Starting with Student Superpowers

This year, I am going to be using the lessons in our book, Unleashing Student Superpowers, to focus on student empowerment and on shifting the focus away from me and onto my students. Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 4.37.02 PM

I started in each of my first classes by having the students identify what they saw as the challenges of the coming school year. I told them that they didn’t have to be ones related to my class specifically but to any part of their school experience, from homework to friends to sports. Whatever was making them nervous qualified as a challenge. I gave them time to think and then, if they wanted to, they could share.

I then had them imagine that they were going to be given Student Superpowers, powers that would help them successfully tackle the challenges that they had identified. I gave each of them three post-it notes and had them write each power on a note. Then they went and put them up on the bulletin board. SuperpowerBulletin


Their choices were so wonderful and even written anonymously, they taught me so much about who they are and what they want.








It was a great way to start the year!

Brains Working

I had such fun today, starting the process of teaching students how their brains work. I introduced the “Identity Project,” which I wanted to use as a way to get to know my students before we got down to the work of history. I then wanted to start them learning why I find working with students so exciting each year. I introduced the Four Minute Silence.

I told them to find a space around the room where they could sit quietly for four minutes. We talked briefly about why they shouldn’t just sit in the circle of their desks – too easily distracted by their classmates, the giggles. They wanted to know if they could jot down notes while they were sitting. I told them, “No, because that would take their brains off of their thinking.”

I gave them four minutes!

Four minutes with no movement, no distractions, no texts, no books! It felt like four hours! They sat and sat.

Their responses at the end were amazing to them, though!

“I thought SO much!”

“I got it all planned out! Amazing!”

“I didn’t know I could think that much!”

And the year has started! Pointing students in the direction of their own learning is the whole point!

Final Products of the Identity Projects! I love what students do when given choices and a personal connection!
Identity 1

Identity 4 Identity2Identity5b


What Will I Say about Ferguson?

As I look forward to returning to school and greeting a new set of students, there is a shadow hovering over my heart and mind. While I would very much like to ignore it, the death of Michael Brown and the police response happened between the time when I last held class and this start of a new year. Like so many, especially so many other white teachers, there is the question of what to say or do about the events of our summer. It is so tempting to act like it didn’t happen, that school is back in session and this is the only time and place upon which we need to focus. It would be so easy act as if Ferguson, Missouri isn’t even part of the United States.

A good part of me wants to avoid the challenging questions to which there are no easy answers. An ostrich and I have much in common! But I know that I must face it. I must present the American history that my students will learn this year in light of the events of this summer, both because the events themselves are important but also because they are indeed part of the history of our country. It is my job, even with middle school students, to be honest and challenge them to look at the country that we have and to work to make it a better place. They cannot do that if I hand them a pasteurized version of what the United States has been and what it is today.

Before tackling the specific issue of Ferguson, there are actions that I can take to create a school environment where my students feel safe. I have to start with what I can control. I must model a deep respect for each student and for every colleague, inside and outside of the school building. Students need to see behavior that is different from what they witnessed on the streets of Ferguson. It is important to avoid making careless or negative comments about colleagues or students. I must refuse to use sarcastic remarks to my students, which demean or embarrass them. For right now, I cannot change the world, but I can make sure that I model the best behavior that I can where I am.

I want to make sure that I learn about each of my students, so that they know that I care about each one of them. I cannot create a safe place for them if I don’t really know who they are. This can be done as easily as by having them write a letter to me at the beginning of the year. What is your favorite ice cream flavor? What is your favorite holiday? What can you do that would surprise me? I want to have a Concerns Box where they can leave anonymous notes that can be discussed in an Advising or homeroom time. I want to create times when they know that their lives will be recognized and supported.

Now for the more difficult areas! It is important for students to see the adults in their world tackling real challenges without calling names and bullying. They need to understand that working out problems can be difficult, but that it can be done. We have to be willing to acknowledge with them that the world is a complicated place with few easy answers and invite them into the conversation, encouraging them to help us make the country a better place.

