Make time for class meetings

Today my classes held their first class meetings of the year.

What do I mean by class meetings? All of my students (1oth and 11th graders) and me seated in a circle talking about our class.

I am now kicking myself for not having started this ritual much sooner. There is incredible value in sitting in a circle and discussing issues that are important to the group!

Class meetings serve four important purposes:

  1. Connecting (to each other, to the class, to the school)
  2. Deciding (making important decisions – whether the decision is made democratically or whether I make the decision after considering student input)
  3. Planning (upcoming class activities and lessons)
  4. Reflecting (looking back on previous lessons and activities)

The process of these meetings is critical. My goal is to establish a classroom culture where my students feel valued and respected. I want them to feel that they have some control over the direction of our class. I want to empower them to make important decisions (not just token ones).

It’s also a great chance to model and reinforce good behaviors and positive contributions to the group. Yes these meetings do take time. Anything of value does.

You can learn a lot by forcing yourself to be a listener in your own classroom.


More resources on class meetings:

Alfie Kohn – Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community

Donna Styles – Class Meetings

Doin’ time

The longer I teach, the more important I perceive each day to be. This puts me at direct odds with my students, most of whom spend their entire school day trying to kill the clock in any remotely amusing way possible. An hour to them is an eternity, while to me, every minute wasted is a crime against the gods of opportunity cost.

There are times where I’m able to transcend this barrier in my classroom; when the kids and I get into the “flow” and time flies. These are the days when the bell rings and kids say, “class is over already? I don’t want to go to next period!” Unfortunately, I can’t make this magic happen every day. Sometimes we hit a “hot” streak and have several good days like this in a row. Other times we hit a slump and every day feels like a battle – them wanting to be off task and me wanting them to accomplish some learning experience and to do so faster.

Sometimes this dance wears on me. I get tired of the negotiation – how much time on task is enough? how much off task conversation is too much? how do I reign in the social chatter without turning my classroom into a mausoleum?

The ultimate irony of this conundrum is that the more I crack down to force compliance, the less productive the students become. Groups refuse to collaborate, class discussions attract chirping crickets, and all joy seems to leave the room.

On the flip side, if I leave students to be self-directed, fires erupt in all corners. A few dedicated individuals block out the noise to forge ahead. Groups fade in and out of productivity interspersed with length periods of social chatter.

Tasks to which I want to allot 10 minutes take some groups 10 minutes and others 20.

The sad thing is that I see two types of tasks where students are most compliant: individual work and lecture. These two types of tasks are ones which I use sparingly and yet with which students seem the most comfortable.

Conversely, the tasks with which students most seem to struggle to focus on are complex group tasks which require higher-order thinking skills. These are the tasks during which productive social discourse becomes most critical. These are also the tasks with which I struggle most to keep student conversations on topic. I hustle from group to group facilitating discussion. A group will make progress while I am there, so I leave to check in with other groups. When I return to the same group 5-10 minutes later, I often find them at the same point where I left them.

To be clear, this is not an every day problem. Unfortunately, it happens enough to be a concern. I realize that my expectations are high but I know my students are capable of much more than they are often giving.

I have dabbled with group roles and this does help – but only when the roles are clearly defined and closely match the task. In the past I worked really hard to push a consistent set of group roles but often found that 2 or 3 of them didn’t fit the given task. Because I like to have my students do a variety of activities, often with multiple transitions within one class period, it is incredibly inefficient to create and introduce new group roles for every single task.

So, my questions to you, dear readers:

  • What strategies do you use to keep students on task, especially during group tasks?
  • If you assign group roles, what roles do you use?
  • If you have specific group roles you use, how do you help students to effectively play those roles?

What makes for high quality teacher learning?

Professional development?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about teacher learning (aka professional development).


A few reasons:

  • I’m taking a class at UW Oshkosh this summer about professional development and doing research for this class
  • I was selected as one of ten Success at the Core Fellows and this organization is all about professional development (for teachers, teacher leaders, coaches, administrators, etc.)
  • I’ve experienced some good PD in my career and a lot of bad PD

So, the real question I’m wresting with right now is “what makes for high quality teacher learning?”

This question really has two  parts: what IS high quality teacher learning (what does it look, sound, feel like, etc.) and how can schools facilitate effective learning for teachers (what are the criteria, key aspects, logistics, etc.)?

A few core ideas that I keep circling back to about effective teacher learning are that it must be inquiry-based, differentiated, ongoing, supported, and job-embedded.

