Category Archives: holistic ed

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

This is a cross post from our ActiveGrade blog, which is a mix of ActiveGrade updates and pedagogical discussion.  I try to be sparing in my cross-posting, but I think this is an important piece which fits this blog well too.  I won’t cross-post part two!

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

by MICHAL on APRIL 6, 2011

My question is – why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?

I used to teach at a Quaker school where community was valued in several intentional, structured ways.  Every day staff and students worked on a crew (chore) to keep the school in order and learn practical skills; we had weekly meetings of the whole school to discuss policies and organize events; we spent time every day in silent reflection; and we went on wilderness trips to experience something greater than ourselves and push our comfort zones.  When I look back, it is these experiences that often feel the most meaningful, the most instructive, the most educational.

In academics, we strove to give students regular feedback to guide them toward being independent learners.  In order for students to graduate, they, of course, had to pass certain classes.  But despite the fact that community engagement was such an important part of our curriculum, we didn’t really have a way to give students feedback on these skills.  A student might not graduate if they failed US History, but if they passed all their classes it didn’t matter how big of a jerk face they were.  They could have skipped every community meeting, been rude to every student and teacher, and generally failed to understand the underlying Quaker values we were tyring to impart and it wouldn’t matter – Diploma.

These experiences led me to the central question of the post – “why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?”  Of course there are some immediate arguments to be made.  First up: “maybe it’s too subjective.”  We have all encountered, or at least heard stories of others encountering, that one teacher who just didn’t seem to like us for whatever reason.  “It would suck,” we might say, “to have that teacher passing judgement on my character.”  And yet, that teacher still passes judgement on how much we understand in the class.  That teacher is already blamed for our low grades in many cases.

Another argument is that students are at school to learn skills, not values.  Home is where students learn values.  My answer to that is that we learn values in our everyday lives both at home and out in the world through the people we meet and with whom we interact.  If school is the place where students learn they are supposed to complete pre-defined tasks in order to graduate but not a place where their ability to engage in fair and meaningful relationships matters, then we are teaching them to value certain things over others – in this case task completion over relationship building.  But let’s look at our own work environments:  how often do you need to be conversant in the Civil War and how often do you need to be able to work civilly with other people; how often to you need to calculate the arc of a basketball and how often do you need to take other people’s opinions into account; How often do you need to identify and analyze a theme in classic literature and how often do you have to be comfortable doing something you don’t want to do?  I’m guessing, no matter what your job, you need the social skills more than the technical skills.

Here’s my concluding question: if we can attach a letter or number to a student’s ability to write well or explain the collapse of Rome, then why can’t we, in the same way, describe their abilities to be nice to other people or add constructive comments to a group discussion?

Please share your thoughts!  I’ll tackle the question of how to monitor these skills next time around.

Please see the comments and leave your own at

Emphasize Learning

Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?

from The New York Times

The article that quotation comes from is spot on, but in a scary way.  The author, Peg Tyre, nails some of the primary benefits of standards-based grading, like the emphasis of knowledge and skill over classroom participation and direction-following.  She describes the improvement in parent-teacher-student communication after a school in Minnesota switched to SBG.  As you may know, these are benefits I believe in.

But the whole article is framed in the context of alignment with standardized tests.  The idea of standardized testing is not inherently repulsive to me as long as we can find some way to keep the focus of education on learning and away from scores.  To have this great article about knowledge and communication framed in terms of test scores makes me worry that our ActiveGrade software, and even SBG in general, will be turned against us as another method of points-grubbing that is simply more specific about where to grub for points.

It’s up to the teachers and parents and kids to keep the focus on learning.  No grading system can help much.  ActiveGrade and other programs that report SBG grades can help by organizing the grades into topics, and emphasizing those topics over any final grade, but they all must ultimately rely on summaries of learning that can be interpreted as a score.

Here’s how I tried to keep the focus on learning when I was teaching:

  • I made sure the class was interesting to me – if a lesson from last year felt boring, I tried to remake it.  I let my interest show in class with enthusiasm and engagement.  One day a young woman asked me if you could really crush a can with boiling water (like Bill Nye does), and I’d never done it – the next day I brought in the materials so we could try it!  Clearly the can experiment doesn’t give me a pay raise or anything – it’s just interesting to me and I showed my students that I was interested.
  • I tried to model learning for its own sake by letting students see me learn things I had no expertise in.  As the math teacher, they didn’t relate to me when we were learning math – even if it WAS something new to me, I learned it faster and easier than they did because, I don’t know, I know the properties of multiplication about a thousand times better.   I joined soccer practice for a semester, in which several of my math students were at least a thousand times better than me, and I asked them for help on small parts of my technique.  They saw me falling down, getting muddy, going up for a goal and completely missing the (stationary!) ball (it’s funny now, but it felt really bad then), but staying with it and getting better.On a smaller scale, I did this in class by basing scenarios around things that the students knew a lot about (e.g. fashion or video games or music or juggling) but I didn’t, and just taking 30 or 45 seconds to let one of them share their interest.
  • I went out of my way to hold students up as authorities in a subject.  If a student had shared about juggling earlier, and so we were discussing something about it, I referred to him when another student had questions like, “how many times does a club flip over?”  I did a lot of group work, with each group studying something independently, and I would refer the group studying vertex form to the group finding roots if it was appropriate.  Giving students the responsibility of being authoritative in a subject gave them a new kind of reward for learning.

