Go to any grocery store parking lot in Germany, and you will never…and I mean never…see any stray shopping carts rattling along in the wind or parked in the hedges. Every carriage is always tucked back in the rack, sometimes in color coded rows. In the United States I always put my cart back where it belonged, and I secretly enjoyed rounding up any strays I came across. Imposing order on this chaotic world, even in small doses, soothes my fastidious soul. My fellow countrymen, however, do not share my O.C.D. Most people leave carts wherever they damn well please.
Yet, the difference in national shopping cart parking habits does not reveal some great divide between American and German gentility. Germans do not return their carts out of an altruistic urge to avoid scratching their neighbors’ Audis. Instead, grocery stores in Germany simply engineer order into their systems. To get a cart, you have to unlock it from the rack with a coin. When you’re done, you can’t get your money back until you return the cart and secure it to its mates. It’s a simple system that works beautifully.
The Student Scribe system works in much the same way; it’s a simple system, that once implemented, works with minimal effort on the teacher’s part. I first learned about the idea from Darren Kuropatwa, and I found his blog posts on student scribes very useful when setting up my scribe system for the first time.
On most days, one student takes communal notes and then posts these to a class wiki. Each post ends with the current student choosing the next scribe. Here are the directions I give my students regarding scribe posts:
I grew up in the Midwest of the United States, so many people (not from the Midwest) assume I grew up on a farm. Far from it. We Neals are not the handiest or hardiest of folks. We didn’t fare well in the fields and quickly found white-collar work. I grew up around farmers, though, and I understand, though admittedly secondhand, the combination of intelligence, dedication, creativity, sacrifice, and hard work required of those in agriculture. I know I would be utter rubbish at it. Yet, the metaphor of a farm has helped me change the way I am teaching some of my English classes. My students and I have been using a digital farm concept to structure our study.
I first heard of the digital farm idea from Alan November. Quick plug: if you ever get the chance to attend November Learning’s Building Learning Communities Conference held each summer in Boston, go. My BLC experiences have been some of the most practical, rewarding, and provocative professional development I have ever had.
In my experiments with a digital farm, every student is given a chore (or two). Over the course of a predetermined time period (I find students need about two weeks to try out ideas and make multiple attempts), each student must make a meaningful contribution to everyone’s learning in his or her assigned role. Students may contribute in any way and at any time, too. If they are, for instance, designated a Feedback Provider they could still make a contribution as a Big Thinker. Also, depending on the size and personality of the class, I assign multiple students the same role. Students may work with partners or alone to fulfill their task. Students must also communicate with me in a timely fashion so that I can plan our lessons around their contributions.
At the end of each chore cycle, students complete a journal reflection and their work. I give one-to-one feedback, and then assign new chores for the next cycle.
Visit our Digital Farm wiki for a complete set of jobs. Some jobs are not assigned but come up in a rotating fashion. Discussion Leaders and Student Scribes work this way, and I will make a future post on the Student Scribes concept I learned from Darren Kuropatwa.
I have one finely honed skill that serves me better in the classroom than all the rest: I know when I should steal a great idea. Well, I am not really stealing an idea if I give credit, and the person who originated the idea is sharing it freely.
No single teacher can always be the perfect creative force who whips up an appropriate and effective solution to every teaching dilemma. We educators work best when we work together…or we at least share. At its core, sharing is what this blog is all about, so here is a great idea for your next parent/teacher conference. I just finished mine.
Thankfully, at my school we really hold parent/teacher/student conferences; the student does most of the talking. In the past, I have always been a bit flummoxed as to how to get every student to talk precisely and honestly about his or her class work. My excelling students spoke articulately about their work, but my struggling students…well…struggled to pinpoint what they needed to do to improve.
This last time around, however, I stole an idea from my colleague that worked perfectly. You should steal it, too. Here is the explanation video he sent to us: Continue reading
In 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:
I have jumped out of an airplane only once in my life, and what I remember most vividly is the sound. Upon first jumping from the plane the ripping wind and my own primal screams mixed into a roaring mayhem that I can’t really recall, but once the chute deployed, a clean silence instantly replaced the chaos.
The end of every school year feels similar. The wild stir of things-to-do is quickly replaced with sudden (and delicious) emptiness. I always try to savor this shift and give myself at least one day of nothingness.
My last day with students was yesterday. As I end my 16th year in the classroom, I can’t honestly write that I have reached this beautiful absence of work. I am moving to Germany at the end of this month, so I still have a crazy amount of things to do.
Therefore, since I am not yet free of the howling wind of the school year, I’ll make this post brief . . . but hopefully useful. I keep my class calendars through Google Docs and Google Sites and thought it might be interesting to share with you what my students and I did this school year. Here you go. Each day of my school year is here. Dip in. Ignore it completely. Stalk us through every single day. I hope you find something useful.
I 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…
As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”
This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…
I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:
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.