Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rule #1 Move with a Sense of Urgency

When I was 15 or 16 years old, I started working for Ukrop's, a Richmond-based grocery chain that prided themselves on excellent customer service. It was my first job. In the training that I underwent before starting work, I was taught about moving with a sense of urgency. In my experiences, I realized why it was so necessary. In every job that I have had since, I've learned why it's important to have a sense of urgency. My students, too, will hopefully learn that it is important to move with a sense of urgency.

That phrase has stuck with me. It's now my No. 1 classroom rule. When teaching procedures last week, I couldn't emphasize enough to my students the importance of this rule. This is the ultimate rule to get my kids understanding my desire to maximize instructional time and cut out the nonsense.
Whether entering the classroom, taking materials out from their book bag, grabbing a sharpened pencil, going to the bathroom, or leaving at the end of class, I expect my students to always move with a sense of urgency.

In my classroom, I first model (with extreme exaggeration) what it looks like to NOT move with a sense of urgency. I model "lollygagging", talking to friends on their way out of the room, moving too slowly, trying to show off, sitting in their chair with a broken pencil for an extended period of time (as opposed to quickly remedying the situation), daydreaming, running down the hall, etc. Then, I let several  student volunteers model what it looks like to NOT move with a sense of urgency. This is always fun to watch as students begin to see how silly and meaningless some of their own pointless movements can be.

Then, my students model what it looks like to move with purpose. What it looks like to grab a pencil and go directly to their seats. What it looks like to quickly pack up their backpacks. What it looks like to walk down the hall with a sense of urgency. Not everyone gets it at first. I am hopeful that the rest will catch on. Why? Because...Urgency allows for progress and discourages lengthy transitions and wasted time. Urgency fosters an environment in which students are more aware, more alert, and more focused. Urgency keeps students enlivened and engaged.

John Kotter, professor at the Harvard Business School, says that "a true sense of urgency is rare...It has to be created and recreated."  For this reason, I model a sense of urgency in my teaching. I am constantly moving. I stand on chairs and desks. I climb on counters.  I got rid of my wooden stool this year. I rarely used it last year; I didn't want to be tempted by it this year.  I plan effectively in order to transition quickly. I walk swiftly throughout the building. I attempt to grade assignments in a timely fashion. This modeling, along with consistently enforcing and reinforcing the rule with students, attempts to create and recreate a true sense of urgency.

Though bought out a few years ago by Martin's, Ukrop's still owns their bakery. A recent ad for hire at the bakery said this:

Candidates must be self starting, motivated team players, detail oriented, willing to work with a sense of urgency in completing multiple tasks and ability to work a flexible schedule.

They still want workers that move with a sense of urgency. So do I.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Teaching Procedures

I believe that one of the most important days during the school year is the day I teach procedures. For me, that happens on Day 2 and part of Day 3. Day One is all about relationships--getting to know the students, helping them to get to know me a little bit, and building that rapport from the get-go.

When it comes to teaching procedures, I wanted to think about somebody who has to teach procedures often.  The first thing that came to mind happened to be a flight attendant demonstrating the proper technique to buckle your seat belt or reminding you to put your oxygen mask on before putting on your child. This was a convenient option since my classroom theme this year is "Soaring to Great Heights."  My intention will be to dress like a flight attendant, although I may not look as ideal as I envision because I do not own a pair of wings or a vest.  (UPDATE: A coworker of mine was kind enough to supply not just wings, but other "flight props" that I was able to display in the classroom. Her husband is a pilot...Thanks to her for helping bring this lesson together!)

This is the way that I have decided to arrange my classroom for this lesson:

When the students come in, they will receive a boarding pass that tells them where to sit. Besides showing the seat number, the boarding pass includes a welcome message and shows the "arrival" date of the SOL (end of course assessment), the time of the class, and my room number. It looks like this:

Alright, all set. Now, what will class time look like?  

As the students are finding their seat, I intend to play a video of a flight simulation from the cockpit similar to this one. I want to try to make the experience be as real and engaging as I can make it. 

Once all are situated, I go over my classroom rules. I use the rules that the principal at our school mandated last year, with one major addition: my favorite rule!

My classroom rules are:

  1. Move with a sense of urgency.**
  2. Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself.
  3. Follow directions the first time they are given.
  4. Don't use vulgarity or profanity.
  5. Be respectful at all times.
**Students will hear me say this over and over. I stick to it. Whether coming into class, going to the restroom, grabbing a pencil, or pulling something out of their book bags, my students learn very quickly the need to do things with purpose.  We first model what it looks like to NOT move with a sense of urgency. Then, the students model what it looks like to move with a sense of urgency.

