Posted in Other, Writing

Accommodations for Dysgraphia

We’ve all had those students… the ones whose written papers bring to mind a Cy Twombly paining. And while messy handwriting might be nothing more than carelessness, it can also be caused by dysgraphia—a disorder that affects the ability to sequence and control fine muscle movement.  In my previous post I detailed how to recognize dysgraphia, often referred to as “impairment of written expression.” Here, I focus on how teachers can provide extra support to help students who struggle with it.

STRETCHING

For students with dysgraphia, the act of writing can be physically taxing if not outright painful.  In the same way warming up before a run can ready your muscles for the workout ahead, having students warm-up their hands before writing is a big help.  Encourage students to wiggle and stretch their fingers before writing. Better yet, give them a stress ball or putty for a pre-writing workout.

WRITING TOOLS

Pencil grips help dysgraphic students hold their pen or pencil correctly, reducing strain and increasing maneuverability. Unfortunately, older students are often reluctant to use them.  So, use the fattest cushioned grips you can find and offer them “to make the pencil more comfortable,” knowing in your heart that the increased diameter tends to force their hand into the desired tripod position.

Specialty lined paper can also aid students with letter placement and alignment. Paper with raised lines is best since it gives tactile as well as visual cues. (It’s also a must-have for students with visual impairment.) If that’s not in your budget, use regular graph paper or print out this specially lined notebook paper I created to help with spacing.

Allow students with dysgraphia to type assignments on the computer. It eliminates some of the barriers to writing (pencil placement, holding the paper in place, alignment, erasure issues) while it strengthens muscles in their hands.  Even cursive writing can be easier than print since they don’t have to lift the pencil up and down quite as much.

NOTE-TAKING HELP

Students with dysgraphia also benefit from note-taking assistance. Their struggles with the physical act of writing diverts attention from your lesson.  Instead, print out notes for them (one reason why I create most formal lessons on PowerPoint) or ask another student to scribe for them using carbon-paper (@30 cents a sheet, but reusable) or carbonless forms (@10-cents a sheet).

HANDWRITING INSTRUCTION

While there’s not enough time to provide one-on-one instruction for handwriting in middle school, you can provide students with a folder of handwriting worksheets they can work on whenever they have some free time.  Although some experts claim most middle school students’ handwriting is too deeply ingrained to change, I’ve seen several motivated boys become much neater writers simply by giving them the tools to practice it. [picture]  Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have an occupational therapist visiting your school, ask for their help.

Remember in my previous post when I talked about my husband’s soul-crushing “chicken scratching” experience? In high school, his drafting teacher gave him nightly lettering practice that he labored over at home. The long hours paid off by retraining his muscle memory for writing. Today, he gets compliments on his neat, easy-to-read handwriting.

DIFFERENTIATING PRODUCT

Differentiate the product used to assess mastery by allowing dysgraphic students to respond orally, or when that’s not feasible, use graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can help in two ways. First, on lengthy writing assignments, using a graphic organizer or outline helps students focus their thoughts before they must code them in writing. If possible, let them turn in writing “drafts” as graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can also be used to show mastery of reading skills like plot, character traits, or text structure. Use these for literary text and these for informational text.

Reduce the volume of writing required.  Allow students with dysgraphia to highlight text evidence instead of rewriting it.  Permit students with dysgraphia to use agreed- abbreviations or symbols when writing (w/ for “with” or + for “and”). Share this list of common symbols and abbreviations as a reference tool. Wherever possible, remove handwriting, capitalization, and spelling as a grading criteria for written assignments.  Test the latter two with a computer-based quiz or multiple-choice/check-the-box assessment.

If you want to learn more about dysgraphia and what you can do to support students who have it, I highly recommend Reading Rockets as a resource.  You’ll find literally hundreds of articles about it—everything from handwriting samples, to assistive technology, to the latest brain research.

