The Pilgramage (or why I really went to Atlantic City last week)

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Last Friday I made the 60 mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Atlantic City, New Jersey to present my writing workshop “Learn to Write like No One is Reading” at New Jersey Educators Convention.

The workshop, a culmination of strategies and experiences I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years of teaching, explores how teachers can use storytelling as an instructional practice to deepen student learning while helping students further embrace the writing process.

The workshop was well received by the audience. They actively participate, smiled, laughed at my jokes and from what I could tell, left with at least one new strategy to use in their classrooms.

For the last few months I’ve been making presentations at various professional learning seminars. And I’ve come to really enjoy talking literacy and helping educators facilitate classrooms that promote writing and storytelling so to inspire their students to become better writers.

But if I’m being purely honest — the real reason I went to Atlantic City last week to present a writing workshop was a purely selfish one.

The Real Reason

In September of 2013 an MRI revealed that I had suffered significant brain damage.

However there was no clear catalyst — a car crash or a fall — to warrant such loss of brain matter so quickly.

In October of 2013, after the Director of Neurology at Jefferson University Hospital examined my MRI he acknowledged majority of my cerebellum had died, suggested I start testing for every known debilitating and fatal disease and then asked if I had long-term disability insurance.

“No.”

“I can’t predict what will happen to your brain,” he paused and looked over at the MRI still displayed on his computer screen, “but if you can somehow acquire long-term disability insurance I think you should.”

The Silver Lining

During its annual Convention, the New Jersey Educators Association has a no-physical-required, no-questions-asked open enrollment period for its long term disability insurance.

The only caveat was you have to enroll in person at the Convention in Atlantic City.

So in November of 2013, as mom drove the 60 some miles to Atlantic City, we outlined my plan —  enroll in long-term disability insurance and brave on long enough for the paper work to process so that when I when inevitability lose the ability to speak or see or lose muscle function and can no longer work, my family would’t be so financially burdened.

When mom dropped me off outside the Convention Center, I told her to circle around the block because I wasn’t going to be long. I guess because when your life is undergoing a massive reconstruction sometimes you have no choice but to work as fast as you can.

I mazed through the Convention floor until I found the Prudential Insurance booth where I asked a few questions, looked at a few charts, enrolled in the long-term disability program, hustled back the way I came, walked out of the Convention Center, into the cold November sunlight and waited for mom to pick me up and take me home.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.” 

L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Last Friday I selfishly trekked 60 miles from the Philadelphia suburbans to the Atlantic City Convention Center.

In a way, I found something redemptive in those hard-earned miles. And though skirting pot holes and grinding through traffic can not repair the damage in my brain, it did remind me that somehow I’m still very much alive and that I still have a story to tell.

Be well,

Jay

Let’s Take a Look at My 11th Grade Report Card

On a recent cleaning binge, my mom found my 11th grade report card stuffed in a file box along with old writings, homework assignments and a certificate announcing that I had passed Drivers Education class in August of 1997.

I’m 37 years old, and a high school teacher now, and everyday I witness the enormous pressures that 11th graders (and their parents) place on their still-rounding shoulders.

High school mythology decrees that 11th grade is the Acropolis. It’s the most important 10 months of your life. The make or break year. The one that demands academic greatness. The 11th grade transcript is the one colleges scrutinize and consider the most when deciding to accept or decline your admission. According to legend,11th grade is the year where your destiny is formed and fated.

Below you will find my 11th grade year end report card.

It’s apparent that at 16 years old I wasn’t overly concerned with achieving academic greatness. To be honest, my main concern was scoring a date with the pretty girl in Spanish class. Spoiler alert….9 years later I would marry that senorita… muy suave!

My Class Ranking

If my 11th grade report card is an approximation of my destiny, I’m destined to be stunningly average.

I ranked 168 out of 337 students in the 11th grade class. If you do the math (because, clearly, my algebra grade indicates I don’t math) 337/2 = 168.5

Analysis: In high school I was absolutely, fantastically, beautifully average.

Religion 3

Final Grade: 87

Analysis: Religion was my second highest grade in my report card. I believe the grade is slightly underwhelming given the fact this was my 11th year of Catholic education.