How do you emphasize learning in your classroom?  One thing I never did well was including parents – I met with them once a year, if they requested it, for 10 minutes.  I regret not talking about this stuff more explicitly with them, and also with the students.

I just realized that I’ve started to forget how much there is to keep track of while you’re teaching and planning and grading and reporting – writing about my regrets brings back all the stress of feeling like I’m not doing ANYTHING.  I’m turning this into a run-on post, now, but please remember that you are doing a LOT of work for a LOT of other people.  I hope you’re proud of yourself – you have my admiration, respect, and gratitude!  Sure, SBG is great, and we can all improve at everything, but don’t sweat it: love those kids, first, and show them the beauty all around them!

Teaching Confidence

In this 2008 Science Daily article, Dr. Nadya Fouad tells us that her research (into girls’ interest in math) has produced a startling result.

“The relationship between confidence and interest is close,” says Fouad. “If they feel they can do it, it feeds their interest.”


It’s important to focus on making topics interesting, but some students have a fundamental belief that they can’t “do math,” and convictions like that can be a roadblock to any lasting interest.  In my class, I had students who would finally, after days of practicing, be able to perform a new skill – and go right back to saying they can’t do math.  It doesn’t help when their classmates all seem to learn every skill way faster, and their teacher has a degree in math and is always showing off at the front of the room.  Not that I make a big deal out of estimating square roots with absurd speed and accuracy, or anything.  Bee tee dubs, I am world champion at square-root estimating.  And at confidence.

How can we teach confidence in our math classes?  As I see it, there are two main routes to take:

1: Make it clear that “not knowing” is not “failure.” (yet)

  1. Ask for wrong answers first.  “What’s a number that wouldn’t solve this equation?  What number is way too big to be the answer here?”
  2. Model being wrong in a healthy way.   When you make a mistake, say, “whoops, that was a mistake.”  Don’t try to hide it or make some excuse – even jokingly.  If you find it hard to make a mistake because you’re such a math whiz, you might want to ask students about things they’re expert in.  That’s a good idea anyway, and you can show yourself learning and not understanding immediately.
  3. Something like this post about Painting with Functions lets students play without anything to “know” in the first place.  There’s no way to be wrong.
  4. Be on the look out for risky behavior – a guess, an idea, anything a student offers that he or she is not sure about – and then praise that behavior.
  5. Never lock a student in to a bad grade.  If you have a student with five 0% in a given topic, adjust your grading system so that it won’t take five 100%s just to get to a high F.  Some students think your bad grade means you think they’re bad at math, and if you aren’t willing to change that opinion, they’ll give up.  (Self-promotional link: ActiveGrade can help you manage an active grading system).

2: Work in contexts in which every student is already fluent.

  1. Start with something all of the students know – throwing a ball, walking, measuring distance – and ask a question about it. I write a lot about this in my “Bringing the Problem to Reality” series.  When students understand the problem enough that they can play with its parameters and watch the outcome, they’ll feel confident experimenting.  If they’re using something they don’t know anything about – a new equation, or a new notation – and they don’t even know what they could change, they’ll feel stuck and insecure.
  2. Ask questions they already know how to answer.  It’s OK to spend time on things they already know, even if they don’t “need” to review.  You can keep it lively with a game or two.  If a student who is usually insecure says he wants to move on because, gosh Riley, he gets it already, make sure to point out his high skill level before you continue.

Teaching young people to be confident and creative is an important part of being an adult.  I hope this gives you some specific ideas about how to do it!  Leave a comment with your experiences and techniques!

Specifying Behavior with Explicit Roles

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

Uninvolved students do not learn in any particularly meaningful way, but getting students involved is hard.  Participation points?  Cold calls?

I rely on students’ desire to be involved.  When a student actually does not want to be in the classroom, or is afraid to be involved, I use different approaches than that described here.  Luckily, most students want to involve themselves, and this article is about helping them do that by defining roles for them.