Posted in Other, Writing

7 Signs Your Student Has Dysgraphia

Decades later, my husband can still recall being called out by an English teacher for turning in a written assignment that looked like “chicken scratching.”  Even though he’d tried his best, his handwriting—weirdly spaced with shaky lines– looked like it was produced by a very young child.  The teacher accused him of being lazy, but he was actually struggling with dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a nervous system disorder that affects fine motor skills used for writing.  It’s often associated with other learning disorders such as ADHD or dyslexia.  While it used to be an official diagnosis, now it appears on IEPs or 504s as “impairment in written expression.” Of course, I’ve also encountered dysgraphic students who had yet to be diagnosed.

So, how do you know if a student has it?  There are some tell-tale signs teachers and parents can look for.  First and foremost, students with dysgraphia are often described as having “messy” handwriting, with the following characteristics:

  • Irregular spacing
  • Unevenly sized letters
  • Writing above or below the lines
  • Erratic pencil pressure
  • Poor spelling, omits letters or words
  • Capitalization errors, including mid-sentence caps
  • Frequent scratch-outs and erasures

Students with dysgraphia may hold their pen or pencil in a tight or claw-like grip.  They may hunch over their paper or turn their hand (or paper) at an odd angle to write.  These students often avoid writing assignments and write much more slowly than their peers. Also, because so much mental energy is dedicated to task of production, it’s hard for students with dysgraphia to compose their thoughts while writing.

An official diagnosis can be made by psychologist or neuropsychologist, or an occupational or physical therapist can test motor skills.  However, if you suspect a student has dysgraphia, there are a number of ways you can help them.  In my next post, I’ll detail ways teachers can differentiate for students with dysgraphia, and how one teacher’s intervention made all the difference for my own significant other.

Posted in Other

25 Inspiring Messages for Teachers

As teachers, we are called on to inspire others.  That means, our own passion needs to burn brightly for us to pass it on to others.  Keeping that spark alive can be difficult given how difficult teaching is.  So, like many teachers, I post clever sayings–in my planner, near my keyboard, on the fridge–to remind me who I want to be and why I work so hard at it.  As you prepare for the coming school year, I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you.  If you like them, save them to Pinterest (because what teacher doesn’t have an “inspirational quotes” Pinterest board) or use the link below to download all 25.

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share?

Add it to the comments section of this post!

Posted in Classroom Management, Other

“Signing” Social Contracts

Boost Buy-In for Class ExpectationsLast year I wrote about a B2S lesson that was wildly successful.  If you didn’t get a chance to read it, you can find it here. Today, I wanted to build on it by telling you how we formalized our social contracts—in a way that made them an oft-referenced classroom fixture.

Social contracts emerge from thoughtful discussion and spell out the expectations the students and teacher have for one another.  Those expectations are written out,  and all the stakeholders sign the document to signify their agreement to uphold it.  Then, it is posted in the classroom as a visual reminder.

I’ve used social contracts for many years, but to be honest, after the first quarter I rarely referred to them—until I found a way to make them more personal.

While mulling over ideas for an upcoming lesson on multiple meaning words, I had an epiphany.  Instead of having students sign their name to a list of rules and expectations—why not have them create a sign identifying a specific contribution they’ll make to enrich our class community. I’d photograph them holding their sign and post the pictures around the room.  Think “pet-shaming” with an affirmation instead of a rebuke.

Part of the process of creating a social contract involves brainstorming specific acts that exemplify each ideal.  So, when we got to that step, I simply had students write their chosen action on a small whiteboard, then I snapped a photo of it.  To reinforce each person’s role in community-building, I asked students to describe their chosen action using an “I will…” statement.  (As you can see, this direction was not always followed…but it WAS day one, after all.) Don’t forget to create your own sign for each class identifying steps you’ll take to establish a respectful and productive classroom.

Now, our school is very particular about photographing students, so I framed each shot so it did not show student faces. Even if your school doesn’t have this restriction, it actually works in your favor to frame shots this way.  Not only is it visually interesting, but students love to study the photos and guess who was behind each sign.

Displaying the resulting document is an important part of the social contract process.  So, I grouped the photos by class, arranged them using PowerPoint (Word works just as well), and printed them out on poster-sized paper.  If your school doesn’t have a poster-printer, you could simply print and group the photos by hand – or better yet, have students arrange and paste photos on a poster.  Then, display them in the room all year.