But like a true B+ Catholic, I knew the basics of the Bible, received the required sacraments and was a semi-annual church goer (Christmas & Easter) who pretended to go every Sunday.

English 3

Final Grade: 85

Analysis: This was a massive blow to my current (and slightly bloated) ego.

I have presented at writing workshops for college professors.

 My article, “It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it”was recently retweeted by International Bestselling Author Paulo Coehlo.

I will be featured on an upcoming episode of the television show, Classroom Close-up, NJ to highlight writeonfighton.org and the writing events I host for my students.

Yet, in spite of all that, an unimpressive B in 11th grade English will forever be etched in the annals of time.

American History 3

Final Grade: 89

Analysis: Everything I know about American History I learned from watching Forrest Gump.

Algebra 2

Final Grade: 74

Analysis: In high school I clearly did not understand algebra which, interestingly was the very last time in my life I was forced to multiply numbers by letters.

Environmental Science

Final Grade: 84

Analysis: According to my teacher, Mr. Krier, I was “one of the top one of the students in the class.” I earned an 84. Either he was just being nice or I was, in fact, the one star in a constellation of street lamps.

Spanish 3

Final Grade: 77

Analysis: I blame Cindy for this one. I spent the entire year distracted by her legs and perfecting such romantic expressions as “Coma estas, chica?” and “Muy caliente” in a deep, seductive inflection.

Gym

Final Grade:99

Analysis: One of my students once told me that he was going to be an accountant because in 11th grade he did well in accounting class. If 11th grade grades are indicators of future professions I clearly should have been a professional athlete.

Conduct

Final Grade: 97

Analysis: Minus a shirttail infraction, which was sheer blasphemy in a Catholic school, I was absolute saintly.

It’s time to be serious.

I didn’t learn much in high school.

It’s nothing against my teachers but, aside from meeting Cindy and a group of friends I’m still close with, the educational experience was uninspiring.

In fact, I can’t name one high school teacher who inspired me to become a teacher.

So why did I become a high school teacher if my experience in high school was incredibly forgettable?

It’s a question I’ve tussled with lately.

Selflessly, I want to spend my days talking and teaching about reading and writing. But I also think I’m attempting to vindicate my own stale high school experience.

Work is a tricky thing. Immersing yourself in work for only a paycheck is a soul-sucking existence. Working for personal fulfillment is righteous but doesn’t pay the electric bill.

Maybe, if we look hard enough, we find work that fills a previous void.

Maybe, teaching is my attempt to provide students with experiences I never had. And maybe, selfishly, I stand and deliver in the classroom everyday attempting to fall in favor with the teacher, earn some extra credit and improve that 85.

Be well,

Jay

“Questions help us wonder”: The Educator Spotlight is on Noa Daniel

 Write on Fight on’s Educator Spotlight features insights, reflections and best practices from passionate classroom teachers and school administrators.

Meet Noa Daniel. Noa is teacher, educational consultant, and Chief Building Officer at Building Outside the Blocks. An active educational blogger, Noa believes authentic learning and effective questions are the key to inspiring students.

Check out my interview with Noa, visit her blog and enjoy!

  “Questions take us beyond the status quo and help us wonder and be thoughtful about the world.”


Besides being an educator, Noa Daniel is…

….many things to others and herself. We have three daughters who help me be a better person and educator. Raising them with my husband is the greatest challenge and reward of my life. My girls call me a meacher because I’m a very teacher-ish mom. Even though they do it to make fun of me, I know that it’s out of love and appreciation because teaching is so much more than my profession. Okay, I know that you said besides education, but that is a tough ask. Education is always on my mind and in my heart.

I am a very creative person who loves to write. I am also a connector of people and ideas, which actually helps to feed my creativity. I am a risk taker. Though I am often afraid to take risks, that has  never stopped me from trying new things. I often do it in spite of my fears and in view of the greater good. I either succeed, or I collaborate and create something totally different than what I set out to. Alternatively, I learn. All are worth the leap.

Tell us about your experience as an educator.