This is an area where some fabulous PBL work could be done. How would our students answer the question, posed to me by an African-American mother, “How can I keep my children safe?” That is a real and valid question, one that their own parents might well be asking. We should invite our students into the challenging conversations. These conversations obviously cannot happen until after a sense of security has been created in the classroom. Students need to feel safe as they take on the issues in the world.

For the next step, I want to pose to my American history course the question: Why did Ferguson, Missouri happen? The events of this summer did not spring up from nowhere. Where did they come from? What was behind the actions of all of the people involved? I want to challenge my students to wrestle with the questions that these events raise, looking beyond a quick sense of Right and Wrong. Who are the people involved and why did they act in the ways that they did?

History is made up of people who, no matter how much we disagree personally with their actions, usually believed that they were Right. They did not wake up each morning and see a monster in the mirror; they saw a person whom they believe understands the world in a clear and correct manner. How did the people involved in Ferguson and in many other racially charged events in our history come to act in the ways that they did? I want my students to consider the priorities of each side, role-playing, debating and wrestling with a variety of viewpoints. It is only when they can understand those they consider “Other” that they will be able to work with them towards a solution.

Here’s to a year of creating safety and challenge within our classrooms!

August Thinking

August thinking is different from June and July. I think about school in those early summer months, but in a different way than in August. This summer, I spent a lot of time working with colleagues on curriculum and planning for the new year, but in June and July, it is all very abstract. The new school year is so far away that it doesn’t “feel” like it is real. There is no depth to it. It is simply an idea in the distance.

When August arrives, all of that changes. The abstract and distant becomes present. August is when teachers begin to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat: they are in front of a class with no lesson plan or more often, no clothes on. They are in some way or another scared and vulnerable in the midst of hallways full of children with no way to gain control.

That is where August thinking comes in. For me, it is time to slowly start picking back up the “balls” that I juggle during the school year, ones that I consciously dropped in June to give myself a rest. For June and July, I read, building a deeper understanding of how other educators are tackling the challenges of the classroom. It was reading based on curiosity rather than need. I have reading a collection of books: Fires in the Mind by Kathleen Cushman, Thrive by Meeno Rami, Grading Smarter, Not Harder by Myron Dueck and reviewing my own book with Kristen Swanson, Unleashing Student Superpowers. All of them gave me ideas to improve my thinking about my classroom and myself as a teacher, ideas that are recorded and filed away in July and August.

In August, however, all of those thoughts start to sizzle! They begin to come alive, They want to be put into action; they want to leave the page and become real, living parts of what happens in my classroom. I am doing a lot more thinking about grading. Teaching in a college-preparatory school, grades are still continued the means through which information is communicated. I want to find the best ways to have that communication happen that will support the learning and empowerment of my students. I also am rethinking my homework policies. I have to confess to giving homework more as a rote activity of my own. It was simply something that I did. I want to make sure that each assignment has a learning goal before I assign it. I am sure I will write more about this throughout the year. I also have signed up with Edublogs. I want to try student blogging. I am excited about the audience that that can give to my students.

I am excited for this school year! Supporting student learning and growth is one of the most exciting aspects of what I do in school, and it will be fascinating to see what the students bring about this year.

Here’s to another year in the classroom!

Classroom 2.0 Interview

Almost Boring!

It is that time of year when I spend a lot of time in my classroom without anything to do. I have successfully moved from the front to the back; the students are in charge. I am watching, commenting on work, editing when asked, but basically I am just there as a resource. It is not about me; it is about them. I love it, and it can leave me with time on my hands. They know what to do and are doing it! It is just what I planned for, starting in September, and it always amazes me when it happens so completely in the last few months of school.

Yesterday, my 7th graders were working on their Black Death project. They were researching, using mostly primary sources, to understand the impact that the plague had on the people of Europe. It is an introductory study for a “Change in Europe” unit that we do at the end of the year. They had been previously studying trade networks and the interactions that occurred along them: Silk Road and Indian Ocean networks. They are writing two diary entries: one from before the plague arrives and one after. They are also creating an image for a woodblock, based on images like the Dance of Death.