Using photos differentiated our social contracts from others around the school.  It personalized our agreements in a way a signature just does not do.  It also added a level of engagement that, for whatever reason, called our attention back to the ideal of working together again and again.

 

Posted in Other, Reading

Best Books for Reluctant Middle School Readers

It’s a vicious cycle. Students who do not read well avoid it at all costs. Yet, reading more is precisely they must do to overcome those deficits.  In What Really Matters for Middle School Readers reading expert Richard Allington points out that a key component for improving literacy is expanding the daily volume of “high-success” reading.  He defines that as text students can read independently with 98% accuracy.  Sadly, for struggling readers, school issued grade-level texts are not likely to meet these criteria.

How can those tasked with closing the reading gap for these students overcome this Catch-22?  One element, of course, lies in teaching students the vocabulary and strategies to build their reading proficiency.  Another element, the one this post will focus on, is giving reluctant readers the opportunity to engage with Hi-Lo books—high interest texts written at a lower reading level.

Last year I was fortunate enough to work with Kristin Badger, a school librarian who made such books a priority.  She created a special section in our library and stocked it with over a hundred Hi-Lo titles from Orca Publishing.  These books cover topics of interest to those from ages 10 to 14, but with reading levels ranging from grade 2 to 6.  They look just like your typical tween books and are not identified as “easy” reads, so there’s no stigma attached to checking them out.  Kristin visited all of our intensive reading classes to unveil the new section and let students in on their “secret” purpose.  My 7th and 8th grader remedial readers devoured them—so much so that the library had to purchase more to keep up with demand.

There are many popular mainstream books as well that appeal to middle school readers who struggle.  My classroom library–nearly ten years in the making–includes hundreds of popular books, many geared to the standard-level and struggling readers I teach.  (Read my tips for starting a similar class library and get my 100+ book list here.)  Here are some of the books my students really enjoyed.

NOTE: I’ve linked each title to its Amazon write-up, but I get no compensation—zilch, zip, nada—if you click the link.  These recommendations are based solely on what my struggling readers really read.

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Guys can’t get enough of this novel in verse about basketball and coming of age.  That’s right!  Your struggling reader, middle school boys will clamor to read this book that features different styles of poetry in each chapter.  Even better, this award-winner is the first in a series that includes Booked (a soccer story told in poetry) and Rebound (a Crossover prequel that ups the interest-factor by including graphic novel panels alongside the poetry).

I, FUNNY by James Patterson

James Patterson is such a gifted writer, and since he turned his attention to novels specifically crafted for the middle-school set, he’s put out numerous books that could appear on this list.  This one, though, is the book I can’t keep on my library shelves.  As the name suggests, it’s hilarious—often in a bathroom humor sort of way—that prompts readers to laugh out loud (which piques their peers’ curiosity, ensuring the perpetual popularity of this title).

I SURVIVED… (series) by Lauren Tarshis

These true-life tales are written in a narrative style that makes it easy to get lost in the story.  They are a quick read—just over 100 pages—each focusing on a historical battle or natural disaster that is a sure-fire way to engage the boys in your class.  There are even teaching resources you can use with many of the books to test comprehension or practice reading skills like figurative language or inferences.  The top reads in this series (for my students at least) were The Sinking of the Titanic, The Eruption of Mount St. Helens, and The Shark Attacks of 1916.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

This book reminded me of Wonder, though it proved even more popular among my reluctant reader girls.  The determined female protagonist is a key reason.  The subject matter—dealing with a disability that makes communication a challenge—was another.  Your students will cheer for Melody she finds fights to be heard and appreciated for who she really is.

SMILE by Raina Telgemeier

I was surprised to find that both boys as well as girls enjoyed this graphic novel series by the author of the Babysitter’s Club books.  I LOVE that graphic novels encourage struggling readers to build vocabulary by offering visual context for words like amicable, catastrophe, epicenter and negligence (all found within the covers of this book).