My experience as an educator has been an adventure. I started off as this young sit-on-the-desk, dramatic, we-can-find-a-way type of educator. Now, I am a better educated, seasoned sit-on-the-desk, dramatic, we-can-find-a-way educator who feels lucky to be able to engage in meaningful conversations about teaching and learning. I am an educational leader and change agent.

 What is the one book ever educator should read? Why?

There are so many great books out there, but if I could only pick one, I would have to say Daniel Pink’s Drive.

ASDC did a great interview with him  that articulates the key need for change in education. We must move from compliance to engagement. In order to do that, we must understand what motivates our students. This book helps the reader understand why external motivations like rewards or grades actually impede deep learning. Ultimately, the understanding the reader gets about intrinsic motivation is essential to teaching and life. The text takes the reader through autonomy, mastery and purpose. Drive helps the reader understand these fundamental aspects of education.

You have developed an educational initiative known as “Building Outside the Blocks” (BOB). A BOB approach uses personalized projects to enhance student learning. Why is autonomy such a crucial component of the learning process?

Autonomy allows students to be part of their learning equation. It is an essential ingredient in engagement and in owning their learning. Using a BOB approach, students choose their presentation dates for the projects, within the teacher-determined timelines. That helps students learn to own their calendars and organize their home time in view of this self-selected date. They backwards design the time and effort required to create and prepare to present their work.

Further, they chose the product that best suits their needs and interests or the product is something that comes from their personal lives and interests. I will co-create outlines and rubrics with them to deepen their sense of agency. In order to move students from compliance, they have to have a say in the learning journey. It is important to give students opportunities to have and use their autonomy.

What has been your biggest roadblock as an educator? And how did you overcome it? Or what are you doing now to overcome it?

My biggest road block is my greatest gift- the whole “outside the blocks” thing. I have learned that the only way to overcome it is to embrace it and let the creativity flow. It’s about autonomy and being able to use my drive to find new roads. When I am on a journey without a horizon, I stop looking for one and start constructing it. Whether through the projects that I develop or the leadership offerings that I create for students,  I respond to road blocks by making them into a foundation and building over them.

 If teachers want their students to be curious, teachers must design curious questions.Why is designing good questions so important to enhancing and improving student learning?

Besides fostering curiosity, it is the pursuit of the question more than the answer that matters. In our world, questioning skills are paramount for critical thinking, developing global connections and appreciating the power of perspectives. Questions are catalyst for inquiry. Questions take us beyond the status quo and help us wonder and be thoughtful about the world. Questions beget questions and allow people to grapple with ideas that drive deep learning. Inquiry is also a way that people can reach inside themselves and ask meaningful questions about who they are and where they are going or want to go. I am on a journey to help teachers reach and teach every child using questions that propel a personalized inquiry.

 The BOB approach relies on making real-world connections. Why are real-world connections so fundamental for creating active learners?

Real world connections are important because learning shouldn’t be an isolated experience. Beyond the classroom, there is a big, beautiful, crazy world. Teaching content and skills should enable people to be global citizens. Creating awareness of global or local issues or connecting with yourself are authentic tasks that make the learning more transferable than the alternative. When learning is oriented to reality, it becomes more meaningful.

What is the worst piece of advice you have heard given to teachers?

After a recent #ONedmentors show, I recalled that I, too, was told to be careful about how much energy and passion I put into my work because I would burn out. Not only have I not burned out after over two decades in the classroom, but I continue to improve, grow and be infused by teaching. I think that teachers have to be mindful to nourish themselves and that self-care is important in any profession, but your can’t burn out if you live every day being true to you and doing what you love.

 Who inspires you?

Many things inspire me. People fighting daily battles, facing each new sunrise with optimism amazes me. The innovators who aren’t afraid to share their ideas and keep moving forward in view of a big vision, in all areas of life, inspire me. Educators who work tirelessness to reach and teach every learner in their space are an inspiration. Kids, with all of their curiosities and wonderment amaze me. I am inspired by nature, music, art, poetry, prose, and other forms of creative expression. Grit is also a pretty incredible thing to witness, and that can be a real motivator. My daughters inspire me all the time.  As you can see, I glean inspiration from a variety of place and spaces.

What is your favorite non-teaching quote?