Defining roles for people makes it easier for them to act because it makes a lot of decisions for them already.  Costume parties are easier to participate in when you can crystallize ideas for your outfit on a theme (80’s dance party? Wild west?  Alice in Wonderland, anyone?).  Social dances with defined steps and a “lead” and “follower” are easier to do gracefully because the lead knows he’s responsible for leading and the follower knows he’s, well, supposed to follow!  The definition of the roles takes the responsibility out of some of the participants’ actions, which lowers the risk of engaging.  And we want as many people engaging as we can get!

This year in my math class I experimented with a method I learned about from CPM, and I found it wildly successful.  The idea is to put students into teams, give each team a powerful problem or question to chew on, and to give them the framework they need to chew on it.  The roles I gave and the training I used are below.

The Facilitator

The student assigned the facilitator role is responsible for three things: reading problems or prompts aloud to the team, keeping everyone in the team involved, and keeping discussion going when it stalls out.  This means the facilitator should now allow Tim to space out or Susanne to answer every question without consulting the others.

To train facilitators, I gave my students a list of phrases they could use.  To include people, for example, they could try, “What do you think, Tim?” or, “Can you explain why you think that, Susanne?”  To drive a conversation when it seems like everyone is stuck, they could say, “What have we tried so far?” or “Is there anything we could try a little bit differently?” or “Can we work on a different part of this problem and come back later?”  We literally practiced saying these things as a class, in unison.  You’ll have to decide what method of practice is comfortable for you, but please do not think that students will jump right in to using phrases like this without practice, or that they already possess the skills to facilitate a meeting.  Only a small percentage of adults have a solid grasp on facilitation techniques.

The Resource Manager

The resource manager in a team is the team’s liaison to the outside world.  If the team needs a ruler, the resource manager gets it.  If the team needs to look something up, the resource manager goes to the computer or dictionary.  If the team needs to ask me (the teacher) a question, the resource manager is the one to ask it.  When I teach classes in team formations, I actually refuse to speak to anyone in the team except the resource manager.  The students think I’m joking at first, but I do it for the same reasons I don’t let them sit next to me in study hall.

The resource manager’s role has a subtle but important facet: before the resource manager can use a resource, each member of the group must agree that that resource is needed.  When a team wants to ask me a question, they must agree on it first, and figure out how to word it.  Often, in this process, a team answers its own question, and they all learn how to answer their own questions.  When they can’t answer it, but do come to agreement about what to ask, they all learn how to formulate a question and narrow down the specifics required to make the answer useful.  They know that I’ll make them agree on every single question before I answer it, so coming up with concise questions becomes important.  The resource manager’s role includes orchestrating these discussions.

This role also needs training, and a list of possible phrases.  “Is there a single piece of information that would help us move forward?” or, “What information do we already have?” or, “Before we ask Riley what this symbol means, what are our guesses?”

The Task Manager

The task manager’s primary role is to keep track of time, make sure that the team is spending appropriate amounts of time on different parts of the assignment, and alert the others when it seems like the whole group is moving off task.  This role overlaps with the facilitator quite a bit, but the concreteness of having specific target times is helpful to students and I’ve never felt like this role is redundant.  Especially when the facilitator is busy trying to lead a stuck group, it’s helpful to have a task manager to keep track of more administrative details.

As always, when expecting a certain behavior from students, we should show them what it looks like.  Training task managers can look like a skit, a list of useful phrases, etc.  You can emphasize the task managing you do in your class all the time – instead of saying “please take out your homework,” write a schedule for the period on the board ahead of time and say, “I see that it’s time to take out our homework.”

The Recorder / Reporter

The recorder takes notes and creates minutes, if you will.  The notes can be her own, but the minutes must be presented to the team regularly to be sure that they are fully representative of any agreements the team has come to together.  These minutes are the final permanent product of the team and can be turned in so that I (the teacher) can give in-depth feedback on a team’s mathematical understanding later.

The recorder is also the reporter, who may be asked to give impromptu oral reports of the team’s progress to the entire class.  Occasionally I ask this of a team that is understanding something fast or in more depth than the other teams, or use a quick round of reports as a closure for a class period.

The training for this role is the hardest, I think.  What if you have students that don’t have practice writing summaries?  This year I practiced with the whole class: we would have a ten-minute discussion and then summarize it on the board, making sure we noted all of the important parts and only the important parts.  Still, I was least satisfied with the work I saw from this role throughout the year.

Together, these roles give the students a powerful framework for their behavior during class.  Since every student has responsibilities to every other student, disengaging becomes less desirable and also less acceptable to the students.  In a large class with no specific roles, if Tim zones out it doesn’t really affect anyone else, and Tim doesn’t have an easy way to zone back in.  With groups and specific roles and responsibility, when Tim zones out his teammates notice immediately, and can prompt him with aspects of his role to re-engage right away.  So great!