Next, I have a PowerPoint as a visual aid as I explain and we rehearse many different procedures. Some of those procedures include:
  • entering the classroom
  • Do Nows!
  • finding a seat
  • making eye contact with the speaker, except when I am correcting another child's behavior
  • asking questions
  • responding to my own questions
  • going to the bathroom
  • food/drink
  • keeping binders organized
  • pencils and pencil sharpening
  • turning in homework
  • how I intend to get their attention and how they should respond
  • making suggestions to improve class
  • group work
  • leaving the room
  • fire drills, other crisis plans
For each one of these procedures, we model what it should look like and also what it should not. I never move on to the next procedure until I feel confident that my students understand the one being discussed. When I get to the food/drink procedure, I pick up with the flight attendant persona again. I have a projector cart in my room that I transform to be my food cart by merely putting white butcher paper over it like a table cloth and putting Kroger-brand water bottles and pretzels on top. (A special thanks to my local Kroger store for providing me with a gift card to cover the costs of the water and pretzels). I then go around and pass out each of these down the aisles as I explain my food and drink policy.  I tell the kids to keep the water bottles because they will not be allowed to go to the water fountain during instructional time. The good news is that they now have a water bottle that they can fill up in homeroom and during lunch and recess!

When I teach the procedure on group work, we will ask the kids what they think group work should look like. After getting their responses, I give them a group task. This year, I am going to have my students attempt the Marshmallow Challenge. This challenge encourages kids to work as a team to construct the tallest free-standing structure out of spaghetti, string, marshmallow, and tape. The marshmallow has to be able to sit on the top of the structure. This challenge incites creativity, innovation, and teamwork, while engaging them in learning. I think that I can gather a lot about my students from what I will see them do with this activity.  I intend to ask whether or not they observed what they had previously shared in terms of what group work should look like. 

We continue modeling procedures after I have explained them, even lining up and walking outside after I attempt a "fire alarm" sound. All of this modeling pays off in the long run.

On the third day of school, I quiz the kids on these procedures. No child has ever scored below a 100%. I won't let them. They need to know how my classroom operates. They need to be able to function within that system in order for instructional time to be maximized. Following this quiz, when they have demonstrated their knowledge and understanding of the classroom rules and procedures, I begin to hold them accountable. The flight is ready for takeoff...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I wasn't planning on writing about my Professional Development (PD) experiences today, but in light of my post last week on collaboration and one of the sessions I attended today, I thought it'd be appropriate.

My school division chose to provide "Collaboratorium" as one of the options for our PD sessions during pre-week. They called the experience the "unconference model," in which teachers were able to define their own learning needs by creating a group and collaborating on a topic of their choosing.

Now, to be honest, I was skeptical at first. I thought it would turn into a chit-chat session or a gossip hour instead of a productive use of time. I thought it would turn into a scene in which teachers would be responding to emails or aimlessly searching the web. How wrong was I??
The answer: very wrong.

Here are a few of the things that I witnessed:

  • Science teachers from my school working together and sharing ideas as they planned out the first month of school.
  • Math teachers from my school talking about their content, sharing ideas, and thinking about the school calendar as they planned their first few weeks.
  • Librarians discussing ways to improve the reading in schools.
  • Art teachers discussing the notion of using the math (geometry) and history curriculum to guide their own curriculum.  
  • History teachers discussing interesting websites that could be of value in their own classroom. 
  • An experienced reading teacher from my school answering questions, sharing ideas, and assisting a new teacher as they thought about the curriculum that they would be teaching together this year. 
  • A group of teachers from a variety of contents discussing strategies that would help students who are entering our classrooms at lower readiness levels.
  • A positive place where the creative engines of our district's teachers were put to work.
  • Teachers encouraging each other, complimenting one another, and jotting down many ideas that could be useful in their own classroom this year.  
  • Passion and energy from teachers who were able to choose what topics to discuss.
  • Work getting done.
At one point, I found myself at a table with high school and middle school teachers sharing review game activities. I learned about one activity that a high school teacher adapted to use in his classroom called Hunger Games. It sounded so AMAZING! It was an idea that I never would have known about if I was in a traditional PD session in which teachers are sitting in chairs listening to the "experts" about what we need to do to be successful in our classroom. Now, there is a time in place for that type of PD as well. And, I don't want to imply that nothing is ever learned in sessions like those. I have certainly adapted ideas that I have heard in those sessions. However, there was something unique about this "unconference model" that struck a chord with me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Collaboration Elaboration

I've been wanting to elaborate on my views about collaboration for awhile, but after a visit to a Chinese restaurant this past week, I decided now was the time...

So, the big question: How can we collaborate effectively to attain desired results? 

(NOTE: I am not talking about SpEd/GenEd classroom collaboration or team teaching; rather, my goal here is to discuss content team collaboration and what I believe that should look like.)

(2nd NOTE: I can't go any further without thanking the two department/content leaders I have worked with over the last few years, who have executed fairly successfully the strategies that I am about to share.)

Collaboration is the process of working together to achieve a common goal. For us, as educators, that goal should be ensuring that all of our students learn and perform at high levels. There are many ways to make this happen. And working together doesn't mean "doing the same thing." In fact, I believe that in order for my students to be successful AND the students of other history teachers to be successful, we will, for the most part, NOT do the same thing in our classrooms. 

