Working Our C.O.R.E

At the beginning of each school year, I spend one full class period explaining how my classroom works. Logistics like bathroom passes, cell phone use, make-up work, Chromebook usage, and so on. However, after I lay down the operational parameters of Room 303, I want them to wrangle with some group norms that will really make this class sing.

A word about what I teach:  my writing classes operate like writing studios populated by working writers. Because my students are working both independently and interdependently in this class, establishing group norms is important. Writers can be very focused on their own work to the exclusion of anyone else, but in a cooperative learning environment, such as a writing community, setting base line expectations and boundaries is critical.

Each year the class comes up with a list of expectations that every member of the class, including me, should strive to emulate. This year, after listing all the brainstormed behaviors, expectations, and descriptors on the board, it was time to boil the list down to a few essentials.  After a lot of discussion and deliberation, the class circled around four adjectives:  open minded, empathetic, respectful, and considerate.  As the class negotiated to fit the rest of their descriptions under one of these four umbrella terms, one student looked up and said, “Hey, it spells CORE. That’s our acronym.”

Indeed, it was.

C.O.R.E. has become our group norm for this academic year, and I’d like to discuss what each of these looks like in our writing class.

Considerate: Being considerate means being thoughtful, concerned, and mindful of others. This behavior is particularly important in a writing workshop, where we are working with sensitive, often personal, subjects written by young writers. Under this term, my students listed “be kind,” “be nice,” “be a good friend,” and “help others.” Other students suggested no gossiping, no name calling, no back stabbing could go under this category. While being considerate includes compassion towards others, it also means to practice self-consideration or self-compassion. So many young writers tend to preface their work with apologies, i.e., this is awful, I’m stupid, I’m a horrible writer, this is trash. This behavior is the same as name calling, only directed at yourself. Being considerate of one’s self and others contributes to the “we are all in this together” connection that is the cornerstone of all functional, thriving communities.

Open-minded:  This was a dark horse norm I didn’t see coming, but students listed things like, “check your bias” and “seek to understand other’s viewpoints.”  Several students listed behaviors important to writers: “listen to other’s ideas,” “be open to new ideas” and “be approachable during workshop.” Of course, the real test of this norm will be when a student is asked to give feedback on, for example, an essay that argues for a position he doesn’t agree with. He must learn to respond to the writing itself and not to his opposition of the ideas expressed. In a writing workshop, it’s imperative that students are open-minded enough to consider an argument they don’t agree with and still be able to give the writer good feedback on her technique, craft, and form. I also want the student who is on the receiving end of feedback to be open minded, weighing and considering all the feedback even though she’s the final arbiter of her work.

Respectful:  In the last ten years of using group norms, I can’t remember a single class that didn’t include this word.  It is absolutely vital in any classroom.  Under this word, students listed behaviors such as “If you listen to music, wear headphones,” “If you want to conference with another student, go out into the hall,” and “Don’t disturb other people.” But they also listed things like “turn your drafts in on time,” as well as cleaning up after themselves as a way of showing respect to each other. Another angle of respect that made it on the big list was “what’s written in Room 303, stays in Room 303,” and “if it’s not your story, don’t tell it.” Confidentiality is an essential part of respecting one another enough to maintain a vault of safety around the stories we tell each other. Self-respect is also a necessary part of this norm; each student must respect her contribution to the group and recognize that by not participating she’s essentially disrespecting the group by withholding her own unique gifts and viewpoints.

Empathetic: We had a fairly robust conversation about including empathetic after we already had respectful and considerate on the list, but ultimately we decided these descriptors were indeed different things. The ability to feel other people’s emotions and to imagine what someone else might be feeling is especially important as you want each member of the community to feel connected emotionally to one another. Empathy is also important in order to imagine what another person is thinking in order to give them feedback on a creative project. To give helpful feedback, you want to attempt to understand what the author or poet was attempting to do. You want to strive to see what the writer sees in order to give him feedback he can use to improve the original vision he had for the piece of writing.

C.O.R.E. may not work for your class, but the activity of students arriving at norms that set social and emotional boundaries for the whole group creates investment and community when you need it during those uncomfortable and sometimes awkward first days of school.

 

New Teacher Series/Question 6: How regimented should I be during the first few days of school?

Regimented, as in organized, controlled, and on top of your game? Yes. Regimented as in mean, militaristic, and Machiavellian?  No, no, no.

There should be clear consequences of ignoring your classroom expectations, and you should be ready to address those during the first two weeks when students test your boundaries, but how you address those behaviors will set the tone of trust, respect and positivity for the rest of the year.

