at my desk during lunch, until 2 minutes before the bell rang. And that’s when the student would show up to review his project.

OR: When I was free during students’ study halls, half of the period would pass, and then three students would show up at the same time.

I wanted to teach students that when you’re in crisis, you should ask for help. But asking for help was inconvenient for everyone. A pain in the butt. Time consuming and cumbersome. A headache for the student and for me.

There had to be a better way…

  • A way for a student to access my office-hours calendar – in class, immediately after a confusing review session, right when the panic and anxiety hits.
  • A way for the student to offer me two times, and where I could pick the most convenient one.
  • A way for students to reserve 5 – 20 minute blocks which wouldn’t be “poached” by another student dropping by.
  • A way for multiple students to fit into one 55 minute period.
  • A way for me to approve or request a reschedule while on the go – from my phone.
  • A way to sync appointments with my own Google Calendar and with my school’s Outlook system.
  • A way for me to survey all the times a student has met with me, to include as feedback on ClassDojo.

As it turns out, there was. IS. Schedule Once – I used the trial free account, then upgraded (gladly) to the pro account. It’s worth it.

I have more students visiting than ever before, but in a more orderly, dependable way. A student who panics when receiving a low grade on a test knows exactly what to do: make an appointment, now.

It’s a good thing.

Hang in there — teaching can be tough!

I love someecards no matter what the topic of their hilarity is, but when it comes to their teacher quotes, I roll on the floor laughing. The reason? Because they are so true. This profession is incredibly tough, demanding, tiring, unappreciated, and we often have a love-hate relationship with it. Things as simple as using the restroom become a luxury for us.  It can be a lot to handle, and I’ve had times in my career where I really let the annoyances cloud my viewpoint. Take these tips to keep your chin up, a smile on your face or perhaps a sentimental tear on your cheek, and reflect on the passion and purpose of educating our most important resource: our children.

Laugh

In the spirit of someecards, never forget to laugh.  If you don’t laugh in this profession, you’ll cry… and I don’t mean a gentle tear falling type of cry, I mean a punching bag face, really ugly cry (#beentheredonethat). Hilarious things happen every single day in the classroom. Often we are too overwhelmed with new mandates, Johnny wetting his pants in the corner, or Susan throwing a tantrum at her seat, to stop and appreciate the funny little moments in our days. Whether it’s something a colleague says that makes you chuckle, a funny retort from a student, or searching out a source of humor online like someecards, relish in the moment and have a giggle. Check out the entire collection of teacher-themed someecards and save this link for a rainy (or should I say tear-filled) day in the future!

 

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Inspire

Sometimes we need a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking reality check to remind us about why we entered this crazy profession to begin with and the difference we are truly making each and every day.  Whether we realize it or not, we are inspiring people every day. Sometimes we need the same in return. Personally, I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes. Reading the words of great figures seems to erase any irritating comments from parents, frustrating moments with students, or exhausting district red tape that I have dealt with on any given day. Check out the 50 Most Inspirational Quotes for Teachers. You are certain to find one, or ten, or 50 that bring a smile to a face and a tear to your eye!

Watch videos

My friend and fellow blogger, Erin Klein, wrote a fantastically uplifting Scholastic Top Teaching blog post on 9 Videos to Make Teachers Laugh, Cry, and Feel Inspired! Any time I can refer to something that’s teacher-tested-and-approved I go for it. If you need uplifted, check out her post and the videos within. Edutopia also put out a great list of 20 Movies Every Educator Should See. Some of my favorites are on that list and I want to curl up on my couch with a blanket and waste a few hours watching them right now!

What’s MY favorite inspirational teacher video? Kid President’s Pep Talk to Teachers and Students! I adore this kid, and his video pep talk both made me laugh and cry.

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Read

I’m going to be honest, I’m so busy that I often don’t have time to read as much as I would like to. If I can get a book (leisure or professional) on audio, it’s a huge bonus (since I commute 45 minutes each way daily). When I am selecting a book to read, I’m extremely persnickety. I want it to be worth my time and be something that makes a true impact. Thanks to Hope King’s posts about working at the infamous Ron Clark Academy (RCA) and Cara Carroll’s (#teachercrushes) recommendation, I think I’ve found my inspirational book pick for right now: Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me, by Kim Bearden. I have major teacher crushes on both of these educators/bloggers and respect their talents. If they recommend something, I know it’s going to be great.

What Hope has documented about her time at RCA has been amazingly innovative and inspirational, and makes me long to go visit this incredible educational institution. Cara says the book is “heartfelt, inspiring, and amazing.” She states very personally that this book found her at a time when she was questioning everything about her profession, and couldn’t have showed up at a better moment. I am going to order this book and keep it on hand for the moment I am doing my own teacher-sole-searching. I know Kim’s words will comfort, inspire, and even challenge me…and we all need that every now and again as teachers!

