Engaged Students

Many Are Called, But Few are Chosen

I vividly remember a class I took several years ago. We constantly did group presentations. Those evenings of sitting there, while group after group talked to the class are permanently drilled into my brain. I can’t recall a single important piece of information, but I remember looking at my watch, eagerly waiting for the time to pass so I could escape from the excruciating pain of boredom. And yet, the time would not pass like it normally does; each second seemed to drag its heels to make the class seem to last far longer than it actually did.

Some time later, it dawned on me that this was exactly what I was doing to my students. In the quest to get students engaged, have them do group work, and to present to others, I was merely having a litany of group presentations. One group after another would go up and present, while the rest of the class would suffer “sit and get,” but from fellow students instead of a teacher.

I then struggled with what to do. If I were to tell the class who was presenting next, then many students would not be engaged during work time. If students completed presentations on their own and then submitted them to me, then they wouldn’t get practice with speaking in front of the class. I also didn’t want to assign worksheets or increase my lecture time. I was at a loss of how to solve this problem.

Eventually, I discovered a solution using Classcraft, my gamification platform.

Rather than have every group go before the class to present, I now use the “Wheel of Destiny” feature of Classcraft to randomly select a student or a group. That student or group will then go up to present or to complete and exercise (for which class time has already been given). If the presentation is good, Experience Points (XP) is awarded. If not, Health Points (HP) is taken away. Because often times these min-presentations are part of classwork and formative assessment, I do not need to formally grade them, and the points suffice. I will only select one to three groups (and require them to be short) to keep the flow of class moving.

As a result, the work time becomes an intense preparation for points, and the performance is a chance to earn points. Because the “Wheel of Destiny” does not repeat student names, every student will be called forth at some point (likely several times throughout the year). Students get the benefit of doing presentations or sharing work publically without having to sit through presentation after presentation.

And they never know where the Wheel of Destiny will land next…


Keep it Moving!

I once remember reading in an educational psychology book fifteen years ago about the value of limiting students’ time on activities.

That is, it is important not to give kids too much time to work. Too much time can encourage them to waste the time (as economists call it, we consume the time given to us) rather than use it for getting work done. Students will often procrastinate if given too much time. Therefore, it is better to give students a short amount of time to get tasks done.

Unfortunately, I forgot about these ideas for many years until they gratefully resurfaced when I read about the value of timers from Rick Morris’ ideas of classroom management and how he uses timers to keep kids on track. I also received many brilliant insights from the great guru Jon Corippo, including the need to limit time for students to give them pressure and incentive to work quickly.

This year, I have made an effort to do this with just about every activity, and it makes a huge difference in the classroom environment. Kids do not have the opportunity to slack off because they are under the pressure to work efficiently. It gives the class a feel of a faster pace, which also aids engagement and excitement. It is easy to display computer-based timers, such as the Online Countdown Timer and 1-Click Timer.

What if it is genuinely not enough time for some students to complete work? I always give them a chance to submit or resubmit incomplete work on Google Classroom by the beginning of the next day.

You want a livelier classroom? Keep it movin’, folks.

The Three Pillars of Education

As the role of education is shifting in order to better prepare students for the 21st century, it is crucial that every now and then we stop and reflect on what is our philosophy of education. Within schoolrooms and think tanks, people everywhere are proposing ideas wildly divergent and have ideas that little resemble one another. Some want our schools to churn out excellent test-takers, while others seem to want our students to explore and create all day. Some want a return to a solid academic foundation of yesteryear, while the focus on “STEAM” and makerspaces is becoming vogue. The options are quickly becoming overwhelming.

So what is the role of American schools today?

I would like to propose a philosophy in the image of a three-legged stool.

On the first leg stands student learning. Though this might seem obvious, I think that it is essential that we remember this in the shuffle to change and improve schools. We need to find ways to track whether our students are learning and how much they are learning. This needs to be in both content and skills, as students need to be prepared to enter school at the next level (If we teach middle school, they need to be prepared for high school. If we teach high school, they need to be prepared for college.) Although we shouldn’t overemphasize preparation for future school, we shouldn’t simply leave students unprepared for the next level.