New teachers are often told “don’t smile until Christmas,” and several very successful teachers I know run their class like a boot camp until October, but ultimately, every teacher works out her management style through trial and error. Personally, I could not drive to a job every day for five months where I couldn’t smile.  And even though I can be very intimidating, I have zero drill sergeant skills, so boot camping is not an option for me.

My approach is more like, “I’m a professional teacher who wants to arm you with the tools for a better life and help you discover and respect your own mind.  I will expect nothing less than your best. I will honor that by bringing my best. I will not waste your time with busy work, but you will not waste my time with drama and trifling. In this class, we are about learning, as individuals and as a community.  I take my role very seriously, and you should know your role too.  You will be a better thinker, writer, reader, and human being for having been in my class.”

Think this to yourself every day.  Walk into that classroom with this disposition on your face.  Then make it happen. Exude positivity and confidence.  You can truly change their lives.  Believe that.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Connect with every kid that first week. This could be a home visit, a letter, or a call home just to say hello to her parents. Ask your bandies what instrument they play. Ask your ballers about their strengths. Ask your corner reader if she has read X; if she hasn’t, give her a copy to take home.  These small things state an important message to kids:   I see you. I see you as an individual.  I know you.  In high school, especially, kids can move through the day and never have a meaningful conversation with an adult if they don’t want to. Make sure every kid is on your radar every day.
  2. Greet kids by name, welcome them, and then immediately engage them. If you haven’t read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, you need to read it.  Wong suggests you stand at your door and welcome kids with smiles and instructions. They will be nervous that first day.  Be positive, be inviting.  Check out these step-by-step scripts for a smooth first day.
  3. Good idea – Always explain why a rule is a rule. Better idea – let the kids create the classroom norms. They will create seriously good rules, and there’s immediate buy-in because they’ve established their own boundaries.   Make sure kids see why the rules you (or they) have chosen serve the community. Make sure they understand how the rules protect and aid everyone.
  4. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. They’re watching you. Students want to know if you’re one of those teachers who has rules, but doesn’t really enforce them.  They’ll know this in two days.   Address every infraction in a calm, confident and firm manner.  Remember, you are the adult in the room. You don’t have to threaten, scream, or belittle kids; deal with everything explicitly, stating this is what you’re doing, this is the rule, this is what I expect.  And don’t wear everybody out with giving a dozen warnings. Act fairly and decisively.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  5. Make the consequence match the offense. The consequences should be established long before the rule is broken. Deal with small offenses in your classroom, and lean on your administrators for the big stuff. Don’t send kids to the office because they didn’t bring a pencil. And always be fair.  If your favorite kid in the class is breaking a rule, exact the same consequence as if another kid had broken it.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  6. Always be alert. You can sense a shift from positive to negative energy.  When you feel that shift, move quickly to bring things back in line with your lesson.  Step into a group, shift focus, crack a joke.   Every kid in that room is just as exhausted by drama as you are.  They want you to deal with the issue.
  7. Never create a show-down with a student. If you yell across the room at a kid for doing something, all heads swivel.  You’ve now put her in the position to either comply or tell you to go jump in the lake.  You can imagine which one she’ll choose.  Don’t ask kids to make choices like that; you will lose.   Move in close, address the offender quietly by name, tell her exactly how she can get back on task. State the offending behavior, state the correct behavior, give her an opportunity to change.
  8. Being prepared, professional, and positive will curb 95% of all classroom management issues. Being prepared will guarantee your students are engaged which cuts down on chicanery.   Sometime between now and when school starts, read Teach Like a Champion 2.0 , which offers 62 strategies for engaging students and maintaining high expectations.  The book also comes with a DVD with over 70 videos of real teachers using these strategies.
  9. Don’t let kids talk over you. I’m always surprised by how many teachers allow this. If I’m giving instructions or explaining something, I expect all kids to be listening. Do not tax them with long, boring lectures, but expect them to listen when you are speaking.   Deal with the offenders individually; don’t punish the whole class.
  10. Always be real, which sometimes means pretending you’re a better person than you really are. To paraphrase Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. Every teacher must know when to use the hammer and when to use the kid gloves. You need to be versatile and self-aware enough to tap into which persona the situation demands:  the magician, the healer, the listener, the guru, the crazy aunt, the wise sage, the storyteller, the performer, or the professional.  And at the center of all these multitudes is an authentic person who is honest and caring, led by an ethical vision that far exceeds whatever is educationally trendy.