UNGIFTED by Gordon Korman

Reluctant readers can identify with the middle-school underdog protagonist who challenges other people’s perception of him.  Written at a 730 Lexile level (approximately 4th grade), it’s nonetheless designed to appeal to the middle school crowd.  I also heartily recommend other books by this prolific author (more than 50 middle school/teen books), including Restart (about bullying) and The Unteachables (that you just might enjoy even more than your students).

WARCROSS by Marie Lu

This one is for your reluctant girl readers!  Written by award-winning sci-fi author Marie Lu, it has all the ingredients for success – romance, a powerful female lead, a videogame competition, and espionage!  Be forewarned, the action includes some violence, language, and a steamy hot tub scene (all tween appropriate, in my opinion).  This isn’t your unicorns and rainbows book for girls—it’s much more engaging than that.

WHO WAS. . . (series) by Penguin Publishing

Designed to appeal to student in grades 3-6, these books were still quite popular with my middle school readers.  With over 200 titles to choose from (I’m including the related series: Who Is, Where Is, and What Is), students can use them in conjunction with classroom texts to build background knowledge on numerous historical people and places.  Netflix has even created a sketch comedy series based on these books.  (Wouldn’t that be a fun way to introduce reluctant readers to the series?)  My students’ faves in this series were the books about Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, and Abraham Lincoln.

These were the top picks in my classroom. I’d love to hear about the books that hooked your young readers.  Leave a comment below.

Posted in Other, Reading

Tips for Building Your Classroom Library

Build it, and they will READ!  New language arts teachers at my school have asked me if they really need to spend money on classroom books.  I get it.  Books are expensive, and new teachers are already opening up their own wallets for furnishings and other class necessities.  Further, many may reason that the school library is already providing students with easy access to books.  But if you truly want to encourage independent reading (and you should, but that’s another post), you absolutely must have a selection of engaging, quality books on hand in your classroom.  You don’t have to break the bank to do it either.  Here are my tips for curating a classroom library that will entice even the most reluctant readers to dive into a good book.

Tip #1: Making Books Accessible

There are two reasons why having books in your classroom makes reading more accessible.  First, students come in contact with your class books every single time they enter your room.  They don’t have to make a special trip to the library or wait until the whole class visits.  Second, books from the classroom library are often available when school library books are not.  For example, my reluctant readers often forgot to return school library books they’d checked out, making them ineligible for new check-outs.  Also, popular titles are often on waiting lists, so having them on hand in your classroom gives your students an alternative way to enjoy them.

Maximize this accessibility by showcasing your books.  Organize books using student-friendly categories like Adventure, Biographies, Science Fiction, Graphic Novels, Books Girls Like, and Books Boys Like.  Then, group them in labeled baskets, with the covers facing out.  Publishers put a lot of effort into enticing readers to pick up a particular title—catchy titles and appealing cover art.  Take advantage of their marketing to sell your students on reading.

Struggling readers often need different books than those typically carried in a school library.  Who knows your student’s interests and reading ability better than you?  My library offers many Hi-Lo titles with teen themes written in language accessible to struggling readers.  In addition, I stock several popular novels translated into Spanish to encourage my English-language learners to dive into books they can later discuss with their English-speaking peers.  If you’re lucky enough to have a responsive media center specialist at your school, they may be able to order these types of books as well.  Frankly, I just found it infinitely faster (Amazon Prime 2-Day Shipping) and easier (no paperwork) to purchase some myself.

Tip #2: Buying the Right Books… Inexpensively

It won’t matter how many books you make available in your class library—if students don’t find them interesting, they’ll gather more dust than readers.  I’ve put together a list of books that have been wildly popular among my middle grade students [here].  It took nearly ten years to assemble them all, and I rotate new titles in throughout the year (and remove those that are no longer in demand).  A great resource for identifying promising new titles are state reading lists that employ volunteer librarian-readers to peruse several hundred relatively new titles every year before making their recommendations on the very best of them.  These lists are generally crafted to reflect a wide range of reading levels and student interests.  Two of the most well-regarded MS book lists are issued by Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers and Texas’s Lone Star Reading List.  If you want a turnkey solution, Scholastic has grade level collections recommended by reading expert Laura Robb.  These collections include two copies each of 50 different books at reading and interest levels appropriate for that grade.  Truthfully, I have a few sets of duplicate books for use with reading circles, but I prefer to devote my limited budget and shelf space to as many different titles as possible.