The second leg includes all the skills needed for the 21st century, most commonly referred to as the four C’s (creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking). We cannot simply prepare test takers and analyzers; what good is it if students can analyze, but can’t imagine what the next great product will be? What if we help students analyze the last political election, but they can’t help a candidate win the next election? Almost all endeavors in life require some level of thinking of something unique and new. Most work will also be done in groups or teams; adults do not simply work alone and pump out worksheets.

The third leg sometimes gets forgotten in the shuffle, but it is critical nonetheless. Students need to learn the virtues of hard work and responsibility. Although it is tempting to simply give students high marks for learning material or creating high-quality projects, hard work and effort are essential for the 21st century workforce (and every workforce that has ever existed in human history). This is where students need to face penalties for late work (which can be docked points instead of being merely given zeroes). In the end, if our students do not work hard at their jobs, they will soon find themselves unemployed. Part of working is actually doing one’s job.

Although these ideas might sound simple, most schools and teachers tend to overemphasize one at the detriment of the other two. Many traditional teachers tend to push students to take responsibility for work without reflecting on the value of the worksheets being assigned or whether or not the tests and quizzes are leading to actual learning (let alone giving students a chance to be creative). Others might measure student learning and analyze data, but seem to lack a focus on placing responsibility on students. Those who advocate creativity and makerspaces are doing great things and are pushing students to be lifelong creators, which is certainly a good thing, but it is important to remember that students shouldn’t just be creating all day–they do need to learn essential life and content-related skills.

It is ultimately the balance of these three legs that will best improve our schools and better prepare our students for the future.

The Power of Student Choice

When we do technological innovation with our students, it is important the we keep the proper objectives in our minds. We want students to learn the content, innovate, collaborate, and think critically. These are absolutes.

That being said, the way they go about it does not matter so much. Does it matter how they do it? Do they all have to create something in the exact same way?

Recently, I had two projects in my classes, one for Frederick Douglass in my ELA class, and the other for the development of the North and South prior to the Civil War. I had been struggling to motivate and excite my students about ThingLink, but with these projects I opted instead to give students the option of using it. In other words, I let them choose the format for creating the project. They could create a ThingLink, an iMovie documentary, a blog post, a tri-fold poster, a Minecraft village, or any other ideas they they had.

The results far exceeded anything I could conceivably create. One pair of students created a professional-quality documentary, while another used a statistical map of the U.S. as the backdrop for a ThingLink. Others created blog posts protesting slavery by using Douglass’ life as evidence of its evils.

To be sure, I doubt that I could motivate every student to create a ThingLink or a village in Minecraft. Some were excited to write blog posts, but many opted out of that. The standards do not require students to master ThingLink or iMovie or Aurasma or Minecraft. Even the ISTE standards promote creativity and collaboration, but not specific apps or products.

In other words, when we learn about a fancy new tool at a conference, not every student will enjoy it, and that’s okay. It is one tool at our disposal, one way to motivate students.

The Slide

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is about “The Slide.” When students return from Spring Break, they sometimes suffer from the week off and require some work to get back on track. The momentum of learning can be interrupted by this week off.

Or so they say.

I personally have never really witnessed this. Sure, the kids come back a little sluggish on Monday morning (as does yours truly), but by Wednesday, it’s like we never had break at all.

I do see a slide, however, and it is greater than a one-week interruption. And THAT is the 8th-grade-itis slide. You see, I teach in a small (280 students for grades K-8) Catholic school, and many of my students have been together for nine years. Those kind of restraints would be challenging in the best of schools, and it is compounded by the fact that many of them will soon be attending some of the best and most exciting private high  schools in the nation. Their sights are set not on this world, but the one hereafter. Starting in January, the reality of saying goodbye sets in for all of them. This leads to a greater sense of “checking out,” as they care less and less about what happens here.

