Be Clear. Be Concise.

Teachers need to be clear in all forms of instruction. Saying this much is obvious, but how to actually be clear is less so. We must first take our audience into account, our students. How old are they? Are they native speakers? How much do they already know?

Once we have a working knowledge of this, we have the hope of being clear.

Planning brings clarity.

Plan out your instructions/procedures beforehand. Do not plan the activity and neglect to plan the how-to.

Routines bring clarity.

Develop routines for daily tasks. Routines are especially helpful during transition times. When routines are established, students can instantly know what to do just by observing a teacher’s hand motion.

Teachers must be concise. Being concise helps to bring clarity because it is easier for students to remember a short set of instructions than a long set.

Editing brings conciseness. Look over your plan, cut out what you do not need. Remember, to base your cuts on your students’ background knowledge.

Start with clear and detailed explanations and then fade the explanations out over time to help your students master the content. “To tie an overhand knot we will first…then…and finally…”

Overhand Knot Tying Example
Novice Expert
Image result for overhand knot

(with teacher demonstrations and assistance)

  1. Tie an overhand knot.

For concise explanations, start with the goal. “We will tie an overhand knot.”

This helps your students follow the instructions because they know the end/goal at the beginning.

Cut what you say. Do you like, um, you know, use filler words? Be cognizant of how you speak and actively work to reduce how often you use unneeded words.

The meaning of clarity and conciseness is obvious, but actually being clear and concise is difficult. You should intentionally work at it.

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Teachers and Workload

Teaching is a tough job, but we can make it harder than necessary. Hopefully your school is actively working to reduce your workload by reducing the amount of data drops and by reviewing its marking policies. However, even if you are stuck in a school with many data drops and onerous marking policies, you can work to reduce your own workload.

One way is to simply grade less! It sounds too good to be true, but it is. Grading student work is not a particularly valuable form of feedback. Instead, you can look into whole class marking. This will drastically cut down the time you spend grading, and, as an added bonus you will be giving actionable feedback to your students.

If you are saying you cannot do this because your school’s policy, you likely still have work arounds. Grade formative assessments on completion. Have more in class assignments. If you have book scrutinies and every student needs to have correct answers, don’t include your harder more summative assessments in it. Instead, choose easy ones that will look good to your school so you can get the paperwork done quickly and spend more time focusing on what matters.

If the school policies and enforcement are so strict that these work arounds will not work, I’d suggest looking for another job elsewhere. It is not worth the stress.

Another way to reduce your workload is to set a firm leaving time. I will leave work at X o’clock and be home for dinner. Setting this as a firm personal deadline can be immensely powerful. It will also help you realize that the work can wait, it will be there tomorrow. And generally, even if it doesn’t get done, you and your students will be ok.

Teaching is a profoundly important job. We change students’ lives. And we should celebrate that. However, it is important that we do not burn ourselves out in our drive to be good teachers and help students succeed. Remember, if we quit teaching, we will no longer have the same impact. Find ways to reduce your workload to increase your sanity.

Teaching is a Job

This is part 2 of a post series where I explore my teaching philosophy. It is a very much in process document. Hopefully my efforts to formulate my thoughts are helpful for you too.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Even if you feel you were born to be a teacher or that teaching is your calling, like myself, you should view teaching as a job first and foremost. The reason being is that teaching can easily take over your life and those who view it as a calling are especially susceptible. When that happens, not only does your quality of life suffer, your teaching suffers, your students suffer.

I believe that teaching can easily take over your life because it is inherently intimate. You interact with the same students day in and day out. You see their struggles, failures, and successes. You learn about their interests and home life. The relationship we build with our students drives us to do more. And this is emphatically a positive.

However, this drive has a darker side. It can lead us to obsess over our job and we can become over-dedicated.

  • Regularly taking work home, and working unpaid
  • Taking on more responsibility at work, for the kids, and somebody has to do it
  • Planning lessons late into the night
  • When you have a social life, it consists of talking about work

When this happens to a few people in a school, the culture changes. Instead of being pleased by some teachers going above and beyond, it becomes an implicit expectation.

“Why didn’t you check your email over the weekend?”

“Look at all the great manipulatives Teacher Joe bought for his class. It would really help your students if you got some too.”

“Teacher Sally went to Wal-Mart and spent $400 on school supplies.”

“Have you donated tissues to the school yet? We really need them at the beginning of the year and during winter you know.”

When this happens at a few schools, the district’s culture changes. In a few districts, and the educational culture of the state begins to change. In a few states, and the nation’s educational culture changes. I believe that this culture is a major contributor to teachers becoming burnout and to teachers being taken advantage of by the school funding system.

The antidote, I believe is to maintain the view of teaching as incredibly important, inherently valuable, and fundamental to a flourishing society while viewing it as a job. A job has a “clock”. You are responsible to work from time A to time B. Before and after, is yours. A calling has no limit, jobs do. This is a freeing realization.

Now that I view teaching as a job (albeit, one I feel called to), I have found it much easier to go home with papers ungraded and imperfect lesson plans. This, in turn, has drastically reduced my stress. Which, then, has made me happy to go into work, and I feel that I am able to be more productive with my time there.

A teacher who is burned out is suffering and this teacher’s suffering is causing their students to suffer too. Sometimes doing less allows you to do more. Teaching is a job. A stressful one, but a good one. All teachers should strive to improve. But, to improve, you must stay in the profession and learn how to manage the stresses and temptations that come along for the ride. The best defense is healthy boundaries.

If you feel called into the field of education, welcome! It is a fantastically fulfilling place. But don’t make it your life, it will eat yours. If you make it your job, you just may fulfill your calling.

Teachers and Love

In my previous post, I began writing my philosophy of education that focused on 5 areas.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

I summarized #1 like this.

My manifesto starts with controversy. Love, you say? Inappropriate. However, you are wrong. In the case of a teacher, love for students simply means wanting the best for them. You may argue that I should just drop the word love and go with “Teachers must want the best for their students”. I disagree with that because the word love is more powerful and brings weightier connotations. I want this statement to have that weight and those connotations.

Education is a service industry and its aims are best achieved when teachers seek to serve their students. I believe that this service is best acted out not simply out of duty or even affection, but love.

I chose to start my philosophy with love because it is both a tone and context setter. I firmly believe that our actions as teachers should flow from love. My main reason for starting here is not because I naturally love my students. My natural inclination is to teach my classes and get out because relationships are difficult and often frustrating (especially with young children). But I believe my default approach is incompatible with the approach a service industry job requires. Relationships matter. I started with love because I am a Christian and believe it is foundational and more important than knowledge. (1 Corinthians 13:2, If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”)

So, the next obvious question is what does this look like?

In my overview article, I described the love a teacher should have for their student as “wanting the best for your students.”

However, this is not so helpful as a road-map. It is too broad and vague. We must put this love in its context, education. What is the purpose of education? I propose that the primary purpose of education is to help students learn about that which is true and/or valuable while helping them learn about society and the world. I will unpack this more when I get to #4. In short, education should help students learn about the world and their culture’s values.

This then makes teaching the primary role of the teacher. While this seems commonsensical I feel it needs to be said. Google isn’t a magic cure all. Skills that are not based in knowledge are ultimately empty and not useful. Students must know stuff without looking it up.

The other way teachers can love their students is by enforcing the rules in a warm manner. I have seen some schools referring to this as “warm-strict”. I think this is a fantastic approach. Essentially this approach tells students, “We have rules, and you must follow them for your own good and for others.” But, and this part is key, it also makes clear to the students, I value you for you.

Finally, I will get to the most traditional aspect of love, the relationship. The reason I go to this part last is because I view teaching students and warmly enforcing the rules as foundational. They allow for relationships with students to grow. When students know that the teacher and school value learning, they are more apt to try and learn. If you are not teaching, you are not loving your students, plain and simple. Warmly enforcing the rules is important because it helps to embody the idea of love. When the students know what the rules are, that they will be punished for breaking them, and that they will be valued no matter what, they will be more likely to both follow the rules and learn.

