Sunday, March 19, 2017

REVENGE

Think across times in your career when you encountered "those students."  This individual sucks all of your time from the other students in your class.  Whether a behavioral problem, or a student who under-performs academically, we come across these children relatively frequently in our careers.  Some of you may be laughing thinking "I have one in every class" - or "one!? I have many!"  Regardless of how many you might have, my question to ponder this week is: do we ever truly get to know these specific children?

I am involved in several extra-curricular activities within my community and school system.  I direct the neighboring middle school's musicals, coach tournament paintball, co-sponsor our Freshmen class, co-sponsor our PEER program (Positive Experiences in Educational Relations), and of course, run the #bowtieboys.  I say this because I am privileged to frequently interact with students outside of the classroom setting.  And, just like we have "those kids" in our classrooms, I have them in my out-of-school activities as well.  However, the purpose of this blog is not to ridicule them - but rather, to raise them up.  I know this isn't much of a novel idea, but I have been absolutely floored by several of "those kids" when I have interacted with them outside of their "typical" environment.

Ever since the beginning of my career teaching seventh grade, I have used paintball as a motivator for my students.  They are well aware each year that I play competitively and are always eager to join in the fun.  In fact, the travel team I now coach was born (largely) out of former seventh graders who got into the sport after a few fun outings.  But every month in seventh grade, I would ask students to raise their hands if they were interested in playing paintball one of the Saturday's of the month.  Several boys and girls would raise their hands in each class, I would contact their parents, and take about fourteen students per trip.  We met at the paintball field, played the day, and parents picked them up.  In offering this fun weekend activity, I immediately noticed that their performance on the field translated to that within the classroom.  I never put restrictions on play.  I never took "only the straight A students" or "only those students without any discipline referrals."  All were welcome, and a wide variety attended.  It always struck me as intriguing how the same student who never completed homework was the child I always wanted on my team, or the overachiever was the biggest crybaby.  Of course I am overgeneralizing, but the point was driven home that students are so much more than who they appear to be in class.

As teachers it is so easy for us to get lost in our lessons, our assessments, our due dates, and our projects and forget that students have lives outside of our classes.  I know I certainly remember the teachers who monopolized all of my free time: the classes with endless busy work, the never ending exams, the five hundred point group projects, etc.  But these students have enormous and varied lives outside of our doors.  They are not just students but family members, friends, cultures, athletes, artists, mathematicians, scientists, historians, and no much more.  It is easy, but wrong to take students for who they are in our classes.  If our true aim is to inspire them to be productive and engaged students, we can certainly first do them the courtesy of engaging WITH them.  A previous post entitled "Seasons" discusses how to develop rapport within the classroom, here are a few ideas for how to do so outside of the classroom:

1.  Go to your students' sporting events and activities.  I try to make a point to see each sporting event one time per season.  It doesn't always work out, but students know I do this, so they invite me.  So far this year I have been to freshman and varsity football, freshmen, junior varsity, and varsity basketball, hockey, and in a few weeks I will be seeing junior varsity and varsity baseball games.  As you can see, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, track & field, wrestling, and I'm sure a few others are missing from this list.  But I do the best I can without showing favoritism.  The sports I choose have nothing to do with the students who play them and everything to do with what fits in to my busy calendar.  The kids know I will make their games when I can.  Just like it was on the paintball field, it is always incredible to me to watch students shine in areas other than English.  In going to their games I also suggest forming relationships with their coaches.  Discuss strategies of what motivates and doesn't motivate a student, learn more about their background and home life, evaluate how they interact with teammates, etc.  Concordantly, supporting your artistic/theatrical/musical students will also offer windows into a student's heart.  Because I direct musicals, I make a point to visit the other local schools' drama departments.  This way I get to support and learn about art from all over the county.  I attend band, orchestra, and chorus concerts as well and try to develop as many relationships as I can within the greater community.  This allows me to draw from a wide applicant pool when I direct summer stock programs for high school students across the entire county. There are many valuable lessons that can be learned by attending a sporting event or extra-curricular activity.  Students really appreciate when they see we have taken our free time to support them, and in my opinion, it is the absolute least we can do after taking up so much of their free time with our homework and projects.  School may be a student's "job" but their activity is often times their "soul" and if we want them to have respect for us and our passions, we must first demonstrate it for theirs.

2.  Offer fun "class bonding" activities for your classes.  Paintball, like I mentioned above was always very positive with my middle schoolers.  They also enjoyed when we would organize class "movie nights" to see a movie version of a book.  I have taken students to see every Hunger Games movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ender's Game, and more.  Invite their parents to come along of course, everyone meets at the theatre and pays their way, but contacting the theatre ahead will sometimes allow for discounts, private showings, etc.  These are not field trips as we host such activities on the weekend.  They have nothing to do with the school system and I make this clear to parents.  Aside from sports activities and movies, I have taken students out for meals (especially at casual restaurants like iHop, TGIF, Buffalo Wild Wings, and CiCi's Pizza).  Students again bring their own money, sometimes bring a parent, and sit with their friends at big tables in one section of the restaurant.  We adults typically create tables of our own in another section and are only summoned when the checks come around.  Other activities with smaller groups can include: miniature golf, ropes courses, and bowling.  No matter the activity, the focus should be on creating an environment for students to bond and for parents to get to know us better.  Parents are often a forgotten or "unwelcome" factor of the classroom.  But they are in fact our biggest allies and can also be our biggest cheerleaders and supporters.  I know I said to give up weekend time, but I promise it will be time well spent.

