Four strategies to avoid burnout

I have been doing this teaching thing for a touch over 22 years now. Weird to think that I have been doing it longer than my students have been alive. I have, in fact, been doing it long enough that I now have students who are the children of some of my students from many years ago. When the first of those kids came along, I almost feinted.

As many of us old farts will attest to, there comes a time when we are asked how we avoid burn out. How have we done this for so many years (with the exception of one semester, my entire career has been at the same school)? While it isn’t easy, it isn’t difficult to avoid burnout either. Some suggestions that have helped me along all these years.

I have noticed that the teachers who burnout the easiest tend to be the either the most passionate or have no place whatsoever in the classroom. To the passionate teachers looking for an out, keep reading. For those teachers who realize you are not suited to the classroom, thank you for having the courage to try. Following are some strategies I have used over the last many years to keep me afloat in this profession.

Strategy #1: Throw away last year’s plans…

The teachers who don’t seem to burnout the easiest are those who do the same thing year after year after year. However, these teachers also tend to be the least exciting. They likely don’t burnout because they have their lessons and grading down pat. These are the teachers who still use the same overheads they used 20 years ago when overhead projectors were high tech. These are the teachers who spend their teacher prep days at the beginning of the year making copies for the entire semester. You know this teacher. You have had this teacher. And like me, you probably entered this gig not wanting to be this teacher. Perhaps you don’t use the same handouts and the like, but you’re feeling some burnout. Get rid of last year’s plans. Start over. Try something different with your classes. You might have the same content, but that doesn’t mean you have to teach the same lessons. Let’s face it, what worked last year, likely won’t work for the students you currently have. Don’t do the same thing year after year after year.

Strategy #2: Change your schedule…

A few years back I was in rut. I was looking at want ads. I was looking at what I could do to get out of the profession. I did the math to see what it would take to retire early. So, rather than do something irrational I walked into the scheduler’s office and told her to take my honors English class off my schedule and replace it with co-taught English. In case you’re wondering, co-taught English is as far on the opposite end of the spectrum of honors as you can get. A good chunk of my career has been in advanced classes. This change has done absolute wonders for my perspective as a teacher. It has re-energized what I do. And, it has impacted how I approach my AP and IB classes. If you’re struggling, and it is possible, change a class in your schedule.

Strategy #3: Work with the new teachers…

A couple of years back my school got an infusion of new teachers. They came in with some new ideas and approaches. Where many of us old farts might look at new teachers and say, “BAH! You kids and your new fangled ideas. You’ll learn!” Don’t say that. Sit with them. Learn from them. Mentor them with an open mind and you just might learn something, too. Felicia entered this crazy world of education four years ago after 20 years in retail, a good chunk of that time in management. I have learned so much from her and other new teachers. Their enthusiasm can be infectious. Sometimes it will need a dose of reality, but buy into their enthusiasm. Don’t crush it. Help it come to fruition. There is something quite powerful about reigniting a passion.

Strategy #4: Learn something new…

I am not making this up. One year, close to 17 years ago, when I was almost done with this teaching thing, I wrote the following for my technology goals: I plan on utilizing the light switch so that my students will be better able to read and write. I think about that and I want to vomit. Challenge yourself with focusing on new. New strategies. New technologies. This year I have been working extra time on incorporating PBL in my classes. Trust me, I have messed up more than I have succeeded. But I have had some great success with incorporating these strategies into my classes. Today, in fact, Felicia and I just enrolled in John Spencer’s Design Thinking Master Course. I have also attended many Google Summits, reading conferences, a variety of IB conferences, some design thinking workshops. As well, I have been working on certification in working with ELL students. But whatever it is, challenge yourself to learn something new. It doesn’t matter, as long as you share your struggles with learning with your students. Let them know it is ok to try something new. To experiment. And to fail and work harder to succeed.

There you go, four strategies to help avoid burnout, none of which make heavy use of alcohol, though that has been considered (all right, it has been used) a few times. Sadly, it is easy for teachers to burnout, especially now, when it seems the world wants our collective noggins on a plate. As well, we are at that point in the year where there are exams coming up and standardized testing season on the back end. The pressure is being felt on so many ends.

Either way, hang in there and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Here’s to learning and teaching. Something I hope we are all passionate about. What are some strategies you use to avoid burning out?

