To Coach. To Teach.

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For two decades, I have enjoyed the honor of coaching varsity baseball and teaching high school communication arts courses. As I continue to grow in both roles, I recognize the influence coaching and teaching have had on each other in shaping my craft. Although I provide instruction in both positions, I prefer that students consider me their coach—a lead learner who wears the same uniform and is committed to a common purpose—dedicated to create opportunities, plan practice, support, adjust, guide, and root for every learner’s success. I want my learners to play with the content. Challenge their abilities. Learn to persist. Create meaningful outcomes. Celebrate victories. Enjoy a rewarding experience.

Great teachers possess characteristics of the most effective coaches. They are selfless, compassionate, and dedicated to help learners grow. Unlike most jobs, coaching and teaching become a lifestyle with a special responsibility and commitment to serve others. The distinguishing quality of a coach is through the actions taken to educate—the impact and connotation of its verb form: “to coach.”

Effective coaches combine their passion for the game with a keen sense of knowing their personnel: they learn the strengths and struggles of individuals; they understand how to motivate each player; they make sure everyone understands their role in the team’s success; they design a plan to give individuals paths for improvement and provide the team with its greatest opportunity for success. Coaches offer advice or make suggestions for improvement, then provide (even prioritize) the time for practice—a period of adjustment, reinforcement, support, and celebration. Players need time to learn, to increase mental confidence and work through mechanical flaws. They must experience failure, be challenged beyond personal expectations, and feel success in their growth process. How would a similar approach impact our students in the classroom? Continue reading

10 Ways Music Makes Your Class Rock

Looking for an easy way to connect with students early in the school year and a fascinating cultural study? Initiate a conversation about music—best concert of the summer, new artists to watch, last song heard before school. When students have earbuds in, ask what song is playing. Every year, my students learn to have their favorite playlists available for reference (and should be added to their list of school supplies). Pop culture references to song titles, artists, and music lyrics are common in lessons. Favorite brain breaks involve students sharing what song they will play at their next opportunity to plug in. Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes, and YouTube are some of the most used apps in room A15. Is this class led by a teacher or a DJ?

When Joy Kirr, author of Shift This (CH4: Learning Environment) asked, “How can I incorporate music into my lessons?” I could not resist creating a list of my favorite uses of music in the classroom. Tune in for ten ways to make your classes rock!

1. The Musical Hook

I love having music cued up and playing when students enter the classroom. Typically, the song has something to do with the day’s lesson. I’m always entertained when a student makes the connection midway through the period. As more students catch on, they make a conscious effort to be the first to identify the purpose of the song. Of course, some days I’m simply in the mood for a song.

2. The Walk-up Song

As a baseball fan and music lover, I’m intrigued by batters’ walk-up songs. My varsity baseball players spend the entire off-season in search of the perfect walk-up song—30 seconds of attention-capturing entrance, with catchy beats and just enough of the lyrics to inspire greatness upon stepping into the batter’s box. My family laughs at some of the selections that play at random times on our iPod, but my children can still name the player associated with the song years later.

The walk-up song also works in the classroom. On a big day—especially before a presentation—nothing alleviates anxiety and pumps up the presenter and audience like a song. The song delivers confidence. It’s time to own the moment. Playing selected songs on birthdays is another ideal opportunity to celebrate each student. In the first days of the school year, I have students design a slide to begin creating learner profiles and add it to a class presentation for future use. It is a great activity to get everyone engaged, without traumatizing introverts with in-your-face icebreakers. While students are working, they initiate natural conversations with peers (particularly with choice of walk-up song—possibly the most challenging commitment of their lives to this point).

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Warning: Be prepared with your own songs. Kids will ask. My personal walk-up songs vary based on situation (more about the music than the lyrics), but before I present, I will be rocking “Clint Eastwood” by The Gorillaz , “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine (radio edit version!), “The Adventure” by Angels and Airwaves, or “Dammit” by Blink 182 (again, edited).

3. Background Music

Music enhances the classroom work environment. When students are working in groups, music can reduce the drone of many voices. It can also create a relaxed atmosphere during reading or writing time. As an incentive, I offer learners a choice of music or allow individuals to serve as class DJ for a day.

4. Countdown Timer

One of the more practical uses of music is as a classroom timer. Rather than field questions about how long a journal entry or on written response should be, present the prompt saying, “You have until the end of these two songs to complete your response.” Short songs are also ideal for transition or clean-up time. Like musical chairs, students should be ready for the next action by the time the music ends.

5. Theme Songs with Cultural Connections

Musicians record our history and their songs tell stories of generations. Songs help us relate to topics, concepts, time periods, and literary themes. Connecting music to cultural themes is an entry point for critical thinking in any unit of study. Teachers can create YouTube playlists or challenge students to make their own. Many students already have Spotify playlists that match their moods

6. Interpretation as Argument

Interpreting song meanings is something listeners do naturally, so I leverage it’s potential as one of the most academic uses of music in class. Through the study of lyrics, students can practice developing arguments about an artist’s message. After stating their interpretation as a claim, students should provide an explanation and use lyrics as evidence to support their argument. As additional points of emphasis, writers may focus on quote integration, sentence fluency, and proper citation.