This puts me in the position of great challenge. I must do everything possible to grab hold of and keep their attention. I must constantly innovate, as what worked for the Class of 2014 probably won’t work for the Class of 2015. I must–at times–leverage the power of technology to allow for student creativity, while at other times, I must share personal anecdotes to maintain strong teacher-student relationships. I must reach out to some students while I hold the line with others.

Perhaps most importantly, I must carefully navigate these challenges in a healthy manner. I cannot give in to making excuses, but I also cannot blame myself for everything in the classroom. This challenge gives me the greatest stress but also the greatest sense of purpose and accomplishment. 

Ultimately, this challenge is what continues to push me to become a better teacher. 

I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Student Voice

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is student voice.

It is a fitting topic, because this has been my first year intentionally giving my students a voice in what we do. Although I do not do it every day, I make a point of periodically checking in with students to see how they feel about their learning and what activities help them learn the best. These have been surprising; sometimes activities that I tink have been duds have been very beneficial for them. I have also found that students often want to make room for whole-class instruction and discussion in addition to individual and group work. They also tell me that outline and Cornell notes help them master material. This feedback has played a crucial role in the direction our class takes for the rest of a given unit or for the course of a year.

I do hope to further empower students for the rest of this year and next year. I can do more by inviting them to help me design lesson plans, units, and rubrics. I also wish to empower them more in their writing and involve them with the assignment creation process. Empowering students is not quite so simple as handing over the reins; it is a guided process that can take weeks or months.

Nevertheless, it is something that I–and all teachers–must strive to do.

Relevancy is the Key

This week’s #YourEduStory challenge is to describe how we excite passion and curiosity in our students.

From my thirteen years of educational experience, I have found one way that works better than the others.

And that is relevancy.

I have found that if I present topics with enthusiasm or excitement, I get students somewhat interested. If I give them choice, they get somewhat excited. However, if I connect historical topics to current events, especially any that relate to technology businesses, they are completely engaged. I believe that part of this is the fact that they live in the Silicon Valley, and part of it is that technology is their life. They love hearing analogies that compare Steve Jobs to Samuel Slater and the first textile mills. They love to compare declining powers to Microsoft. I have also found that comparing older politics to contemporary politics engages them as well–they love to learn that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were involved in scandals long before Benghazi or emailgate. There is nothing so exciting like learning that historical figures were not saints.

We must give students autonomy and purposeful goals in their learning. These are worthy strategies and are essential for engagement. But without relevancy, why learn?

Adaptability is the Key

The #YourEduStory challenge for Week 9 is to design the ideal learning space.

I know what many contemporary educators want: tables for student collaboration. Others want a mix of large tables with a few desks for individual work.

I, however, approach this scenario with one key consideration: I have students work in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes, students work in groups. At others, with partners. I also have students work individually.

What is my solution to this? A crazy, new, cutting-edge idea.


Desks? Why desks?

I like desks because it allows me to configure and reconfigure at will. I can move them to the outer edges when we do Socratic Circles. I can put them with partners when I want groups of two working on Venn Diagrams. I can also put them in groups of four when it is time for Literature Circles. If some groups choose to sit in a pair of partners for a time, they may.

In other words, my classroom space is almost a living, breathing thing because it is constantly adapting to student needs. I therefore need the ability to adapt and change (in some cases, several times per day).

Sometimes, it’s not the materials we have, but how we use it.

What is my Why and my Defining Moment?

The great Simon Sinek writes that we must know why we do what we do. It is what will inspire others to follow.

To know my Why, it is important to know about my favorite teacher, Jim Haas. When I was in high school, he taught with incredible amounts of passion. To him, every lesson from World and U.S. History was important, and he inspired countless students to learn history and to see its value.

