More Tools: Edutopia Stikes Again

Last week when I shared some tools for teaching students who are hard to reach I said that I wanted to focus on things that could be of practical use to you in the current setting.  This week I want to share a great piece that I came across titled 7 High-Impact, Evidence-Based Tips for Online Teaching.  I’d encourage you to have a look at this list and pick one to focus on for the week.  If you feel like more than one could be helpful to you, feel free to dig in and keep going but I’m strongly recommending starting with one!  Have a look at the full article here.  Each of the tips comes with an explanation and some practical tools to help you accomplish the specific advice.  To get you started these are the seven tips included:

  1. Your virtual classroom is a real learning space – keep it organized
  2. Chunk your lessons into smaller, digestible pieces
  3. The best online teachers solicit lots of feedback
  4. Annotate and interject to scaffold learning
  5. Frequent, low stakes quizzes are easy to do, and highly effective
  6. Fight the isolation of remote learning by connecting with your students
  7. Take care of yourself

I know that you are doing some of these things already.  For many of you this list may just be a good reminder to refocus your attention to some of the things that you already know to be important.  I also know that some of us are at the point of saying, “I’m doing all that I can, I don’t need more things to worry about!”  If that’s the case, then by all means don’t worry about any of this.  Thanks for reading anyway 🙂

Thank you to everyone for all that you do for our students!!!

P.S. – One bonus tool for anyone looking to make a virtual word wall for your students.  This video is super helpful at demonstrating how to create your own virtual word wall and this link (@MrsParkShine is a great follow on Twitter!) will take you to a template (File, Make a Copy) that will save you lots of time on the front end!!

Reaching the Hard to Teach During Remote Learning

Last week I met with a team focused on supporting students of concern, especially those who have been hard to teach during remote learning.  This past weekend, I was introduced to a recently published book by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie called The Distance Learning Playbook (yeah, they didn’t waste any time getting that published!)  While I was looking through the book there was a particular section that caught my attention, probably because it’s been on my mind ever since that meeting last week – Reaching the Hard to Teach.

The authors suggest a couple pretty low-effort strategies that could really jump start the process of engaging some of those students who’ve been hardest to reach (for whatever reason) during remote learning.  Mind you, in this instance we’re talking about those students who are showing up but aren’t engaging much beyond that.  (For those who aren’t showing up, please be in touch with your grade-level counselor and social worker for support.)  Essentially, the authors suggest making a deliberate effort to shift the dynamic with those hard to reach students.  

I’m attaching two charts, from the book, that will help you think intentionally about those students who have been hard to reach.  The first is a chart to track specific behaviors, it could help engage those students and (hopefully) shift that dynamic.  The authors noted, “Many of these behaviors seem to come naturally, at least when it comes to those students with whom we have a positive relationship.  But it takes deliberate action to disrupt established communication patterns that are avoidant in nature” (Douglas et. al., 2021, p. 57).  It would be very worth the time and effort to print this chart and use it for at least four or five days, tracking interactions with those students who you’ve found it hard to reach during remote learning.  

After you’ve collected this data, for at least a week or so, take some time to reflect on both the data and any possible changes that you’ve noticed in the interactions with those students you’ve targeted.  You can use the second attachment to help you reflect on this data; these three questions will help guide your thinking.  Please note, this is not a cure-all and may challenge your thinking.  If you’re unsure, remember, no one has to know you’ve gone through this process.  You can do this completely on your own and don’t have to share it with anyone, so what do you have to lose?  (I’d love to hear from you if you do try it, especially if you feel like it was beneficial!!)

I’m particularly fond of this strategy because I’ve done something similar in the past.  As a new assistant principal I found myself at odds with a small handful of kids.  Some would call them troublemakers (I likely did at the time) but others (hopefully me today) would see them as kids who required a little more effort from me.  Luckily, I had an amazing mentor who challenged me to focus on my relationship with these students.  He encouraged me to look for opportunities to engage with them when they weren’t in trouble; positive interactions or even just neutral interactions went a long way.  By doing this I was able to restore some of the broken relationships that I’d had with these students.  This has been a strategy I’ve employed throughout my career as an administrator, working hard to build a relationship with those students who I will likely encounter most often for negative reasons.  I believe, actually, that it has decreased the amount of times I’ve seen them for negative reasons because it shifted our potential dynamic before it even happened!