Be grateful

Last, but certainly not least, when you’re frustrated with a lesson you’ve taught, losing your mind because it’s the 6th week in a row without outdoor recess due to extreme snow, or downtrodden after an upsetting parental encounter, take a moment to be thankful. Say what?! Yes, be thankful. Even when things seem their worst, there’s always someone or something to be grateful for. Doing so clears your head, brings about positive thoughts, and helps you rise above the daily drudge that can often creep up. Even on the worst day, if you are thankful to have the privilege and pleasure to teach our nation’s youth and make a difference, you will rise above and remember why education is your true calling!

Technology in the classroom… start here!

There are a million resources for technology in the classroom.

Many of them are redundant. Many are distractions.

Some of them could be useful, but they are not a priority for a teacher first adopting technology in the classroom.

Here are my top 5 forms of technology for you to begin working with and a few notes about why.

Then, five more I’m sure glad I found.

Can’t Live Without Them

Google Drive / Docs – for students work and for hand outs. Keeps work from being eaten by the dog. Allows you to access student work from school, home, or a flight across the country (if there’s wifi). Allows easy feedback via comments, and can serve as a platform for making worksheets and texts, and a bank for digital media of all kinds.

Google Calendar – for communicating the lesson plan for the day, along with links, announcements, reminders, and homework.

ClassDojo – for recording feedback on students growth, communicating it to other teachers, to students, and to parents.

Exittix or Socrative – for formative assessments: did students actually understand what they say they understood? These “no-stakes” assessment platforms will help you make real-time decisions about what to do, next. And will ensure that the students are learning what you think you’re teaching.

Schedule Once – integrates with Google Calendar, Outlook, and others. Allows students to set up appointments with you in a way that will reduce migraines for everyone.

Optional

Prezi – ditch Power Point and create multi-media, zooming, cloud-based presentations on Prezi.com… and allow students to learn it and use it for presentations. Unlike most projected presentation format, Prezi gets better every year.

Google Voice – If students could only reach me at night to tell me that they will be absent from tomorrow’s big 4 person courtroom simulation. Or that the link to the essay questions is borken! But I don’t check email at night. And I sure as heck am not giving out my cell number. Well, The Wire taught me that a disposable phone is the best way to make contact with someone without fear of the info falling into the wrong hands. Google Voice numbers are disposable. You can even chose some of the digits. And I’d rather shoot a few texts back and forth with a confused study group than walk into the school the next morning to find waiting for me a mob of distressed students.

Today’s Meet – students who have action items for you to deal with could email you, where their “heads up” would be mixed into the thousands of other emails you get, or you can direct it to a “back channel” like Today’s Meet. In class, I use it like a Help Desk, where students ask for help in real time (if I’m busy helping someone, for example, they ask their question there, and knowing their question is posted, they move on in the work. I walk over and answer their questions in the order I receive them). Outside of class, Today’s Meet is where I direct students to nudge me to regrade their test-retake, or give credit for revisions if I don’t have time to open the gradebook on the spot.

Which I don’t.

Poll Everywhere – allows students to vote with cell phones or laptops, for beginning class with a generative question. Questions can be based on homework or can be to introduce new ideas and themes.

Super Grouper – I do a lot of putting students into random groups. And while I love pulling popsicle sticks with their name on it, this simple, Google Doc Script based tool allows you to pre-randomize groups and post the list where they can see it (on your class Google Calendar, for example). You just saved yourself five minutes and a lot of unnecessary groaning / cheering.

 

Put on Your Thinking Glasses: A Focusing Strategy

Long division. Government. Figurative language. Complex sentences. Elapsed time. We all know what it is like to try to teach concepts that are difficult for students to grasp at first. It seems that the younger the students are, the more difficulty they have. Eventually, with time and practice, the light bulb comes on. And sweet relief! They’ve got it!

But what about the initial introduction to these challenging concepts? What about the meat and potatoes practice and remediation that inevitably follows? All of that can get a bit tedious and frustrating. Take the tension and pressure off a bit by using a novel focusing strategy that is exciting for students and increases their attention to the task at hand: Thinking Glasses!

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“Thinking Glasses” can be found at discount stores marketed as “Nerd Glasses,” but if not, search online. If those are not available, you could alternatively use the cheap sunglasses you find in the dollar junk bins at discount stores. Whatever you choose and acquire, these glasses will be an invaluable “outside-the-box” tool to increase and maintain focus during intense instruction.