For years, I had sought to pursue a career that would emanate from my passion and purpose, something where I, too, could be great. I considered being a professor, a businessman, and an architect. During my senior year of college, I was completely lost. I tried really hard to want to go into business to make money, but I always felt hollow on the inside. I decided to do a year of service with the Lasallian Volunteers, which is somewhat similar to the Peace Corps, but it usually involves working in a school serving students in poverty and living with Christian Brothers (who are like Catholic priests). One night, I was reading a book in a cafe on Wickenden Street in Providence, Rhode Island, and it suddenly dawned on me that I wanted to be a high school history teacher. I wanted to be a teacher like Mr. Haas who inspired young men and women to see purpose and relevance in history and to formulate their own ideas and opinions about history.

Since that evening over twelve years ago, I have grown and changed somewhat. I have learned that I cannot be Jim Haas, as I have been given an introverted personality in life. Nevertheless, I still strive on a daily basis to build critical thinking skills and to generate excitement to what we are learning. I have learned to speak briefly to students so that I can speak with genuine passion and enthusiasm. More importantly, I use technology as means for students to follow their own passions and interests and to find their own enthusiasm. To me, learning is much more than memorization or test preparation; it is about finding a passion for learning and growing.

THAT is why I do what I do.

The Journey

August 28th, 1995, was a day that I will never forget.

I had gone from class to class, listening to teachers discuss the syllabi, go over grading expectations, rules, procedures, introductions, ice breakers, and stories. I was completely bored out of my mind and was looking forward to 3:00.

I had just one period left before the end of the day. Several friends and I all had social studies in Room 25 with a new teacher, Mr. Haas. We frankly didn’t even know how to pronounce his name.

Once we entered, we heard a voice that commanded–not requested–us to sit. It was low-pitched voice that spoke sternly and forcefully without yelling. We knew to obey–no questions or comments. Mr. Haas didn’t go over the syllabus that day or discuss world history. He merely discussed the fact that many of us had gotten used to the game of school–working as little as possible and expecting A’s in return. He said that those people (of which I was certainly a member) would have a tough time in his class. I, along with many classmates, was frightened out of my wits.

The next day, he asked us to describe the room. I dutifully obeyed by counting how many tiles were on the ceiling and what posters were on the wall. When we finished, he said that thinking could take place on three levels: people who counted the desks and chairs, people who thought that this was a room, and people who described it as a history classroom with high expectations. He said that the first level was like a train, where our thought simply went forwards and backwards. The second level was like a car because it started to make connections and look beyond the obvious. The third level–which is what he expected from us–was like a helicopter. It was plainly obvious that I would have to learn to think more analytically to survive in this class.

After these first few days, I realized that although Mr. Haas seemed mighty scary, he was truly a once-in-a-lifetime teacher. He brought passion to every lesson; history mattered to him. He showed genuine rage when we covered Christopher Columbus’ massacre of the Arawak Indians. He raged against the ignorance of people who failed to realize that the Renaissance was a result of increased trade with the middle east.

Before this class, it didn’t dawn on me that I could major in history; I had always expected to major in business. He sparked a passion in me that changed the course of my life and resulted in my becoming a teacher. I hoped to become a Haas devotee, a person who would take the results of Mr. Haas and teach just like him.

What I failed to recognize, however, was that I simply could not be Mr. Haas. Just like a 6 foot point guard can’t play like Shaquille O’Neal, I couldn’t make that rage and intensity show up every day. As an INTP, I don’t have the reserves of social energy that others possess. Mr. Haas also enraged or was inspired by the same ideas year after year, a feat that I simply cannot replicate. It took me over twelve years of teaching to fully come to terms with this reality.

Ultimately, it was with educational technology, something that Mr. Haas likely eschews, that helped me find my voice and the potential to kindle passion and excitement in students. I have learned to show enthusiasm in short bursts and then send students in their own directions. I can never be Mr. Haas, but I can make sure that I find ways to give them that same passion I felt in his class.

In the end, we all have to follow Shakespeare’s advice: “To thine own self be true.”