Physical Challenge! Workout for Writers

Recently, I asked my freshmen to respond to several prompts intended to assess their understanding of various literary concepts at the end of a unit. There was nothing more to study—nothing left to prepare for in advance. Simply, show what you know. Although I was doing committee work across the hall, expectations for the sub and students were clear: complete your responses by the end of the class period and place your papers in the basket. Students were welcome to interrupt my meeting and ask a question. Splendid.

When I had a break, I checked the basket to see what my students produced. The basket was full…of incomplete work.

In response, I experienced all stages of the teacher frustration cycle.

Shock: What the…?

Worry: What happened to my wonderful students? Where did I go wrong? Haven’t I taught anything during the last month? Have I failed to prepare my learners?

Examination: How did some meet the requirements but many not even come close?

Anger: How dare they not complete several simple responses?

Resentment: Seriously? Only a couple kids stopped in during intervention time or after school to complete the test. Do they expect to be gifted more class time tomorrow after seeing all the questions? What an entitled generation.

[Spite: Time to teach them a lesson! Make it hurt!]*

*At this point, I remembered one vital detail. We have established a healthy learning environment built on trust. Spite teaching will destroy weeks of progress. Learning is not limited by increments of time; nor is it measured by compliant behaviors. I decided to look closer at the underlying issue and replace the 6th stage—spite—with three different stages to produce more positive outcomes.

Introspection: Time to reflect. What’s really going on here? How can I turn a potentially negative consequence into a positive learning experience? My assessment prompts are strong and still valid. Even if students go home and prepare responses, what’s the worst that can happen? Everyone produces a quality argument and I have more to read? Everyone learns?

Next steps: Now what? Brainstorm all possible solutions, regardless of how outrageous they may seem. How can I create an unforgettable experience?

Growth: How can we turn our failures into an opportunity to learn? Got it!

The next morning, students sheepishly entered the classroom. Word had (somehow) spread that I was not pleased. There was a blank sheet of paper at everyone’s seat. They looked around and asked, “What are we doing today? Will we have time to finish the test? Am I really going to fail?”

My only response: Better start stretching. Today is not going to be a typical class period…

Physical Challenge! A Workout for Writers

The memorable lesson was revealed. Students had one minute to read through the lyrics of Jimmy Eat World’s song, “The Middle.”

Physical Challenge! - Google Docs (1)

After reading from the screen, students had to find a trusty partner. I added the following directions in a comment box on the screen:

Although you are writing separate arguments, you are in this together. Then, select from these PHYSICAL CHALLENGE OPTIONS: WALL SITS, PLANKS, STAND ON ONE LEG, TEXTBOOK SQUATS/CRUNCHES/PRESSES

While Partner 1 writes, Partner 2 completes a PHYSICAL CHALLENGE! When Partner 1 is done writing, partners switch roles until Partner 2 completes his/her written response to the prompt. Ready?

Prompt 1: What is the theme of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle”? Assert a 1 sentence claim worth arguing.
With Partner 1 writing, Partner 2 began the workout. Writers who were able to think quickly and craft a sentence relieved their partner of over exertion. But other writers felt the pressure to produce one sentence against a mental clock. Consequently, their partners suffered to hold the physical challenge. Some responded with supportive words; others were not as patient.

Prompt 2: Integrate evidence to support your claim (1 sentence)
Round two had to be easier with time to mentally prepare during the physical challenge, right? Again, results varied, but there was energy in the room.
Just support your claim. Hurry up! Quote a lyric! And switch.

Prompt 3: How is the message relevant to those trying to survive the tests of Lit Island (our 1st unit)? (Do not start your warrant with “THIS”) 1-2 sentences MAX!
Complete the argument! How much longer? Let’s goooooo!

When both partners were done writing, I invited them to relax and reflect.
Prompt 4: What are some valuable academic takeaways from today’s physical challenge writing lesson?

I received a collection of insightful responses.

Think quickly.
Can we do this more often?
I have to organize my thoughts and put them in writing.
I feel energized.
I need more practice with timed writing.
Always pick a good partner.
I’m going to get stronger in this class.
It’s important to think ahead.
It’s OK to take a risk.
Stop worrying so much!
I’m a better writer when I have more time.
I can write on demand when I have to.
This was a fun activity.
If my partner trusts me, I have to trust myself.