7. Music as Poetry

By studying lyrics, readers can develop an eye for the craft of writing. As a complex text, music can be analyzed for rhetorical devices, diction, syntax, and tone. The majority of learners are less intimidated by music than poetry. Lyrical analysis is a path to appreciating poetry. Invite students to pick a song and close read the lyrics as poetry. Then, challenge the class to determine which song writers show the most poetry in their lyrics

8. Creative Outcomes Through Music

Show evidence of learning (any content) through song lyrics or an original piece. Musicians may compose an instrumental accompaniment for the text. Mash up song lyrics from multiple songs/artists to tell a story in its new form (much like found poetry). What song would best express a character’s thoughts or capture a moment in the plot? The possibilities are endless. One of my favorite writing assignments of all time is the Soundtrack of My Life prompt. I had seniors reflect on this:

Hollywood has decided to make a movie highlighting your life. You get to determine if the film will focus on one particular stage (ie. middle school) or span a larger portion of your entire lifetime. What would a movie of your life be about? What songs would make up the soundtrack?

I have since modified the prompt for freshmen:

A movie version of the novel you are reading is currently being produced. What would be the most appropriate song(s) to feature on the soundtrack? Convince the movie producers to use the song(s) you select. Refer to song lyrics and the novel to support your response.

9. Music as self-expression

Whether it be writing a song or performing music, we need a creative outlet to express ourselves. Student performances and original works provide highlight moments in the school year. Nothing is more memorable than students sharing original pieces. And nothing takes more courage than performing for their peers.

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10. The Healing Power of Music

The raw emotion in music connects humans to one another. It empathizes. In times when mental health or well-being is challenged, we may find answers in an artist’s lyrics. Songwriters have a way of reaching out at our most desperate times. 

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The Lumineers “Stubborn Love”

How many times do we seek the perfect words to lift others from moments of darkness but our voices fail?

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Please share examples of how you use music in the classroom. I hope your class rocks this year!

Welcome to Durstopia!

The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?

In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.

Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.

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Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.

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So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?

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With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.

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The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
Continue reading

Varsity: From Letter Grades to Letter Winners

As another baseball season concludes, I reflect on our team highlights and individual heroics that will become hometown lore, and inevitably, relive several “what-if?” scenarios, as if we could go back and choose new outcomes. I taste the bittersweet reality of saying good-bye to our seniors, while the renewed hope of next year’s potential emerges. I will miss our graduates, but would start a new season tomorrow knowing I have another chance to work with our returning letter winners. This is the annual cycle of emotions experienced by high school varsity coaches.

Since shifting to a personalized learning model in my high school English classes, I have experienced similar feelings. The more we invest in the individual, the more we get to know our learners–interests, strengths, academic needs, areas of improvement, learner preferences, future plans–and the more personal the relationship grows. While there are more technical definitions, that’s how I identify personalized learning.

Educators know the feelings. Satisfaction. Exhaustion. Fulfillment. Pride. Seasonal allergies are not solely to blame for end-of-year watery eyes as teachers wish their kids a final “have a nice summer” sentiment. There is an emptiness–a sense of loss–knowing the time has come for our students to move on. We’ve done our part, but now we must watch them become someone else’s responsibility. All of the progress, conversations, and feedback exchanged between teachers and learners reset; the learning process starts over next year.

So what do we do? Post a letter grade. Auto-fill several comments. At best, rush to write something nice in students’ yearbooks. And then, they are gone. The classroom is silent until a new group enters.

In my reflections this summer, I question how we end each school year. I question myself.

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Homework Questions: In Search of the Answer Key

Every hour of the school day, a number of students hustle into my classroom, focused, and eager to get to work. Before the bell rings to indicate the start of my class, students are already invested in their studies. Backpacks are open, paperwork out, and pencils urgently filling in blanks. I don’t even have to provide motivation or verbal cues. My students are great kids. They seek approval from parents and teachers. They have positive intentions toward success and a sincere desire to please.

What’s my secret? Continue reading

Hitting My STRIDE: 2016 Reflections

In 2016, I will continue to “walk or run with long, decisive steps” at a “good or regular rate of progress” toward my aspirations. I will stride.

The greater distance we travel, the more strides we take, the more highs and lows we face. When I encounter hills and other obstacles, I will stride with perseverance to maintain momentum. We all need inspiration to persist, but for educators, the reminders are ever present in the students we impact every day. Keeping the focus on their individual needs requires acting with empathy and compassion. Students rely on our consistent message, positive attitude, and unwavering support.

In times of stress and conflict, I will stride with resilience to overcome negativity and turmoil. The important lesson–simple runner’s logic–applies to building relationships, parenting, and educating: be patient, remain calm, control breathing, and monitor heart rate. Take life in stride.

–excerpt taken from my 2016 One Word post: STRIDE

To hit one’s stride means showing improvement in the way something is developing–to pick up the pace with ease and confidence.

So, that is exactly how I approached 2016. I took the training advice of top runners: “have fun with it, and try something new.” In class, my learners and I improved our model of personalized learning, approached every day with crazy #tlap passion and an Innovator’s Mindset, created our own genius, leveled up with #xplap gamification, captured learning with #booksnaps, and shared our work in true #ditchbook style.
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Create Learning PERMANENCE Through Reassessment

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation. 

It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.

All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.

Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading