Friday, March 3, 2017
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.
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)