Get Rid of Your Teacher Desk! No seriously!

The desk was covered with papers that needed graded.  The desk calendar displayed August 2015, but it was already October.  A binder labeled, “Teacher Binder 2015-2016”, sat on the edge of the desk and looks like it hasn’t been touched for weeks.   The computer displayed an email inbox with 34 unread emails many from teachers who let their class out late or reminders about paperwork that was due.

This is what a story would sound like if part of it included a description of the desk in my classroom before the 2016-2017 school year.  My desk was a trap.  It was able to draw me in close and I’d see that one email I could respond to in the 4 minutes between class periods, and then…BAM!  I was sitting down at the desk putting a barrier between the students who were coming into my classroom and focusing my attention on something so meaningless compared to the 25 kids who I would spend the next 48 minutes with.

Not anymore though! Before that school year started I got rid of the “teacher” desk in my classroom, and redesigned my whole classroom layout (check out my classroom redesign blog post).  It could be one of the biggest changes I have made in my 4 short years teaching, and here’s why!

I’m more organized! 
Since I don’t have a desk and place to make piles that I can go through later, I had to develop a system to keep everything organized.  I have a file folder box where students turn stuff in or keep things they’ll need everyday in class.  I have a small wire shelving unit that holds pens, styluses, the phone, and other “essentials”.  It has forced me to find a place for items (rather than just throwing it on my desk and spending a half hour going through it all later) and a place where I can quickly access what I need.

I’m interacting with my students more!
Without the barrier that was my desk in the room,  I’m interacting with my students more.  I felt that I interacted with them a lot (before and during class) prior to the removal of my desk, but I’m doing that even more now.  I get out into the hallway between classes more. I sit and have conversations with individual students about their day or weekend, or talk to groups of students about how the school year is going. I can take pictures and tweet about all the cool things that are happening in our classroom. This was probably the most unexpected benefit of not having a desk.

I’m more accountable to myself and my students!
Many of us would rather be interacting with students or doing something more meaningful between classes or during class.  It’s so easy to get sucked into that one email or fixing that one typo on your worksheet for tomorrow.  The way I have things set up now, the 2-drawer filing cabinet that serves as my laptop stand, faces out toward the class.  So, anyone can see my screen at any time.  So, if I decide to read that email or reply to one, all of the students (if they look over) will see what I am doing.  Now, some of them may not think twice about it, but I know others want to talk to their teacher or just have someone talk to them at school (that’s a whole other post).  Now, I can always move my computer, but I try to leave it there in between classes and during classes when I have students to keep myself accountable.

Now, I will say it wasn’t an easy transition.  It took me a while to get it all figured out.  My systems aren’t perfect and I find myself going through my day and realizing something I could do differently to make my life easier.  At first, I also struggled to not “create” a desk at one of the lab tables or at one of the other tables in my room.  I want to be 100% desk free, and it’s working! It’s a really freeing thing, and trust me the benefits of not having it heavily outweigh the costs of not having it.

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The Baggage They Carry…

 

 

Pretty powerful, right? Those were the responses I got from students when I asked them to finish the statement, “I wish my teacher knew…” Kyle Schwartz asked her third grade class the same question in October of 2016 (check out her book webpage here). I heard about Kyle and her story when my brother, who is in college studying to be a teacher, received her book as a gift.  I skimmed the book and then never thought much about it until the night before our first day of school this year and I decided to try it.  That’s right, I decided to try it on the first day of school! (NOTE: Kyle actually suggest you do it within the first few days of school)  I couldn’t imagine having not done it now!

 

Some may be skeptical about what students will write and question the validity of their answers. My dad did. I sent a few responses in our family group chat (without names to protect the privacy of my students like I said I would).  He just didn’t get why some kids would share what they did and why they want me to know those things.  First, I believe every kid inherently wants to please their teacher. They may not always be able to do that due to circumstances outside of their control, but deep down they want to. More importantly, they want us to know these things because they want us to understand the baggage they are carrying with them every time they walk into our classrooms and into our schools.  Their answers to “I Wish My Teacher Knew…” compelled me to write the rest of this post that follows.

 

To My Past Students, 

While you may no longer sit in my classroom every day, don’t for a second think that I don’t still think about you. Those lonely nights you spend in the library on college campuses across the country wishing you could be out with your friends. Those “breaks”  that go way too fast and don’t feel like a break at all. Those days where you think you just can’t take anymore and question if it is all really worth it.  I just want you to know that the door never really closed behind you. It is always open and whether you still walk the halls of Dublin Coffman or are miles and miles away, you are never alone and never will be, just reach out!

To My Current Students, 

Thank you for your candor and your willingness to share some of your story with me.  It has made an impact that you may not fully understand. My classroom will always be a safe place for you and I hope you will let me know if you ever feel it is not. Physics will always be the second most important thing in the classroom.  You will always be the most important thing. If you don’t feel safe, cared about, important, I will never be able to teach you physics. I hope that you feel that you can be yourself in my classroom and don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.  I can’t wait to learn more about your story this year!

To My Future Students, 

While we have not met yet, I hope you know you are already cared about. You may be the student who walks with their head down because you don’t think you are special enough to be in our hallways. You may be the student whose mom or dad is battling cancer and you don’t know if they will be here for your next birthday.  I hope you tell those stories and help me understand your struggles.  I hope you see my name on your schedule and know who I am and what I stand for before ever stepping foot in my classroom. I hope you know you will be safe in my classroom.

To Every Student I Won’t Have in My Classroom, 

You are just as important! Schedules and circumstances change, but just know my door is always open.  I have been able to get to know a lot of you over the past four years and  you have a story to tell too and I hope you will share that with me.  I hope you feel just as important as any other student when I see you in the hallway or at the football game or at the line in Chipotle, and I hope you know you are cared about.

The baggage they carry may be light.  It may be heavy.  Regardless, we as educators need to be there to help them carry it. When we pile more on, we have lost and I’m sorry but I don’t like to lose.

 

What it means for an educator to C.A.R.E

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A powerful quote.  It came from one of my students and there were a lot of similar responses when I asked students, “What are your initial thoughts on the first day of school if the teacher passes out the syllabus and starts teaching right away?” Now, I just didn’t walk into class one day and ask this.  I was asked by our district high school math coach to lead a session at their Summer Math Institute about building relationships in the classroom.

While planning the session, I initially found it difficult to articulate what I do in the classroom to build positive relationships with my students that impact the learning in my classroom and the overall vibe of the class.  I then realized that I set the tone on the first few days of school (which hopefully explains why I asked my students the question I did).  I don’t pass out the syllabus, I don’t talk about grades, and I don’t talk about the content until the following Monday (we start school on a Wednesday). I’ll work on a post about my first days of school soon.

I think the first few days of school are crucial for building relationships, but it can’t stop there.  I think we, as educators, start off the year with good intentions about building relationships, but then the grading, the emails, the meetings, the discipline, and everything else kind of hijacks those good intentions.  I struggle with those things too, but I try to stay focused on the most important part of my job, and it’s not my content.  It’s the kids!  What that means is, I…C.A.R.E.  It’s an acronym that I think embodies everything I do to build relationships with my students and make my classroom a safe place for them all year long.


Courageous.  Now, we aren’t facing villains like Darth Vader, Magneto, or Voldemort on a daily basis in the classroom.  The courageous I am referring to is the teacher who takes risks in the classroom.  They aren’t afraid to fail.  They are focused on how big of an impact this could have on their students and the journey to get their impassions them.  You may think students are oblivious to your courage and risk-taking, but they’re not.  They’re smart and intuitive.  They have friends who were in your class the year before.  They’ll know if you are doing the same thing you’ve always done or whether you’re trying to get better.  If we keep doing the same thing year after year and stop learning, we are settling for average.  There is nothing courageous about being average.

Attentive. There are plenty of things to distract us each and every day in the classroom.    It’s easy to get distracted, but when we do, we lose focus on the group of kids sitting right in front of us. We can’t ignore them.  When we are attentive, we can see that student who is just a little off or the student who has a smile on their face for the first time in weeks.  I had a student whose mother passed away about halfway through the year.  Coming back after winter break was tough for him and while he was in my class every day, once a week I would make sure I actually had a conversation with him and make sure he was doing okay (there is no good way to ask how are you doing in a situation like that, but I think he knew I had good intentions when I did).  He wrote a letter to me at the end of the year and he said, “You were the only one who kept checking in on me and made sure I was okay.  You never stopped caring.”  First, I was overcome with joy because everything I did meant something.  Then, I was also saddened by the fact that I was the only one who kept checking in on him.  These kids need us.  They come to school and they need us to be attentive to their needs.  It can’t just be about the content.  It has to be about the kids first, and then the content.

Real. Now, we’re all human, but think about this in terms of being honest and real.  Every day we go to school with thoughts and problems that are weighing on us and so do our students.  I think we do our kids a disservice when we don’t share some of those thoughts and problems. Now, obviously we can’t share every problem with them.  There are some common problems and thoughts (like the loss of a loved one, general stress of life, car breaking down to name a few) that we can talk about with them and I think we should.  Some students don’t know how to handle grief or stress constructively.  If we are REAL and talk about some of the problems we are having and how we are constructively dealing with those problems, think about the impact that could have on our students.  They need to know we are human too!

Emotional.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.  You were probably thinking empathetic or some other care synonym.  Now, there are a lot of ways to look at the word emotional.  I simply think that we need show our emotions.  We need to get excited when the student we have been working with for days on a concept, finally gets it.  We need to be remorseful when a student is hitting a rough patch.  We need to be passionate about everything we are doing.  If you do this, I can guarantee students will reward you with effort and excitement.  There are times I get so geeked about something I have planned that when the bell rings I can’t help but start talking (practically yelling) at 1000 words a minute and using my hands to describe every detail. Those are the days students know that something awesome is happening.  We can’t be monotone zombies at the front of the room anymore.  They deserve more than that.


Now, this will not solve all of your problems, but I guarantee if you become more aware of how you C.A.R.E, it will start to make a difference in your classroom.  Students will be excited to come to your class regardless of the content you teach. They’ll just want to be there because you are there and they know you C.A.R.E about them.

I mentioned that it all starts on the first days of school.  Just like any other interaction you have in your life, the first impression you make sets the tone for all future interactions. So, we can’t take the first days of school for granted. Below are some things I shared at thesession I led earlier this summer that you could do help set the tone in your classroom and start getting know your students on day one.

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Like the students said, “No teacher is going to connect with me if they just read the syllabus to me and start teaching the first day.”

Why I Love to Blind Kahoot (No Blindfold Required)!

Kahoot is an awesome tool to use in the classroom.  It adds a fun game aspect when you want to review or check for understanding.

Have you ever thought about delivering new content using Kahoot?  Enter the Blind Kahoot.  Blind refers to the fact that the content is new to the students and they’ll be learning the new content through the Kahoot you build.

I originally saw an explanation of Blind Kahoot-ing when this video showed up as a suggested video on Youtube.  I then found some more resources on Kahoot’s website that walk you through the “how to do it”  and they have a Blind Kahoot template that you can use to build your own.

Here are three reasons why I love it so much:

1. Students love it!

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-10-36-53-amI took this screenshot after one of our Blind Kahoots.  When the students completed the ratings, I asked them to think about whether they preferred this type of content delivery compared to other types of content delivery (specifically lecturing and other teacher-centered techniques) and as you can see they love Blind Kahoots.

2. It gives you 100% engagement!

You can’t advance through the Kahoot until everyone answers. Now, if time runs out and students don’t answer then, yes, it will advance.  However, I have never had any students who didn’t answer and time ran out because of that.  They all know how Kahoot works and it also keeps them from feeling uncomfortable if they had to answer the question in front of the whole class or hold up a whiteboard with the wrong answer.  This brings me to my third reason.

3. Real-time formative assessment data for every student!

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Once you finish (or end) the Kahoot, you can download all of the information from the Kahoot.  You can see how many questions each student got right or wrong, how long it took them to answer each question, and it is all color coated (the spreadsheet above is from one of my actual classes). This data is at your fingertips in a matter of seconds after the Kahoot is complete.  You can see whether students were really “getting it” and you can plan for the next lesson.  You can even differentiate if you notice a few students could use some extra support, while the others are ready to apply their learning.


Disclaimer:  If you plan to Blind Kahoot, be sure to have a conversation with students about the purpose of the Kahoot.  Some of them have a hard time focusing on the learning and still think of it as a competition to get the most points, which can alienate some students or make them uncomfortable.  If you communicate this before the Blind Kahoot, you’ll be fine! 🙂