Life Long Mentors

I once wrote a post about the first time a student followed me on Twitter (I had to go looking way back for that post). I ended up with my own personal policy of not following students on social media until after they graduate. I didn’t block them in any way from following me, but I did not reciprocate.

To be honest, I regret this self imposed policy now. Also I definitely didn’t hold myself to it the past few years.  I have since connected with many students and it is fun to watch them live their lives. Many have finished college, are getting married, having children, and starting their careers.

It is very popular to say how important it is for teachers to build relationships with their students. We all love the old quote, “Students won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” But I do believe that cliche is true and have personally seen the difference caring makes in the classroom. But…..

How much do we really care if we treat each year of students as a “new batch” and forget about the old ones?

If we really care about our students than it should be for more than one year. Now I realize that there are physical limitations to the amount of caring we can do after students leave our classes. I have had thousands of students over the years and would be lying if I said that I can remember them all, especially their names 🙂

But social media is a great tool to keep up with as many students as possible. It is impossible to have the same close relationship with every student, but we can connect with many and our influence can be multiplied.

One of the groups of students that I am most strongly connected to is my first class at the wall-to-wall PBL school that I taught at. It was a new school and an exciting experience for both myself and the students. I looped with the kids so I got to teach them for two years in a row and for some of them I taught again as seniors. The length of time together and the powerful culture of our school resulted in deep bonds.

The other way that I have bonded with students is through meaningful projects. Our best projects got students excited about the world and making a difference. Students learned about who they were as a person and what mattered to them. Some of them discovered new career interests and skillsets that they didn’t even realize that they had! It was my privilege to encourage them in their unique paths as they explored their passions.

When I say that I care for students, I don’t want it to be for one year. Social media gives me the ability to be a lifelong mentor and friend to them. So for all of the negativity that can be found in these online spaces, don’t forget that they are also powerful tools to keep up with our students.

How can you structure your school and leverage social media for long term relationships with your students?

 

“It’s the Most PAINFUL, Time of the Year”

Instead of the holiday season being “the most wonderful time of the year” as the song goes, for many students it is an incredibly painful time. I am not talking about the girl who is crushed because her boyfriend broke up with her, but students who are deeply hurting.

Many students, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds, are dealing with real trauma daily. This can be escalated by the holidays. In our culture, when all of the messages around them are about joy, presents, and spending quality time with your family, it only amplifies the pain some of our students feel about their home life.

Some students may be dealing with the trauma of the loss of a parent or grand parent. If the death happened around the holidays, then they may be remembering the feelings of loss and depressed. There also may have been a significant income loss in the family household leading to frequent moving or homelessness.

I had a student whose birthday was coming up.  When I asked if he was doing anything for special for it, he said, “No, I never get anything for my birthday.” I took him out for lunch at Wendy’s and it really made an impact on him. Unfortunately, “normal” for him was that no one cared.

Many of our students are not looking forward to presents, but embarrassed that they lack basic necessities. They are not looking forward to holiday feasts, but will be missing the daily breakfast and lunch that the school provides. Maybe utility bills are not being paid and the heat is turned off. For them, holiday vacation means hunger, cold, and loneliness.

For other students, family gatherings means more stress in their homes. They may be forced to go to a non-custodial parent’s house and deal with step parents and siblings who they have strained relationships with. There may be stressful situations including drugs and alcohol abuse, or even worse child neglect or abuse. They are dreading what they will be forced to endure over the break.

For teachers, this means don’t be surprised if you see some acting out behaviors from students the next few weeks. Don’t assume that kids are hyper because they are looking forward to the holidays. It may be the exact opposite. They may be acting out because school is the only safe place in their lives and they are stressed about their home life.

The holiday time is an important time to be patient, loving, and kind to students. If you sense that they seem “off,” pull them aside and have a conversation with them about things at home. Ask them if they are looking forward to the holidays. Seek genuine answers and be a supportive listener. Students need extra care and understanding from us as it may be the only positive part of their holidays.

8 Ways to Create Groups in Your Class

Let’s get one thing out of the way, there is no such thing as perfect grouping strategies. There will be struggles in some groups in every project. This is because we teach humans, not widgets. The beauty of students is that they are imperfect beings who are learning social skills alongside of our content. And from my experience with the adults in my life, social skills is an area of lifelong learning!

Before we get into specific strategies you should consider certain factors for your groups such as the length of the project, complexity of the task, and student needs. You should also consider academic ability, English Learners, Special Education students, personalities, and behavior. For short term, simpler tasks, you may give students more freedom of choice or use random grouping strategies. For longer, complex tasks, it is better to be very intentional about your grouping strategies.