Here's why:

  1. Our students are different. Because each student has different interests and learning styles, what may work for some students, might not work for others. Students also come in to the classroom with different readiness levels. And, because of the mix of students within a classroom, each class will take on its own personality. Teachers know this. What teachers (including myself) must do better is respond to this by delivering lessons that meet the needs of each class.
  2. We are different. We, as teachers, have varied interests and teaching styles. I often stand on desks when I move around the room. I don't recommend that everyone do this.  I like to bring competition into the classroom (whether it's trying to race the clock or beat a teammate). Other teachers stray away from competition for good reasons. I love baseball, but I'd never suggest that my teammates who don't like baseball play my baseball review game if they don't know the rules to, or have any interest in, the sport. We are different; and, we must teach in ways that are different in order to feel competent, confident, and enthusiastic; but also, we must teach differently to meet the needs of each student in each class. 

If teachers are coming to team meetings only to get material from other teachers, make sure they are all on the same pace, or with the hope of coming to some consensus on how to teach a particular topic, they're coming in with the wrong mindset. 

First off, using materials from other people just so that you don't have to make your own could be a sign of laziness, or at least shows a lack of drive and creativity. You really need to ask yourself, "Is this activity going to help my students learn the content?" If so, great! If not, you should ask, "Can I adapt this material/lesson so that it will work for my students?" If so, do it! 

Second, why must every teacher in one content area teach the same content every day?  I say you set the test date well in advance and let teachers teach however, whatever, and whenever they want to, knowing that their kids have to be ready for a test on a particular date. If I want to spend more time on the Battle of Gettysburg and less on the Gettysburg Address, why shouldn't I be able to as long as I teach what needs to be taught in time for the test? My teammates can do the opposite if they feel like it fits their style and interests and also meets the needs of their students.  In fact, they should do just the opposite if that's the case! 

Furthermore, we shouldn't feel like we need to teach the same material in identical ways. If I want to teach about artifacts by going outside on a hot day and having my students "dig" for them because I buried them the night before, my co-workers shouldn't feel like they have to do that too. There are plenty of other acceptable methods to teach about artifacts: field trips, a classroom 'museum', bringing in a guest speaker, artifact inquiry/analysis, etc. Along similar lines, if I feel like my students need a homework assignment or a quiz, I'll give it.  My teammates may or may not feel that their students need the same assignments. Depending on our teaching styles and interests, and the learning styles, interests, and readiness levels of our students, our lessons and assignments will vary. And, I would argue, that's a good thing.  I'll never forget being told a few years ago by another teacher that she didn't think I could use the essay rubric I created because they had another one they had used for years. Well, I had seen the other one, didn't like it, made my own, and used it. No one got hurt.

True collaboration should involve teachers sharing ideas and discussing them in light of the goal of seeing students be successful. My teammates think of lesson ideas that I could have never thought of. Some I use, others I don't. They give me feedback about my own ideas that never occurred to me. Some feedback I put into practice, some I don't, but all of it is appreciated. I have never felt pressured to teach a lesson in particular way or spend a particular amount of time on a particular subject. We know what content we need to teach, and we trust that each is doing all they can to see their students achieve at their highest levels. 

As a novice teacher a few years ago, my team leader instilled confidence in me by trusting me to teach in ways that I thought were best for my students. On numerous occasions, this meant I taught differently than she did. She understood the notion that there is no one right way to do things. She shared many resources and ideas on how to teach particular content, but knew that I was competent enough to decide whether I'd use those materials and lesson ideas in my own classroom. She was never offended when I didn't use her stuff--she understood we were different, and so were our students. 

And, year after year we make adjustments. One year I took my kids outside to re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg (more on that another time).  My teammates thought my plan was a little crazy and not ideal for their students. I think they even had doubts about its success for my students as well.  But, nothing was holding me back, so we reenacted it. It went GREAT! The next year, other teachers and their students were outside re-enacting the battle with my class. My teammates have also taught in ways that I have mimicked. So, I don't think it's necessarily wrong to teach the same way, I just think it's wrong to feel like you have to teach the same way or to use other teacher's materials without considering the students you teach in your own classroom.  

The idea that a program/lesson/resource that has worked for my neighboring teacher will also work for me is a flawed one. Despite my Battle of Gettysburg reenactment working well for me, the other teachers still could have decided that there were other, more suitable, ways to teach that content than a reenactment. Either conclusion is a good one as long as they are considering the needs of their students each time. Collaboration should increase the pool of ideas and materials. It should not necessarily lead to everyone narrowing in on one identical unit/lesson plan without first considering numerous options. To paraphrase Dave Burgess, the author of Teach Like A Pirate, we ought to engage in collaboration not killaboration.

I've begun to believe that one of the worst things about standardized testing is that is seems to encourage standardized teaching and not beneficial collaboration. In other words, teachers feel like they all need to teach the same material in the same way. Part of this is forced, as school administrators might set quiz/test dates or buy a reading or math program that they expect to be used regularly. Another part; however, we can control.  We need to overcome whatever it is that's holding us back and put our creative engines to work in our classroom.  Eventually, others will be encouraged to do the same.