The Conversations We Have

Year: 2

My favorite part of teaching are the conversations.

Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the minute-by-minute monitoring of “are we going to complete this handout?” or “are we going to stay on schedule?” that I forget the conversations I have with my students are the best part of my job. So far, this week has been a reminder that I should be having more conversations.

Yesterday, I taught the essential question for Quarter 2. Every quarter, the classes follow an essential question – one big, open-ended question – that should be, hopefully, answered by the end of the quarter. This time, we’re asking the following: why is culture important? So much of my lessons yesterday were soaked up by conversations of students sharing about their cultures, asking questions about cultures with which they’re unfamiliar, wanting to know more about different holidays or traditions. It allowed for funny stories, students opening up about their personal lives, and a level of interest that carried me through each lesson.

Today, the tone was very different, even if the interest felt the same. I introduced the Holocaust and a brief understanding of World War II, so that tomorrow, when we begin reading the new class text, students will be prepared to read. This is a difficult lesson not only because of the content, but because, for many middle school students, this is the very first time they’re learning about the war or the genocide. I asked students at the start of every class to raise their hands if they’ve heard of the word ‘holocaust,’ and only about five or so raised a hand every class. It took a lot of emotional energy to be the first person to tell them what a concentration camp functioned as, or what the term Nazi truly means. Yet – despite that – at the end of every single class, a few students would hang around my desk, risking the possibility of a tardy to their next class, to ask me a few more questions about that time period.

The conversations I have with my students, especially ones like today’s and yesterday’s, are so impactful because they’re conversations about issues that matter. These conversations encourage real reflection and curiosity on the part of my students, and that is a sign that my students are growing into critically thinking young adults. Aside from the fact that it is so damn important to be a critically thinking adult, it just so impresses and inspires me to see kids like this so interested in difficult topics that matter in society. It reminds me of a something John Green said, after someone criticized his work for being too mature: “I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful.” Conversations like these in the classroom offer a safe opportunity for kids to explore difficult, complex, new ideas and issues in a way that encourages them to be more thoughtful of the world around them.

It’s No Hogwarts, But…

It’s little secret that I am a giant Harry Potter nerd. I grew up with the series, and in many ways consider it to be one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of the last thirty years. As a teacher, I’ve brought in a lot of my magical obsession into the classroom. There are so many different ways to incorporate this series into the classroom, but for my fellow magical teachers, here are just a few!

The House Competition:

This is one of my favorite aspects of the classroom culture I’ve built so far. I’ve named all of my classes after Hogwarts Houses; conveniently, I only have four classes, but this could be adapted easily to another classroom by sorting classes into Houses by grade level or different subject (ex. combining two classes because they’re both 10th grade). Each class competes for the House Cup every quarter, and at the end of each quarterly competition, I throw the winning class a party. I have only a few ways that each class can earn points: classes can win daily points based on good behavior, and weekly points based on who has the cleanest classroom, fewest tardies, and highest percentage of assignments turned in. Practical benefits: This allows a positive incentive for students to focus and behave in daily lessons, as well as something positive to anticipate at the end of each quarter. There’s no limit to how many times a class can win, which allows for that anticipation to continue each quarter for classes who have already won.

Wizard and Witch of the Week:

A lot of teachers have Student of the Week or Student of the Month, and this is simply a magical take on things. Every Friday, I choose two students from all of my classes, and I pick a specific reason why that student was chosen. Most of the time, those reasons are small (coming to study hall, arriving on time every day, going out of their way to ask me about assignments, etc.) because I like reminding students how little things matter in the grand scheme of becoming successful at whatever you’re doing. The entire class cheers when I call their name, and I tell them in front of the class why I felt so impressed with them that week. For the entire week following, until the next two students I choose, their names hang in frames labeled “Wizard of the Week” or “Witch of the Week.” Next to the current wizards and witches, I have a giant frame with the names of all previous wizards and witches that will stay up all year. Practical benefits: This allows for a regular, and relatively simple, way for me to reward students who are doing well. Social recognition may be a really great motivator for some kids, or really important validation for others who don’t necessarily recognize their own hard work.

The Daily Prophet

This is my student work board. I have a homemade frame (black construction paper with real newspaper underneath) for each piece of student work. Oftentimes, I highlight specific paragraphs that my students wrote, but sometimes I throw in a list of creative titles from five or six students on one board. I’ll keep those up until we turn in our next major writing assignment. Practical benefits: This is another, more prolonged, form of social recognition for students. For so much of my time in class, it feels like I focus most heavily on constructive criticism so that my students improve their writing and reading skills, so this is a fun way for me to just appreciate students’ for where they are.

 

Friday Fun Reads

I love bell-work. I’m not being sarcastic. I do love bell-work. Giving students a quick, easy, low-pressure activity to focus them helps lessen my stress as a teacher quite a bit; I do also really, genuinely think it helps kids settle into the lesson and mentally shift from one idea to the other.

