Engage the spark

I’m a Fan of Formative Assessments

Whats the point of waiting until the very end of a unit to test whether the students have grasped the material at hand? When you wait until the very end, its often too late to turn back if there is a gap in instruction or understanding. Further, as a teacher, you are then pressured to keep moving forward in the curriculum because there is so much more that you need to cover. 

Formative assessments come to the rescue! I enjoy short ones with questions that are completely aligned with the objectives and that match questions students will find in the summative assessment. For example, if the objective is, “students will understand that gravity is the force that ultimately holds the planets in orbit around the sun,” then an assessment question could be, “what is the force that keeps the planets orbiting around the sun?”. Further, in class, this statement could then be used as a question posed at the beginning of a lesson or an activity that surrounds that concept. This way, when it comes up in the assessments, students recognize it and make the connection to what was done in class.

In my next post, I’ll explain how I like to make concepts stick with students in lessons. Hint – any podium present in my classroom when I arrive will never be stood behind.



Prayer at the Beginning

Grant me the wisdom to not make the same mistakes twice. And if I do, as I will, give me the strength to rise again and to start anew, again, but smarter, faster and stronger than before.

I scribbled this on a post-it before falling asleep after a really hard day in the classroom recently. Although it applies to being a new teacher, it also applies to being human as well.

Power Struggles

“…with developing minds and bodies, young adolescents must confront the central issue of constructing an identity that will provide a firm basis for adulthood…a conscious effort is made to answer the now-pressing question: ‘Who am I?’ ”

Woolfolk, A. (2008) Educational psychology: Active learning edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Allyn and Bacon.

People inherently like to feel in control of situations in their lives. Kindergarten-aged children like to know that they can zip their own jacket, 3rd graders feel empowered when they get to pick their own books for their reading folders, and 6th graders like to know that they can make a difference in their own and other people’s lives. Adolescence especially is a time when students find that they can become passionate about things in their lives, as this gives them a greater sense of identity, something at this point is really forming on an individual level through choice for the first time. And oftentimes, these individuals test new things, try out new identities and explore what they believe in, what they stand for and who they are.

Sometimes, when students are looking for control in their lives outside of school because of unstable situations at other junctions in their lives, highly confrontational attitudes can arise. Often, a student will be asked to do something or to correct some misbehavior and, either because of a heightened sense of identity formulation or because of what was discussed at the opening of this paragraph or because of both, the student will refuse, creating an instant power struggle where both you and the student are looking for control.

These situations can be dangerous for the student’s emerging sense of self and for the teacher’s sense of authority amongst other students. If the teacher doesn’t fully sense what is happening and fights back, a reflex in trying to uphold authority, students, especially those at this age, can and will push the struggle to its limits. This can result in both the teacher and the student doing things which neither truly want but need to do through desperation to keep the power, to save face.

I am by no means an expert at saving face; I mess up all the time. However, in my time in middle school classrooms, and through Nonviolent Crisis Intervention Training through CPI (see below), I have learned that it is best to first realize that a power struggle has begun the moment a student unwillingly refuses to do what is asked of them. At that point, a teacher should give the student two clear choices while at the same time allowing the student to know that they are the one who will be affected by the choices the student makes, not the teacher. Clear and simple choices then need to be followed with time for the student to be able to make the choices, with the choices sometimes needing to be repeated by the adult. Then, after a clear amount of time has been given for the student (say 15 seconds) it should be made clear to the student what they are then choosing one of the options. For instance, if a student doesn’t make a choice, it should be made clear to them that by saying nothing they are choosing to take the path of disciplinary action.

I have found this to be effective when the teacher then follows through with the choices that students make, keeping themselves from getting caught up in the struggle by staying aloof to it overall, not to the student, but to the struggle itself.

“Although I don’t like having to send you to the principals office, I will. I would rather not, but it will happen if that’s the choice being made.”