So, readers – if there are any of you left – what makes for high quality teacher learning?

Image used under CC license from

I teach in a “failing” school and you should too

“Welcome to White Swan, where you can teach whatever you want – even if it’s nothing at all.” ~ anonymous former colleague


“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere” ~ anonymous colleague



I work in a very small rural school located in a high poverty area on an Indian Reservation. Funding is scarce and highly dependent on federal impact aid. Test scores are low and dropout rates are high. We are labeled by our state as a “failing” school.



This is not an easy place to teach, by any means.


And yet, I’ve come to realize how blessed I’ve been to teach at White Swan High School.


Yes, working in a school like mine comes with tremendous challenges; challenges that can become incredible opportunities:
  • I teach 3 different science classes (biology, chemistry, physics) and actually taught 4 preps my first year;
  • Attendance is poor and the dropout rate is high;
  • Many of our students come from squalid, toxic or neglectful home environments;
  • Our students’ scores on state standardized assessments are very low; and,
  • We have had 4 principals and 3 superintendents in my 6 years of teaching at White Swan.
Why should all teachers have the opportunity to work in a school like this one?


I understand the depth and importance of the educational reform debate on a visceral level. I have felt first-hand the impact of federal and state funding cuts to our schools as. I have been through 3 school improvement programs in 6 years. I’ve been down that road and back again! From this I have learned to roll with the punches and to get whatever I can from these programs while still advocating for what I so strongly believe in.


I have worked with students that are homeless, orphaned, in and out of treatment, severely handicapped, and those in the early stages of learning English. From this I have learned to treat students as individuals and to explore deep-seated causes of behavior before cracking the whip. This has taught me to differentiate instruction and discipline.


Our budget is limited and fluctuates wildly from year to year (or even within one school year). From this I have learned to be an experienced grant writer with many successful grant proposals under my belt. I have also learned to make do with what I have and to be creative in my planning.


My students do have other school options (private schools) but these come with a cost – one that many of our families are not willing or able to pay. From this I have learned just how very important public schools are to our nation and to our democracy. 


Many of my students would rather be anywhere but school. From this I have learned the incredible importance of building relationships with students. I have also learned how critical student engagement really is to learning.


Many of my students are jaded and downtrodden as learners. They have been repeatedly slapped in the face by a system that is failing them while simultaneously making them feel like they are stupid. From this I have learned that students need the opportunity to explore their interests and passions.


Many of my students feel completely powerless in their home lives. They have precious few resources and limited choices in their lives. Many are in survival mode every day once they leave school. From this I have learned that my students need and deserve to have a real voice in our classroom. I have learned to afford them genuine choices and control over as many aspects of our classroom as possible (bathroom and water breaks, for example).


My students have limited background knowledge. They haven’t traveled, they haven’t experienced a wide variety of things. My students haven’t been taught about the world around them throughout childhood. From this I have learned that I cannot assume anything when it comes to student background knowledge. I have learned that my experiences and personal connections have little meaning to students. I have learned that I must help to provide as much background knowledge as possible at the beginning of every project or unit of study.


Because our professional development has been, at best, underwhelming, I’ve had to seek out opportunities to learn and grow on my own. I’ve participated in a variety of grant-funded programs through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement). I obtained National Board Certification. I dove into Twitter, blogging, online professional development and more. I’ve read widely of books and magazines dedicated to education. I’ve started to work on my master’s. From this I have learned to chart the course of my own professional development and to continue to be a lifelong learner.


My students are predominately ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically different from myself. 90% of my students are racial minorities. 90% of them qualify for free and reduced lunches. From this I have learned to have high expectations of all students while treating them all with respect. I have also learned to use a wide variety of teaching styles and methods because lecture and drill do not work for my students.


If I were to have worked in a “high quality” school in a suburban area, I would not be half the teacher I am today. I have been forced to critically examine every single instructional decision and pedagogical move I make. I have had to grow, improve, diversify and evolve as a teacher in order to meet the unique challenges I have faced.


Every teacher should be so blessed to have the opportunity to teach in a school like mine. All of our schools and teachers would be better for it.


Photo used under CC license courtesy of Hans Gerwitz


What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

I have a confession to make.

I’m a learning junkie.

There – I said it!

Yesterday was the first day of my Winter Break. I’ve been mildly sick all of the last week of school and refusing to stay home because I didn’t want to call in sick right before break. I have a 4 week old newborn at home. I really need a break this year!