I’m pretty confident that every teacher in the world who is participating in this remote learning experiment could benefit from partaking in this exercise.  I don’t think it will take you much time but it will require a small amount of focus and dedication.  In the end, I think it will pay off on some level with those students who you choose to focus on…it’s certainly worth a try!!

Note:  If you’re keen to buy the book you can get it a bit cheaper off their website (linked above) but I got it on Amazon and it came within 24 hours!

26 Things You Forgot You Knew

We’ve had a busy last week and it took until the end of it to finally start feeling some continuity and flow around here.  Student Goals Conferences on Wednesday aided to the feeling of disjointedness but I hope they were as valuable for you as they were for me.  On Wednesday and I had a lot of great conversations with students, parents, and teachers.  Many of those discussions came back around to things we’ve talked about before.  If it wasn’t me saying it, then is was usually the other person in the conversation, something to the effect of “this is a good reminder of what we need to be doing.”   

How easy it is for us to lose sight of things that we’ve previously viewed as priorities.  At the beginning of the year we talked a lot about building positive relationships with our students, we’ve come back to this at various times throughout the year but it seems to be one of those things that we overlook or assume has already happened and therefore can be forgotten.  However, those relationships don’t end…ever…especially when we are talking about teenagers!!  In fact, it is probably even more crucial to focus on relationships when you consider the culture our students come from, one that is very social and relationship focused.

I was once again reminded of the importance of these relationships when I came across a great piece called “26 Research-Based Tips You Can Use in the Classroom Tomorrow”.  I’m a huge fan of “ready to use” tools and these 26 tips are just that!  Some of them may be more relevant to you than others but there are a few that I think everyone would really benefit from thinking about and prioritizing (for more information on these select examples, click the link above):

Tip #1:   Focusing on building positive relationships by greeting students at the door and starting off with a positive comment, research indicates that it can improve student engagement by as much as 27%!!  

Tip #3:  We’ve talked before about the value of trying new classroom arrangements and making seating a priority for learning.  The study referenced in “tip #3” discusses the benefits and disadvantages of different types of seating arrangements.  However, most importantly, it points out that no matter the arrangement, when moving kids from the “back” to the “front” of the classroom their academic achievement increases.  Obviously you can’t sit everyone in “front” all the time but consciously changing seating arrangements and groupings to rotate kids for their benefit can have a very positive impact.

Tip #12:  The classic “turn and talk” strategy strikes again.  In this ready to use tip we’re reminded that recalling and using information we’ve just learned can help us retain it.  Have your kids briefly discuss new information shortly after learning it to help imprint it more solidly in their minds.  Ever learned someone’s name and repeated it to yourself a few times…yup, you’re doing the same thing!

Tip #16:  Do you ever have the feeling that your students think they understand something better than they actually do?  Well, it’s true…most people actually experience this phenomenon.  For more complex topics (research doesn’t show positive results for more basic concepts) have students think or write about their understanding of the topic, this could be a good “exit ticket” prompt.  This will help them (and, in the case of the exit ticket, it will help you too) realize their gaps in the understanding…now the trick is getting them to fill in those gaps!!

Tip #20:  I found this tip especially interesting.  While many of these things felt like good reminders, this tip was new for me.  Don’t put text on your PowerPoint Slides!  The double input of reading and hearing the information creates something called “cognitive overload” and can prevent people from actually retaining the information.  This article is very interesting and definitely worth exploring a bit more, especially if you’re a frequent PowerPoint presenter!  

Tip #22:  Lastly, and again something new for me, comes this tip that seems a bit like plain, old common sense.  The use of multiple choice assessments may actually be causing your students to learn the wrong information.  By presenting them with wrong answers to consider they may be internalizing those wrong answers as correct.  Better to go with fill in the blank or short answer.  While more time consuming to create and assess these will help your students better learn and recall important information.  