There are few a quotes that are exempt from a teaching application. One that keeps me moving forward, especially when I hit a road block and am creating something new, is Erin Hansen’s: “What if I fall? Oh, but my darling- what if you fly?”

Those words, as questions, become a mantra for me and are part of my mission in supporting educators. Change is scary, but with the right support, the possibilities are limitless.

Connect with Noa at…

blog: noadaniel7.wixsite.com/bobblog 

twitter: @noasboabs

podcast: VoicEd Radio 


Do you know an awesome educator dedicated to inspiring and teaching others?

If so, please consider nominating them to be featured on Write on Fight on’s Educator Spotlight Series. You can contact me at writeonfighton@gmail.com.

Be well,

Jay

 

Asking Good Questions: Why Teachers Should Listen to the Tim Ferriss Show

I always thought I was going be a 9th grade teacher. At that age…14, 15… there seems to be a lot of important forks in the road.–Tim Ferriss from Podcast #255 How to Turn Failure into Success 

Tim Ferriss is an entrepreneur, writer, angel investor and podcaster extraordinaire. A human dynamo with a child-like curiously and Stoic self-discipline, Tim has built himself into a multi-media giant.

Each of his massively successful books Tools of Titans, The 4-Hour Chef, The 4-Hour Body, The 4-Hour Work Week scored long runs on The New York Times Bestseller List.

The Tim Ferriss Show started as an experiment in 2014. However, it’s now one of the top podcasts on iTunes, collecting over 150 million downloads to date. Tim’s purpose is to “deconstruct would class performers” attempting to learn the habits and philosophies of ultra successful people including Arnold Schwarzengger, Jamie Foxx, Seth Godin and Brene Brown.

Amazingly, despite it’s success, the podcast remains a low-budget, lightly-edited production. An undecorated classroom, if you will.

How does Tim do it? What’s his secret sauce?

Tim Ferriss, like an effective teacher, asks his guests really good questions.

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.– Tim Ferriss

Tim constructs questions that reveal the deep truths and stories of his guests. By designing, then asking well-crafted questions–the answers are authentic and rich and make for great entertainment.

For teachers, it’s imperative to understand that if you want your students to elicit meaningful responses, you have to craft meaningful questions.

When classroom questions lack quality, student responses will lack quality.

Often, the educational wheel is clogged with buzz words and en vogue practices. Progression is great but curiosity coupled with crafting and asking good, meaningful questions is the ancient foundation on which education was built.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.–Socrates

The Open Question Effect

Asking “closed questions” or questions with finite response are good to assess comprehension and retention.

Who was the first President of the United Sates?

“Open questions” or questions with infinite response are necessary to increase engagement, encourage discussion and inspire critical thinking.

What do you think George Washington was feeling when he was nominated to be the first President of the United States?

Open questions requires students to work. To answer an open question, you may have to mine through your own contradictions to find the most honest answer. It’s from this mining where genuine and meaningful answers are discovered.

Maybe George Washington was excited at the prospect but, I have to think, he was overwhelmed, and possibly discourage, by being the first president of a new nation. 

Tim demonstrates how open questions spark honest and rich conversation. Most of his published podcast run for well over an hour. However, his unedited conversations, like two old friends just talking, last for hours. (A recent conversation with ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen lasted 3 hours.) It’s the flexibility of these open questions that propel these marathon conversations.

Listening

It’s near impossible to fake interest.

And students know when teachers are or are not interested in their ideas. When students feel this interest, they’re more willing to share themselves, become healthy risk takers and subsequently, develop into more creative and critical thinkers.

The art of listening is the most fundamental way to honor any relationship.

Tim Ferriss models that to be a good interviewer, you must be an active listener. Though many of his questions are scripted, many are not. Many questions, follow-up and clarifying questions, are spawned from the rhythms of the conversations.

As a teacher, like a good interviewer, you must invest yourself into your classroom conversation. You must listen in order to ask follow-up and clarifying questions.  By actively listening to students, teachers build and strengthen the student-teacher relationship. And even if you have 30 students in your class, if you actively listen to them, give their voice ample attention, the learning experience becomes a personal one for each student.