As a teacher, my purpose is to educate and enrich the lives of as many students as possible. Oftentimes, students choose not to allow this to happen, but this shouldn’t mean that the other students suffer because of one student’s choices.

I am not perfect at this by any means; I have only had a handful of situations where I have had to deal with these kinds of attitudes. However, I have had more success than not with the above procedure and thought it had a place here. I am sure that with time, I will have many more opportunities to develop and refine my skills as an effective educator.

The Importance of Keeping the Eye on the Prize

A few years ago while I was still finishing my undergrad, I was getting really bogged down by pointless assignments and drama amongst peers and professors. Upon sharing these frustrations with a good friend, I was told, “Just keep your eye on the prize.”

As a teacher, we are taught to plan lessons with a clear objective in mind. Statements such as,”Students will be able to…” come to mind here. These are the things that help us remember what we’re really trying to accomplish and keep us moving forward as we teach. Sometimes it can be easy to begin drifting away from these objectives, and when this happens, I find that the lesson too often falls apart through disruptions, tangents and loss of focus both on my part and on the part of the students. Thus, it is important to remember, as my friend once told me, to keep the eye on the prize and to not forget what it is we are trying to accomplish in this 15-minute lesson, this day, this week, or this month.

Not only does study of this “prize” benefit instruction, but it also benefits a person’s wellbeing on so many levels if one allows the force of this thought to penetrate all aspects of one’s life. Even now, in this job that I consider my dream job at this moment in my life, I find myself getting caught up in the day to day milieu and not focusing on what my purpose is in this place at this time and how it relates to the next step. One’s career, love life, spiritual goals, and overall mission can continue to evolve and develop at a more vigorous rate if we simply keep our eye on that prize, whatever it may be.

I kept using this statement overtime as I finished my undergrad and actually found myself moving forward under its velocity towards graduation. Through meditation on what this means to the lesson at hand when teaching, or on what it means to any part one’s life, positive forward movement can occur and lives can be altered for the better. We simply need to stand back and let it happen.

The Importance of Setting High Expectations From the Start

In working as a teacher with an environmental education center that has a new group of students every week, I have had the wonderful opportunity of getting to go through the process of greeting a new group of students multiple times in only a few weeks. With this, I have learned how important it is for the benefit of all if high expectations for behavior and participation are set high right from moment zero, as soon as you begin learning names (actually, even before is better!).

People, both children and adults, hate the unknown. It makes us feel uncomfortable (mostly) and makes us act in ways we wouldn’t normally, snapping at other people and giving a general feeling of unease to all. Thus, I’ve found that teaching the protocol of how individuals should move around a space can also be hugely important. Time needs to be spent teaching individuals how to go in and out of a room, where to go to the bathroom and at what times (if there is a pass system, etc.), the schedule of the day, when certain things occur, etc. Although I have yet to have a more traditional classroom setting as my own to start off with from day one in the fall, I would estimate that it may be smart to use at least the first week to fully develop the weekly schedule. Students can also be given responsibilities to look forward to (especially when they are young), and I have found that having at least one thing that happens every day, regardless of the schedule, is helpful for all students.

When setting the ground rules for behavior, I’ve found that having the students think about what respect means to them personally can be extremely rewarding to both the individual and the community at large. When you discuss with students what respect means and what it looks like, they provide answers that are relevant to them. Asking students how they feel when they aren’t treated with respect makes this even more real. Then asking students how they would wish to be treated can be asked. This can take many forms, but I’ve found that asking the students to answer questions that mostly lead to the answer has worked fairly well. These questions sometimes sound like, “Is it respectful to open your suitcase and fling all of your clothes into other people’s personal space?” However, one may wish to be cautious if there are students who answer the questions falsely simply to gain attention. Talking to them after the fact to reiterate the points trying to be made is important and its also important to be aware that the student in question may be seeking attention but only through negative means. For more on this, consult an educational psychology text.