Okay, my intention was to only share five tips but I got a little carried away (what’s new?!?)  This article is definitely worth a look as the other 20 tips are also very helpful and applicable to many of your contexts.

I wrote recently about re-prioritizing and focusing our efforts on what is most important.  This article is a helpful reminder about some of those things that may need to be prioritized in our classrooms.  Take a look and see what will work for you.  Just like the title of the article suggests, these are things you can start using tomorrow 🙂


5 Ways to Engage Young Readers

It seems like yesterday that I was coming to the end of my first year of teaching and finally starting to figure a few things out about what it meant to engage young readers.  My first teaching job was a Teach For America assignment at Youngblood Intermediate School in Alief ISD, on the southwest side of Houston, Texas.  My 6th grade Language Arts classes were a diverse mix of cultures, all low socio-economic, and almost all “non-readers”.  I worked hard to change that and turn them into“readers”.  They grew an average of almost two grade levels in reading during their 6th grade year – but how?

At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no idea really.  I was flying by the seat of my pants and existing on a steady diet of trial-and-error.  I worked closely with another teacher who taught 5th grade in the same school.  We lived in the same apartment complex and carpooled to work most days, the 30 minute drive gave us lots of time to debate possible strategies for engaging our young students.  Here are, in MY order of importance, 5 of the most successful and easy to use ways to engage young readers that we came up with:

Build a Classroom Library 

This sounds obvious, I mean what Language Arts teacher doesn’t know that?  I agree, it’s obvious, but I’m shocked by how many classrooms I walk into that have little to no so semblance of a classroom library (ALL classrooms should have a library, non-LA teachers don’t need a huge collection but should have something).  At the end of my two years working at Youngblood I had almost 500 unique titles and they were being regularly read (unlike some classroom libraries that collect dust).  A successful classroom library will include engaging titles and books that excite the readers in the room.  I will write more on how I created such my classroom library (I was up to 1000 books before I moved to China and left them behind) in another post.  For now…start building your classroom library, no matter what subject you teach!!!  

  • Bonus tip:  Even when my library was huge I still went to the school library and checked out 20-25 higher level (but short) nonfiction books that remained in the classroom.  Lots of kids liked to read these once in awhile.  I tried to find those that connected to current units in Science, Math, SS, Art, etc.

Set the Expectation and Then MODEL  

This is the old “walk the walk” thing.  It’s so simple, yet so effective.  You can’t just tell kids to read and then go grade papers, you need to give them time to read in the classroom (more on this later) and sit down and read alongside of them.  This is prime time to really learn the young adult genre (more on this later too) with it’s ever-growing amount of fantastic books.  When your kids see that you’re reading Harry Potter (that’s where I started since I had never read them) they’ll want to try it too!  When it’s time to read, pick up a YA book and join the fun!

Develop a System for Accountability

This one is tricky, very.  I’ve seen everything from the very basic reading log to independent book projects to Accelerated Reader (AR).  While at Youngblood I used our AR system and set a required minimum of points.  It took a lot of oversight for the kids who tried to game the system but in the end it worked well and the “gamers” eventually realized it’d be easier just to read then beat me at their game 🙂  The reason accountability for “reading for enjoyment” is so tricky is because you don’t want to create a disincentive to read.  If kids start thinking, “Oh man, I have to write a book report at the end of this book” then they aren’t going to want to read very often.  The beautiful thing about AR was that it provided a comprehension quiz for hundreds of thousands of books, kids who could pass these quizzes at an acceptable rate demonstrated that they had read and understood a certain book.  The quizzes were relatively painless (if they read and understood the book) and kids accumulated points with which they earned certificates and medals.  I also took quizzes and accumulated points, there were two or three kids each year who would out read me!  Of course we did plenty of independent reading projects but the AR system allowed kids to read at any rate they’d like without being slowed down by big book reports or projects every time they read a book.