3.  Open the classroom during lunch, "flex," or study hall periods.  Even though this technically takes place in school (and likely in our classroom), I have found one of the most powerful ways to develop rapport is to invite students in for lunch.  I never make this mandatory or punitive, but just every now and then announce that students are always welcome to come in for lunch, flex (free period), or study hall.  In middle school, students lined up by the dozens to have study hall in my classroom.  This wasn't because we hung out and did no work (quite the opposite), but they knew they would be allowed to talk, collaborate, and chat about their days, their interests, their friends, whatever.  In high school, study hall time is much more precious so I actually have a lot more students who come in during their lunch blocks.  Sometimes they come in for extra help, sometimes to practice an oral presentation, sometimes to complete homework (even not for my class), but most of the time just to sit and talk.  It is always nice connecting with current students and re-connecting with former students who stop by.  I have found that making myself open and welcoming has allowed me to develop rapports that transcend any behavioral or academic deficiency a student may "supposedly" have.  Many of my #bowtieboys come in for their lunch blocks, students bring friends, and we just talk about life.  Sometimes it's serious, other times low-key, it's frequently comical, and always fun and productive.  In fact, I have enjoyed these lunches so much, I plan to embed this into my teaching next year.  The hope is that I will be able to meet with each of my 125 students in the first five weeks of school (last week of August to the last week of September).  With four lunch blocks a day, I believe this will be possible.  Coupled with the ideas I presented in "Seasons," I hope this will render the best student relationships I have experienced to date.

Sometimes the only way to engage a student, especially a difficult behavioral or academic case, can be through bonding outside of the classroom setting.  When we create these opportunities and environments, we are showing out students that we care about them as more than just names on a roster or percentages in a grade book.  They are more than lexile scores, behaviors, intrinsic motivation, whatever.  Students appreciate and respect the teachers that go out of their way for them.  And in my experience, these students (including "those students") will go out of the way for us in return.  It is for these reasons I truly believe that the best REVENGE we can take on the students who "suck our time away from us" is to just give them even more.  More and more and more and more and before we know it, there won't be any more my time and their time, but our time.  Every time.

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If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well.  Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come.  It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all.  We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves.  :-)

Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera  http://jasonaugustowskibtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05  http://ryanbeaverbtb.blogspot.com  (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88  http://samfreminbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  http://spencerbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09  http://ryanhurbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch  http://bowtieboyjoe.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9  http://seanpettitbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke  http://kellenbowtieboy.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6  http://jackselmanbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)
Dawson Unger @dawsonunger  http://btb-dawson.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)

Friday, March 10, 2017

CURSE

Teaching is ancient and elemental.  It is as Gaelic as the night of Samhain and as Celtic as St. Stephen’s Day.   It is a very particular art form.  It is not a science.  No matter what anyone says, one cannot become a teacher by “studying hard.”  No amount of reading, writing, or practice lesson-planning, creating units, grading, or designing bulletin boards will make someone a good teacher.  They may know a lot about their discipline, but the very nature of teaching hinges on one individual’s ability to transmit that information effectively to another.  It relies on what the teacher brings to the collective story.  Yes, read widely and diversely – both entertaining and professional texts.  Yes study, share your voice, your lessons, your units, your successes and failures.  But know all the while that there is a big difference between a teacher who teaches English and a teacher who teaches students.  When asked, “what do you teach?” I always try to answer, “freshmen.”  And although the way we answer a simple question does not dictate our quality of teaching, our mindset behind our answer does.

It is my assertion that someone who loves their content more than they love their kids can never truly be a great teacher.  Maybe a good teacher, but not a great teacher.  If our mission is to turn kids on to the discipline we love, we must first show them more esteem than we do our precious books and journals.  Too many teachers are still operating under the archaic notion that students should enter our classrooms offering their unwavering respect, ready to absorb every genius sentence that escapes our lips.  We prepare our lectures and lessons in a vacuum (or in a group of other adults) and assume we know what is best for the kids sitting in our rooms.  We assume the novels we have lined up, the essays and projects we plan to assign, the oral presentations, and the activities will prepare them for the next grade and eventually the world beyond our walls.  But how often do we consult students in this process?  Does choice exist in our classrooms?  Are students leaders?  Are we “guides on the side” or “sages on the stage?”  Is every class the same: a warm-up, lecture/notes, and an activity… a few days later a review game…and then a quiz or test?  And the biggest question: do our classes teach a discipline or a human?  Because our classes should be impacting people, not grades.  And because of this, incorporating student opinion (not choice within a carefully pre-prescribed structure) and authentic relationship building must be primary foci of our classrooms.

In speaking with a plethora of students of grades spanning sixth through twelfth, I have come up with a simple list of DON’Ts for any English classroom.  Now of course, it is most important to sit down and speak openly with your own students to best assess their needs.  But to get the conversation started, here are some prevalent “hot topics:”

1.       Focus on rote memorization:  Students widely admit that when asked to just “memorize” information, they do so long enough to perform well on the assessment and then promptly forget the information to make room for the new.  This is why we spend so much time at the beginning of every year virtually re-teaching the grade that came before.  If we focused our efforts higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can achieve longer lasting results.  I do realize that Analysis, Synthesis, and Creation take more class time than Memorizing and Understanding, but I side with the argument: I would rather my students fully understand 75% of the “required material” than have a cursory overview of 100% of the material.  Let’s take the time to analyze, synthesize, and create with our students.  Doing so will also eliminate the question “why do we ever need to know this?” Because applying literary terms to analyze or synthesize a difficult text will come in handy long before matching literary terms to their definitions.  And switch it up, bounce back and forth from those three highest levels of learning so class does not become static.  Although students do enjoy routine, because they like knowing what to expect and where they are going, they quickly grow weary of the formula indicated above:  warm-up, notes, video, review, assessment, repeat.  Let’s get them up and moving, interacting with the material and each other in a manner we best believe will simulate real life situations.