“Bell to bell” work, though, is different. This is a new term floating (correction: flying) around the education world right now. The idea is basically that, from the time the bell rings to start class until the time the bell rings to end class, students should be consistently working on subject-related content. I think the general idea is good: keep students engaged, keep them focused on your content, have meaningful lessons that continue for the length of the class.

That being said, screw “bell to bell” teaching in the last 20 minutes of every Friday class, because I’m going to keep reading to my kids for fun.

I started this at the beginning of this school year for the first time. I wanted to encourage my students to see reading as a form of entertainment, relaxation, comfort – I wanted them to see reading as a form of a reward, not just something they had to do. I figured that I’d offer them a choice: they could vote for me to read to them, or they could read their own library books. (Every two weeks, we go to the library, and they check out a book of their own choosing and are required to keep it with them in all classes.) Every Friday, I’d let them vote.

In an overwhelming vote, one truly surprising to me, they have voted for me to read to them. Every single Friday.

This surprised me for a few reasons. The first is that, this year, I have quite a few students who enjoy reading, and I expected them to want to read their own books. The second – the main reason – is that middle school students care about what others think of them, and I expected them to pretend it was too cool to want their teacher to read to them. I thought, regardless of how they really felt, that they would choose to read their own books, just to not have their teacher talking for a precious fifteen or twenty minutes of class.

I learned, again, the same lesson that I have learned with every new experience in teaching: they’re just kids. They want to be kids and they want to remain kids. Regardless of how they act, or what they say, or what they pretend to feel in front of their friends, there’s going to remain that kid-part of them that really enjoys someone reading out loud.

It’s not part of the curriculum. It doesn’t align to the standards. It doesn’t fit with “bell to bell” lessons. But it’s been enormously helpful in my attempt to build a classroom atmosphere that is comfortable and safe, and it’s done wonders in helping students feel comfortable with me. So I’ll keep reading.

Being the Better Person

Think about the best teachers you’ve known. Maybe they were your teachers when you were in school, maybe you have known them since becoming an adult. My guess is the person you pictured acts like a human Buddha: fairly laid-back (in personality, not teaching style), rarely offended by any comment or situation, friendly, and above all else, compassionate.

Now, that person may have had the foundations for that personality, but I’m pretty convinced teaching played a role in making them the person you know. Throughout my first year of teaching, I became very aware of something incredibly important, something that I’d heard few people discuss. Being a teacher is basically a practice in being the better person.

Kid throws a poster board at you? Be the better person. Kid calls you ugly to your face, or says you walk like a penguin? Be the better person. Kid walks out of your room screaming – in late March – that he’s going to get his schedule changed so he doesn’t ever have to see your stupid face again? Be the better person.

If I have to guess, very conservatively, I’d say there’s one time every day or two when I really have to work at being the better person. Kids are tough to be around sometimes; humans are tough to be around sometimes. They say mean things, and you’re supposed to care about them anyway. They insult you, or disrespect you, or defy you, and you’re supposed to do your best to teach them anyway. You always, without exception, need to be the better person.

There have been times that I definitely was not the better person. I am a human, like all other teachers, and I have definitely lost my cool. One very painful example is from last year, with one of my boys. This kid was very difficult to teach: he’d suffered extreme abuse before entering into the school year, probably had undiagnosed PTSD, and was bouncing from home to home until summer break. These traumas outside of the classroom led to terrible behavior in the classroom.

At one point in the year, he told me that he wanted to be my student aide when he moved to eighth grade. I jumped on that idea; taking him to the front office after class, I asked for an impromptu meeting with the assistant principal and the guidance counselor, pitched the idea, and basically spent a half hour rooting for him. We set up a goal: he change negative behavior and start trying more in class, and we’ll let him be a student aide, even if it was past the deadline.

He was horrible in class the next day. I mean, really, really horrible. He refused to do work, talked over me while I spoke to the entire class, talked to and bothered all students around him, threw pencils, the works. I held him back after class. As soon as the last student left my room, I turned to him, bitterly angry, and said, “Everything you just did in the last 75 minutes was bullshit.” 

Yeah, I swore at a kid. I then proceeded to yell at him, guilt him, and let him know how disappointed I was for 5-10 minutes before letting him leave. He sat on a chair near my desk, throughout all of this, quietly staring at his feet.

Now, some people might say he needed some tough love. (They are probably not teachers.) I say that could have been taken down at least five notches and the time cut in half. What my student really needed to hear was this: I’m disappointed with how you acted, especially after we just set up this great goal to work towards, and we’re going to continue working towards that goal even though I’m disappointed because I believe in you. I doubt that was the message sent. When I think about that interaction, a painful truth floats to the surface every time. I was bested by a twelve-year-old. I let my emotions run wild because a preteen, who was dealing with extreme trauma and dangerous levels of stress, behaved poorly in my class. I – I, personally, – felt hurt that he didn’t behave well after I vouched for him. Despite the fact that he was hurting deeply and would not be magically healed from one 30-minute conversation with an assistant principal, counselor, and teacher.