Someone who believes in them

I teach a couple of classes of at-risk and low performing students. These are students who have been told their whole lives by grades, family, teachers, assessments that they are not smart, that they can’t handle heavy thinking, that they can’t handle independent, critical thought. And while many do float to these expectations (I will forever be indebted to Mike Rose for the verb “to float”. If you have never read his essay, “I just wanna be average,” stop what you’re doing and read it now), many move well beyond them. As Felicia might say, “These kids don’t need to be saved, they just need somebody to believe in them.” I tell you, that woman is smart.

Over the course of last semester, we had done some fun, hands on type of PBL, but I wanted to push their thinking. I went to The Buck Institute’s website (BIE), and I did some searching around Google and Twitter for what could be a fun, intriguing unit. When I found the “Cool with School Rules” project, I had an idea and I developed a unit on ethical decision making with then end goal of examining school rules. I designed the unit around three primary forms of ethics: utilitarian, obligation, and consequential. When I presented the unit to the classes, given this group of kids, they were baffled (one asked if I mixed this class up with my Theory of Knowledge class) about why we would even bother talking about such inane topics. But, several were curious and actively engaged in thought experiments and the like. And many chose not to.

But then, without them knowing that they were going to engage in some PBL, I had the principal come in to class one day. He told them that he had heard we were studying ethics, so he figured they might be the right kids to help him out. As he said, “There are many students in this school who are having a difficult time following rules and just being damn civil to each other.” So he wanted some help in motivating students to be better, behave a bit more civilly, and respect the building and what we are trying to do a bit more. So he asked my classes to help him come up with strategies. He gave us four weeks to come up with something. We would need six.

He left and we got right to work. My students divided the building (hallways, library, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym/weight room/locker rooms), and groups took sections to work on. In the process of completing the assignment for the principal, they had to base a lot of what they did and say in one of their three ethical frameworks.

Using the launch process, the students were able to engage with ethics in some form of concrete reality. As well, we introduced other questions regarding rules and culture and the manner in which these play a role in how people act and behave towards each other and their environment.

The PBL was designed with all of the necessary elements:

  1. We launched the project with the principal coming in and presenting a real, viable issue. After he left, the students spent time brainstorming in small groups what they knew and understood about school rules and why they may or may not follow rules. These conversations were rooted in the ethics we had studied.
  2. From this exploration, the students were able to develop questions. This is a difficult part for many students, these kids are certainly no exception (in their mind to ask a question is to admit you might not know everything, you might be wrong, or you might actually care). However, with the right tools and framework, some of these kids came up with some solid questions.
  3. They spent some time studying more ethical decision making strategies and other ideas that people had done to create a culture where people wanted to be there. And they came up with some answers to their questions. Again, some had well developed answers while many had very thin answers. Regardless, they worked within these ideas and concepts.
  4. From here, they spent time in their assigned areas of the school and took notes and studied the needs of these areas. They also studied what some other schools had done with posting rules in some creative manners. With all of this knowledge, they came up with their ideas for posters and slogans.

IMG_1071Over the course of the next few weeks, my students worked on coming up with ways to engage students to behave and follow rules. The students were reflective in their own struggles with rules and school and applied what they knew of themselves and their friends to what they felt might motivate others.

When the principal came back after six weeks, the students presented their ideas to him. As you might expect with a group of at-risk and low performing students, many didn’t get as much done as they could have, but some did exceedingly well (many students still argue about the “broken windows theory”).

IMG_1069The principal, however, was so impressed with one group that their posters are hanging in bathrooms around the school (these are the pictures presented). They took the approach of making memes to remind students of expectations for the bathrooms.

The beauty of a well executed PBL, as I am beginning to learn, involves so much. In the case with at-risk and low performing students, most need a bit of structured and guided inquiry. This group needs explicit deadlines as at-risk and low performing students tend to struggle with self-direction. They also need explicit rubrics and guidelines. They need all of the requirements of good PBL as outlined by The Buck Institute.

IMG_1065When reflecting on the process when they were done, many students, including two in the group who have their memes hanging, said that for the first time in their 12 years in the education system, they felt their opinion was valued and they were taken seriously. When the principal was in the room listening to their presentations, they felt like he was genuinely interested. Probably because he was. He wasn’t there to grade them. After each presentation he offered his advice and that if they wanted their posters or ideas presented to the school, this is what they would have to do.