2.      Strict management over the things that don’t matter:  My kids get up, grab the pass, and go use the bathroom whenever they want.  I don’t have rules about when students can and cannot use the bathroom, because that doesn’t matter.  Students are allowed to use their phones whenever they want because they have lives and I refuse to be a hypocrite.  If I receive a text or e-mail during a faculty meeting, I answer it  And you do too.  I can do this because I AM focused on what my principal is saying, and because I am, I can also multi-task.  There is no magical button bestowed on humans once they reach the age of twenty-one that finally allows for this ability.  Kids can, believe it or not, still be paying attention in our class, and answer a quick text from a friend or their parents.  So “taking phones” or posting huge signs that say “ELECTRONIC FREE ZONE” are highly counter-productive.  Students aren’t allowed to eat or drink in our rooms, so I don’t either.  Students notice when teachers break their own rules and it is a rapport-killer.  What kind of respect does it show that our own rules don’t apply to us?  Manage all behavior in house.  Unless a major altercation occurs, I never send students to administration.  This signals that I am not in control of my own classroom and need external assistance to keep students under control.  Not really the vibe we want to set for teens and tweens.

3.       Avoid favoritism at all costs:  The amount of students who tell me their teachers are sexist (only like the girls or only like the boys) or have favorites (coaches that favor their players, or athletes in general, directors who favor their actors or fine arts students over others, teachers who favor former students over current, etc.), or who label kids early in the year and hold grudges (whether based on effort, work quality, appearance, older siblings, anything) is astronomical.  And even if these perceptions of us are unfair – they are our students’ versions of reality.  We need to be very careful to call on all students, to give all students equal amounts of criticism and praise (even the “star students” mess up and even the “slackers” rise to the occasion), and to show genuine interest in each student as an individual.  Nothing worse than having a full conversation with the kid who is giving the play-by-play of last night’s sporting event and then shrugging off the student who wants to discuss the latest video-game release.  Or visa-versa.  When disciplining, do so evenly.  Be careful not to label certain students as the “bad kids” and then  constantly hound them OR allow your “star students” to break occasionally break rules because “they usually have their act together.”  Students pick up on this quickly and it can be toxic to your environment.  Never single kids out or reprimand individuals in front of the whole class.

4.      Stop giving school work and start giving life work:  This applies to all content areas and disciplines, but in regards to English, this could look like: no more grammar quizzes and no more tests on reading.  Students should learn grammar in the context of their real writing – situational lessons that apply to the focus of the assignment.  Need more writing assignments to do so? Replace the reading tests with essays.  Give students interesting prompts that connects their real lives to the reading.  Look for essential questions and themes that apply to individual lives and have students explore these issues through their writing (while simultaneously mastering diverse grammar concepts).

5.      Treat students appropriate to their age:  I know that high school students love being treated like adults.  In fact, when I direct my middle school plays, I tell my actors that I plan to treat them like I treat adults too.  I create an environment in which they can be themselves, be leaders, develop positive relationships, work hard towards a common goal, and have fun doing so.  None of us like the administrator who micro-manages our class.  We certainly don’t like the politicians who tell us how to teach.  So why do we do it to our students.  We assume (like some administrators and politicians assume towards teachers) that students cannot be trusted and if left to their own devices will only disappoint us.  I do not patronize kids.  I do not talk down to them.  I talk to them like they are my peers and I hold them to high expectations.  Students know that when they work with me, we will be producing something incredible – whether in class, a nationally awarded musical, a winning paintball team, whatever – and with that reputation, I am able to expect a lot.  Talk to any coach, and I guarantee they don’t tell their players “well I can’t hand you that bat because you might hit someone” or “if I give you this ball, will you throw it through a window?”  They give them the environment, teach them how to use the equipment, hold them to high expectations, and let them go.  And students perform.  When they know we believe in them – they believe in themselves and produce at levels not previously thought possible.  Don’t treat elementary schoolers like they’re babies, middle schoolers like they are elementary schoolers, or high schoolers like middle schoolers.  It is the same philosophy I have in regards to “banning books.”  Rather than banning books (or technology), preemptively assuming students won’t be able to handle it, teach them HOW to use and handle it in the most beneficial and productive manner possible.