Build Endurance  

I didn’t realize this had happened until long after I left Alief but I’m 100% confident that it helped my students develop into “readers” and, as a bonus, played a part in the success my students saw on their standardized test scores.  Start the year expecting kids to be focused and reading in class for no more than 10 minutes at a time, every day.  After a couple weeks of successfully reading 10 minutes each day, extend the time.  Push them until they are reading 20-30 minutes with no problem (depending on the age group, this shouldn’t take more than 3-4 weeks if things are going well).  Since I had no idea what I was doing, when my kids begged for more time to read, I would let them (especially on Fridays and any day after our standardized test season had ended).  We had gotten to a point at the end of the year where all 35 kids could read for an hour straight without anyone losing focus…it was simply amazing and all totally achieved by luck!  I strongly believe that their increased stamina for reading paid off in the way of extremely impressive standardized test scores.  These tests can take 3-4 hours, and for some kids upwards of 6 hours.  My kids did really well, not just on the reading but on the math too!  My students, because they’d built stamina while reading for enjoyment, were able to focus for longer periods of time and thus excel on their standardized tests that year.  More importantly, this stamina also allowed them to take books home and reading for hours at a time each night…much better than most of the alternatives!  

Learn the Young Adult Genre 

It was all Beverly Cleary and Where the Red Fern Grows when I was a kid.  Not much variety to choose from.  Today…wow…there is no shortage of absolutely fantastic YA literature available.  I wouldn’t recommend reading a whole series (unless you’re really into it) as it will eat up your valuable reading time.  Reading the first book in a series gives you plenty of insight as to what to expect.  Being able to recommend books to kids based on personal reading experience is one of the most valuable tools for engaging kids.  I strongly believe that all it takes is one great book and you’re able to hook even the most reluctant reader.  Push outside of your comfort zone.  Reading Twilight was one of the best things I did for expanding my horizons.  It was brutal for a 20-something such as myself but it allowed me to understand what so many of my students were excited about, then I just needed to find more like it.  This brings me to one of the most important tips, talk to your students and learn about what they’re reading.  I can’t tell you how many times I read a book because it was recommended by a student…I read things like Twilight because of student recommendations and they almost always wound up as the most popular selections.

All of this takes time but, frankly, it’s time you can’t afford to spend any other way.  Engaging our young readers is one of the most challenging (and important) things we do as educators.  Some students come in already hooked, thank you parents, but they still need their teacher to push them and expand their horizons.  The strategies listed above take time and effort but in the end they are all relatively easy in the long range scheme of things.  Enjoy the process and, even better, enjoy watching your students blossom as young readers!


It Takes a Village To Raise a Child – Successfully

The first semester is quickly coming to a close and a number of students’ names have come my way for having late and missing assignments.  I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about strategies for holding our students accountable to their work.  It seems that whether we’re talking about a 6th grade student or a high school senior, the conversation goes the same way.  Often times, as responsible adults, we have a hard time figuring out what is preventing these young adults from living up to the expectations we’ve laid out for them.  

I don’t think there is any one “problem” or “issue” that is common to all students struggling to meet expectations.  In fact, there usually isn’t even a common factor when I sit down and look at a small group of 6th grade boys, for example.  Every student has different struggles and they usually are experiencing these difficulties for various reasons.  There are myriad factors that play into the development of a young mind and trying to place our thumbs on any one “problem” is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As I sat back and thought about all of the different struggles that our students experience and considered their excuses (I think I could write a pretty long book full of the different excuses I’ve heard over the years!) I tried to think back to my first days as a teacher and recall the strategies I’ve used to help hold kids accountable.  To be perfectly honest, the list is long and it’s full of failed attempts but in the end there are two strategies that, when combined, have achieved the most success.

Just for kicks, let’s see…In the early years, there was the guilt trip which was very successful at drawing forth tears and a careful analysis of footwear (lots of hung heads and feeling ashamed).  There were also the whole class heart-to-heart sessions about responsibility, these seemed to have an immediate but very short term effect…I just didn’t have the time or energy to pull these out twice a week!  Then there were the raised voice conversations, random calls home, and sending students to the ‘in-school-suspension’ room.  None of these did anything for the students’ responsibility levels and they most certainly didn’t help me build any form of positive relationship.