Finally, it is in this calm, focused environment created by the warm-strictness and the focus on teaching and learning that allows the relationship between a student and a teacher to flourish. Here, the teacher can interact and get to know students and their academic interests in the classroom while learning their personal interests during breaktimes/lunch/etc. Notice my order. In the class, I believe it is important to focus on academics as a way to love your students. Sure, you will pick up on their personal interests in the classroom, you will have times where you tell jokes in the classroom, but your focus must be on educating them. Use the down times in your school wisely. Get to know your students. Make it clear that you value them. Even if you feel you can’t tell your students you love them, express it.

Day Two: Messy Labs and Learning

I am doing a long term lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Click here to read about day one.

Day two was much less stressful for me because the setup portion of the lab was complete. My students just needed to use the aquaponics system to make observations. We have made observations before, but always of inanimate objects, where there is a clear focus. Living organisms move and react to stimulus, making it difficult for students to choose an organism or behavior to focus on and observe.

I did not calculate this new difficulty into my planning. I assumed that an observation was an observation. I reviewed how to make good observations with my students in the warm up, had them practice on their own with some quick examples (courtesy of my actions), then we made observations from a video of my own fish tank, finally I set half of the class loose on observations (remember, I only have enough supplies for ½ of my students to use the aquaponics systems at a time). The other half of students were given a reading about how beavers interact with their environment.

My biggest take home from this lesson was, equipment limitations stink. It would be much easier to do this lab if each group could work on it at the same time. That being said, my students were focused and working hard throughout the lesson, both the observers and the beaver researchers. The observations took longer than anticipated due to the novelty of observing moving organisms. I had planned on having each group make observations, but there simply wasn’t time. So, the other group will make observations in the next class.

The other take home was more obvious in hindsight. I should have found a reading that directly related to our aquaponics system. I want my students to have the knowledge to apply what we are learning (ecosystems and organism interactions) to multiple situations, which is why I have given them the reading on how beavers interact with their environment (which is excellent, check it out if you teach science: Beavers and the Environment). But, they struggled to pull the information out of the text for two reasons.

  1. Taiwan does not have beavers, so my students are very unfamiliar with them. The brief mini-lesson on beavers and the environment was insufficient to allow them to make the connections I was hoping for.
  2. They have not mastered the concept of organism interactions within a familiar ecosystem, so they cannot yet effectively generalize the concept.

Doing a lab with half the class at a time has been challenging and helpful for me. It is helping me hone my classroom management strategies and therefor grow as a teacher. For the rest of this lab (about 1 month) I will ensure that the half of the class not using the aquaponics system will be doing a task that is directly related to aquaponics. And in the future, we will generalize the concepts (organism interactions) starting as a whole class.

Day 1: Messy Labs and Learning

I am an elementary science teacher and I have decided to start a long term science lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Getting 5th graders to set up an aquaponics system is no small task. It was messy.

I was limited to 6 small aquariums to split among 60 students. I decided that groups of 5 would be best, with each group responsible for ½ of the aquarium. Here is a picture of the finished aquaponics system.

While one group of 5 was prepping their half of the aquarium portion, the other was preparing the growbed for our chia and mung bean seeds.

Things were smooth to this point. But shortly afterwards, it devolved into chaos. The group prepping the growbed was supposed to read through the lesson in the textbook when they finished and then they would transition to preparing their half of the aquarium. However, only the conscientious students did this. Many good students and nearly all of my poorer students did next to no reading and decided to chat and play instead.

I believe the reason for this is twofold. One, the area each group should be working in was not clear. Two, I did not have students create a product with the reading. So many students likely felt that they could just do it later or not at all because they are not producing any work for me to grade.

Now, I believe that my students should do as they are told. They didn’t, and their poor behavior is on them. But at the same time, I am responsible for the structure and content of my lessons. The unclarity that helped lead to poor behavior is on me.

In the future, I will clearly demark the areas for each group. This will remove one uncertainty. Students will know where they should be. I will also make students produce some type of work. By forcing students to make a product, I am giving them a concrete goal, something tangible that can be measured. I will also be guiding my students via the assignment.

I believe that these two, relatively small tweaks to my lesson plan will have outsized outcomes. I will find out if this is true tomorrow, when half the class will make observations while the other half does some research. Today was messy, but groundwork for the lab and learning was laid. 

Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