Teaching is an art form.  It is full of finesse – little dramas and fires to put out and every moment of every day.  We can significantly cut down on these dramas by holding students to high expectations and treating them as equals.  Ensure the classroom is a welcoming and safe space, where ALL students are treated equally and where rules are applied not only to the students but ourselves.  Avoid silly rules that have nothing to do with developing relationships and everything to do with establishing dominance and control.  Students don’t want to feel dominated – they want to feel appreciated.  When designing instruction, make sure students are up and doing – not memorizing, but analyzing, synthesizing, and creating.  Link these analyses, syntheses, and creations to real life problems/obstacles for the students to overcome.  These are simple steps, spelled out by middle and high school students that can drastically change the classroom environment without completely changing a teacher’s style/pedagogy.  Teaching is ancient and elemental and it is our gift (or curse ;-) ) to properly wield this power – not just for the benefit of our students, but for our own enjoyment and increased longevity.  Let’s love kids, not content.  :-)

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If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well.  Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come.  It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all.  We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves.  :-)

Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera  http://jasonaugustowskibtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05  http://ryanbeaverbtb.blogspot.com  (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88  http://samfreminbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  http://spencerbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09  http://ryanhurbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch  http://bowtieboyjoe.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9  http://seanpettitbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke  http://kellenbowtieboy.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6  http://jackselmanbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)


Dawson Unger @dawsonunger  http://btb-dawson.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)

Friday, March 3, 2017

SEASONS

I love the crisp air and the moments when evening hangs suspended – almost limitless before it fades to darkness.  I love the smell of firewood burning in the distance (whether from a family pit or a pep rally bonfire) – because you know you can always locate that smell outdoors in autumn.  I love the feel of new materials – everything is clean and new on the inside of the schoolhouse, which ironically juxtaposes the beginnings of death occurring in the outside world.  Similar to most teachers (I would assume), the fall just feels like “school” to me.  And this is probably why it is my all-time favorite season.

I would also argue it is the most important season of the school year.  And unless you coach fall sports or activities, I do realize it is NOT the busiest time, but it certainly sets the tone for what will either be a successful or miserable year for students, parents, teachers, and administrators.  Teachers play a major role in this reality and we must wield out power appropriately.  Having close connections with the majority of our greater community, I hear first time all the stress that goes into receiving one’s yearly schedule (at both the student and parent level).  Parents have been talking and know which teachers they think they want their student to have for certain courses, students have been talking and know with which friends they hope to share specific classes.  Then the reality of the schedule hits, and there is inevitable relief and disappointment.  Maybe a student and all of their friends got the “teacher with a bad reputation” or a student is alone in the class of a teacher revered by the community.  Maybe both.  Maybe neither.

But we as teachers are far more than the perception.  And although I agree that for many people, perception is reality.  We need to be constantly reflecting and re-inventing ourselves to meet the needs of our clientele within a given year.  The fall is the time to establish reality and separate from perception.  All three administrators for whom I have worked have told their faculties to some effect when discussing Back to School Night that “likely, this evening will be the only time you see a student’s parent in person.  So make a good impression so that it isn’t necessary to have to see that parent in person again.”

Although I agree with making good impressions with parents in person when they meet us, I know for a fact that the best impression we can make is through the eyes of their child.  Any previous perception will fly straight out the window when a student comes home day after day raving about how excited they are to be learning in your class.  Students admit all the time that they work harder for the teachers they like.  Teachers that are able to connect school learning with the real world while making meaningful relationships with their students will experience very low classroom management issues and very high academic gains over the course of the year.  They will also enjoy their job more – and when that happens, the happiness is almost transferred through diffusion to the students.

Fall is the time to establish these “musts.”  And a teacher needs to get started before students even enter the room.  In speaking almost daily with students of the middle and high school levels, I have learned several tricks I would like to share.  None of these are exceptionally groundbreaking or something that will drastically change your personal pedagogy/style, but they may just help you build the strong rapport you and your students are seeking.

IN THE FALL:

1.       Before students even arrive, be sure you have designed your classroom in a manner that will grab their attention.  Remember, like my principal said in regards to parents, first impressions are everything.  Think, “what are my students seeing when they enter my room?”  The room should boast color, the bulletin boards should be purposeful and complete, the multiple white boards should be designed with their purposes in mind, the desks should be arranged in an a-typical manner – a fashion that shows students “this is going to be a different kind of class.”  The setup of the desks should foster collaborative small and large group work simultaneously.  There should be no “front of the room.”  It is my personal preference to rid my room of all “teacher furniture” that demonstrates the idea of hierarchy.  All of my students have rolling chairs (and half of which are cushioned teacher’s chairs I found in a school closet).  I have no desk, no special chair, no area in which students are forbidden from entering.  My room has a couch, tons of stuffed animals (even though my students are high schoolers), three bookshelves filled to bust, a technology center with laptops for group use, and a coffee bar boasting four Keurig machines (one that is my own and three that have been since donated by parents).  I have rugs and roundtables, standards desks and non, my walls are covered in colorful posters and pennants, and my glade plug-in emits smells of “apple-cinnamon,” “fresh linen,” “lavender,” or “the tropics” depending on the season.  I have an iPod dock and students almost always enter to the sounds of eclectic music.  In doing all of this, I have hit all five of their senses as soon as they enter the room.  They leave bragging to their friends that “my teacher has a couch and coffee machines” or “my teacher was playing “X” song when I entered the room” or “my teacher has comfy rolling chairs and crazy desks.”  And of course, my class is far more than that – and like I tell the parents at Back to School Night.  All of those items were simply to hook their attention.  The reality is, my class pushes students outside of their box and demands quality work.  Best to get them on my side before I introduce them to that set of realities.  Because by the time I do, they are excited for the challenge, because they see I have taken the time to work hard for them first.  As the adult in the room, if we want students’ respect, we need to show it first.  It doesn’t work the other way around.  Not anymore.  And I’m not even convinced it ever did.