Before you introduce challenging curriculum, prepare students for it. Build it up! Let them know that the voyage they are about to embark on requires 100% complete focus, and that you are going to equip them with a tool to facilitate and maintain that focus throughout the lesson. Then dramatically whip out the glasses, making sure that every student has a pair – even save a pair for yourself. Make a big deal about them being called “Thinking Glasses,” and have everyone put them on at the same time. Then…super focused, begin the lesson. Let them continue to wear the glasses through the completion of related performance tasks. You will be surprised at the difference it will make!

Thinking glasses are for occasional wear only. They lose their magic if they are worn routinely! Break them out only for difficult content that requires extra focus, attention, and practice. After the first few uses, if students feel extra challenged by content, they will ask for them. Let them wear them! They are basically asking if you will allow them to increase, sharpen, and maintain their focus while you teach, or while they work. Yes, please! A class set of glasses is a small price to pay for the amount of reward you will get in return.

 

Teaching Writing Part 3: Best Practices for Encouraging Revisions – and Streamlining the Process

This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Read part 1, here and part 2, here

The most important exercises students can do as they learn to write (a close second to, well, writing lots of stuff) all feature responding to feedback.

That said, here’s what most of my experiences with giving students feedback on writing looks like:

Scenario: A student turns in an essay. Normal for a high school student, it’s full of syntax errors, has stylistic problems, it is hard to follow, and has some specious arguments.

Student: Mr. Wolk, why’d I get a bad grade on this essay?

Me: You didn’t get a “bad grade.” This is a work in progress, and the red marks show you where your paper needs work. The grade is an indication of how close to your goal you are.

Student Response 1: Well, I can’t read your marks.

Student Response 2: So, all I have to do is fix the stuff in red and it’ll be an A?

Student Response 3: But why didn’t you like the paper?

Student Response 1 is a problem because I put 15 minutes into making the corrections, and that time is wasted if the student (and I, probably) can’t read my writing.

Student Response 2 is a problem because it’s not about “fixing” or “making corrections,” it’s about editing and improving. Student papers need retooling, sometimes. Or a student needs to go back to – well, not square one, necesarily, but square 2, and reformulate an argument and the proof for the argument. This will not be a 2 minute “fix,” and I don’t want him to think it is. But it will make him a better writer and a master of the material.

Student Response 3 is a problem because the students have learned that teachers grade work with a desirable grade when they “like” it. And that is a dangerous but understandable conclusion for students to draw. It is counterproductive to the meta-goal of learning how to take criticism for the perfection of a product – and teaches that setback is bad. Unlikable. Yucky.

What students need is a clear workflow for learning the process of editing work.

The Challenge:

If the essay is a major part of the curriculum, including outlines and multiple drafts, then each step is built in. Students learn that preparation for writing, a good first try, feedback, and revision is part of the creative process.

But if this is an in-class essay, or a smaller summative assessment, or a mid-unit check-in, you may not have time (in the calendar) for an initial deadline, and a second deadline. And some students may turn in work that satisfies the requirements of the essay. Will you require rewrites for every student? Do you have time to grade second drafts for every student?

Finally, if time is short for you, like it is for all teachers, you’ll note that chasing after mutliple drafts of an essay in order to check to see if revisions were compled is frustrating – and then flipping back and forth between two documents (or two paper copies) is cumbersome.

How can we streamline the incredibly important process of students receiving, reflecting on, and responding to critique?

The Solutions:

1. Do revisions or edits in a format like Google Docs, using the Insert Comment feature. This ensures that the student can read the comment.

  • Include simple corrections and also links to digital documents containing pre-made primers/reviews on the most common writing errors or anything you’ve been focusing on in class. (Passive vs. active voice, transitions, how to cite, etc).
  • You can play with different platforms that allow you to comment in a Google Doc with words, crayon, voice, or even video!

2. Students write essays in the left side of a two column grid. The left side is for the first draft. The right side is for the second draft.

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  • This allows you to see the second draft right next to the first draft. Much easier to see if revisions are made!