I learned though, thankfully, and I turned my attention to more positive motivators.  I gave raffle tickets to those who completed their work, we started a challenge with other classes to see which class could have the most consecutive days of homework completed by everyone in the room, I wrote positive notes home for kids who finally turned in homework on time, and I praised, praised, and praised some more.  While these alternatives helped me form better relationships I still saw little progress towards increasing levels of responsibility among the students of concern.

To be perfectly honest, I know I haven’t solved the riddle yet and I’m most certainly not done pursuing better options.  However, over the last couple years I’ve employed a combination of two strategies that have led to increased responsibility over the long term and also led to positive relationships.

These two strategies are certainly not rocket science but they do require a level of dedication that will take a concerted effort to maintain.  So, what are they already, right?!

 Consistency is Key:  Many people, and young adults are no different, need consistency in their lives.  The students who struggle to meet expectations for timeliness and responsibility most certainly fall into this category.  The first thing we need to provide for our students is a level of consistency that might even border on manic.  As these young minds develop they are facing so many changes, stressors, and emotions that anything outside of a routine will easily become lost in the shuffle.  Establish precise routines for your classes.  For certain students who you’ve noticed struggling even more than the usual, increase the rigidity in their routines.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

    • Post a detailed daily agenda in a visible place that will remain for the entire class period (build in small breaks that will act as targets/checkpoints.)
    • Ensure that students use a consistent system of organization (agenda, digital calendar, etc)
    • Post any homework or outside of class responsibilities in the same place each day AND give kids sufficient dedicated time to record their homework in a(n) agenda/digital calendar each class period.
    • Create a dedicated “inbox” for completed work and/or ONE specific system for turning in digital assignments.
    • Remind students about long term assignments every class period AND check-in on progress toward the long term goal.
    • Make time at the beginning (waiting until the end doesn’t work, trust me) of each class to check-in with students who need reminders, never let a class pass without this happening…remember, consistency is key!
    • Change up other routines to encourage flexibility…I know this seems to fly in the face of the whole point but try things like:  Changing the seating arrangement, seating chart, groups, or elbow partners.  Also, keep your bulletin boards fresh, rotate student work displays, and keep your room current.  

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child:  The African proverb is so popular and has been around so long for a reason…it’s true!  Students who require the most effort and attention will need the whole “village” to be involved.  Communicate with your grade level teams, share and harmonize strategies, and include other support (Sped, ELL, Counselors, Admin, etc) as necessary.  Similarly, communicate with the parents in a positive and supportive manner.  As a team share the strategies that are being employed, ask for support, and let them know that this is a team effort.  Last and definitely not least, include the student in the conversations as often as possible.  They need to understand their role in their success.  Try:

    1. When an assignment is late, or better yet about to be due, send the student a reminder email and CC the parents and other relevant support.
    2. Let students know that they should be proud of themselves when they do well.  Building the intrinsic sense of achievement is exponentially more powerful than letting them know you’re proud of them.  Try, “You should be proud of yourself for…” instead of “I’m proud of you…”  They will still know you’re proud of them but it also sends a message that they should be working for themselves, not to please you!  Remember, you won’t always be there to be proud of them!!
    3. Use Growth Mindset language with your students.
    4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to have all relevant stakeholders involved in the process of supporting a struggling student.

You can try yelling at students, ignoring the problem, or giving them detention, some of these will make you feel better but at the end of the day these strategies will achieve nothing more than a acidic relationship and a distaste for your subject or class.  By this point I’m 100% sure that you already have a small list of students in your mind.  Consider the strategies you’ve employed thus far and think about what alternations may be needed to help improve the level of success they are experiencing in school.  Finally, please involve me in the conversations.  As I hope you know by now, helping struggling students is one of my passions as an educator.  Every teacher in history has had students who’ve struggled for one reason or another, let’s work together to help those students succeed!

