New Teacher Temptation #3

new teacher
source: justintarte.com

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed as a new teacher.

And it’s so easy to think you have to get everything right your first couple of weeks. Great teaching books like Harry Wong’s The First Days of School emphasize how important a strong start to the year can be. My favorite Teach Like a Champion has 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. Version 2.0 has 62.

62!!!

So new teachers are often tempted to think they have to get everything right at the beginning of the year – or at least implement an overwhelming number of teaching techniques.

But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to start off with 62 techniques. You don’t even have to start off with half of that.

You can start with 2.

I wish someone had told me, when I was a first year teacher, the 2 most essential things I needed to be able to teach my kids so I could focus on those things instead of obsessing over the overload of advice I felt like I was getting. I mean, I had been educated at Notre Dame’s ACE program…

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Apart from the most important thing – which is to love your kids – there are only two things you really need to start teaching. Obviously other things will help you. But you can start with these two and start becoming an effective teacher right away:

1) Create an Entrance Routine

2) Create An Attention Procedure

If you can teach your kids how to walk in your classroom every day so that you have their attention from the get-go, and if you can teach your kids how to give you back their attention every time you ask for it, you can teach.

The best part is, if you mess up your first couple of weeks of school, you can always reteach those two things and practice them with your kids until they get it right.

What is an entrance routine? It’s the specific way your kids start class every single day. Whether you have your own classroom or you are a “floater” and borrow other classrooms, you can have an entrance routine. The idea is that you want to START class with the kids’ attention, not try to get it after class has begun. If you start with the kids’ attention every day, you’re already a long way towards being an effective teacher.

1) Here’s how I teach an entrance routine at the beginning of the year.

I don’t allow kids into my room. I have them line up outside my door. After the bell rings and other kids leave the hallways, I say, “Period 2, welcome! As you come in, I will give you your seating chart and your Do Now. Find your seat silently and start your Do Now without talking.”

And I shake the first kid’s hand. I give him his seating chart and point him towards his desk. I remind him of the directions.

I make the kid behind him wait until that first kid has begun working.

I repeat the process. It doesn’t matter that it takes a longer time – this is an investment of time that will pay off later.

I pause kids at the door. I make sure I can check the room. I narrate positive behavior to make sure my expectations are clear: “Period 2, I see everybody working on the Do Now silently and without talking. That is the expectation.”

Inevitably, someone will want to say hi to a friend or will have trouble finding her seat. I immediately call the student back and whisper, “Hey, I know you were just [insert innocent violation of expectation here]. But you can’t talk during the Do Now. Go back and try it again.”

Do this every day for the first week of school. Do it longer, if you need to. I’m still doing it with my high school kids and we just finished the second week.

2) Here’s how I teach my attention procedure:

“Ladies and gentlemen, there will be times in class when you will be talking a lot and that is a good thing. However, when I need your attention, I will always ask for it the same way. I will stand here [indicate the spot in the room you will always use] and I will say, ‘Back to me, please.’ That means you need to stop talking, turn and face me with your hands free, and listen silently.”

I make sure my voice is very calm but very firm when I say this.

“Alright, let’s try it. When I say ‘go’ – but wait until I say ‘go’ – you will turn to your partner and talk about [insert Do Now topic or whatever you like]. I will call you back to attention. Okay – go!”

I walk around and listen as they talk. Slowly I go back to the front of the room. Some kids might pause in their talking as they see me do this and that is okay.

With a firm but calm voice I say, “Back to me, please.”

Usually the first time goes well, but to enforce high expectations I always say, “Pretty good. But I think we can do better. Let’s practice again. This time, when I say ‘go’, talk to your partner about ______. Ready – go!”

And we practice again.

I make sure to practice this at LEAST two times every class period for the first week of school.

Your Entrance Routine and your Attention Procedure do not have to be the same as mine by any means. But you need to have them.

So, new teachers: don’t give in to the temptation of being overwhelmed by procedures. If you teach your kids an entrance routine and an attention procedure, you will have enough classroom management to get some real teaching done throughout the year.

All teachers: are there any other procedures you believe are essential?

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom

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source: reallifebh.com

“So even if I have a different opinion than you, you won’t mark it wrong?”

This had been an easy and gratifying question for me to answer during my first year teaching English; I was the young, open-minded teacher a’la “Dead Poet’s Society” who would encourage my students to think for themselves and to trust their own ideas.

“Of course not,” I said, smiling as I added, “so long as you support what you have to say with evidence.”

My students’ dubious glances gradually turned into confident nods as the first few months passed and they realized I not only valued their ideas, I was eager to hear them. Moreover, I had done my best to demystify this process of supporting claims with evidence. Like many secondary English teachers, I had prided myself on requiring all of my students to incorporate “evidence” not only in their writing, but also in their oral responses to questions in class. My students had become much more proficient in practicing this skill, and now we were working on how to incorporate evidence in more sophisticated ways. Instead of haphazardly attaching a quote to various claims, I was trying to help my students take quotes apart and use only the pieces they needed to incorporate them elegantly and seamlessly into their arguments, whether verbal or written.