According to BIE there needs to be some sort of authentic, public demonstration, because far too often, students present only for the grade book. When the principal was there to listen and to pry and to advise, they realized that this was for real. And for just a moment, there was somebody else in the room who believed in them, which is what they really needed.

Writing to reflect: For the Horde!

Confession: I drive a Subaru Forester. In Colorado this is about as common as a lodgepole pine tree is in our forests. I would be lying if I said I never walked up to another Forester and wondered why my remote wasn’t working to unlock the door. After one last frustrating moment of trying to locate my Subaru in a forest of Subarus (don’t even get me started on trying to find my car in an REI parking lot), I decided mine needed a marker of sorts. Actually, Felicia suggested I should mark it.

Felicia drives a Honda Pilot, which is not as common as a Subaru mind you, but common enough that she has walked up to the wrong car, and has been sitting in her car when another person mistook Felicia’s Pilot for her own. An awkward situation to say the least. So Felicia put a “Sailor Moon” window sticker on her car so as to easily mark it.

Felicia’s Sailor Moon sticker

This has done wonders for both of us in locating her car in crowded lots. Each time it has been used or each time we would have difficult time locating my car, she would bring it up and tell me I should get a something to mark my car, too. However, I have always had a no sticker policy on my cars, which drove my deceased wife nuts, especially during political season.

But my policy has changed. After a frustrating moment trying to find my car in a forest of Foresters, I decided enough is enough. I spent a few days trying to decide with what to mark my car, and I decided on the symbol for the Horde from World of Warcraft (WOW). 

Before explaining why I chose the decal I did, I need to step back for a moment. I do my best to teach my students that writing to reflect is a process we do in order to arrive at a better understanding of a situation of an issue or ourselves. As our students are young, they have so little upon which to reflect. When we ask them to reflect, it is often thin and superficial at best. We have to remember they are still in midst of deciding their truths and their opinions. I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines that you can’t write about Paris while you’re still in Paris. I still have a difficult time writing about my deceased wife as the experience is still being processed. Don’t get me wrong, I have written a bit here and there, but nothing I am still working on arriving at some truths and realizations since her passing four years ago. In other words, I am still in Paris.

So, when I decided it would a Horde symbol to mark my car, I thought and reflected on what my years of playing WOW did for me as a teacher and as a person. WOW provided me an opportunity to explore myself as a writer and a thinker. One of my former students, Ben Kendrick (he has no idea the debt of gratitude I owe him), would become a mentor for me as a writer. He was an editor for Gamerant, a website dedicated to video games. Over a few drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding, I told him that I played WOW and shared an essay I had written about it. A few months later, he asked me if I wanted to write a weekly column about the game for Gamerant. I took his offer and for a few years, I wrote a weekly column called World of Warcraft Wisdom (hence my Twitter handle).

Is there any question as to why I need a sticker?

Those years writing that column shaped me in so many ways as a writer and a thinker. It gave me a platform to explore my thoughts and ideas on culture and the role games play. It helped me hone my skills as a writer. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach to my students.

There is so much that goes into personal reflection and reflection writing. In so many ways, what makes it difficult for students to find the meaning in their experiences and their views is that they are still in Paris. For many, they hold their opinions and ideas on their sleeves with so little consideration as to where they came from because they are still developing these opinions and ideas. Our students can tell you what they think, but they have a difficult time exploring why they think what they think.

The set up for reflection writing is very important, so much of it comes from the questions we pose as teachers. It’s not enough simply to ask our students to write about a significant experience. I often structure reflection writing through a series of small questions that become larger, open ended questions. After some pre-writing activities and their answers in mind, they are free to put it all together and discern the significance and meaning from whatever it is they are reflecting.

In this essay, for example, consider the questions I have asked and answered about why I chose a World of Warcraft decal to mark my car. From the very simple (When did you play WOW? What side did you play?); to a bit more reflective (How did you get the writing gig? Why did you need a sticker?); to a bit more open ended and thoughtful (Why did you change your no sticker policy, anyway? You’re 49 years old, why the heck are you still identifying with a video game?). And these questions do not even include the meta aspect of this writing!

When I ask my students to write reflective essays after a project or an essay they have written for class, I often use a Google Form to collect their responses and thinking. Each question they answer on the Form gets progressively open ended. The assignment will dictate the questions I have them answer (either for pre-writing or post activity reflection). When they are done and we have conferred on their responses, they are ready to find the meaning of whatever it is that I am asking them to find. They are, in short, ready to arrive at a better, more clear and personal understanding.

When I finally decided that it was time for a decal, I had my choice narrowed down to two decals: the Horde and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team logo. The debate in my head was not too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Avs. In the hockey world the Avs are the good guys, everyone else is ok (and then there is the wild (I refuse to capitalize their name), who are just plain wrong). But when I think about what has played a more significant role in shaping who I am today, there was a clear winner. Mind you, I have not played WOW in quite sometime, but I still consider those years writing and playing formative in my understanding as to how popular culture functions in our lives and beyond us. I came to realize just how significant popular culture is in shaping us as individuals and as a people. I often wonder about the interplay between popular culture and reality and the push and pull of those.

In part because of World of Warcraft, therefore, I came into my own as a writer, a thinker, an observer, a writing teacher.

Tell me, how do you encourage reflection in your students? Leave a comment below.

The check box syndrome and why we value the process over the product

A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.

Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.

And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.

This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.

This is brought up by George Couros who quotes A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s book Empower:

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.

Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?

If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).

What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.

Gamer culture

Currently, I am taking a class to get my certification in teaching ESL kids. Here is an essay I wrote for the class. The topic of the essay is about dealing with culture shock. Rather than go the normal route, I decided to write about my introduction into gamer culture through World of Warcraft. Happy reading!

A friend of mine who is more than half Sioux told me that a person who speaks two languages is two people, it is an expression he learned from his grandfather. Travis told me this during a set break when I was sitting in on guitar with his band. That line of his has stuck with me since he laid it out there for me and the universe to hear. He used it to illustrate the significance of having been raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation speaking Sioux and English and the struggles he had when he would visit family who lived off the reservation. I have processed this idea over the years, and I feel that stage four of culture shock (Brown, 1982) gives it the foundational understanding I have struggled with since that night: it is through language that one can be fully acculturated and can be both the person in this culture and that culture. I have said many times that after a few months totally immersed in French culture that anyone, French or American, would have had a difficult time in recognizing that I was American. However, what’s more is this culture transition from shock to assimilation is just as significant in my introduction and foray into gamer culture.

I don’t quite remember the year, but I remember the sensation of logging into World of Warcraft for the first time. It was not unlike going to a new city or country. I was ‘surrounded’ by new sights, new languages, new sounds. When a player enters a massive, multiplayer, online game (MMO) such as World of Warcraft for the first time, he or she enters into a new world and new culture. A world full of virtual ‘newness’ that can be so overwhelming to the ‘noob.’ I remember feeling the “excitement and euphoria” that one often feels when entering a new culture (Brown, 1982). While there are many MMOs and video games out there, there is a common culture and language at the foundation of gamer culture.

I wandered this new world and I began to feel a sense of forlornness. In all MMOs, there are manners in which players can communicate. As for World of Warcraft, there is a general and trade chat where everyone in that part of the realm can see what a player says. There is the private chat between two people, there are small group chats between players in a small group, and there is the guild chat (players in World of Warcraft organize themselves into large social groups called guilds). My first few weeks had me looking to the internet to translate the language I read. Words like noob, pwn, lawlz were foreign to me, as were a variety of acronyms (irl, lfg, afk, brb, ftw) that also sent me to the internet for translation. Asking for help in the general chat could result in mockery, so I found a guild of older players like me, and I would go to them for help or assistance in navigating the communication and traditions I saw happening in the game. Similar to the second stage of culture acquisition, the people in my guild provided necessary support that one often needs when immersing into a new culture (Brown, 1982).