So here are 8 grouping strategies that I have found effective. Different ones work better with different students, situations, and age levels. I recommend that you experiment to see which ones fit your style and students.

1. Random

Random grouping strategies are best for short term tasks such as an hour long design challenge or daily partner work. I don’t recommend random grouping strategies for long term projects.

Some fun ways to group students randomly are to hand each student a playing card as they enter and then create groups of 4 by finding matching numbers. Another way is to make cards of famous couples from pop culture, literature, or concepts from your content area. Again pass these out as students enter and have them find their match.

Other strategies for random, short term groupings are Clock Buddies;  Flippity Name Picker; and  Kagan’s Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up.

2. Pairs

Sometimes teachers get into a pattern of thinking that PBL projects should always be in groups of 4. Instead I ask myself, what is the minimum number of students needed to successfully complete the task? Then I go with the smallest number possible. I actually prefer groups of 2 or 3 unless the task is complicated enough that it requires more. This prevents students from coasting along while others do all of the work.

Don’t be afraid to go SMALL with your groups. Younger students also thrive in smaller groups.

3. Skills

Depending on the project, sometimes it is important that each group contains students with specific skills. An example would be that for video projects I always like to make sure that each group has a good video editor.

I accomplish this by giving a survey ahead of time and asking students to identify their strengths such as writing, speaking, technology, art, etc. I pick the categories based on the skillsets needed for the final product. Then I create the groups making sure that every team has all of the skills represented.

4. Topics

Sometimes it makes sense to group like-minded students together. For the MyParty Election Project, students had to create their own political party. This project would not work if students were grouped together who had opposing values and ideas. So we took an assessment that sorted students into 4 major philosophies based on their political opinions. Then each philosophy went to a different corner of the room and they choose groups from among these like-minded students.

Putting students together by topic works great when students are doing passion projects or interested in researching similar problems or solutions.

5. Student Choice

At the end of every project, I survey my class for feedback on how to improve. The number one thing that they ask for, every single time, is “Can we choose our own groups.” I think that there are some advantages for students who are experienced in PBL choosing their own groups. They can be productive working with like minded people.

But I also find that letting students pick their own groups almost always leads to sorting kids by ability. The motivated, high achievers pick each other. The middle of the road students form other groups. And then the students who don’t fit in, have “labels,” or are behavior problems end up in a dysfunctional group of “leftovers.” So I recommend only letting students choose their own groups in a couple of situations.

I always let students pick their groups on the first day of class when I am doing team building or problem solving activities. First of all, it is a short-term task and most importantly they are identifying all of their friends to me and I can immediately see who should never work together again! They out themselves without even realizing it.

The second situation would be if you have established a true culture of caring and helpfulness in class. If your students can be trusted to be inclusive in picking their groups and make sure that everyones needs are met then I say go for it!

6. Your Partner / My Pairs

This is probably my favorite grouping strategy because it honors the students’ choice, yet still gives control to the teacher. I always explain the process ahead of time so that students know what I will be doing.

Near the end of a project, I give a survey asking who they want to partner with on the next project. Sometimes I add in criteria such as it can’t be someone you are currently working with or have worked with this quarter/semester/year. Then I match the pairs to form groups of four. Students like it because they know that they will have at least one person in their group that they can be successful with. I like it because it avoids some of the concerns of students picking groups that are stacked or leftovers. It is a great compromise.

7. Special Assignment

Often there are students in my class who have special needs. Sometimes they are officially identified for accommodations whether it is language based or academic. Other times they don’t have the “label” but really need similar support. Sometimes these are children who struggle to focus or to self manage their behavior. What I intentionally try to do with these students is find a buddy student that works well with them and complements their weaknesses. Often it is not the strongest academic student, but rather a strong leader who can work with them.

I don’t hang the supporting student out to dry. I meet with them ahead of time and acknowledge their strengths. I ask if they would be willing to help me out by working with a certain student. I explain that this student wants to be successful but may lack a certain skill or need some specific direction on what to do during a project. I then monitor these groups and coach the leaders on how to help the other students stay focused and be successful. All of the students grow in different skills throughout the project.

8. Supergroup & Slackers

Sometimes, usually towards the end of the year and especially if we have an important public audience, I make a Supergroup and a group of Slackers. The way I do this is allow students to pick their own groups! The motivated, high achievers choose each other; the quirky artsy kids choose each other; of course, no one chooses the kids who were the weak links all year.