They had a 90 minute period to work. I reviewed the tasks and took any questions. Then I reminded them that when they felt the need to move around, get a drink of water or simply chat with a friend, they were free to do that, as long as it wasn’t disruptive to those around them. Then I let them go. Some sat in the desks; some moved to the cushions in the Reading Corner; some went to sit in the hall – a regular extended learning area in our Middle School. And I began my wandering.

There was silence, a few whispers, but mostly focused and concentrated silence. They had no need of anything but their own minds and hearts. They flipped through their resources and typed diligently away. I sat down; I wandered some more. Every now and then, there was a question or a request for me to proofread a section, but for the most part, they just wanted to work.

It wasn’t actually boredom, because I was focused on them and engaged in supporting their efforts, but it was far more passive than when I am directly the lesson. It felt great! The time was about them, and they knew what to do to make it happen! That’s a Spring Success!

Just Laugh

The first week back at school after a break often offers challenges. It was wonderful to see the students again. They were refreshed and so was I. While we all loved being away and having time to catch up on all of the activities that we can’t during the school year, it was still nice to be back together. The pressures hadn’t started building up yet, and being together felt fun, rather than stressful.

That is probably why I realized that this was not the week to impose rigid standards of behavior, though at the end of the second day back, that was exactly what I wanted to do.

It was the last period of the day, which meant that they would be ready to be done with school and work. I was tired and so were they, but we still had to have class. That is the way that school works!

I arranged the desks in groups of three, so that they could work together more easily. I wanted to avoid it being a “Stand and Deliver” kind of class. I needed for them to get back up to speed, but didn’t want the focus to be on me reminding them. I had found a new reading on the topic that we had been investigating before Break, the empire of Mali in West Africa. I told them that the goal was to read the article together and identify the significant information in the text, a skill we have practiced a lot.

What happened next was totally predictable, but it forced me to make a very conscious choice. They started reading in their groups, while I wandered around the room, pausing at each group to listen for awhile. And then the giggles and gales of laughter began. Every possible word that seemed foreign or could possibly be mispronounced brought on immediate responses of silliness.

Part of me wanted to become indignant. This was serious work, and they were not applying themselves. I wanted to demand respect for myself, for their work and for the facts that they were learning. Every part of me wanted to take control and discipline each and every one of them, shaking a finger at them. It was important information, and they were not treating it that way. Imagine the most grouchy teacher images! That’s what I wanted to be!

Luckily, I took a deep breathe and forced myself to pause. I imagined that teacher and then I thought about her students. Responding the way I wanted clearly wasn’t going to create any love of learning in my students. It was going to be about me, not about them. It might feel good in the moment, displaying my power, but the effect wouldn’t be pretty.

It was time to just relax, to not take it personally and go along with the flow of the day. I made a decision to smile, just a simple smile instead of a frown, and my entire attitude changed with it. I realized that I could engage with them, rather than separate myself from them. If I let go of my need to control, then I could begin to create a learning experience in the midst of the laughter. They did their readings, with me correctly pronunciation and answering questions. They laughed and were silly, but they practiced the new pronunciation and began to use it. Then once they learned it, they became the experts. When they heard another group mispronounce a word, they corrected them, together laughing at the mistakes. I just kept wandering around, constantly in wonder at their underlying desire to learn and be more competent.

The more I smiled and laughed with them, the more they took control of the lesson and their learning! At the end of class, they didn’t leave feeling beaten down by a cranky teacher. They left with smiles on their faces. For the first week back, that is exactly what I want. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut and let them have some fun!

“What a Good Idea!”

On Friday, I had my 7th grade class for 90 minutes before the Holiday Assembly. Needless to say, I was a bit intimidated by the challenge of keeping them engaged without turning into a Grinch about the whole thing. I wanted it to be fun, but I also didn’t want to waste the time. It seemed like a very long time, when all of the focus was going to be on getting out and away from school.