Adjusting to a new culture is difficult, regardless of that culture. Gamer culture is no different. While adjusting to gamer culture through MMOs is certainly not as difficult as adjusting to a new culture in reality, but it highlights various differences in the two worlds to which gamers need to adjust. The “culture stress” described in stage three appropriately notes that as we adjust to our new surroundings we can “accept the differences in thinking and feeling” which surround us (Brown, 1982). With some experience, the ‘noob’ in the game begins to shed some of her innocence of the culture as she begins to use new language and begins to seek out companions for her adventures in the game. As she loses her innocence, she can more easily relate to “natives” and fit into the culture of the game a bit more comfortably.

There comes a moment in every transition from one culture to another where the individual reaches “assimilation or adaptation” (Brown, 1982). I realized I had fully adapted and assimilated into gamer culture when I could easily talk to my gamer students. When I engaged in some of the traditions of the game. When I could easily navigate my way in World of Warcraft. When I could easily enter a new MMO or conversation about a video game. I am truly bilingual and bicultural as I speak the language of gamer culture as easily as I speak my native language. I recognize myself in and out of gamer culture.   

So I come back to Travis and the idea that a person who speaks two languages is two people. The person I am in gamer culture is very different from the person who played with Travis’ blues band that night. Both rely on language particular to that culture, and both utilize words that might be recognizable to those not a part of that culture, however the true meaning of those words are predicated on fluency within that culture. I have to consider the implications on my students. Every new school year, students have to adjust to micro cultures with new teachers and new classrooms. Each teacher seeks to create a culture in his or her room that suits the course and the teaching/learning style of the teacher and, hopefully, meet the needs of the students. Every year I see over 100 new faces as they struggle to adapt to the culture I seek to create in my classroom. Eventually, many develop fluency in the language of my room and my classes, and when they do, they become two people: the student inside my classroom and the young adult outside of it. Until they develop fluency in the language of my room, however, they work to adapt. It is upon me and others familiar with the culture in my room to help the ‘noobs’ as they go through the four stages of culture shock. And when they are able to assimilate, hopefully true learning can happen.


Brown, H. Douglas. (1982). Sociocultural factors. In Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 193-196). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.






Collaboration and the frame of mind

I am a fan of adjusting student groups in my classes. Of course, this drives my students up the wall, but the work I get out of them when they are in groups I set up can be wonderful. When I told my AP English Language and Composition class that I was putting them into groups, they balked and groaned. But, they moved to their assigned spot for the day.

With the students newly organized, I turned on my doc cam and projected a page from my notebook. At the top of the page I had written “What collaboration looks like.” In the middle, written in large letters, “A group of people gathered for a common purpose.” The rest of the page was empty.

I asked them what they feel like collaboration looks like. I poised my pen over the page ready to scribble. And I waited.

For 15 or 20 seconds the silence was deafening. I did not want to start this conversation. I wanted this list to be on them. Finally a kid chimed in: discussion. Good, I say. Tell me more about that, in a collaborative environment, what does discussion look like? A few students suggested some details about the idea of collaborative discussion in small groups. From there, the list took shape and the map filled up. We talked about the role that compromise, performing at the best of one’s abilities, leadership, and ego play in effective collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled this away from school and talked about what it looks like in sports, on a stage, at work, at home.

We talked about what usually happens in classes when they are asked to collaborate. They divide the work up between them, do their own part individually with little communication, and compile their work into one document. They agreed that this is not collaboration. They will readily agree that all they want to do is get their work done so they can move on to better things like Snapchat.

With the mindset established and roles assigned (scribe, researcher, and speaker), students collaborated in small groups with the purpose of using our unit question (What role do social institutions play in determining the level of power derived from authority?) in order to develop a stronger understanding of the arguments presented by Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The conversations were insightful and productive. I wandered about my room and heard students seeking more depth from their peers as they pushed for deeper understanding in their responses.

From here, we switched to using their collaborative mindset to developing skills and approaches for the AP exam in May. Again, they collaborated and pushed for deeper and richer understandings in order to present a more compelling analysis.

I sometimes forget the importance of getting them in the right frame of mind for working in class. I teach in 90 minute blocks and to spend the first 10-15 minutes helping them to get into the right frame of mind is well worth it. As noted in my post on skills over content, if I want them to utilize these skills in class, then it is upon me to spend the necessary time in order to help put them in the right mindset for using those skills in class. So, rather than a bell ringer activity or whatever they might be called, I wonder if we would all be better suited by letting students know of the skill they will utilize that day and what it looks like.