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Favorite Life Lessons for the Classroom

29 Jan

spring is a time for growthIn a way, this past week has been a prolific one. I’ve written over 25,000 words. But, these weren’t words for my own nourishment. I was finishing my feedback on a stack of persuasive essays about The Giver and writing end-of-semester comments. I was productive, but I struggled to make time for my own writing. I am hopping on a plane to Berlin this afternoon, attending the ELMLE 2014 conference, so I will make this a quick post.

As I have written about before, I start most weeks with a life lesson:

Little Things Add Up and Other Life Lessons

What Color Is Elmo? and Other Life Lessons

Below are some of the other life lessons I like to use in class. I hope you find something inspiring, and let me know if you have other such stories to share:

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My Dog Makes Me a Better Teacher

23 Feb

Finn's Crazy EyeI love mutts. I love all dogs, regardless of pedigree, but I have always favored the scrappy, intelligent mash-up that is a pound puppy. Every dog with which I have shared my life has been a rescue, and until my wife and I adopted Finn, an Australian Cattle Dog/Poodle mix so intelligent she could probably crack a safe, every dog I have welcomed into my life has been relatively easy work. Finn, however, is another story.

A cute but neurotic pup with a skull-rattling bark, Finn has required more training, patience, and “accommodations” in order to adjust to our lifestyle. And, more than any other dog for which I’ve cared, she has forced me to adjust my lifestyle to her. In just one year we were her third family, and I do not think many people would have the time or resources to help her in the way that we can. Of course, she helps me, too.

In both the classroom and my personal life, I expect things to work. I believe with enough thought and hard work, I can solve any problem. Yet, I have come to accept I will ever really “fix” Finn. I can help her become a calmer, more predictable, more relaxed dog, but I don’t know if she’ll ever be the “perfect” dog that I’ve had in the past. Accepting this fact is an ongoing process but one that teaches me quite a bit about myself.

I know she has made me a better teacher. As I change my mindset to better work with my dog, I realize I am bringing these positive attributes into my classroom as well.

 A good teacher (of dogs or humans) must…

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Little Things Add Up and Other Life Lessons

18 Sep

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:

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Building Class Community: Role Call Questions

23 May

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?” and other Life Lessons

30 Mar

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.

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