2.       Spend however long you need establishing classroom environment and real relationships with your students.  This is NOT a waste of instructional time.  In fact, I will argue to anyone who disagrees that I get FAR MORE accomplished when I have taken the time to respect my students and learn about their lives (and encourage them to do the same with one another) than I do having to deal with year-long classroom management issues.  My students sit in a large circle, split into four sections (bisected both horizontally and vertically) – each quadrant is a small group (which changes every quarter) but the whole class can also speak to each other easily in a large group situation.  We use talking pieces (the stuffed animals) to share basic information with each other in a sequential circle.  We pass the pieces non-sequentially to students who wish to tell longer stories.  We encourage students to share their phone numbers and social media with members of their small groups so the community we establish can extend beyond the reaches of our classroom.  Any student who doesn’t quite “buy-in” from the start soon realizes that they will be in the minority if they choose to act disrespectfully.  Empower the students to be kind and open with one another and allow them to manage the classroom behavior for you.  They will do so with ease.  Once community is established, weave instruction into that community.  I never said to have a “lax” class where there are no expectations.  The expectations of my classroom are sky high – and every year students reach and exceed because they know they have the support (on a human level) from both myself and their peers.

3.       Be firm in your expectations and be organized with your calendar.  Plan your quarter – but not in a way that doesn’t allow for flexibility.  Just definitely be certain you are building student learning towards something.  Too many teachers “fly by the seat of their pants” which is fine from the standpoint of always keeping class interesting, but not from the standpoint of explaining how students’ learning connects and expands to the real world.  I am found that when I am organized and my planning is tight, I can run my classroom much more like a reading and writing workshop with open plenty of student work time before deadlines.  On average, my students have a month between deadlines in which they know they have to have read a minimum of one novel and have produced a minimum of two different pieces of writing (creative and analytical/research).  Being transparent with students about due dates and offering constant reminders allows me to receive ALL assignments on time (I do not deal with late work from virtually any student) – and out of respect, I block out my evenings immediately following their due dates to ensure I can turn around their papers within the same week.  If we have hard and fast due dates for them, I believe we should have hard and fast due dates for ourselves.  It is not fair to claim that “our real adult lives got in the way” if students are not allowed to claim that their “very real student lives got in theirs.”

IN THE WINTER:

1.       The second quarter (fall into winter) is when students really start to slack off.  I remember doing the same thing as a kid.  December can become a virtually wasted month if you’re not careful.  Nestled between Thanksgiving break and winter break – the only thing on anyone’s minds is break.  Compounded by the possibility of early snow, this part of the year has the potential to completely derail a class.  My biggest suggestion is to once again set the expectations up front.  Have a plan.  Have a backup plan in case of snow.  At my school, the second quarter begins the day after Election Day and proceeds to the end of January.  If we allow students to be distracted from their work for November and December, we have robbed them of half a quarter of instruction.  Rather than a time for slacking, this time should be used to introduce new and exciting principals of the discipline and expand on previously learned skills.  I like to incorporate novels that make students think about how lucky they are to live in the wealthy suburbs of Washington D.C.  We watch some films in second quarter and students hold discussions analyzing films.  Others write formal analyses on the movies we watch.  Films introduce new material, allow students to relax, and still expand their critical thinking abilities to include diverse texts.  This is an excellent time to explore critical lenses as well – which students in my class always find fascinating.  They typically love analyzing problems from the eyes of diverse characters/people – and can further comment on our films, novels, poems, and songs from these unique perspectives.

2.       Use the emotion of the holidays to build deep rapport with your students.  It is at this time of the year I enjoy getting a little heartfelt and sentimental.  We engage in activities that celebrate students as individuals and humans.  We do a lot of full class and small group work to keep kids feeling connected and safe.  I tell my classes every year that they have no idea what goes on in the homes of their fellow classmates and need to be approaching every person with this understanding.  Despite our wealthy area, not every child will go home to a happy and loving Thanksgiving dinner or a winter break spent in the tropics, being showered in gifts by their many admirers.  I try to ensure every student leaves my class before going onto those breaks knowing that (if no where else) they are loved and wanted and needed in our classroom.  One specific activity I have sharing with my students since my first year of teaching is the “T-shirt ritual.”  From the moment they return from Thanksgiving break, I tell my students that they must acquire a plain white t-shirt that fits them.  This should be a Hanes style undershirt, not an Abercrombie V-neck.  On the class cycle before winter break, students wear these shirts to school, unsure of their necessity.  Armed with Sharpie markers, the students spend class silently circling the room with Sigur Ros’s Hopipolla playing in the background (look it up – it’s the perfect song, with an equally perfect music video for a class period like this).  They write notes on each other’s white t-shirts.  Notes of encouragement.  Notes of kindness.  This isn’t the space to write “you’re cool” or “you’re nice” or “you’re funny.”  This is the space to anonymously and openheartedly share feelings between classmates.  Once again, they are not allowed to talk when they do this.  Once they get home and finally take their shirt off, they are able to see all of the wonderful things their classmates have to say about them.  Now, no matter what kind of break these students have, they know their English class is a place in which they are loved and respected – and the proof is there in their hands.  Do you think that is a waste of instructional time?  I think not.

