Flossing and the Frustration of Undone Homework

Homework. Hmmm…yeah. The topic is as controversial today as it was when I began my teaching career 36 years ago. Although I am now retired, this exasperating subject surfaced the other day when I was veritably blasted by my periodontist for failure to floss. Let’s just say I really got schooled. In a nutshell, he said he was a highly trained professional, and furthermore a very busy man, and if I couldn’t be bothered to do my share of the work at home, then I should not come back. Wow. I mean double wow.

So let’s be honest. Hasn’t every teacher run those same thoughts through their head when confronted by a recalcitrant student who refuses to do their homework? Educators everywhere have wrestled with this problem for decades. Every teacher knows that there are some students who will do all their homework, some students who will do some of it, and some students who will do none of it. And in my experience, unless you’re teaching an honors class, the amount of homework that doesn’t get done is greater than the amount that does.

So what strategies can the teacher use to increase the amount of homework that gets turned in? We’ve all experimented. Here are a few I tried. First, I increased the weight of the homework category so a student could not pass my class unless they completed at least a large percentage of it. The result? The students still didn’t do their homework, and tons of kids were failing. Then I tried reducing the number of assignments from four nights a week to two nights a week. That helped with their grades, but it did not increase the number of assignments that got turned in. Next, I tried giving assignments that couldn’t be quantified, such as, “Your homework tonight is to study for your test tomorrow.” And then I just hoped they would do this, although I was pretty sure they wouldn’t. Finally, I gave them classwork assignments and told them if they didn’t finish in class, they should finish for homework. And then I gave them enough time to finish in class.

I can’t say I felt very professionally satisfied with any of these strategies. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that if I had given voice to my frustration in the same way that my periodontist did, if I had pounded them into the ground for their errors, I could add another failed strategy to my list. Even if my students showed up empty-handed, I was always glad to see them come back the next day. Because every day a student shows up to class is a new opportunity to guide them, to help them be more successful, and to lovingly plant that suggestion one more time that, yes, homework is an important part of continued progress. And seizing these opportunities is never a waste of time or energy, even for a busy, well-trained professional.

I understand full well my periodontist’s exasperation. I empathize. I am truly sorry that my failure to floss provoked such an angry outburst from him, and I forgive him for losing his temper. After all, I’m not a kid. I know the man is right. Since that day I have attempted, in New Year’s resolution fashion, to mend the error of my ways. But I also found a new periodontist.

Organizing the Best of All Possible First Days

As a new school year approaches, teachers all over the country are considering ways to create the best of all possible first days. Here are a few thoughts.

Think about what you want to accomplish with your kids, right from the start. Certainly classroom management is important, but prevailing educational philosophy suggests classroom management is easiest when students are actively engaged in stimulating and meaningful activity. So avoid reading aloud a list of your classroom rules and expectations or your course syllabus. And for goodness sake, don’t plan a lecture. It’s a snore for the kids, and your throat will be sore by the end of the day.

To create a memorable first day, plan an activity that introduces your classroom values. Presumably these values would include respect for peers and working well together. Consider ice-breakers that encourage human interaction. Reward them for learning the names of their classmates. As for yourself, strive to learn the names of your students as quickly as possible so that you can greet them by name on their second day. Also, create activities that give kids opportunities to help you and their classmates get to know what is unique about them. Example activities would include a round of Two Truths and a Lie, a Shoe Pile Mingle, or Never Have I Ever.

Another oft-expressed classroom value emphasizes the joy of learning. Many teachers want their class to be an exciting adventure as they and their kids explore learning together. Crafting an activity that is interactive introduces this classroom value right from the beginning. So plan something interactive, such as a trivia game, collaborative drawing, or a scavenger hunt.

Whatever you plan for that first day, just be sure it is stimulating and engaging. The time will be well spent if the effort kicks off the school year with a sense of excitement for your class or subject. And that list of classroom rules an expectations and the course syllabus? Consider emailing these to parents before the school year begins, and have them reply that they have received it, perhaps with a simple phrase such as “I Agree.” Or use the communication as an opportunity to invite parents to dialogue with you about their child’s individual needs or concerns.

Above all, have a great year!

Race relations in America, and teaching tolerance resources to help teachers address the topic

The recent shootings of African Americans Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the sniper attack in Dallas that left five white police officers slain, have resulted in a wave of nationwide protests, demands for stronger protections against officers who misuse the authority of their badge, and an ongoing discussion about race relations in America. To respond to these current events, there may be classroom teachers all over the country looking for suitable instructional resources to address these topics with their students. The Southern Poverty Law Center, long known as an organization that fights racism on all levels, has created a collection of materials that are available for free. These resources may empower students to work towards constructive changes that may help to create a more just society. To access the resources, simply on this link: Teaching About Race, Racism, and Police Violence.

Best New Year’s Resolutions for Teachers

I came across this really terrific article published yesterday in the Huffington Post. It was written by Dallas Rico, an educator and young adult novelist. Because the post really resonated with me, I am reprinting it here:

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The New Year’s Resolution Every Teacher Should Make

by Dallas Rico

In a week, we’ll see tons of prominent store displays and ads stacked with weight loss shakes, protein bars and supplement pills. That’s because, year after year, losing weight and getting in shape are among the top New Year’s resolutions. Inevitably, around February, many give up on that goal, just in time for all the beer and hot wings that come with Super Bowl parties.

Though I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions (given their failure rate), I do believe that we teachers are positioned to make and keep them. Why? Because that holiday break removes us from our normal day-to-day routine and affords us time to reflect on our practice. Naturally, as we spend the holidays out of the classroom, we think about how the first semester went and come up with ways to improve for the next.

Personally, I plan to develop more student-centered projects that bring their learning to life. As a Spanish teacher, I have the opportunity to make lessons more meaningful beyond worksheets and tests. I realize I can do more with that and will strive to do so next year. Perhaps you want to seek more professional development opportunities or become more involved in school programs. Maybe you want to make a better effort calling parents or returning assignments back quicker (the struggle is real).

In my years in education, I’ve seen a number of complacent teachers who are content with using the same lesson plans, assessments and materials each year. The truth is that even teachers who’ve been in the profession for over 25 years can improve in one way or another.

On the other side, the first year teacher may utterly feel overwhelmed and needing to get better at various things. That’s why every teacher can and should strive to improve in at least one way. That’s a reasonable New Year’s resolution, one that often happens naturally, but it still must be stated.

Due to the cyclical nature of education, especially if you teach the same subject and level each year, it’s easy to fall into a groove and always do the exact same thing, as if you’re an actor on a Broadway show. But I urge educators to find at least one way they can improve this year and create a plan to stick to it.

Thoughtful school administrators can also help teachers become more introspective. By introducing key school-wide initiatives, they push faculty to try new things. For instance, in a school I taught at in Los Angeles, the principal asked all teachers, even the Art, Math and P.E. teachers, to create one writing assignment within a two month period. The ultimate goal was to get students to write more and to improve the clarity of their arguments. After the window of time, all the teachers met and reflected on the process.

As a result, some, like our algebra teacher, began assigning more writing, thus, giving students more practice. Mission accomplished. Likewise, a savvy administrator can get the school to address a common issue with such an initiative.

For-profit companies set goals to make more money. Teachers set goals to get more students prepared for college and career. The better the teacher, the more prepared students will be. It all begins with saying “this year I will be a better teacher for my students by ______________.”

To view the original article, click on this link: New Year’s Resolutions for Teachers.