Like all teachers I am, by necessity, frugal.  The only time I pay full price for a book is when I’m purchasing it at a book fair that supports my school.  Most of my books come from eBay auctions or other used booksellers like Thriftbooks or Better World Books (which supports libraries and literacy campaigns).  Where possible, buy hard cover books (they hold up ten times longer with my tough-on-books middle schoolers) rated Very Good, Like New, or New.  I also solicit donations from parents of any age-appropriate books their children have already read by including a slide in my “Open House” presentation and a mention on my class webpage.  Also, find out when your local library is having a sale by checking the Book Sale Finder website.  This is a great place to stock up on quality hardbound books.

Tip #3: Managing Your Collection

When your goal is to put books into the hands of your students, you need to establish an easy system for check-in/check-out and follow-up for missing titles.  If you use a smart phone or iPad in the classroom, there are many free or inexpensive apps that simplify this process such as Bookcrawler, Level It Books, and Book Buddy Pro.  I personally liked Book Buddy.  But for many years, I went Old School, pasting book pockets and inserting library cards inside the cover of each book.  When students checked out a book, I’d file the library card with their name and date (students were trained to do this on Week One) in a small plastic card file.  I organized cards by student last names (to identify students who already had a book out), but you can also organize them by date (to track when books are due) or by title (simplifies reshelving returned books).

One thing I highly recommend is that teachers write their last name on the pinched pages of the top and bottom of each book.  Bookplates with your name on it are nice, but it’s too easy to overlook a lost book left on a bus seat, kitchen counter, or lost-and-found bin if it isn’t prominently advertised as being borrowed.  Before I did this, I’d say I lost several dozen books each year.  Once I added my name in bold black letters, my returns spiked—and I only had to replace six or seven books at year’s end.

This brings up a good point.  Expect to lose a few books each year.  Consider it a fixed cost–like the hundreds of “loaned” pencils we will never see again.  If the book was a popular classic, I replace it.  But if it was an aging fad fiction title (think: Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, or any book that has since been made into a tween movie) I use the loss as an opportunity to update my collection.

You probably already have several books lying around that you’ve read either in consideration for a novel study or just to converse with your students about them.  If so, your library is already under construction.  Once you’ve accumulated at least one book for each student you teach, you’ll have enough to start lending them out (not every student will borrow your books).  Until then, just making them available for students to read in class will go a long way toward establishing a culture of loving literature.

Posted in Other

A Checklist to Help Pack Your Classroom

The last round of testing may signal the imminent arrival of summer for students, but teachers still have two big hurdles ahead of them: finalizing grades and packing up the classroom. While I can’t do much to help with the former, I can offer some tips based on years of experience that includes changing classrooms (many, many times) and moving to a new school (thankfully, just once).

Whether you’re moving or just required to pack up to facilitate classroom maintenance, my End-Of-Year Classroom Checklist can help you break this daunting task into manageable steps that take the hassle out of packing up your room. It even includes a suggested timeline that can help you stay ahead of the stress. Of course, you can adapt it to fit your situation and needs.

Anywhere from two to three weeks before the end of the student school year, I start by organizing technology. By starting with “invisible” classroom changes first, I’ve found it minimizes disruption and helps students stay focused on any last-minute projects or make-up work. To be honest, I start my year by organizing files and email as described on the attached list, so by the end of the year I’m just double-checking to be sure I’ve saved all my files and communication in the correct spot. But it’s never too late to create this type of file organization to archive important digital records. I enlist the students’ help in “wiping” student computers—removing any photos or student files residing on computer hard drives. If your school requires you to disconnect your computers, keyboards, mice, and network cables, be sure to take a picture with your cellphone beforehand, so you have a template when the time comes to reconnect everything (and still have it function properly).

One to two weeks out, I start clearing out bookshelves and cabinets, beginning by asking students to take home their consumable workbooks, interactive notebooks, and writing portfolios. Student volunteers always help me reorganize my classroom library. I already have books tagged and grouped by genre (Adventure, Poetry, Graphic Novels, etc.) in sturdy stackable baskets. I’m fortunate to have both open bookshelves and cabinets with doors. We stack all the books inside the cabinets to keep them from getting dusty (or overly exposed to heat and sun) over the summer.