So what did I do yesterday?

  • Wrote a proposal for a Washington STEM Entrepenurial Award (partly done with one hand while holding a sleeping infant)
  • Wrote a proposal to lead a Professional Learning Community study of formative assessment, feedback and summative assessment with my colleagues in January
  • Read 2 chapters of Making Learning Whole (mostly while riding my exercise bike)
  • Caught up on reading a few of my favorite blogs by my fellow educators

Of course, I also had plenty of time to read to the kids, hold the baby, take a nap, and watch A Christmas Story with the whole family.  Don’t worry – my family is not getting neglected!

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t learn enough. I can’t improve my practice as an educator fast enough. The longer I teach, the more urgency I teach with.

The desire to become the best teacher I can be drives my voracious appetite for learning. I have a really hard time understanding teachers who don’t engage in any self-directed professional learning. It’s actually become a real pet peeve of mine to hear teachers say things like, “I don’t have time to READ!” Then they launch into a long-winded conversation about whatever crappy T.V. show they watched the night before.

How do you have time to NOT read?

How can you NOT care to improve as an educator?

I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my vacation. I’m also going to come back from this break a better educator than I was before it.

What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

Wait ’till next year

Why put off for next year what you can do today (or at least tomorrow)?


In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Brooklyn Dodgers fans’ rallying cry was, “wait ’til next year!”  The team would come close to a championship only to lose the World Series (usually to the hated Yankees).  This fan attitude showed undying loyalty to the status quo and may have enable team management to not ‘go for broke, knowing the fans would keep coming back.


Why is it in education that when we recognize a problem, we say, “wait ’till next year?”

We’ll revise the student handbook next year…

I’ll try project based learning (or standards based grading, inquiry, etc). next year…

We’ll change the way we to professional development next year…

Why not today?

It goes beyond procrastination and into fear. Yes, I know a new school year is a fresh start and a clean slate and a great time to implement new things. That being said, if a change can be made now, today, why wait?

This mentality is why many teachers repeat their first year of teaching every year. They wait until the new school year to make a change. Over the summer, the urgency for change dims. They forget the frustration of the previous year. They blame the group of kids they had or their circumstances. Then it happens again and they decide that next year is REALLY going to be the year. And the cycle repeats.

If you see a problem in your classroom, do something about it today.

If you see a problem in your school, put a fix in motion today.

Get students and/ or staff involved.  Brainstom solutions. Pick one. Try it. Monitor the results.

Tweak, revise, rethink, scrap, try again. Maybe this year will be crazy but you’ll learn alot that you can implement next year from a position of experience.

Today is too important; not to mention tomorrow and all of the tomorrows before next year!

What I want from my union

I have the utmost respect for unions.

I don’t blame teacher’s unions for problems in education.

That being said, I do believe there are problems.

Obviously, there are funding problems. I’ve seen those first hand. I work on the front lines of education, a rural school on an Indian reservation in an area of extreme poverty – I mean third-world caliber poverty. 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities. 90+% qualify for free and reduced lunch. 30% can be classified as homeless. We have one of the smallest levies our the state. The kids absolutely need and deserve more funding.

Yet, I know we can do better.

With the resources we have.

With the staff we have.

We must do better.

Students trudge from class to class learning from boring, outdated textbooks (mine, which I haven’t used in years, are from 1990 – they are older than my students). They are bored to tears by [lecture, worksheet, test, repeat]- style instruction in many classes.

It’s time to break the mould!

Let’s crush this outdated model and banish it to the recesses of our collective memories to become only the fodder of bad horror movies and lame teenage soap operas.

But, how?

I want my union to stop being a union and become something more.

Before it’s too late.

The major teacher’s unions, the NEA and the AFT must wrest control of the situation away from politicians and business interests. Rebrand ourselves as true professional associations lest our associations be destroyed.

Take the power back.

  • Set standards for effective instruction based on research and member collective wisdom.
  • Set standards for association membership.
  • Evaluate our own members.
  • Prescribe assistance for those who need it.
  • Mentor new teachers.
  • Design and facilitate effective professional development.
  • Revoke membership for those who choose not to improve.
  • Protect those who do.

Let’s not let people who have never taught a day in their life chart the course of education reform. It’s time for preemptive action. The opportunity won’t linger forever. Reform is proceeding forward one way or the other.

The question we must ask ourselves is this:

Are we driving the reform train or waiting on the platform, hoping it doesn’t pass us by?