The class started with them taking a quick quiz, one that we had been preparing for all week. I had created a 30 question multiple choice quiz on our Haiku site and set it so that they could take it up to 10 times. For the first nine times, they had two chances to get the correct answer. We had worked on it together, and they had studied in pairs and alone. Each time they had taken it, they got better and better, clearly enthusiastic about their increasing mastery of the material. On Friday, the vast majority of the class got 100%, which was an upbeat start to the day.

I then presented them with a challenge for the day – to create the best map of Africa that they could in 70 minutes. I told them that they had the freedom to decide what “best” meant for their map. I sort of held my breathe as I introduced it, because I wasn’t sure if it would catch their interest or imagination. If it didn’t, it was going to be a long 90 minutes of playing Geography games. Luckily, one girl, just as I finished introducing it and saying that there would be prizes, said, “Hey, that sounds like fun!” Quick internal sigh of relief on my part!

I gave each group a Tabletop Mapmaker set from National Geographic. It was a map of Africa, printed on nine sheets of paper that can be taped together to make the larger map. (If you haven’t tried these, they are a fabulous was to kick off a unit or work on geography.) I then gave them atlases and told them that they could use their laptops as well for research and ideas. I reminded them about where the scissors, tape, colored pencils and markers were and then let them lose. I also told them that they could listen to music if they kept it low, also something that I don’t usually do, but it was almost Break!

What happened next was 70 minutes of cheerful and engaged work! They explored and shared their ideas, each group seeking to come up with new ways to show what they had found about Africa. Some started with taping the map together while others began by coloring individual pages. Some focused on showing the different countries, coloring them as they were on a political map. One group decided to show rainfall and population to show the correlation between them. Another focused on agriculture.

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At one point, as I was walking around the room, a student who can be resistant to doing the work of the class, asked me why they were doing this activity. She was clearly enjoying it but was just used to asking the question. I explained that with 90 minutes on the last day before Winter Break, I wanted them to be learning but also having fun and that working with maps seemed like a good way to do that.

Her response totally amazed me!

“Wow! I never realized you think about things like that! What a good idea!”

Made my day! If on some level, she can begin to understand that what happens in the classroom has a goal of helping her learn and grow, then we have taken a step forward!

While they were working, I created a Google Form. At the end of the period, they voted, with each student getting two votes – one for her work and one for another map. It was very close but the map with the precipitation and population won.

We made it to Winter Break with laughter and learning! I had fun watching them and talking to them about what they were doing, and they had fun working together and taking on the challenge!

Now it’s time for some rest and renewal! Happy Break to all!

Trying Out Badges

Badges are one of those tools that I have liked as an idea, but I have never found the right time or place to put them into my classes. This last week, I decided to give them a time, mostly as a last resort! I had been having a sense of losing control and needed something other than a stern voice to regain the momentum and energy in the class.

Let me start by acknowledging that the weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break are hard for most teachers. We are tired, and the students are ready for a break. Thanksgiving gives us a taste of some Down Time, but then it is over too quickly. We return to the classroom wanting more relaxation and less focus and concentration. The way that that manifested itself in my classes was with lots and lots of instant questions, usually before I had finished giving directions or they had had time to actually read them for themselves. Hands in the air, questions shouted out:

“Where do I find that?”

“When is it due?”

“Why are we doing this?”

It seemed like a disease had attacked all of my classes with endless streams of questions. All of the classroom management strategies that I had put into place seemed to have been washed away during the break time. I will admit that my initial response was to answer one after another, repeating myself and acting as if they were all legitimate queries. My classroom is a place of learning, so of course I want to make sure every student feels secure.