Get ‘Em Up and Moving

We’re almost there, we can all feel the break just around the corner.  It’s been four long months and the kids are feeling it too.  I can’t tell you how many teachers I’ve heard mentioning that the kids just can’t sit still, they’re so ready for break!  

Then, right on cue, the world started sending all sorts of awesome information at me about brain breaks (thanks Betsy!), the importance of movement in classes, and the implications of sitting still.  I know that many of you agree that getting kids moving is important but the challenge is figuring out how to do that while still ensuring the learning you want to happen.  I think the important thing to remember here is that, movement will lead to learning…perhaps substantially more learning!

If learning is our objective at school (I think we all agree that it is) then our classes are just too long for our kids to be stuck in their desks/tables for the duration, not to mention how unhealthy sitting can be.  So how do we get our kids up and out of their desks?

My first recommendation is perhaps the most important piece of all when it comes to a change like this:  Loosen up, relax, and allow your kids the responsibility to make good choices.  This is going to be very hard!  Sometimes, I’m sure you’ve already got a few kids in mind, this sort of responsibility is just too much to handle for certain students.  In that case, they need to be given the chance to prove that they aren’t yet ready for the increased level of freedom.  Similarly, this is going to be hard for you.  Releasing that level of control is hard, I want to encourage you to do this slowly – no need to rush!  That being said, give it a try.

Okay, so you’ve loosened up and you’re ready to increase the movement in your classroom.  To get started, try some of these strategies or at least a version of them.  In particular I like the musical chairs suggestion.  This can function just like a “think-pair-share” or a “turn and talk” but it gets the kids up and moving, as well as talking to different people.  It is a very “ready to use” strategy that will take little to no effort to incorporate into lessons.  Doing this, even two times during a lesson will change the entire dynamic of your classroom!!  

If you’re still not convinced I encourage you to have a look at this article.  A lot of the research floating around right now has to do with younger kids BUT I guarantee that these ideas would be good practice for middle and high school age kids.  Get them up and moving, they might think it’s silly and resist at first but take the risk and you will see the results!  

Finally…dance parties are fun for ALL ages 🙂

We’re a week away from a much deserved break, hang in there!  Give some of these strategies a try next week or when we come back in January, I am confident that you will find that the learning opportunities increase the second you start implementing more movement into your lessons.

Ready-to-Use Tools: Strategies for Working with Challenging Students

Nothing is more valuable than a teacher’s time and energy! Often times those precious resources get monopolized by a few challenging students while the other students in a class are left to fend for themselves. Our students are no different than the rest of the population; some require more time and effort than others. Personally, it’s the challenging students that excite me and drive my love for working in education. Ever since my first days as a teacher I’ve had a soft spot for the kids that others may see as a bit “crazy” or high-maintenance. I don’t disagree that difficult students can be frustrating and tiring but I also embrace the challenges that accompany these students and enjoy the roller coaster ride of emotions that comes with the task.

Realizing that not everyone agrees with my opinions, I thought it would be beneficial to provide some suggestions and strategies for working with this brand of student:

  1. Build the Personal Connection:

This is often the hardest thing to do with students who are the biggest challenge, not because it’s a difficult task but because it requires so much patience for a student who is already taking a lot of your time and effort. However, the dedicated attempts to build a relationship with these students will pay off many times over once that connection is established. Try some of these easy ideas:

    1. Meet your students at the door with a handshake, high-five, fist-bump, and a friendly smile each and every class period while welcoming them to class. (Also recommended: An entrance procedure and a regular beginning of class routine for students to enter into once they’ve been greeted.)
    2. Ask your students questions about themselves! Simple questions about their weekend will lead to information about their interests. Remember their interests; keep written notes if necessary and follow up with more conversation in the future.
    3. Get out and support them. There’s no better way to show a kid that you’re in their corner than by showing up on the sidelines, backstage, or front row at their performances, games, etc.
    4. Make positive contacts with the parents. Call, e-mail, or meet them in person; do this early and often. If a student has recently become a challenge, balance the bad with good. Parents who only see/hear negative messages about their little angels will be the first to turn against you.
  1. Watch Your Language:

How you talk to your students matters; that much is obvious. At times, it’s not just the tone, the words, or even the message that is the most important. Motivation and mindset are huge pieces of helping to build a child’s self-esteem. You’re not always going to be there to support this student as they move through life; it needs to be something they can do on their own. Intrinsic motivation and the understanding that hard work and effort can and will pay off are especially crucial for your most challenging cases. Often times it’s the toughest kids who have the lowest self-esteem. Help them build their self-worth by beginning to watch your language:

Challenging Students

  1. Be Proactive and Create Success

Often times our communication of satisfaction can be vague and brief. It is important to point out exactly what behavior you are noticing without judgment. When a challenging student cleans his art supplies as you have requested, a simple “thank you” is too general and broad to have a lasting impact. Instead, let the student know you’ve noticed by saying, “You cleaned all of your brushes and your work station is spotless!” This specific feedback gives no judgment of the situation but it acknowledges that you’ve noticed and the student will know that they’ve been recognized. This strategy allows the teacher to slowly work past the defense mechanisms that challenging students build up to criticism. Keep at it and be consistent, students need to be recognized; they don’t need to be judged!

  1. Pay Them with the Right Energy

 Challenging students need attention, there is no question about that, but by focusing the timing and type of attention you can begin to foster more positive interactions with troublesome children. With difficult students we almost always give them negative attention immediately after they break the rules, thus reinforcing their behavior with energy. In order to promote success, and therefore a more positive approach, it is crucial to zero in on positives. With challenging students, focus on the behaviors that are non-negative. In other words, celebrate the smallest things even if they may seem like no big deal, especially at the beginning of this process when every little thing counts! Don’t wait around in an attempt to catch them doing well, create the success by instigating opportunities for success and celebrating anything possible.

 Challenging students often elicit an avoidance response from teachers when they aren’t acting out. It’s natural, a student takes up so much energy when they are off-task, then when they are actually behaving we revel in the freedom and tend to ignore them. Instead of avoiding a challenging student, focus on their non-negative behaviors and celebrate them. It won’t happen over night but over time these small successes will gather momentum and begin to pull that negative student up.

  1. Fill Your Emotional Bucket

 Challenging students are going to wear you down; it’s natural. Knowing that and keeping it in mind is crucial to success with difficult students. Our students aren’t like significant others who we can break up with and move away from if we don’t get along, working together with challenging students is essential. Reflect on your successes with these students, celebrate them, and enjoy the positive moments as much as possible. You’ll see growth and you’ll see progress and it will make your day when you do! However, just like Dr. Seuss has taught us, you’ll have you’re slumps and so will your students. There will be days when that challenging student who seemed to have turned a huge corner has a hiccup and reverts back to their old habits. It will be tough but in those times it is more crucial than ever that you are patient and understanding. No one, even challenging students, forgets who was there for them during the hard times and on the bad days!!

We work in a job that often times feels thankless; it’s not easy to do these things when you feel under appreciated. Know this — you are appreciated and loved! Perhaps your students don’t have the social-emotional abilities to communicate their appreciation to you but they love you! Look for it in small places: Their growth in your subject, the way they smile as they enter your classroom, the small and sometimes weird things they noticed about you (Did you get new shoes? You cut your hair! Why do you drink coffee from the same mug every day?) and for us middle school people, just the acknowledgement that you exist is sometimes a huge sign of respect and appreciation!

Everyday we come to work ready for a new adventure, we know the toils and challenges of being a teacher and understand the benefits that come with our role. Challenging students are an inevitability of our job. They’re the “crazy” ones, they’re the ones that make me love coming to work every day, and they’re the geniuses!!