3.       Finally, and I know this is probably going to get some hate from other teachers out there, but don’t publicly pray for snow days.  I have to admit that is one of my biggest pet peeves.  I know I am unpopular for saying this, but posting all over your social media about how you “hope it snows for the whole month of January” – although widely accepted in our profession, gives off the wrong vibes.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the occasional snow day (although, honestly, I would rather be in school) – but I do have a problem with saying to students and their parents “I hope I don’t have to see you/your kid again for a very long time.”  That to me doesn’t inspire the kind of rapport we should be seeking to have with our students and families.  We should be the ones pumping the kids up in January.  If it snows now and then, we keep them on track in between.  If it never snows, we keep their spirits up with plenty of excitement and engagement in school.  And if it DOES snow, we celebrate it as an opportunity for our frequently overworked and stressed out students to receive a much-needed surprise vacation.  If we need snow days every now and then to recharge, they do too.

IN THE SPRING:

1.       Once the snow has melted, quarters two and three are over, and April has come around, it is time to finish the year strong.  I tell the students every year that quarter four is my favorite, and NOT because we are almost out of school (because once again, what kind of message would that send).  We do not do countdowns in our room or talk about how “we’re not going to do anything in June.”  We talk about how the end of the year is most epic time we have together.  We discuss how now, finally, they have the skills to really have fun in class.  I save my absolute best novels, poems, and songs for analysis for fourth quarter.  The themes of these pieces have notions of finality – this is when we read works like “To an Athlete Dying Young” (Houseman) or “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time.”  (Herrick) We listen to songs like “The Flame” by Cheap Trick, “Pianoman” by Billy Joel, “American Pie” by Don Mclean, and “You Learn” by Alanis Morissette.  We read big hard hitting novels like To Kill A Mockingbird by Lee and Of Mice & Men by Steinbeck.  Our class discussions and small group work are at their finest.  Students are pulling in their own research, reading nonfiction texts outside of school as supplement for our debates and discussions.  Everything we do inches closer to the last time we will ever do it, and I play upon those emotions with the kids.  We discuss next year, the rest of high school, their hopes and dreams, and their real lives.  At this point we are more of a tight-knit team or family than a class.  And although they are excited for summer vacation (what kid isn’t excited to leave school), they always cry on the last day of class.  Boys, girls, middle schoolers or high schoolers, they cry.  And so do I.  It never really hits me until I am standing by the door on the last day, shaking hands and giving hugs, that I will never teach this group of kids again.  They are off to bigger and better things and they know all I had to teach them.  They are ready to take on tenth grade and whatever other challenges life throws their way.  My final tie to the group that leaves is their notebooks.  Students submit their five subject notebook, filled with their work and thoughts of the year on the last day of school.  Over the summer I read each one, write comments, and return them on their first day of the next school year.  It’s a tradition now.  Former students know “fall orientation” also means “see Mr. A. for last year’s notebook.”  Reading these is the ultimate assessment of my own teaching, and allows me to spend the summer planning and reflecting – ready to come back in the fall with the plan for the greatest year yet!

2.       Which brings me to my final point.  We have teacher workdays after the last day of school.  Just as it is important to establish environment on day one, it is equally important to maintain the environment to the very last minute.  Students all the time talk about “the teacher who packed up their room on June 1st” – even though the school year ends on June 15th.  Like I mentioned before, it is my suggestion to savor the final moments, and use these last two weeks of classes to reward the students for all the hard work they have done over the course of the year.  We have plenty of time to pack up on those final days – in fact, students usually come back on their first days of summer to help me do so.  I always tease them saying “we set you free and the first place you go is back here?”  They laugh and help me pack my bookshelves and remove posters from my walls.  We clean and stack the desks and chairs, put the coffee and technology items into storage, and load my car with the notebooks and personals I will be taking home over the summer.  I think a big reason so many come back is because of the emotion of the last class.  I like to make our final block together a “best of” the year.  We analyze a poem and a song, we engage in quick writes, we discuss and share things about ourselves, and we read “Oh the Places You’ll Go by: Dr. Seuss one final time.  Kids share their testimonials and I share mine.  And when the final bell rings, there is not a dry eye in the room.  But we are all happy.  Happy and thankful for the time we had to share and learn together.


And just as fall has many underlying sensory feelings/emotions for me – so does summer.  Not only a time to reflect and recharge, summer is a time to enjoy other elements of my life.  I coach paintball camps and play with my travel team in east coast tournaments, I get to work with high schoolers and middle schoolers in my two summer stock theatre programs.  I get to visit my brother at his gorgeous home in South Carolina, travel, and visit a few amusement parks (to get my annual rollercoaster fix).  And before I know it, we are back in room 1609 and students of varying years are unpacking the books, setting the desks into a circle, hanging posters on the walls, unpacking coffee machines, plugging in the technology, and asking to look at my new rosters so they can see who will be in my class for the upcoming year.  And the cycle continues.  And just as everything begins to die outside, everything begins to come alive in our room.


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If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well.  Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come.  It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all.  We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves.  :-)

Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera  http://jasonaugustowskibtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05  http://ryanbeaverbtb.blogspot.com  (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88  http://samfreminbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  http://spencerbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09  http://ryanhurbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch  http://bowtieboyjoe.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9  http://seanpettitbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke  http://kellenbowtieboy.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6  http://jackselmanbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)

Dawson Unger @dawsonunger  http://btb-dawson.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

WATER

I was recently dining in one of my favorite fancy restaurants when an odd and compelling thought struck me.  Sitting in a high-backed cushion chair, absorbing the blue light that cascaded down the modern-grey floor to ceiling drapes, and leaning my right forearm against the crisp linen of the white tablecloth, I peered left out the large fifth story window.  As I looked out onto the numerous crisscrossing highways of Tyson’s Corner, watching the many cars, matchbox-sized blurs of white and red zip into infinite directions, I realized that other people’s lives are merely just our scenery.