These roles make me more comfortable with my guilty admission: I don’t care very much if the kids learn math.  I mean, I’ll teach them some math, and when they leave they’re going to see more of its beauty and be equipped to use it in society.  But which is more important, vector addition or working in a team?  Factoring or formulating questions?  Integrating or leading peers?  Obviously, obviously, the math comes second.  It’s just lucky that learning math provides so many opportunities for learning the more important things.

Virtual Conference: July 3 – July 31

The community of math teachers that read and write blogs is an amazing resource.  We share lesson plans, techniques, philosophies, exams, and project ideas.  I’ve organized a “conference” to focus more specifically on the soft skills we need to be effective teachers.  Not the killer worksheets, or the progressive grading systems, but on the skills of raising children.  This conference is a great opportunity for us to share the way we bring out the shy kids in our classes, handle teasing, build confidence, create opportunities for leadership, and acknowledge the beauty and significance of the blossoming lives for which we are responsible.  I hope you’ll join us by making your own presentation and placing yourself in the schedule below.

The conference has five scheduled “speakers,” who will each be presenting on a Saturday in July.  Here’s the lineup:

July 3: Dan Meyer

July 10: Kate Nowak

July 17: Riley Lark

July 24: Sam Shah

July 31: Shawn Cornally

[Update 6/12 1:00 PM – for clarity: the “speakers” will not be speaking, but writing posts on their blogs under the title “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills.”] 

These speakers are enthusiastic bloggers with five pretty distinct styles and focuses.  We’ll have different takes on what it means to have and use soft skills in our classrooms, we’ll share different specific techniques (successful or not) you can use, and I hope you’ll find them useful.  Pre-register now for zero dollars!

But the real opportunity here is for you to add your own presentation to this lineup.  Write your own article under the title “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills,” and I will link to it from the convention center between the links for the scheduled presenters above.  If you already have a blog and haven’t taken the time to share things like this, this is your chance to get started.  If you do not already have a blog and are interested in starting one, go ahead and start it!  If you don’t want to start a blog, but do have something interesting to share in the conference, write me an email at and I’ll post your article on this blog under your name.  Especially for new bloggers, this conference will be an excellent way to get attention for your writing so you can start getting feedback on your ideas.

Interested, but can’t think of what you might write about?  Here are some ideas.

  • A presenter could write about specific strategies for:
  • Engaging the small group of kids who didn’t buy your first shot at the lesson even though the rest of the class is atwitter
  • Encouraging questioning in class
  • Helping kids with dyslexia, dyscalculia
  • Addressing disrespect when you see it in your classroom
  • Promoting a supportive community in your classroom
  • Making it easier for students to speak up with answers and information
  • Helping kids feel like they “like math” or “are good at math”
  • Helping students manage big assignments or prepare for big tests
  • Giving students a sense of pride in their mathematical accomplishments
  • Acknowledging student contributions without sounding trite
  • Giving students feedback about their social contributions to a class
  • Dealing with a lesson when 29 students get it and are ready to move on but 1 is totally lost
  • Helping students feel ownership of the curriculum, assessment, or some other aspect of the class
  • Handling cheating or plagiarism or other lying
  • Ending teasing and hurtful sarcasm in your classroom
  • Helping kids having a bad day
  • Helping students who are currently failing your class and have given up
  • Managing senioritis
  • Demanding high standards of students without making them feel consistently substandard
  • Figuring out what’s going on with a student who’s always depressed, always tired, always nervous, etc
  • Getting some fun into your classroom
  • Helping your students bond as a group
  • Getting some exercise into your classroom
  • Teaching students how to help others constructively
  • Helping the student who is in Algebra 2 instead of prealgebra, which would be more appropriate
  • Showing kids that you care about them as individuals
  • Recovering from conflicts with students or between students
  • …and so many more skills we need to raise children.


If you have a favorite technique, a favorite lesson, a favorite class norm, a favorite mediation strategy that focuses on something that would fit into the list above, please share it in this conference!  If you would share experiences that didn’t go well, that would be helpful too.

We don’t have a lot of time to develop ourselves as teachers.  Articles with specific suggestions that are easy to deploy will be the most helpful immediately, while articles with general philosophies will be harder to incorporate in our classrooms but can help change the way we look at our roles. 

I hope you’ll contribute and follow along as the conference progresses.  Please email me if you’re thinking about presenting but aren’t sure whether you’re qualified or have anything interesting to say (a common doubt), and I can help you figure it out!

Update 6/12 @ 2 PM: This “Virtual Conference” will not necessarily have any actual speaking at it. It is a conference in that many people will write and confer about soft skills, but it will not be in real time (unless an ambitious blogger wants to arrange that in a smaller way – I will be happy to advertise for you!). Once someone has written a post about soft skills, they will be added to the schedule on the “Convention Center” page. That is what I call “presenting.”

This conference is a lot of people writing about the same subject within the same timeframe, organized in a single index.

In Which Riley Admits To and Eventually Embraces Being Sappy

Our most important job is as a role model for children.  Our students spend a huge percentage of their lives with us and our colleagues – they’re not only learning math, right?  They’re learning how to speak to people, how to treat people, how to hold others responsible and be responsible to others, manners… they are learning everything.  And yet the professional development I go to focuses only on the math, and the tests my kids take focus only on the math, and the grades I give are only on the math, and it is so easy to forget that there is so much more going on here and that it is so much more important than the math.

Other people are doing better work than me in their treatment of SBG, math curriculum, interactive, thought-provoking lessons, etc, and I’m so glad of that.  My skills in these areas have soared enormously this year from reading your great blogs (see list on the sidebar).  Thank you!

What I don’t see as much of is the explicit focus on how to help our students become better people.  Even on my blog, where every other post seems to be about how to empower students constructively, I often steer away from the topic, and you (on statistical average) don’t read as much when I do write it!  Here’s why: it’s intractable, it’s easy to be wrong, we have other stuff to do, and we’re not explicitly held accountable for our social curriculum.  But it’s the point.  Teaching our students about community and society is the whole point!

I was prodded in to seeing this imbalance in emphasis just last week, actually, when I was thinking about how to make my blog more popular (#okIadmitit).  I have to tell you that when I noticed nobody (small exaggeration) reads my homey-values posts and that everyone (big exaggeration) reads my technical posts I was disheartened.  I thought no one was interested in the really important part of school!

Then I realized all the reasons that these core values are so much harder to handle than concrete techniques.  And then! @samjshah, @jybuell, @monk51295, and @mctownsley wrote and said that they thought these are important ideas!  I am surprised by how affected I was by these tweets – a mixture of “They really do like me!” and “oh, of course people care about the really important part of school!  We’re all so bogged down that we just don’t have a lot of time to focus on it!”

After all, we all focus on community, responsibility, and respect in some way.  None of us lets students swear and insult each other, or flip their desks upside down, or paint on the walls.  We all teach kids how to be members of society automatically, by being good members of society ourselves.  When we write a good lesson plan, more often than not it is good because it empowers students and helps them interact in a good way.  I just want to focus on social skills and norms specifically. I want to improve in this dimension the same way I’ve been improving in assessment and feedback, lesson plans, and classroom management!  Do I just miss these sessions at NCTM, or is there a whole strand about “Personal Responsibility and Other Social Skills in the Classroom?”

With this new realization I feel more free to spend a large part of my writing time on the social values of teaching.  I’ve organized a page about it:  Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a huge dork and will be posting geogebra applets, and I’m still passionate about math curriculum and will be posting lesson plans.  As we move in to summer I will be writing more sparsely, and more specifically about camp (as education).  But I will no longer feel that no one wants to hear about my hippier (certainly not hipper) side.

Thanks for reading, you guys.  This blog is living up to its name for me.

PS: You know what profession has great professional development opportunities?  The camp director profession.  I run a summer camp (still accepting campers 9-13!) and so I get to go to conferences that focus on these important skills instead of the random skills like factoring that we deem vital for our future mathematicians (or whatever).  Like a quarter of the sessions are fun games you can teach to kids to build skill xyz.  You should go to an ACA conference even if you have never been to summer camp.

How to Teach Curiosity

There are ways that I have found to boost and encourage curiosity in my classroom.  Some of my techniques you can try tomorrow; others rely on a basic classroom culture that takes a long time and careful planning to build.  I’ll touch on the easy ones first.

Easy Ways to Teach Curiosity


When you see it, name it.  The label is more important than praise.  Here’s some psychology for you that I learned from an actual psychologist: people adopt the labels that they hear applied to themselves.  As a person of authority, if you say to someone, “nice question!  More evidence that you’re a curious person!” (or whatever version of this feels natural to you), he will actually start to actively think of himself as curious.  If two persons of authority give him that label he will almost certainly assimilate the label into his self image.

It was hard for me to believe in the power of this technique at first.  How could such a small thing change the basic nature of another human?  An alternative example helped me believe: what if you called a student “stupid” or “bad at math” once a week or once a month?  Such a student would start to think of himself as stupid and bad at math.  For some reason that’s easier to believe in than positive labels, but why should it be?  I’ve been intentionally using specific, positive labels for about a year (and I mean I throw them out all the time) and the results are tangible.

It’s mind control and it’s manipulative, but… whatever.  I say go for it. Please only do it if it’s true.  Uncle Ben, right?  Please do not tell a student who asked a boring question that he is curious – you’ll water down your power and give the kid delusions about himself.  And specificity reigns here: please say “this shows that you’re curious because you asked about xyz even though it’s not obviously related,” not “that question shows curiosity” and certainly not “that was a curious question!” 😉  Try not to say “great question” without saying why it was a great question.  Evidence that makes your claim believable is vital to the success of this technique, but it doesn’t have to be a lot of evidence.

Games and Secrets

Make your review into a treasure hunt that takes you around the building or the room.  Tell a story without telling the ending.  Make a show of explaining a theorem or puzzle quietly to one student or a group of students and then audibly say “don’t tell anyone else.”  This is more incitement of curiosity than teaching of curiosity, but it can complement your other techniques well.

Harder Ways to Teach Curiosity


This is also psychology: people do what they see other people doing.  If you can spare a few minutes of your lesson to be interested in a tangential question in a way that includes the students, you can show that curiosity is a norm in your class.  This is hard because not every class period offers up an interesting side-note, and even if it does, you have to be careful not to interfere with your plan so much that learning is affected too much.  Before and after class are a good time to try to be interested in what your students are up to and what they’re learning that interests them.  Even your most bored student has something that they’re learning at the moment (bike tricks, knitting, texting, a videogame).  Hopefully it’s not something totally passive.

Finding Interesting Problems

I’m sorry for even including this.  It’s really hard.  Check out Dan Meyer’s WCYDWT, Shawn Cornally’s “How I Teach Calculus: a Comedy,” Kate Nowak’s and Sam Shah’s whole blogs, etc.

Make Students Responsible for Their Own Learning

Shawn Cornally writes, “I then have them construct a grant out of their group’s best/most interest­ing question.”  Students who are responsible for choosing an idea based on how interesting it is must evaluate how interesting ideas are.  This is the beginning of curiosity.  Students who are responsible for writing about an interesting idea in an interesting way must become interested in the idea and find ways to study it.  This is full-fledged curiosity in a way that “Complete items 1-4” will never teach.  I achieve this effect in my classes by involving students in their own assessment, which is a little bit easier than involving them so deeply in the curriculum itself (but also less effective, I’m sure).  However you do it, increasing responsibility will also teach independence and curiosity.

I mean, what is curiosity besides a feeling of confident independence?

How to Teach Respect

It is the rare adult that intentionally uses strategies to explicitly show respect to others.  Our students are learning a lot of things, not just math, and respect has to be one of them.

Last week I wrote about how to teach responsibility.  The quick version: give and expect responsibility.  This week, respect.  The quick version: give and expect respect!

In both cases, it’s harder than it seems, which is my best excuse for writing pages and pages about it.  This post will focus on tangible ways to increase the level of respect in your classroom right now.  I write as a teacher of high school students at a private boarding school and as a director of a summer camp with 25 staff and 150 campers – two places where respect is vital to my mission.  I do not work at a school with a single student who would cuss me out in the middle of class, though I have been called some names and broken up a (singular) fight in the last five years.

Easy Ways to Give Respect

  • Please say “please” when you ask someone to do something, and thank them after they do it. I direct a summer camp and this is almost a mantra I try to repeat with the counselors.  We make little kids do say “please,” right?  As adults, we sort of forget to do it, or understand that we’re all comrades and forgo the explicit “please” to… save time?  Anyway, saying “please” and “thank you” is probably the easiest way to show your respect for someone.  “Take your homework out” becomes “Please take your homework out,” an expectant pause while they do it, and then “Thank you.”
  • Say “Thank you” when you’re thankful for something.  For extra power, name explicitly that for which you’re thankful.  “Thanks for being prompt, everyone” or “thanks for getting so into this material, guys, it makes my job really fun!”  This has the top-secret side-effect of making it easier to give negative feedback when you need to do that.
  • Let them know how you’re feeling. You have to trust them before you can do this one, but once you do, it really shows them that, uh, you trust them.  “When you guys get into discussing a concept so thoroughly it makes my job fun because the concepts are my favorite part!”  If they understand that you have favorite parts, bad days, pet peeves, and personal triumphs (“I’m really proud of this lesson plan”), they will all but have to respect you.  You trust them and you are a person and you are telling them all the ways you are trying to help them.  How could anyone resist?

Already, with this easy stuff, you are implicitly creating and reinforcing a culture of respect.  There’s deeper respect than adding a few words to your diction, though.