Ready-to-use Tools: Checking for Understanding

Recently I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about checking for understanding and using on-the-spot assessment strategies to figure out which students have gaps in their learning and, perhaps more importantly, where those gaps are occurring.  In my last two cents I asked the questions: ‘How do you know your students are actually learning what you want them to?’ and ‘When your students leave the classroom, do you know how well each of them understood the day’s objective?’  Since writing that piece I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this topic and I would like to offer a few of the best tips I’ve come across.  Keep in mind that this brand of assessment is not just a simple check-list of tips and tricks but rather something akin to a chess game, in which your next move needs to be dictated by the response and actions of your students.  These strategies are a good place to dip your toe into the water, so to speak.  They’ll give you a foundation to start with, they aren’t magical in any way, but employing these strategies will improve the learning in your classroom.  Have a look and try some out in your class.  My tip, start with number one and add a few others, it is essential!

1.    Take them to teacher’s college:

Our students are smart, they’re perceptive, they get it, and most of all, they like knowing what’s going on!  Explain the new strategies you’ll be employing in class, have a conversation with your students about what you’ll be doing and why.  Let them join the conversation.  When they’re aware of the strategy being used they can understand the intended results, which leads to increased awareness and engagement.  Inform the kids, they’ll buy in, and you’ll be amazed at their responses and the feedback you can receive when students are part of the conversation!

2.    Learn to teach with no hands:

Riding a bike with no hands takes practice and, for some, can be a daunting task (especially in China!)  Teaching with no hands may put you out of your comfort zone as well.  What do I mean?  What would happen if kids weren’t allowed to raise their hands to answer questions?  The best way to create an environment where participation is mandatory and expected from all students is to do just that, expect it from all students!  Popsicle sticks with names seem so 3rd grade but this strategy (we can call them equity sticks if that feels better) will ensure that all students are held accountable for thinking.  Ask the question (see below for strategies on questioning) before you choose the respondent.  If every student knows they may have to answer the question, they are all forced to engage and think.  This strategy may not be popular and it will take some time.  Explain it to kids, the eager students are going to feel frozen out (they can’t show off how much they know) and the quiet non-participants will be forced to contribute (*Note:  For your ESOL and reluctant students, try prepping them by letting them know you’ll be calling on them next and then forgoing the random draw for that particular question.  This allows more time to process and helps eliminate the nervousness of being cold-called.  You might also try “teacher’s choice”, “free pass”, “ask a neighbor”, “check my notes” and other ‘wild-card’ sticks to spice things up.)

3.    Questions that ‘work’ for everyone:

Okay, so if you’re calling on random students how do you prevent getting a bunch of “I don’t know” responses?  Allow ALL students to engage with your questions on multiple levels; don’t just ask questions that require a certain ‘correct’ answer, try some other options:

Check for Understanding Graphic

Example:  In math class, instead of solving a problem, give two problems and ask students to explain which problem is harder.  This requires everyone to solve the problem and allows for more advanced thinkers to ponder further, plus it allows you to discover where the misunderstandings lie for those who are struggling.  Another version of this may ask students to create a third problem that is similar to the original two problems, allowing the students to find commonalities and then create something new that fits into the group.

4.    Wait for it!

Slow down!  Too often we are in such a hurry to finish a lesson that we don’t check to make sure the intended learning is happening.  After asking a question, just wait, give students time to think and process.  ‘Wait time’ often comes with uncomfortable pauses but it also comes with increased participation and understanding.  If too many pauses feel uncomfortable, consider a think-pair-share followed by a journal entry routine.  Allow students a few seconds to think, then a few more to pair with a neighbor, and enough time to write a sentence or two in a special section of their notebooks.  Students can write their thinking or perhaps what they learned from their partner.  Then share, everyone should be able to share either their own answer or their neighbor’s.  The biggest issue with any ‘wait time’ strategy is the amount of time it takes, so plan ahead and budget appropriately while also picking your spots, find your balance.

 5.  Before anything else…”

Preparation is the key to success.  All of the strategies mentioned require time and effort in preparation.  Teachers who have been employing these strategies for many years need not plan much further in advance than a few minutes or even seconds.  However, if these are new to you, sit down beforehand and plan.  Look for places to include these strategies in your current lessons, plan time to have conversations with your students about their learning.  The amount of time and energy that one well thought out lesson may take is dwarfed by the incredible increases in learning gained from a prepared teacher!