 

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/Question 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

I was 23 years old with a degree in English and a Kentucky teaching certificate.  Just legal enough to be dangerous. My first job was in a rural, independent school with grades K-12 in one building. The graduating class had 32 kids. I was given no syllabus, no curriculum, only a textbook, a student handbook, and a calendar from the Army recruiter who stopped by my room while I cleaned the four inches of chalk dust that had settled on everything in sight.

I started that first day with some games and journaling prompts with zero instructional value or connection. My college of ed professor had promised these would promote “a robust marketplace of ideas.” Those students indulged my lameness for exactly two days, then the honeymoon was over. For weeks, they defied me openly or ignored me and went to sleep.  When I tried to get control of the class, they were angry with me for not going along with the no- expectations contract I had unknowingly signed that first day.

As bad as that school year was for me, I’m sure it was even worse for my students.  I was immature, unprepared, and inexperienced. I didn’t feel like a real teacher, so I didn’t act like one.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t understand the gravity of my role.  I didn’t even have appropriate clothes.  I didn’t understand how to communicate effectively, how to forge relationships, how to be empathetic while also being emphatic.

In no particular order, and leaving out about 200 more, here are my five biggest first-year mistakes, and my suggestions for avoiding them:

  • I had no idea how to actually teach anything. In college I studied literature and composition. I had exactly six education classes (one which taught us how to put a cassette in a tape player and push “on”) plus student teaching.  I knew how to write a lesson plan. I knew how to write a philosophy of education statement. I was a proficient reader and writer, but I had no idea how to take what I did intuitively and break it down in steps to help someone who was struggling.

Tip: Learning occurs at the intersection of desire and need, so get to know your students. Figure out what they need, what they want, and what they care about.  Tap into their prior knowledge and help them make connections.  Teach skills in the context of student interests and ask open-ended questions.  Learn how to break down a complex concept like reading or writing into its elemental components, and explain those components in clear, simple language, so a 17-year-old who reads on a second grade level can understand you and still maintain his dignity.

  • I did not set clear expectations for my classroom, my students, or myself. Setting clear and high expectations for academic success and helping your students meet those expectations is the cornerstone of education. Expectations are not rules; they are statements that set the bar and establish the culture of your classroom’s community.

Tip: Expectations should be both high and simple.  They should be posted and communicated to your students in positive language.   Don’t be a hypocrite; make sure you model those expectations every day by how you talk, dress, prepare lessons, and conduct business.

  • I did not establish classroom protocols. The organizational side of teaching with its hundred moving parts can murder, bury and say Mass over a new teacher.  I was cluttered, disorganized and frantic, which was exhausting and crazy-making.  Instead of establishing procedures that would have provided peace and stability, I made contradictory, from-the-hip decisions and was forced to put out the fires my inexperience had started.

Tip: Establish a simple procedure for every element of classroom business (how to deal with cell phones, make-up work, homework collection and return, tardiness, plagiarism, cheating, hall passes, attendance, tutoring, parent contacts, detention, etc.) Communicate these procedures also in positive language to students.  Once you’ve established simple, efficient protocols, maintain them from the first week onward.

  • I didn’t understand how to manage my time – either in class or in my private life. Transitions between activities took longer than I expected or an activity was finished in 15 minutes, and I had 30 minutes of dead air on my hands. I didn’t understand how to stall or accelerate an activity on the fly, and I didn’t yet have a compendium of exercises I could whip out to manage dead time. Also, that first year, I worked at least 80 hours a week. Every teaching day was a 14-hour day, and I would spend my weekends planning lessons and grading homework.

Tip: Do every activity you plan for your students and time yourself; figure out how much time students need to transition from one activity to the next.  In your private life, practice self-care. Indulge in a non-teaching hobby. The world will not stop spinning if you don’t finish grading that last set of essay questions. Get 8 hours of sleep.  Exercise, drink plenty of water, and go out with friends who make you laugh hysterically.   When you are with kids all day, sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be an adult.

  • I didn’t know how to connect with students. I took everything personally.  I fell into two speeds – either passive and avoidant so I could just get through the day or furious and volatile, exacting punishments on the whole classroom when only one kid was out of line. After the first semester when I cried once a week, the second semester I got bitter and mean. I hated those kids, and they hated me.

Tip:  See student outbursts for what they are:  frustrations at life, of which you are only a very, very small part. Do not get defensive. Be patient, kind, and slow to blame.  Be curious, not furious when a student acts out.  Set emotional and physical boundaries for yourself to avoid being sucked into student drama. Learn to disengage while practicing empathy and support.