Vulnerability

A great interview materializes when the interviewer is willing to be expose their own vulnerabilities.

Tim Ferriss is unafraid to share with his guest (and millions of listeners) his own failures, limitations and struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This vulnerability builds a trust with his guest (and his audience) and encourages all listeners to share their own personal struggles.

For teachers, it’s imperative that you present your vulnerability as a strength. A classroom that embraces vulnerability, fosters risk taking and supports authentic student-teacher discussions.

Our vulnerability, our imperfections, establish trust with students and creates  a positive classroom culture.

Give vulnerability a shot. Give discomfort its due. Because I think he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest, but rises the fastest.– Tim Ferriss

Call to Action

Listening to podcasts on your commute to and from school is great way to boost creativity and cultivate new ideas.

The Tim Ferriss Show exemplifies the power of good questions. Tim demonstrates how well-crafted questions along with actively listening inspire people to share more of themselves.

In terms of education, student success often hinges on a teachers ability to construct and ask meaningful questions that encourage reflection and critical thinking– two essential practices for student growth.

Below you will find 7 of Tim’s best questions. See if you can borrow, shape and scale any of them to fit your classroom and content. Theses questions may serve as interesting writing prompts or discussion starters:

  1. Who or what is your darkest teacher?
  2. What’s one thing that you do that people think is crazy and why do you do it?”
  3. If you could relive one moment in your life, which would you choose and why?
  4. Who is the first person that you think of when you hear “success”? Why?
  5. If you could have a giant billboard with one message on it, to inspire thousands  of people, what would it say?
  6. What have you changed your mind about in the last few years and why?
  7. How has a failure set you up for future success?

Since you’re here…check out The Write on Fight on Teachers Spotlight. A monthly interview with an awesome educator who is actively shaping and inspiring young minds.

This month’s interview is with history teacher and blogger Julie Boulton.        

I love to bring stories to light that might have been forgotten otherwise.”– Julie  Boulton 

 

 

 

6 Reasons Why You Should Tell a Story on the First Day of School

In 8 Reasons How To Be A More Interesting Teacher This Year I explained stories are how I often communicate complex concepts to my students and how stories help heighten student engagement.

With that being said, there is no better school day than the first day to engage students with a story.

Here are five reasons why you should tell a story on the first day of school:

1.You Will be Memorable

The first day of school is the last day to make a first impression.

For students, the excitement of the first day quickly ends when all their teachers are doing the same thing, “Hello…How was your summer?…Here is the course syllabus and here are the classroom rules…”

Do something different. Leave a good impression. Tell a story.

A first day story will get students excited for the impending school year. It will be something they tell their friends and parents about. Which, by them sharing your story, they are learning an important lesson– we are all storytellers and we pass our stories along to deepen our connection with others.

Suggestion–The first day is a great time to share a story about a personal failure. Talking openly about failure shows humility and vulnerability, two qualities children too rarely find in adults. Admitting you failed will immediately make you more relatable to your students.

2.You Will Calm Your First Day Jitters

Like students, teachers also get first day jitters. These jitters are often fueled by the new school year blitz of emails introducing new teachers, new initiatives, new procedures, and new curriculum.

In addition to all this newness, you still have to plan for your first class. A first class where you may feel the squeeze of trying to include every detail about class, its content and the year ahead. But you don’t. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Take a deep breath and remember, we were storytellers long before we were teachers. Sharing stories is natural, nonthreatening way to communicate important ideas.

3.You Will Begin Establishing Classroom Management

By telling a story, you are establishing the value listening. A value that you expect your students practice. Because listening is how we honor relationships. Because listening is the foundation of effective classroom management and effective teaching and learning. 

4.You Will Begin Creating a Classroom Community

Stories bring people together. Stories are for sharing. 

The first day story will help your students understand they’re part of a community and acknowledge that your classroom is a place of acceptance. A healthy environment which promotes vulnerability and authenticity.  If students feel safe and supported they will be more open to future learning.

Open to me, so that I may open.

Provide me your inspiration

So that I might see mine. —Rumi

5.You Will Be Creating Emotional Engagement

Stories make us feel.