Hard Ways to Give Respect

  • Make the schedule of your class clear, and stick to it. If you say you’ll hand back graded work the next day, please actually do it.  If you say there will be a test every Friday, please be ready to give one every Friday, and if you say your office hours will be at 7:30 on Thursdays, don’t change that at the last minute.  If you do need to change the schedule, please show respect in that as well, by announcing the change as soon as possible ahead of time.  If you change things up all the time, take variable amounts of time to grade work, and are inconsistent with your schedule, please do not expect the students to have their work done when you want it to be, or for them to even show up to class on time!
  • Find ways to make students part of their own assessment. If you can trust a student to be his own judge (in any part), he will see that you respect him and his time.  You’re saying, “hey, I’m getting paid, and you’re required to be here by law.  I think you should have some say in what goes on here.”  If you can find a way to let students guide the class as a whole, that’s even better.  “You’ll go to jail if you leave (or whatever happens), but while you’re here, I want to do my best to make this interesting and enriching from your point of view.”
  • Tell students what you’re trying to do with the class. Just tell them everything.  This was hard for me in some sort of ego way I can’t describe.
    • Apologize when you waste a student’s time. The obvious corollary is Try Not To Waste Students’ Time, but you’ll fail in that for at least some kids (sorry, I’m a pessimist I guess).  When you do give a stupid assignment or are unprepared for a lesson plan (not that I’ve ever been unprepared!) just apologize for it.
    • State the objectives of your lesson. It’s OK if they know your plan.  Bill Ferriter, a NC county teacher of the year, explains why the pedagogy is good.  But it also just shows your students that you want them involved in the process.  You think they’re smart enough to be in the know.
    • State everything else. “I was hoping you would do xyz.”  “I never thought of that!”  “It’s frustrating to me that you won’t focus on this.”  “Today we’re going to try something that I’m a little worried about” (and then all the reasons you think it’ll be great, of course).

These harder things to do are hard for me because I can’t remember to do them all the time.  Some of them are a lot of work and some of them just don’t occur to me naturally.  Why do the students need to know what’s going to happen – they’re about to find out!  But intentionally striving to express your respect is worth some extra work to me, and, I’m not kidding you guys, I’ve seen these methods improve my classroom and camp culture dramatically.  Please try these out!

Explicitly Appreciate Respect You Receive

All the same reasons, and all the same benefits.  “I appreciate you letting me know that you’ll have to miss a class next week,” “thanks for getting back to me about this,” “thanks for waiting so patiently while I answered Sarah’s question,” “it was so nice of you to think of this!”

Don’t Accept Disrespect

Frankly, I have much less experience with this than some other teachers at my school.  I don’t know if my methods of fostering respect are just SO GOOD, or that I mostly teach older students, or what, but I don’t get a lot of disrespect directly.  More often one student will disrespect another in some way.  Whether I get it or a student gets it, I address it directly and immediately by saying briefly something like “that was disrespectful, and disrespect has no place in our school.”  I’m serious when I say this.  I’ve got a controlled anger in my voice even for such a small infraction as “shut up” (“shut up” usually gets said exactly once per year in each of my courses).  I ask the students involved to (please) find a respectful way to express whatever they want to communicate.

This is a high priority for me and I will stop a lesson to talk about respect even when we’re a week behind my original schedule (“sorry class, we have to change the schedule because I made unrealistic estimates/you guys aren’t in to it/you guys are so into it”).

I hope you’ll give some of this a try.  I bet all of you think of your students with respect, and I’m sure almost all of you treat your students with respect.  It is the rare adult, though, that intentionally uses strategies to explicitly show respect to others.  Our students are learning a lot of things, not just math, and respect has to be one of them.  Please audit your own communication methods and see if there are any ways you can build more respect into them!

How To Teach Responsibility

Graceachen recently wrote a post that got me thinking about ways to teach the “stuff” that is hard to assess accurately and even harder to teach explicitly.  For example, I would like to teach all of my students:

  • Responsibility
  • Respect
  • Curiosity
  • Investigative skills
  • Teamwork skills
  • To be comfortable with a lack of knowledge and with mistakes

But I’m not going to make a standard for each of these things and assign grades, and no section of any one of my lesson plans will start, “here’s one way you can be curious1.”  However, I do teach these things intentionally and I do assess them.  In this post, I write about how to teach responsibility, and about some traps that seem important to avoid.  There are two types of responsibility: the fulfill-your-obligations kind and the take-ownership-of-your-destiny kind.  I’m talking about both.