In each of the cars that passed my window, were lives.  Lives in states of happiness, turmoil, great success and despair.  Lives on their way home from work or on their way to fun in the city.  Lives in great rushes and lives unfolding at their own pace.  And yet, through the gargantuan windows of this high-rise easting establishment, those cars, that web of roads, and the lit and silhouetted buildings of the darkening horizon were nothing more than my entertainment.  An ongoing story through a large glass screen, playing on endless loop should I happen to glance left and need something on which to focus my thoughtless glances.

This realization made me instantly cognizant again (or perhaps for the first time) of my immediate surroundings.  Blue notes reverberated gently from the walls and appropriately-volumed conversations threatened to carefully envelop me.  Small traces of cognac hinted towards my nostrils from the cup of lobster bisque that had been placed in front of me with the all familiar warning “careful, the bowl is hot.” And decadent bread crumbs met my wandering tongue and were thus liberated from the small gaps between my teeth, meeting with saliva, before escaping down my esophagus in a fashion faintly reminiscent of walking back to the pew from communion.

And although surrounded by friends and literally a packed restaurant of people and friendly wait-staff, it was easy to feel alone. I brought this idea of “scenery” up to the group and they considered my thoughts.  We discussed how the strangers around us contributed to the “vibe” – a place with only a few patrons (or none aside from one’s party) would seem much different.  Likewise, décor centering around paintings, knick-knacks, and dressings gives off a much different feel than quite literally a wall of windows overlooking busy thoroughfares paralleled by tanks of live fish juxtaposed by racks of wine.  We, in this place, were surrounded by life… and yet when do we ever stop to truly appreciate this fact?

As with any bizarre life epiphany I have (and they happen surprisingly often), I always try to apply the lesson to my students and my teaching.  I wanted to look at this simple idea of “being someone else’s scenery” from both lenses and here is what I think:

1.      From a student’s perspective, we teachers (at the secondary level) are just one of many adults with whom they interact in a given day.  They likely have a total of six to eight different teachers, a handful of coaches/directors/club leaders, not to mention administration, family, adult friends, etc… so we can easily become just “scenery” in their lives.  However, we also have the potential to become more than “scenery.”
2.     From a teacher’s perspective, students can easily become the mere “scenery” of our lives.  With so many other forces campaigning for our time, it can be easy to look at a group of kids and just forever remember them as “year 6” – completely ignoring the specific qualities they possess as unique individuals.  Some years, I suppose, we just don’t have the bandwidth to elevate them any further than pieces of our setting – but these are human beings, not props.

So the task remains, how do we share our lives in ways that constitute something more than faceless mortals shuffling past each other, checking the boxes (that I mentioned in my previous post), and moving on with our lives?  Critics may ask the problem with this scenario.  After all, these students are not our REAL children.  And in a teacher’s career, we seek to encounter upwards of 6,000 students in our classrooms alone – surely we cannot make a resounding difference in each of their lives… can we?  Although, perhaps naïve, I would like to think: yes, we can!

And as with so many other facets of education, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to model this behavior if they wish for it to be mirrored by students.  Meaning, we must address the above “issue 2” before we can properly attack “issue 1.”  To do so, let’s bring some humanity and fun back into what we do every day.  I am well aware of the elements of our day that can weigh us down and distract from our central goal of helping and teaching children.  There are endless e-mails, faculty meetings, paperwork, different people pulling us in all directions who desperately need our time… not to mention: lesson planning, grading, collaborating with colleagues, tutoring, coaching, oh, and actually teaching.  But, in having to be so good at multi-tasking, and having to check so many “boxes” in a given day – let’s really not lose sight of why we are there in the first place: the kids.  Make students the focal point of your day, all day, every day, and I promise the other items will fall into line.  Make paperwork your scenery.  Make e-mails your scenery.  Make meetings your scenery.  Do not make a child’s unique, brave, strong, beautiful, unafraid, challenging, brilliant, and individual life your scenery.

I know this sounds good on paper and is much harder to practice.  Trust me, I’ve come off of NCTE high before.  And if you have been to a conference, you know exactly what I mean.  You go to an epic city for four (or more) days, surrounded my inspired and inspirational educators who do important work in the name of children every day.  You converse with these people, share success stories and secrets, you talk books, have meals, attend breakout sessions and major keynotes.  You engage in interactive activities, take notes on the latest emerging technologies, and quote the gurus you can’t believe you just heard speak (and who you can’t believe were approachable enough to take a picture with you).  And then you return to the real world: your home school: and realize just how different your day to day is.

The best of us remember small slivers of what we learned and attempt to apply it amidst a sea of standards and a curriculum that kills creativity and the acquisition of real life skills.  The inspiration and energy we feel from the November conference would be lucky to last us until winter break.  And after that, it is back to the bleakness of winter without a break in sight.  WAIT!  But there we are…focusing on the wrong things again.  Make students the center part of your day. Develop real rapport – and allow each day to bring about an extension to that rapport – a chance to grow closer.  A chance to truly share your life as fellow people – rather than to pass each other by as scenery.

