My Focus Brick: Some advice for teachers

I originally posted this on Quora. as a response to the question, “What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?” It resonated with many people on the site, so I wanted to share it here on my teaching blog as well.

What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?

This is my “Focus Brick” in my classroom:

focusbrick

It’s in the top-center of my back wall so it faces me while I’m teaching. It’s just a regular old brick with the letters “TJK” written in washable marker. There’s not much to it, but it’s an incredibly effective tool for me because it’s a constant reminder of something I frequently forget:

They’re Just Kids.

I teach middle school (ages 11–14 in the U.S.), and those students can be just…miserable at times. They’re going through difficult physical and emotional changes. They’re struggling with creating a personal identity. Many of them are just beginning to realize the significance of their problems at home: strained relationships, financial hardship, abuse and neglect.

This hellish cocktail of hormones and identity confusion causes them to be absolutely insufferable at times. They can be rude, combative, insensitive, disrespectful, ignorant, lazy, and just about every other negative adjective you’d associate with the angst-ridden depths of modern puberty.

Without a constant reminder of the rough developmental stage they’re experiencing, it can be easy for me to take their words and actions personally.

They don’t mean it personally, and even the ones who want to personally attack you don’t really understand what they’re doing. Many of them have very little subconscious control over their thoughts, and any child development expert will tell you these kids don’t yet have the brain development or emotional awareness to genuinely evaluate the consequences of their actions before they act. So remind yourself:

They’re Just Kids.

They’re not test scores.

They’re not machines.

They’re not adults.

We can’t treat them like test scores. We can’t expect them to perform like machines. And—as much as we want to at times—we can’t expect them to act like adults.

So in those moments—usually at the end of the day—when I’ve been beaten down by the ceaseless onslaught of bureaucratic idiocy that is the American education system; and half the class hasn’t even looked at the assigned reading from the night before; and three kids are sleeping—two because they were up too late playing Destiny and one because he was taking care of his infant brother while his single-parent mom was working her second job; and one girl keeps chanting “this class is sooooo stupid” while the girl behind her braids her hair; and two boys are chasing a girl around the room while waving a dead bug in a tissue at her; and two others are playing games on their phones; all while I’m trying to discuss the finer points of standard ELACC8L5.a…

…in those moments, I need to hold back from raging at these unwitting victims of pubescent insanity, so instead I take a deep breath, stare at my Focus Brick, and remind myself:

They’re Just Kids.

 

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Making the Mundane Interesting

I tell my students:

I’m going to read a story to you, but there’s a warning: it’s a disturbing story. It’s not suitable for all audiences, and I’ll understand if anyone wants to leave before I begin. Seriously.

Anyone want to leave? No? I don’t want to get any angry emails from your parents about this, ok? Ok.

Everything in this story is based on true events. This is real, it’s horrifying, and it happens every day. I’m going to relate the tale from the perspective of one who experienced it first-hand. Here it is:

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Drawing Lines: The Notebook Lesson

I’ve always liked using writers’ notebooks in my class. They’re great for journaling, drafting, general brainstorming…even doodling. In the past, however, I never really associated any pomp and circumstance with these writers’ journals at the beginning of the year. The exchange was more of a “Hey guys, can you all bring a spiral-bound notebook for a writing journal? Cool.” That was it. The magic was in the process of USING the journal over the course of the school year.

I wanted to try something different this year. I’m sure I’m not the first teacher to do something like this, but I went out and purchased spiral notebooks for EVERY ONE of my 6th grade students this year (they were 17 cents at Wal-Mart and Big Lots, so the investment was worth it). I feel like the act of giving every student a notebook makes it more personal.

On the second day of school, I gave my students these notebooks, but before I presented them to the kids, I provided a bit of ceremony, and in my long-winded fashion, I said:

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Debunking Viral Facebook Posts: Part 1

I use Facebook. I’m not ashamed of that. I think it’s a great way to keep in touch with old friends and keep far-away family updated on everything happening in my life (baby girl is turning 1 next month! Expect an onslaught of photos, everyone).

Every now and then, however, one of my friends shares one of those viral news stories/images/articles that just reek of a hoax – you know the ones I mean…those posts that fill your news feed with vague statements and amazing “facts” that have no sources or legitimate citations? I love stumbling on those posts because they give my brain a little workout. It’s like a challenge to see just how many logical flaws I can find in debunking them. The only problem is that most people don’t like being told that they’ve been taken in by faulty logic, so rather than call those people out on Facebook, I’ve decided to post my findings here instead.

I figure that this is relevant to my classroom because teaching critical thought and evaluating resources are two of my primary goals in my lessons, so let’s see if you saw what I saw…

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Synergy *almost* works!

Edupoint has made a lot of updates to its Synergy software that (almost) make it functional! Here is a quick tribute to their “improvements” with some visuals to show how they *almost* worked.

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Committed to Education

I follow Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, on Twitter. Since he’s a politician, Mr. Duncan’s tweets usually have the rose-colored “candor” you’d expect from a public figure earnestly trying to avoid controversy. Needless to say, I roll my eyes a lot when I read his tweets.

Secretary Duncan is in Haiti for two days, and he made this poignant observation while visiting a school there:

arnetweetI agree with Mr. Duncan in his praise. That is an amazing commitment to education, and I wish more American students were so dedicated to learning; however, I have to pause for a moment and wonder…what would happen if these 16-year-olds, living in one of the poorest nations in the world, suddenly got the opportunity to come to America?

Would they flourish under the guidance of well-trained American teachers? Would they be able to excel, given the opportunity to learn in classrooms equipped with Promethean Boards, iPads, and document cameras? Would they be able to use their drive and dedication to become successful individuals and make themselves into confident, intelligent human beings?

No.

In America, based on their age, they’d be thrown into high school with no preparation, forced to learn English in 12 months, given a standardized test over curriculum they don’t understand in a language they can barely comprehend, and told they’re failures when they don’t meet the standard. And we’d blame their teachers.

They’re in second grade because that’s the level of educational attainment they have. When they’ve mastered second, they’ll move to third, and so on. That’s logical. That’s how education should work, regardless of age. That’s not how we do things in America because one size fits all, right Mr. Secretary?

Maybe we should reevaluate our own commitment to education, Arne. Dare I say, maybe we should be more like Haiti??

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An Open Letter to Edupoint

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: I’m a teacher.

I’m not a web designer. I’m not a programmer. I’m not a tech guru.

I do, however, think I’m pretty tech savvy. Like most guys, I refuse to use the owner’s manual when I get a new phone or computer. I just boot the thing up and start clicking stuff until it does what I want. Most professional programs are intuitive enough that, with a little time and energy, I can figure them out. That’s how professionally made programs should work. Manuals are good for reference, but if the GUI is well-designed and the code is good, the program should be easy enough to figure out.

With all of this in mind, Edupoint’s Synergy application is, for lack of a more professional term, crap.

For those of you who (thankfully) don’t know what Synergy is, it’s a web-based application that schools use for attendance and grading. My county has decided that this should be our new platform this year (as soon as everyone got comfortable using the old, efficient platform). Let’s take a look at some of my issues with this application, shall we?

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