While immersed in a story we begin to feel what the characters feel. If they cry, we may want to cry. This empathy is a vital classroom component. When students are emotionally engaged, your instruction will be more impactful and they will be more responsive to constructive criticism from you.

6.You Will Be Speaking Their Language

Though the content of your subject may be new to students, stories are not.

According to Business Insider, two-fifths of American teenagers use the photo sharing app Shapchat multiple times a day. The app allows users to post and share Snapchat stories, which are personal pictures users share to tell a narrative.

The modern student has been raised on social media.And at its core, social media is simply an advanced form of storytelling. As a teaching strategy, storytelling will help student see how their classroom learning can be similar and as entertaining as their favorite phone app. 

 

Storytelling is our most primitive vehicle for transferring information, for connecting and teaching.  And despite all their modernity, the story form remains incredibly recognizable and important to our students. Use the power of storytelling on the first day to introduce yourself and your content to the students and they will be excited to return for the second day. 

Good Luck with the New School Year!

Be well,

Jay

Before you go…

I highly recommend checking out the Tedx Talk, The Magical Science of Storytelling  presented by speaker and author David JP Phillips.  David explains the biology behind storytelling. How listening to stories release positive chemical reactions in the body, including the release of dopamine in the brain which increases both focus and motivation. 

8 Simple Ways To Be A More Interesting Teacher This School Year

As a teacher, I want to be interesting. I want my students to want to be in my class.

In fact, my philosophy of education has always been rooted in a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man:

Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see                         To forget about life for a while.

But a student’s perpetual compliant about school is that it’s “so boring.” (Heck, it was my complaint when I was slugging my way through high school 20 years ago.)

But now a teacher myself, I know the job of a teacher is never boring. Teachers are never just teachers. They are therapists, philosophers, referees, doctors, mechanics, meteorologists, secretaries and rodeo clowns.

Teaching requires you to switch professions on a dime. It also requires you to develop new skills, ask deep questions and be a curious and relentless learner.

In short, to be a successful teacher you need to be interesting.

When you’re interesting, students want to be in your class. And when you create such interest, students more willingly immerse themselves in the wonders of the learning process and “forget about life for awhile.”

1.Tell Stories

An administrator once told me that I had to stop telling stories in the classroom. I reacted to the edict by returning to my classroom, opening up my personal anthology and telling even more stories then ever before.

Stories are my bread and butter. If I can’t tell stories, I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.

Stories are how I communicate complex concepts and ideas to my students.

When used properly (not just to waste time or glorify how awesome you are) stories are a fantastic way to hook students into your classroom narrative. A narrative centered on your subject, communicated by you.

2.Teach Life Lessons

You’re older than your students. You’ve been around the block.

Your experience with things like failure and regret and joy and love harbor a wealth of teaching material. By tying your content into the human condition allows students to see how the content relates to things beyond the cinder blocks of school.

3.Inside Jokes

I wear khaki pants and canvas Adidas sneakers to school everyday. My             “uniform” serves as good fodder for classroom jokes. Jokes that weave into the fabric of the classroom.

Everyone, especially students, love to be a part of an inside joke. Inside jokes are shared experiences that create connections, deepen relationships and show your students that you have a sense of humor.

4.Listen more and ask more questions

Sometimes, you just need to step back and let your students have the floor.

You don’t need to be the center of attention to be an interesting teacher.  By really listening to your students and asking them questions about their interests and integrating their interests into your lessons you will establish yourself as a teacher (and an adult) who really listens.

5. Flaunt Your Funk

If you teach middle-school or high school, most of your students think your weird.

It’s hard for students to imagine their teacher having interests that reach beyond the subject matter they teach. But bringing your other interests, your funk into the classroom is a great way to tell more of your story.

Interesting teachers have the audacity to be themselves. They flaunt their funk. It’s what makes them interesting and inspires students to embrace and flaunt there own funkiness.

6. Listen to Podcasts

Listening to podcasts is a great way to be mentally productive outside of the classroom.

The right podcast ( I like TED Radio Hour and The Tim Ferriss Show) can teach you interesting facts and share compelling stories that you can relay to your students.