I am honest with my students, so I tell the Slacker group, ” You haven’t been pulling your weight and no one else wants to work with you. So you are stuck with each other. You had better figure out how to get work done together or you are all going to fail this project.” They tend to find a way to get things done.

I have never done a project yet where every group functioned like a well oiled machine and I am ok with that. Throughout the year, the students grow and learn from each other. Figuring out how to get along and successfully completing work is one of the most important benefits students gain from PBL.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I will never forget the advice that Eric gave me early in my teaching career.

After my first year teaching social studies at an alternative high school, I was laid off due to being the lowest seniority. My principal told me not to worry, that it was just a formality and that I would be brought back in the fall. So I didn’t sweat it or look for another job. At the beginning of August she called and told me the bad news. Unfortunately I would not be brought back due to financial reasons. My wife was 8 and ½ months pregnant with our second child and we would have no health insurance. I was a bit freaked out, not having a job with the start of school fast approaching.

Days before school started I applied and was hired as a technology teacher at the middle school where I student taught. Eric, the previous technology teacher, showed me how the class was designed for students to rotate weekly to different technology and engineering stations (it was STEM before someone invented the term. Does that make me a hipster?).

I was excited, but stressed by my limited time to prepare for this new class and knowing that I would soon be on paternity leave. Eric told me not to worry about knowing how to do all the stations myself. “Just let the kids figure it out on their own,” he told me. “If they get stuck, have them problem solve. Check back in with them later and have them teach you how they did it.” He told me to learn who the students were in the class who became experts at certain stations and refer the other students to them when they had questions.

It was definitely a “fake it ’til you make it” strategy. And I have never stopped using it, because it EMPOWERS students.

Even when I know how to do something I have my students figure it out on their own or talk to other students. I may point them in a general direction or help them figure out the best search term, but I avoid giving direct answers. It all goes back to “whoever is doing is learning” and I don’t want to steal the chance from students to figure something out by themselves.

This strategy is also freeing because I don’t have to be the expert of everything. I can say, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.”

Instead of answering questions, I teach students search strategies to find the answers themselves. In my personal life, I use YouTube all of the time to figure out things that I don’t know, from how to prune my grapes to fixing something on my car. If our students are truly going to become “lifelong learners” than they have to figure out how to ask and answer their own questions.

One thing I will say to students when they ask me a history question that I don’t know the answer to is, “I don’t know. Why don’t you research that and come back and tell me what you find out?” Students are motivated to find things that they can teach me!

A specific example of fake it ‘til you make it, is that I like to use many online tools with students. Instead of using whole class, direct instruction to teach lessons on how to use an online tool, I tell students to figure it out for themselves. I quickly learn which students excel and direct other students to our class expert. I will have these expert students lead a workshop on the online tool for those who may need some help.

This strategy creates a collaborative culture with students depending on each other for help and success. They learn that the teacher doesn’t know everything and is learning too. It also grows confidence in the student experts as they lead workshops for their classmates.

When Students Hate

 

The recent shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue has me thinking about when students express hate and what we can do about it. Specifically I remember my first year of teaching.

I was the social studies “department” at a small, rural, alternative education high school. The school and community were predominantly white. I had a student, we’ll call him Dave, who was at the school for burning a cross in an African-American family’s yard. I had a group of boys who had neo-Nazi tattoos and were vocal about their prejudice.

You can imagine my students’ excitement when in World History class I announced that our next unit would be on Israel and Judaism.

“I hate Jews,” said one of the boys.

“Really, what is a Jew?,” I asked. They couldn’t answer me. They had this anger and hatred toward a group of people that they couldn’t even define. It was so obvious that this was learned from some adult in their lives.

So I designed an activity for the computer lab the next day. We went to a website (no longer around) called famousjews.com or something like that. It listed hundreds of famous Jewish people in categories. I made a worksheet that asked them to list 5 famous musicians, actors, scientists, politicians, etc.

The students got to work copying down the names. They started getting into it and were excited to see names like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and David Lee Roth. They were genuinely enjoying the activity and openly admitting that they were fans.

I interrupted and said, “Remember, you hate all of these people.”

The room got silent. My point was made. Looking back, I wish I would have processed with them more about the source of their hate and what to do about it. But my personal takeaway was that we hate what we don’t know and understand. Part of the remedy is exposure to things outside of our bubble, which is why I am a big believer in young people traveling and studying abroad.

Back to Dave, the cross burner. I watched him become good friends with an African American girl in my class. They sat together and joked and truly developed a positive relationship. It was amazing to see and is a great example of why integration and truly knowing others can break down barriers of stereotypes, prejudice, and hate.