I begin each week in the classroom with a Life Lesson. These lessons typically last five minutes, but my goal is to share with students some truth I hold dear. This week’s lesson: Little Things Add Up.
A few years ago Steve Bergen, while teaching at the Children’s Storefront School in Harlem, NY, started a Billion Penny Project. The idea began as a math lesson and quickly blossomed into a novel fundraising campaign. CBS picked up the story and ran this piece. I was part of the campaign and even made a brief appearance on national TV. Blink and you will miss me; I am in the red sweater:
I will admit it. I steal many of the great ideas I use in the classroom. If you want to be a better teacher, you probably find inspiration from others, too.
Steal, of course, is a harsh word. I always give credit. But, while I know I am a creative teacher in my own right, I have no problem using someone else’s great idea.
Early in my teaching career I attended a Building Success workshop sponsored by the College Board, and the facilitator gave this suggestion. (I would give his name if I knew it; I have tried to find it). Early in the school year, he posts the following list somewhere in the classroom:
- - The correct answer
- - An educated guess
- - A wild guess
- - A blank stare
He then begins class by asking students to consider the list and answer the following question: “Which response do you learn the most by giving?” I have stolen his idea every year.
Recently my uncle came out of retirement to become a classroom teacher. He worked as a vocational instructor for many years in the prison system, but he was, understandably, pretty nervous about teaching a roomful of teenagers. They can have that affect on the best of us. He will be fine, of course. When I asked him why he decided to take the job, he said, “I really care about the kids who struggle to learn. I was one of those kids, and I told my classes on the first day, ‘I’ll never embarrass any of you. If you don’t understand something, I’ll work with you whenever and wherever you want…and if I don’t know how to help, I’ll find somebody that can help me help you.” He’s going to be great, isn’t he?
He will take care of his students and they will take care of him. Teenagers’ reputation is unfounded. In my time in the classroom I’ve always found them to be some of the loveliest people I know. Teens have abundant optimism, honesty, and a sense of fair play, and we can tap into these wonderful qualities when establishing a set of classroom rules.
Here are some of the structures I use to establish a safe, fair, and productive classroom. They are a conglomeration of methods I learned from mentors and students.
Most of my best classroom ideas come from students. As a young teacher, I was wise enough (and desperate enough) to ask them what they liked about their favorite teachers. I was confident in my own bumbling, so I wasn’t fishing for false compliments. I KNEW their favorite teachers would be somebody else.
My students—luckily—were honest and kind and eager to share teaching practices they enjoyed. Like every new teacher, I struggled with classroom management and daily lesson planning. I was devoted to the idea that a teacher’s primary responsibility is the delivery of curriculum. I did not allow for any wasted time in the 45-minute period. I planned every second of class.
Fifteen years later, I’m still this way. I plan out every moment of class, but now I know to welcome (and even engineer) tangental moments where we throw out my plans. Role Call questions are one of the most productive ways to steer off course. Continue reading
What color is Elmo? Red, of course. Well…sort of. In another sense Elmo is black. Well…sort of.
Every Monday I begin my classes with a life lesson. Sometimes these lessons are serious; sometimes they are silly. I make time, however, to share with my students beliefs, questions, and perspectives I hold dear. I carve out regular time to acknowledge that while I am their English teacher, I also want to help them live a happy and reflective life.
Most of my students respond really positively to this practice, and many even bring in their own life lessons. In their end-of-the-year reflections I am always so surprised by how many students refer to specific “life lessons,” ones that I have even forgotten. I only take five to ten minutes to present and discuss these ideas, but the habitual integration of things that inspire and provoke me seems to be a key component in creating a culture of trust and community within the classroom.
Recently I watched Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey and was so inspired by Kevin Clash’s story. I shared this clip with my students and added an optional homework assignment asking them to view and reflect on the film:
My main point to my students? Mr. Clash’s story shows that pursuing one’s passion is far more important than finding the ideal career path. High school students (especially the juniors I teach) can be so easily consumed by finding the right college and the perfect major. I want them to understand it is far more important to explore work that ignites passion and creativity.
Here are a few more links I have used in the past:
The Tamale and the Tire Iron
Indi Cowie, female freestyle soccer sensation, performs amazing tricks
EVEN MORE LIFE LESSONS: At one of the wikis I maintain you will find a list of the various life lessons I incorporate into my class. Please share some stories that inspire you. I always love learning what moves other people.