When I first started teaching, I kept everything… every file, every gently used composition book, every student-drawn card. It accumulated so quickly it became unmanageable. Now, I toss all of my extra handouts; I’ve got digital copies that are easier to find. I throw away half-used supplies, most of which dried up over the summer or were eschewed by my new students as “old and gross.” Even those treasured student-created masterpieces are eventually discarded (at home) after I snap a picture of them for my digital “memory book.” After all, it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? That stays with me forever.

I don’t dismantle bulletin boards or take down classroom posters until the final week students are in school. I create new anchor charts each year, so I offer the old ones to students who wish to take them home. Take photos to help you replicate them down the road.  If you use fabric, like I do, as a bulletin board background, you can leave it in place as long as it isn’t tattered or faded.  However, I  like to replace the bulletin board borders with fresh ones each year to freshen up the room. If removed borders are in good shape, you can roll them up and store in a plastic tub, or stack and secure border strips with a binder clip and hang them on a command hook in a closet or other out-of-the-way spot.

I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to use student labor to organize, pack, discard, and move materials in your classroom. I used to feel guilty about it, until I realized how much they enjoy helping. Even my 8th graders felt honored to play a role in preparations for “next year’s kids” and vied for the chance to move baskets of books to my new classroom. Of course, it never hurts to reward them with some small token of your appreciation as well.

While I may start thinning out items that have accumulated in my desk over the course of the last few weeks of school–by now I’ve amassed an astonishing collection of fidget toys, coins, rubber bands and one miniature rubber chicken (don’t even ask)—I generally save the final desk clean-out for the last day of post-planning—sans students. Again, be ruthless in getting rid of items you don’t really need. The more you purge now, the less you have to sort, pack, and move later.

Record-keeping is tricky, but I’ve found that keeping student files (attendance records, behavior documentation, ESE accommodation lists and details, parent communication, and retake exam documents) for ONE YEAR ONLY has been more than adequate. Some schools also require teachers to save and submit all lesson plans. I keep mine digitally and just turn in a thumb drive where required. When discarding anything containing student information, be sure to shred it or use whatever security protocol your school has in place for disposing of sensitive data.

Last, a few thoughts on packing and storage. I use a mix of cardboard boxes and milk crates. Where possible, use standard sizes to make stacking and storing them a breeze. Some teachers love clear plastic bins, but I don’t find them to be sturdy enough for me. Secondary teachers tend to move from room to room more often, and thin-walled plastic cracks easily when hoisted about, especially when bins get heavy. Plastic milk crates are more durable, and you can see the contents inside. Plus, mine pull double duty as “Lost and Found,” “Returned Books,” and “Student Folders” containers during the school year. Label everything–even furniture–with your name, and classroom number. Include a content description for any boxes you can’t see through.  Boxed belongings and furniture often moves inexplicably over the summer. Properly labeled furnishings find their way back to you again.

Hopefully, these tips will help make this year’s classroom pack-up a little easier, so you can truly enjoy the last few days with your kiddos. You’ve made a tremendous difference in their lives! Enjoy the respite you so richly deserve.

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Posted in Other

Inspiring Back-to-School Lesson Idea

Yesterday was the first day of school in our district, and I wanted to share a lesson I debuted that exceeded all expectations!  In fact, I’ve never been so excited or felt so connected to students AFTER JUST ONE DAY as I do right now.  That’s why I dropped everything to share it with you.

Our middle school asks teachers to develop social contracts with students.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s basically a signed document listing the expectations that students and their teacher agree to have for one another.  The idea is that everyone takes time to consider the classroom environment they’d like to have and acknowledge their role in creating it.  There’s a standard list of questions (What would you like our class to look like?  What do you expect from the teacher?).  Generally, a student records responses for the class to discuss and eventually agree to endorse.