7. Connect Your Content to Current Events

Teachers often get so wrapped up in daily demands of teaching that we forget that there is a world outside our school walls.

A world that both you and your students are experiencing.

Connecting content to the current world offers students perspective on a current and common subject.  These connections help to captivate students while allowing them to see that school content is relatable to the happenings of the world.

8. Be Positive

By nature, adolescents are an angsty bunch. And looking past the negativity in their lives is difficult.

As a teacher, you have the power to establish the mood in your classroom. By being positive, by leaving your own baggage at home, you offer students a fresh perspective and attitude that they will gravitate toward because they want to be positive but when your 15, being miserable is the cool thing to do.

Being an interesting teacher goes a long way in your classroom and in the lives of your students.  You have the unique power to be a positive, interesting force in lives of your students that will shape important attitudes they have about school and learning.

This One Simple Tool Will Make You a More Effective Writing Teacher

Teenagers are notorious for their lack of attention and internal busyness– especially in a classroom. They live in a chronic state of unawareness and have a cantankerous yearning to be somewhere else.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’m starving, when’s lunch?”

And in these modern times of computers and smartphones, the teenage attention span is quite slim (and seems to be getting slimmer by the day).

As writing teachers, this wandering teenage mind is one of the greatest challenges we face.

So how do we tame the teenage monkey mind? How do we get a classroom of unfocused students focused and prepared to write?

The answer, is a surprisingly simple one. (And yet took me many painful years to figure it out.)

A timer.

In recent years, a timer as become my most important and effective teaching tool to tame the wild teenage mind.

 

The use of a timer in the classroom creates three things…

  1. focus
  2. urgency
  3. a goal

Experience has shown me that students actually enjoy the demands of the timer. It teaches them that in brief, focused bursts they can overcome procrastination and actually accomplish things.

Lesson Plan

Let’s say you want to have your students write a narrative piece on failure.

Here’s a simple 3 step, 240 second process you can implement to get students started, focused and excited to write…

Step 1 (180 seconds)

  1. Have students write the heading “Times I failed today…” on a blank page.
  2. Set a timer for 30 seconds.
  3. Beneath the heading, tell the students that when the timer begins, to scratch down all of today’s failures (these can be internal and external). Tell them they’re not writing sentences. Just a word or phrase (Alarm clock) that indicates a failure. I call this word or phrase a “working title”.
  4. Ready, Set…Go!

Prior to and during Step 1 it’s vital to stress that students are not to worry about spelling or grammar. This worry will only slow them down and restrict the process. Encourage students write messy. Tell them that this activity is not for a grade and that their list only has to make sense to them.

I would then repeat Step 1 two more times, each with a new heading, “Times I failed this week…”, then “Times I failed this year… “. I would also expand the time– 60 seconds for the former, 90 seconds for the latter.

Step 2 (30 seconds)

Have students evaluate all three lists. Have them mark three moments of failure that they still think about. That if they had the power, would turn back time and do over. 30 seconds. Go!

Step 3 (30 seconds)

Finally, evaluate the marked three failures. Which one still keeps you up at night? Which one has changed you the most? Mark that one. 30 seconds. Go!

This one failure will be the focus for the narrative writing assignment on failure.

Collectively, the three steps are 240 seconds of focused brainstorming that, when completed provide each student with a powerful, personal moment that harbors all the intimate ingredients needed for a good writing piece.

Furthermore, after just 240 seconds, the page should be littered with ideas. For students, this littering is rewarding. Students can be messy, not be judged (which is a natural confidence booster) and in a brief time realize that they’re lives are worthy of writing about.

Note: As the classroom teacher, you’re the expert on your students. You’re encouraged to modify this strategy to meet the age and level of your students.

Takeaways

  • A timer is essential for a writing classroom since it helps create focus, urgency and a goal.
  • Brainstorming should be structured.
  • Eliminates the “I have nothing to write about” problem.
  • Students can accomplish much more in quick focused bursts, then a long meandering brainstorming session.
  • Students enjoy a focused brainstorm activity.
  • This activity allows students to fill the page with meaningful experiences that can serve as great writing subjects.
  • This “messy” activity provides apprehensive writers with confidence.

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