The next reaction was to feel irritated. I just wanted them to listen to me! Isn’t it their job to be quiet and do what I say? No, of course not, but still couldn’t they just pay attention for a few minutes? Luckily, I have been down this road before, and while that reaction wasn’t great, it quickly led me to acknowledge that if what I am doing isn’t working, it is time to regroup. What could I do to re-engage them in their learning? What strategy was needed to shift the power to them, to make them think before they shouted out questions that they could figure out if they wanted to do it?

That’s when I thought about badges. Was there a badge that I could make to challenge them to think before they asked a question, to consider if they could figure it out themselves. Questions, legitimate “I really can’t figure this out” questions are great; the “Make it easy for me so I don’t need to think” ones are not.

I went to Credly, made an account and connected it to my classroom Haiku sites. I called the badge Figure It Out, putting a figure of Atlas holding the world on it to encourage strength and self-reliance.
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The next day, I introduced the badge to my classes. I explained that for each time they were tempted to call out a question, the goal was to pause for 3 seconds. We counted out 3 seconds together to give them a sense of the time. If they still didn’t have the answer, then they could raise their hand. If they figured it out in that time, they were to give me a small fist pump to let me know that they had had success and then record it. I handed out sheets of paper that had the badge at the top and ten lines. We had a good conversation, making some goals for asking questions. They were easily able to identify why I had made the badge, laughing when I asked them if they knew what I was talking about.

They really loved the idea of the badge and of being in charge of giving themselves the points. I told them that this was between them and their thinking. I can’t get into their minds and know when they are wrestling with some confusion. They have to do that themselves. It is all on an honor system, but they understood that and were excited to take on the challenge.

Power shifting!

In the last week, the interesting effect hasn’t been lots of students recording that they figured it out. It has been them policing each other.

“You’re not going to get a badge that way!” being my favorite.

“Is This Right?”

As I wrote last weekend, I got really excited about providing my students with more freedom to explore and develop their background knowledge. I rewrote a series of lessons that had initially involved reading the textbook and finding the significant information. It was a list of vocabulary words as well as some questions to answer. Very straightforward with little room for variation or independent discovery.

When I reworked them, I made it a challenge to discover what life on the Arabian Peninsula had been like before Muhammad, 570 C.E. I only gave them a list of critical vocabulary – Need to Know words – and told them that they could use whatever sources they wanted – textbook, internet or a collection of books and magazines that I had. I encouraged them to add to the list, including new words that they found that connected with the original ones. I gave them the period, 45 minutes, to research and said that they could research in small groups or on their own – following the model that I had read about.

In Role Reversal by Mark Barnes, this is when the students become actively engaged in their own learning, curious to investigate and build their understanding. Only I clearly had left out some critical steps!

My students spread out around the room, forming their groups and beginning to look for just the words on the list. They weren’t interested in adding new words to the list or in making connections. They simply wanted to do just what was there and no more.

“Is this right?”

“Am I done?”

My initial reaction was to feel angry with them. Why weren’t they interested in learning more and delving more deeply? Why didn’t they understand what a great opportunity I had given them to follow their own curiosity and create a rich investigation? I had taken all this time to rethink the lesson, and they weren’t doing their part and loving it, thereby honoring my work!

Luckily, I have been down this road before and been in the classroom enough to know that they are my students; their learning and engagement is my responsibility. If the lesson hasn’t provided the hook that makes them become active participants, then that is on me. Not on them!

For the second class, I realized that I needed to prepare them more for the work that I wanted them to do. It didn’t take much, but without it, the lesson was just that – a flat and boring set of tasks that didn’t catch their imagination. I should have known better, but I got caught up with the idea of self-generated learning and didn’t create enough of an environment for that learning before I set them to the task. I rewrote the lesson and added a kick-off activity where I showed them images of the Arabian Peninsula, the desert and an oasis. I had them make their best guesses on what life was like. We generated a list of questions about which they were curious. Then I let them loose to investigate.

And it worked! They took off and ran with it, becoming the engaged and independent learners that I wanted them to be. Not every class will evolve the way that I imagined, but they will improve if I pay attention and am willing to adapt and grow! Another lesson learned and relearned!