3. Unless you are doing a full-scale essay with built in deadlines for outlines and revisions, consider making revisions optional. Here’s how:

  • On the final comment of the essay, include an interim score. Summarize and explain the interim score.
  • Students can recover 50% of any lost credit by perfecting the second draft. (For example, a student who earns a 70% on the first draft can earn an 85 on the second. This encourages students to submit quality work up front, rather than procrastinate until the the rewrite for their best effort.
  • Any error constituting a party foul (a silly misspelling, confusing too/to/two) earns a “strike.” 3 strikes loses 10%, unrecoverable. Students are thus encouraged to proofread before turning in work, rather than relying on you to be their personal editor. Any student who wants or needs your proofreading assistance in advance can meet with you (this meeting should be required – again, you’re not their personal editor) and you will proofread the work together. This reduces “learned helplessness.”
  • Clarify when the deadline is for the second draft. I advise ONE WEEK from the receipt of the revisions.
  • If there is anything about the essay that the student is unlikely to be able to fix on his/her own (whether it’s technical, grammatical, nuanced, or value-based), require a face-to-face meeting before the student begins working on it. If you’re using a program like Schedule Once to make appointments with students, include the link to your scheduling page right in the comment!
  • Students have 1 week from the moment the paper is graded write a revision and tell you in an email (this must be required) that the paper is revised. As these papers come in, flag them and grade them in batches.
  • If you’re using a Learning Management System or Electronic Grade Book, copy and paste your final inserted comment into the gradebook. At the end of the semester, you have a great start to a content-filled narrative for the students.

Additional Notes:

  • For high achieving students who are aiming for an A in the class, a B+ interim grade is often sufficient to entice them to do a second draft.
  • Students who bomb their first draft should earn a much lower grade than you would otherwise have given them, since you will want them to do a second draft. In other words, don’t reward a mediocre paper with a mediocre grade. Give a grade low enough to send the message that the paper is not acceptable – and that the benefit of a second draft is, indeed, required.
  • Give an A- to a highly achieving student who performs just under his/her capacity, who you would like to focus on other class goals (say, in the weeks before a major project). These students may opt not to do a second draft, and the A- sends the message: “Feel free to raise your grade, but it won’t hurt you if you need to start studying for the AP test.”
  • Use ClassDojo to record information about students who bomb their first drafts but do not bother to submit a second draft – or students who are required to meet with you who simply turn in a second draft, (thereby making the same mistakes they made the first time). These students (and their parents) will benefit from this type of very thoughtful “student-ethic” feedback.

Rainy day recess — bring on the fun!

So what’s a teacher to do when it is pouring down rain outside and it is time for recess? There are schools across this nation who may be lucky enough to have some enclosed pavillion which enables the kiddos to get all that energy out. My school doesn’t have such structure. So my students and myself are left with only one option….the classroom!

So when the rain is pouring and the old man is snoring, what can you do? There are a few safe and effective ways students can release the energy and just play for a bit. I have a few things I rotate periodically so the natives don’t get restless,especially when rainy day one turns into rainy day three.

Quiet Ball

To play quiet ball, you’ll need a small soft ball. My preferred choice is the splash balls for pools. It’s like a small bean bag and really can’t damage things if it hits something.

The students begin the game by forming a circle on the perimeter of the room. A “judge” is picked to maintain order and determine whether a throw or catch is fair during the game. Of course, we use the random feature of ClassDojo to choose the judge. After the judge is picked, that child throws out the first pitch to a student in the circle.

The object of the game is to be the last man standing. To be the last man standing, you must adhere to a few rules.

  • All tosses must be underhand
  • You can not toss the ball to the person next to you. Must be somewhat across from you.
  • If you don’t catch the ball, you are out. However, the judge can determine whether the ball was catchable. If it was judge uncatchable, the thrower is then out.
  • Once there are four kids left, they take position in the four corners of the room and the game continues.
  • When there are only two players left, they position themselves across from each other and the game continues until someone is out.
  • Try to stay quiet! If you are too loud or yelling, the judge can eject you from the game.

Now I know the last bullet is extremely difficult when the game gets really exciting. I get really excited when it gets intense. You have to allow for some level of rumbling. You just want to prohibit those “outside voices” from taking over your hallway.

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Cards and Board Games

My two boys have outgrown most of the board games we once played together. Instead of tossing them or looking for a good home, I brought them to my classroom. You might think Candy Land and Shoots & Ladders would be untouched by 5th graders. It’s just the opposite! They love those games. I also have decks of UNO and SKIP BO cards they can choose. I have to say there is just something magical about seeing my students spread out on the floor and engrossed in a game.

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Go Old School

Sometimes you just have to go back to your days in elementary school.

  • Heads Up Seven Up
  • Whole Group Hangman
  • Simon Says … of course with classroom modification due to space.

I am a strong believer in recess! I’m not talking a 5 minute brain break. I’m talking a full 15 to 20 minutes of time to just be a kid. We as the adults have a luxury of walking away from work when our brain is about to explode. For me to be at my best, I have to leave the thinking at the desk for a good amount of time and focus on something else for a while. I am much more productive and clear headed when I return to my desk. Our students are no different! It takes a lot of energy and brain power to learn. Just like us, they have to step away before their brains ignite into flame.