“So, as long as I support what I have to say with evidence, I’ll get it right?”

The first time I heard Mallory’s* revised version of the initial question, I had replied, “Of course.” But something bothered me about its implications that I could not quite put my finger on. What did she mean by “right”? For that matter, what did I mean by “right”? To what extent had our formal assessments become a kind of business transaction based upon our previously agreed upon deal—you give me the evidence, I’ll give you the grade? And why did this ostensibly fair economic approach seem untruthful?

As I began to hear Mallory’s request of assurance echoed frequently by other students—usually before tests, essays, and other formal assessments—I found myself hesitating before coming up with an inarticulate affirmative: “Yes, you’ll get it ‘right,’ but of course you have to demonstrate strong evidence”—“Probably, so long as you incorporate specific details”—“Well, don’t forget to explain who is arguing what here. Is this what you think or is this what Walt Whitman thinks?”—“Before I say yes, what do you think ‘getting it “right” really means, David?’”

I began to see that the age-old expectation of all reasonably competent English teachers—that their students learn to support their claims with evidence—actually raises not only academic, but moral questions. What counts as ‘right’ or ‘true’ in the English classroom—and how is this connected to grades and success? Indeed, the almost daily exchange between teachers and students about what counts as “enough” evidence and what qualifies as a correct answer exposes the difficulty of language’s potential for truthfulness, power—and abuse.

I decided that I needed to find a way to help my students see these complexities. I needed to give them more than just a way to cultivate an analytical skill; I needed to give them some context about the responsibility involved in exercising that skill. But I did not know how to do this.

Fortunately, my juniors and I were in the midst of an American poetry unit in which Emily Dickinson’s ambiguous expressions of truth provided a good place to start exploring Mallory’s question in depth. I had my students analyze an Emily Dickinson poem of their choice for tone and mood. Abbey, one of my shyest students, offered her interpretation bravely to the class, admirably including multiple examples of textual evidence.

Inspiration dawned on me (my students would chide me for using such an obvious cliché). But it certainly did feel like enlightenment: I decided in that moment to take a risk that, as a more experienced teacher, I would be much more cautious in taking now.

“Abbey, I’m sorry, but you are absolutely incorrect. Dickinson’s tone here is neither somber nor sad—actually, she is delighted, and she wants her reader to be, too.”

Abbey’s surprise was expressed by her more vocal peers. “What do you mean, Ms. Shea?” They were used to me finding some kind of good in every response, even if I usually pressed them for more.

“Well, I’ll explain it to you,” I said calmly.

I proceeded to re-explicate the poem on the spot, carefully refuting every single point Abbey had made with devastating speed and ease. I made sure to back up every single statement I made with unmistakable evidence from the poem. I made sure to speak quickly, confidently and seriously. The result was rather alarming.

This display of power—for that’s really what it was—stunned my students. They looked at one another, and then they looked at me—with reproach in their eyes. But they did not feel they could refute what I had said. I had used my authority and position as a teacher in a way they had never seen me use it before.

After a moment, I asked them, “What do you think of my interpretation?”

There were shrugs and exchanged glances. They were more upset with me than I had thought they would be.

So I said, “Was that fair to Abbey?”

I encountered a resounding “no” and many other indignant responses as well. I was a little overwhelmed by their anger. “Why did you do that?” “I thought Abbey did a good job.” “She’s not an English teacher like you.” “That was really mean, Ms. Shea.”

“Yes it was,” I said. “Will you let me explain what I was trying to do?”

After I had apologized to Abbey, my students were more willing to listen to what I had to say. I explained that Abbey’s interpretation was actually very strong, and that she has supported her ideas with evidence well—but that I had decided before even hearing her explanation that I would respond with an opposing argument, no matter how ridiculous or untrue I thought my position was—and that I would back up whatever I claimed to be true with lots of evidence from the poem. I wanted to show them that evidence could be manipulated in all sorts of ways—that in English, you could prove almost anything, whether or not you believed it to be true.

“Do you think, if I answered that way on a test, that I would get full credit for my answer?”

My students nodded slowly—and unhappily.

“You backed it up with evidence,” they said, echoing the mantra I had instilled in them over the past five months.

“But you weren’t being real,” one of them added.

As I have indicated, the heart of the matter exists somewhere in the tenuous relationships among truthfulness, freedom, and power. As English teachers, we want to empower our students by giving them the tools to understand, use and even create language. That is, we are responsible for helping our students feel the power of language and negotiate its demands.

But the question about evidence and correctness—what constitutes the “truth” in an English classroom—affects both strong and struggling students alike. The ability to manipulate language and evidence is a skill struggling students often feel they were simply born without—and it is a skill strong students sometimes abuse because they do not understand it. They are often too worried about the ‘right’ answer to bother finding the truthful one.

More to come on this.

*All names have been changed.