I remember telling my students when I taught middle school, “I am your one and only seventh grade language arts teacher – the only one you will ever have.  That’s a pretty big and important job to have.”  Now that I teach freshmen, I feel the same way.  I am well aware that I set the tone for their English instruction (and maybe high school career in general) for their remaining years.  I always love teaching first block freshmen because we get to share their first day of high school together.  It is for this reason I also hope to teach seniors during last block next year – so we can share their very last public school moments together too.  These are monumental ideas (they are ideas to cry about – and ideas many students and parents DO cry about) – but it seems like we only remember these moments at times like a commencement ceremony or graduation party.  This phenomenon can almost be likened to a tragedy or disaster.  We all know in the midst of heartbreak, humankind is excellent at coming together and supporting one another – but we also know how quickly we “forget” and resume “business as usual.”

But instead, putting students at the center will simultaneously resolve aforementioned issues 1 and 2 simultaneously.  Here are the simple steps I take every day to put students first:

1.      I get involved in other areas of the school aside from teaching content.  I direct the neighboring middle school’s (where I used to teach) musicals.  Through directing, I get to know students outside of an academic setting and the rapport we are able to create almost always translates to a positive rapport later in my high school English classroom.
2.     I go support my students in their various activities that I am not associated with.  Since I have a background in fine arts and see plenty of kids in that capacity, I make it a point to watch my students play sports.  I go to as many football, basketball, hockey, soccer, baseball, lacrosse games as I can.  As soon as I find out I have a student that is super dedicated to their sport, I ask them for a schedule, and let them know when I will be able to come see a game.  After all, we expect them to care about our content – can’t we repay the favor by caring about theirs?
3.     In class I have established an environment where students understand that everyone’s voice is both necessary and desired.  Take the time at the beginning of the year to establish these norms.  In doing so I never have to deal with classroom management.  Create fun traditions that kids can look forward to.  Students in my class respect me and each other, and it is because I model a deep respect for them from the moment they first enter our classroom.  English lends itself nicely to group discussions so my desks are shaped in a circle and students pass a talking piece to share (more on this in a future blog).  The students in my classes know each other’s names, know each other’s levels of comfort, strengths and weaknesses, and use these data points to their advantage when collaborating and completing group tasks.
4.     I am completely transparent with my students.  I frame my teaching and explain to students how the lessons will apply directly to their real life.  I teach skills rather than standards and give students the opportunity to be authentic leaders in my classroom.  Not only do I have the #bowtieboys , our high school also has an enormous National Honors Society program, a PEER (Positive Experiences in Educational Relationships) team, a PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Support) team, a student lesson-planning committee, a student council, and many more.  Make students leaders in your classrooms, your teams, your casts, your activities, and allow them to have experiences that will help them to be productive members of adult society.
5.     Spend time with the students outside of class.  I like to invite students in during their lunch blocks to practice oral presentations, to conference their writing, and to discuss the current books they are reading.  Sometimes students come in “just to chill” and we talk about anything.  Sometimes students come in large groups and sometimes the groups are smaller.  When I see that a student wants to connect, I almost always drop what I am doing in order to meet with that student.

What I am suggesting in these five points is not anything revolutionary or groundbreaking – they are just key components to the success I have found in nurturing real rapport with my students.  Students are human, just like we are human – and I think the best way to connect is to make each other aware of that humanity.  Too often, school creates this automatic and forced relationship between these two parties – and students can tell when teachers are “faking it” – just as astutely as we can tell when a student plagiarizes a paper.  Let us practice what we preach and be good human models for our students as we seek to ensure true connection rather than temporary scenery in each others’ lives.

Returning to that restaurant, I think of how different a public experience like dining out could be if it was socially acceptable to make connections with the people surrounding you.  Some times of course call for privacy, and when such intimacy is necessary, I can see need to fend off the advancements of strangers attempting to encroach on your dinner conversation.  However, looking around at how many people will sit across from each other anymore, both parties attached to their phone, eyes glued to their screens, I think upsetting the natural order could be vital.

Taking a look back at a classroom, I think of how many students sit at their desks before class begins, looking down, typing away on their electronics – whether texting, snapchatting, or playing a game, and I can’t help but feel them begging for the "green light" to connect with others.  Let us make our classrooms spaces that foster this kind of growth.  Let us convince our students that we are not merely water rushing by in the stream of their life – but something steadfast, and someone who is truly seeking to help them develop into the best individual they can become.  Let us turn their attention away from their phones and towards their neighbors.  Let us get students up and moving, collaborating and talking.  They don’t like sitting any more than we do at our faculty meetings.  They don’t like worksheets any more than we like paperwork.  They don’t like busy and poorly planned technology integration any more than we enjoy answering the onslaught of e-mails pestering our inboxes.  So let’s bring in some fun.  Let’s create some environment.  Let’s model what it means to be human.


And that’s not to say we last forever – scenery or not.  I hold dear the famous quote by Nikos Kazantzakis: True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”  But let us also remember that students will never learn to create bridges on their own if we haven’t first fully become the bridge of which he speaks.  We must be the epitome of that bridge.  No more scenery.  No more glances.  Rather the detailed, nuanced, and careful bridge over that water.

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If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well.  Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come.  It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all.  We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves.  :-)

Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera  http://jasonaugustowskibtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05  http://ryanbeaverbtb.blogspot.com  (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88  http://samfreminbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  http://spencerbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09  http://ryanhurbtb.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch  http://bowtieboyjoe.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9  http://seanpettitbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke  http://kellenbowtieboy.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6  http://jackselmanbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)
Dawson Unger @dawsonunger  http://btb-dawson.blogspot.com/  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)