These are just a few notes and thoughts on this topic, and I welcome comments and other thoughts, as this is a piece which I consider to be an ongoing discussion amongst those who wish to make the world a better place through those they teach.

Teaching Equitably

“It was a wise man who once said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”  

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in Dennis v. U.S., 339 US 162 (1950), p.184

Today we had a discussion in my Math Methods course about what it means to teach equitably in the classroom. Starting off with the quote as posted above,  one person defended that all students deserve to be treated equally in the classroom. Another brought up the idea of teaching with fairness but not equitably, as all students have different capabilities and exceptionalities and should thus be treated differently so that each can learn to their greatest capabilities.

Using the RTI framework, a three-tiered student support structure that focuses on prevention as the key to working with students who need extra support in the classroom, one can see that a current trend in education seems to support the latter of the two opinions. Within RTI, as the needs of students change, so does the instruction in a way that keeps up with student needs at the same rate that they need to the help. Using RTI, many students can receive the help that they need in a timely manner and have a greater chance of being able to spend a larger amount of time in the general classroom rather than being pulled out for remedial help via a specialist.

But even so, does this fully support equitable teaching? What about teaching students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, from varied SES backgrounds, and those of different genders?  If one is not careful, it can be easy to fall into predestined paths of changing the expectations for different students based on predetermined stereotypes that are socially created. Often, it happens imperceptibly and the differences in treatment are usually subtle. However, it’s still inequitable treatment and it has no place in the classroom or anywhere else for that matter.

To frame where I want to go with this, here’s an excerpt from our text.

“Movement to higher levels of understanding of content can be likened to the need to move to a higher level on a hill. For some, formal stair steps with support along the way is necessary (explicit strategy instruction); for others ramps with encouragement at the top of the hill will work (peer-assisted learning). Other students can find a path up the hill on their own with some guidance (constructivist approach).”

What it comes down to is maintaining high expectations for all students regardless of who they are (or how their past teachers say they will perform) while at the same time recognizing that different students need different ways in order to get to the top of the hill. The hill should stay the same for all students, regardless of who they are or what their background is. This, for me, is teaching equitably.


Van de Walle, J., Karp, K., Bay-Williams, J., (2010) Elementary and middle school mathematics. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 93, 99.

On Giving Yourself License to Become an Explorer Everyday of Your Life

“The uses of a great professor are only partly to give us knowledge; his real purpose is to take his students beyond knowledge into the transcendental domain of the unknown, the future and the dream–to expand the limits of the human consciousness. In doing this he is creating the future in the minds of men.”

                                                                                                              -Loren Eiseley

I understand that in order to educate, one must connect what the students know to the content being taught. In this sense, teachers must know who their students are on a very personal level and must also be aware of things many degrees beyond which is necessary to teach.

One way in which this can be done is to become involved in the community on multiple levels. Not only will this allow a teacher to know the outside lives of his or her students, but the students, seeing that their teacher is engaged in things important in their own lives, may be equally more willing to be engaged at school and in the classroom. However, simply knowing of student’s lives is not the same as knowing about their lives. Teachers have to know about the world and about the particles that constitute that world. They need to be knowledgeable about different cultures and the connections and conflicts amongst them and about the things that are celebrated by the students as well as the things which are disdainful to them.

Also, teachers need to be knowledgeable about the world or at least have the curiosity to dig in when they don’t understand. They must know how to make connections between the students and the world while using core content and the classroom as a medium for that confluence.  They need to know how geography and math and art are everywhere and how literature can, and has, changed the world. And they need to know how all of these connect and how the world becomes a much simpler place in such connections. In such a way, a teacher can give his or her student’s the world.

At the present, I have only thought of one way to go about this: we as teachers must give ourselves license to constantly explore and venture out into the unknown, both physically and mentally, both at home and in the larger world. We are the ones who may be the only connection between a child and the rest of the world. We need to know who they are and we need to know about the world so that the two can be connected. This, I am certain, is vastly necessary in the pursuit of a meaningful education for all.