Find Ways to Give Ownership, and Communicate Them

Give students the answers to their homework

Matt Townsley and grace said that they use homework to teach responsibility.  I do this too and so do many other teachers.  The three of us make sure that students have answer resources available before assignments are due so that they can more easily feel responsible for the quality of their work.  Without answers, if a student does his work incorrectly, the excuse is easy: “I didn’t know how,” or “I guess there’s a mistake.”  With solutions, a student is denied these reasons for poor work.

Tell students, “the solutions to these problems are available to you so that you can make sure you understand; please make sure you understand.”  This communicates that it is their responsibility, that you think they can do it, and that you trust them to do it.

Refer to student work and expertise during class

Please have students create projects that explain or summarize the concepts you’re studying.  When you’re lecturing, or when a student has a question, refer to those projects.  Whomever made that project will be directly responsible for the knowledge being disseminated.  You might also make different groups of students “expert groups” in different areas, and ask those groups specific questions (but please do give them the tools to actually become experts before putting them on the spot).

Again, it’s not always easy to think of telling the students that you’re doing this, but saying “these posters will be used as reference for the rest of the year” will let the kids know that you expect them to make production-quality work.  Actually using them will show them that you expect them to make production-quality work.  “These posters are going live, kids.”  They won’t mess it up after you’ve articulated (and demonstrated) such high expectations of them.

Use Standards-Based Grading (if you must grade)

Or at least, some grading system as clear.  Please don’t use a grading system that obscures the reasons for your students’ grades (like averaging), because then the focus will shift from the responsibility of the knowledge to the responsibility of the grade.  I think grades should be as invisible as possible.  SBG is the best grading system I’ve seen because it gives the clearest idea about what a student needs to learn to improve his status.

You can only hold a student responsible for his grade after convincing him he can control it, and showing him how the controls work.  If, at any point, he loses that control, you won’t be able to expect anything more out of him.

Model responsibility (visibly)

Let your students see something you’re working on.  Let them in on your process for their class!  Show them all the ways you practice, prepare, and follow up.  Some of my students read my blog (hey guys!) and they see me in their other classes, observing other teachers.  Unique to Scattergood, perhaps: they see me attending required community events, keeping my apartment clean, helping with dinner cleanup when it’s my turn.

Don’t take responsibility away

Don’t grade homework

You shouldn’t grade homework because doing so transfers responsibility in a bad way.  When students have to do homework for their own sake, they are being responsible for their own knowledge and edification.  When you give them a grade, they will change – they will think themselves responsible only for that grade.  Please also tell your students why you are not grading homework – the effect doubles when they know what you’re trying to do.

There are many arguments for grading homework, but I haven’t heard one yet that’s convinced me.  Let’s debate in the comments if you’ve heard one that’s convinced you.

Avoid assigning unnecessary work

No one will feel much passion for work that they consider pointless.  If you really think that Johnny needs to do 30 factoring problems (lots of good arguments for assignments like these), then please explain to Johnny why you think so.  It may take something more convincing than mere explanation.

If a student thinks your whole class is unnecessary work, you have a more fundamental problem on your hands, and you might consider starting there.

Of all of my suggestions, which are all hard to do, I think this is the hardest.  If you’ve got a bunch of kids at different levels, 140 hours, and 140 skills to teach, you may have to give assignments that are not individually tailored to each student’s level – but you can at least tell them that!

Don’t answer questions that your students have the tools to answer

In my experience, I am my students’ favorite resource.  They will ask me a question before they use any other resource, including their notes, their books, or even their own understanding.  If you think that a student should be expected to be able to answer a certain kind of question, expect it of her!  Please do not waste your own effort by completing parts of your student’s lesson for her!  Don’t be too helpful!

None of these are explicit ways of teaching responsibility.  You make them explicit by talking about them, but the real lesson lies in their practice.  The real lesson happens when a student didn’t do some homework and can connect that with the fact that he’s feeling left out in class, or when he doesn’t understand something he’s expected to.  The real lesson happens when his classmates are looking at the crappy poster he made and complaining to him about how inaccurate or incomplete it is, or, better, when his classmates are looking at the awesome poster he made and complimenting him or incorporating it in their own work.  I guess that for my suggestions to work, your classroom culture needs to be set up in a way that allows these feelings to happen, and you need to be on the lookout for them, ready to emphasize them and focus them.

Assessing responsibility is more vague in my mind than teaching it.  I mean, ultimately, if a student passes a class, she’s responsible for that, and if she doesn’t, she’s responsible for that too.  If you get the opportunity to give written feedback to your students, or to have one-on-one meetings with them, make sure to emphasize what you saw working and not working towards the goal of passing.  Any other ideas out there?

This is a fascinating topic to me as a teacher and as a member of society contemplating parenthood.  Expect more, focusing on my other bullet points!

  1. though as I write, I’m pretty sure I’ve said this  during a lesson