It’s a solid concept that does start the year off on the right path.  However, in a middle-school setting where students and teachers have 7 to 8 different classes, you can imagine how repetitive the process gets to be.  So, this year, we were given license to adapt the process to suit our individual classroom content and style.  And that’s what led me to try something new.  Here’s what we did.

Before students arrived, I arranged the desks into groups of four.  I greeted them at the door as they came in, introduced myself and invited them to sit in the group of their choice.  (If you have a student survey, collect student data on index cards—or any simple task that requires no more than a few lines of directions written on the board—this is an excellent way to keep everyone engaged while you greet those still arriving.)  Once the bell rang, I took care of the usual housekeeping items: personal introduction, attendance, name pronunciation, and need-to-know basics for entering or leaving the room… you know, the standard stuff. 

Next, I introduced the day’s activity with this presentation. (Just in case your perfectionism is as bad as mine, here’s a copy of the speaker’s notes I mapped out.  I updated them to reflect improvements made after delivering the lesson five times.)  After identifying the standard and Marzano-scale associated with it (yes, we do these for EVERY lesson, even on Day 1), I asked if anyone was familiar with TED Talks.  In most cases, I had to explain that TED Talks were speeches given by someone who was an expert on the topic, a speech that was filmed and loaded to the Internet so anyone could share the expert’s information.  I noted that we were going to watch a TED Talk called Everyday Leadership.  Next, I show the video (just 6-minutes) without interruption.

In the video Drew Dudley tells the story of a girl he met during her first day of college.  Unbeknownst to him, she was so full of fear and self-doubt that she’d made the decision to quit school, but through one humorous interaction between strangers, he put her at ease and in the process changed her life.  She didn’t tell him until four years later, and in revealing how his small act of kindness made him an important person in her life, she in turn helped him realize his own value in the world.

After we watched the video, I presented students with questions to discuss with their group and briefly reminded them of the collaborative discussion traits outlined in the lesson scale we went over (listening while others talk, adding comments and asking on-topic questions).  Then, I circulated as groups talked, prompting as needed.  I expected to do more redirection of off-topic conversations, but the subject and story-telling in this video was so engaging students stayed focused almost without exception.  After a few minutes of discussion, I asked each group to choose a spokesperson to share their answer with the class.  I let them know the role of spokesperson would be shared, so a different person would be speaking for the group on each question.  Incidentally, watching how each group selected their speaker–not to mention circulating during the discussion–helped me spot the natural leaders, the quiet-but-thoughtful ones, and those who struggle with comprehension or focus.

If your schools allows treats, while students discuss the second question you can pass out lollipops to everyone.  It breaks the ice, puts everyone in a positive frame of mind, and it’s a rare opportunity where enjoying sweets IS reinforcing the point of the lesson.

As students shared their thoughts, we learned a lot about one another’s values, experiences, and communication style and ability.  The greatest insights were revealed when students shared their “lollipop moments.”  Before asking them to discuss this, I acknowledged that this particular question required them to be brave.  Sharing an important moment in your life, especially in a group of people you don’t know well, means risking vulnerability.  At this point, we’d already seen the video and discussed how the girl felt scared and alone until Drew’s actions showed her the people around her were nervous too.  I shared my own “lollipop moment” to spark the conversation, and then I circulated, listening thoughtfully as students candidly shared moments where they’d been either the recipient or giver of a small act of kindness that had a big impact.

While I can’t reveal specific confidences, I can tell you that the real-life stories my students shared of poverty, fear, generosity, and hope reminded me of my own potential to impact these children and make a difference in our world.  Don’t you just love it when a lesson you design to inspire others, fuels your own passion in turn?  I can say with some degree of certainty that my students felt the same.  As they worked on the culminating activity – identifying one word that summed up the actions of either Drew or the girl (kindness, generosity, appreciation) and brainstorming other acts that demonstrate that trait—they were already modeling helpfulness and respect toward one another.  I could see that those values, and the idea that our classroom was a safe place in which we could trust one another, were already taking root.

Over the next few days we’ll formalize our social contract, spelling out these values that we now embrace.  More than ever before, though, this contract has spilled over the edges of the page and the ideals it represents are already embedded in our class culture.  Thanks, Drew!