I should have been the better person. It’s not the only time I should have been the better person, but it is definitely the most painful memory like that. Learning to be even a decent teacher means learning from moments like that. It means that you need to learn to not take anything personally, to be patient and compassionate before angry and insulted. It is a terribly difficult skill to learn, and it is one you are expected to have immediately. But if you do learn that skill – one that you practice nearly every day in this profession – I think you just might become that better person.

The Positive Focus

It’s really easy, probably too easy, to focus on the frustrating parts of teaching. During my first year teaching, I struggled with realistic and fair consequences for students who were behaving poorly in class; far more, though, I really struggled with rewarding kids who were doing well. When I tried looking for ways to reward kids, my search basically ended with stickers or pizza. I am not a sticker person. I cannot afford pizza all the time for kids. (Hello, teacher in Arizona…) So, through a series of painful mistakes and changes and tinkering last year, I came up with a few consistent rewards for my kids.

I don’t feel like I particularly need to point this out, but I am a big nerd. I particularly nerd out with Harry Potter (don’t ask me why because I will talk about it for hours), so I’ve organized my classes Harry Potter-style. But for the teachers who, for a reason unbeknownst to me, don’t want to shove Harry Potter on as many people as possible, all of these rewards can be renamed and slightly changed.

Quarterly Reward: House Cup Competition. All of my classes are named after Hogwarts Houses. All of my classes compete to win a class party (the House Cup) at the end of each quarter; to keep classes motivated, I allow previous winners to win again. There are daily points and weekly points that can be given. A class can win +10 daily points for good behavior, focus in class, participation in class, and following teacher expectations. These are the weekly points: +20 for the highest percent of homework turned compared to other classes, +15 for the cleanest classroom throughout the week, and +20 for the fewest tardies throughout the week. Only one class can win one category of the weekly points for the week. By doing this, I’m attempting to motivate students who respond to daily awards, students who respond to weekly awards, super competitive students, and the classes who don’t do so well with daily behavior but can be brought up by weekly points (to keep motivated for the entire quarter). If you want to change from Harry Potter: just keep the class periods as the names. Or give them team names if you want to be more creative.

Individual Weekly Reward: Wizard and Witch of the Week. Some of my students are more motivated to do better if they get social recognition for doing well in class. I personally also like more frequent rewards because, let’s be honest, sometimes the end of the quarter feels five light years away. Out of all of my classes, I choose two students (I deliberately choose two from different classes) who did an awesome job that week. Some of the reasons are big – you turned in an excellent essay after coming to both study halls to make sure you did an excellent job – and some of them are smaller, like getting to class on time every day. Then, on Friday, I announce that week’s wizard and witch, cheer with the class and explain why they won that week, and call home to brag about them to their family. This gives social recognition in the classroom and an excuse to call home for a good reason. Since it’s the start of the school year, I’m also getting an opportunity to pinpoint my students who may possibly be challenging later in the school year as well-behaved now, so that there’s a chance I can wrangle them onto my side earlier on. If you want to change from Harry Potter: just say student of the week! You could even do it on a class-by-class basis if you really want to focus in on certain classes every week and get to more students.

Class Weekly Reward: Free Reading Friday. This is not Harry Potter (not without trying), but it’s still a reward that may be really useful for other teachers. Last year, I was stuck on the idea that I had to give something to a student for it to be a reward, and only recently realized that I could take something away and still have it be a reward. Every week, if my students show good behavior in class, I will end Friday’s class about 15 minutes early. They’ll have a choice: either I will read to them for 15 minutes, and they can sit on the floor and hang out while I read, or we’ll go outside as a class and read independently for those 15 minutes. They’ll have that vote every week. They still have to work towards that reward, and it has to be reading, but they’ll have that opportunity to reach that every week. If you don’t want reading to be the reward and/or are not an English teacher: you can have a weekly game or activity related to your subject. Ex. if you’re an art teacher, have free drawing or painting time at the end of class, or if you’re a math teacher, have a class puzzle to work through for fun. It’s also an opportunity to show your kids that your subject isn’t something they just have to do, but something that can be fun as well.

General Rewards Tips For Your Classroom:

  • Mix it up: some rewards that will work for some students won’t work for others. Have a physical reward (sticker, pizza, pencils, etc.) and a social reward (time to talk at the end of class, reading time).
  • Vary time length. Some kids can definitely see the goal of a quarterly reward, but there are some kids that live in the moment (literally, minute by minute) and need daily rewards. Having a variety increases your chances of getting to every student.
  • Don’t overdo it. At the end of the day, your expectations in class still need to be followed. You shouldn’t have to bribe kids to do every single activity. But, rewards should be there – after all, you’re expecting a lot from students and it’s hard work. Find the balance.