Some added wisdom from Jimmy Eat World:

I just have to try my best.
If I am myself, it doesn’t matter what other people think.
I have to be patient with myself. It just takes some time.
Everything will be fine.

When the physical challenge exercise was complete, writers had the remainder of class to complete their test responses. Everyone did with efficiency and ease. Those who had already completed their test were invited to make revisions to their responses or simply read until class was over. Time spent was worthwhile. The results were significant.  

I empathize with the learners who hesitate with uncertainty or second guess. I do not enjoy watching students agonize over exposing their imperfections in the daunting presence of a time clock. Admittedly, I am a slow test taker. I prefer to think before I act. I need time to process, rationalize, and commit to a response.

So why do I continue to expose my learners to such torment?

Timed tests are a reality of the educational experience. Our freshmen face three years of preparation for the ACT or SAT—a test that supposedly predicts their chance of future success. Over the next four years, many students will also sit through Advanced Placement exams.

If I can provide any advantage or alleviate some testing anxiety, I will. Like a coach, I need to prepare my team for competition. I have to provide opportunities to practice with purpose and support individual development. As a language arts coach, I can help writers prepare to think quickly, organize their thoughts, and craft coherent responses to timed tasks they will be expected to complete in future endeavors.

While many writers struggle to complete formative tasks against the limitations of the clock, even the most confident students grow anxious when a grade is attached to the outcome. In extreme cases, I’ve seen perfectionists opt to submit a blank page rather than face the judgment of an unplanned product. How do we speak louder than the voices of insecurity and doubt?

School is an academic fitness center for mental training.

We exercise minds in the classroom. We nourish brains with knowledge and provide opportunities that stretch thinking. We coach writers through classroom workouts that build endurance, strengthen skills, and increase flexibility in writing for various purposes.        

The mind is a powerful muscle.


Condense, Color, Conference: 3 C’s for Efficient Feedback

Quality feedback is timely, specific, actionable, and vital to the learning process. When student growth is the priority, educators understand the impact of providing feedback rather than a grade on student work. The universal challenge for the classroom teacher is the reality of finding time to respond to piles of written work. Then, after commenting on each piece in a timely fashion, we have to provide meaningful opportunities for students to make improvements. While the school calendar moves ahead, can we afford to go back?

Of course we can, but how can we make the feedback loop more efficient?

A simple strategy for guiding learners with more efficient feedback is through three C’s: condense, color, and conference.

Continue reading

Classroom Renovation

The start of another school year has come and gone. Anxious freshmen have navigated routes from one class to the next. Most can open their locker on first attempt. We have spent the first month building relationships and establishing routines in the classroom. For a seasoned educator, this appears to be business as usual.

But this year has a different vibe. Our building has undergone major renovations since last year. The second floor got a complete makeover with new math rooms and science labs. First floor boasts modern common spaces, clean hallways, and inviting entryways. Brand new facilities for tech ed and physical education, including a fitness center, second gym, and locker rooms. Upgrades throughout our district are really impressive and long overdue. Final touches will likely continue for several months, but that has not stopped us from getting the school year underway.

Although the building is transformed, not much has changed in the Communication Arts wing. The number on my classroom door changed from A15 to Room 16 and the lighting is enhanced (with a dimmer switch!). Our department smart boards and projectors were replaced by large monitors on mobile carts thanks to a generous grant from our Education Foundation. Renovation meant eliminating any excess clutter from our work spaces. Dumpsters were stuffed with an end-of-year (era) cleansing. Good-bye, old files, dusty anthologies, student projects. Sentimental keepsakes.

No worries. Classroom 16 will forever be known as The Clubhouse—our space to learn with a purpose and create memorable experiences. Ralphie still provides inspiration and the sexy lamp glows brightly on special occasions. And the legendary white couch continues to embrace readers with worn-to-form cushions.


Unlike years past, teachers had no building access over the summer. Consequently, this year’s back-to-school inservice week became move-in week. (Physical) Labor Day weekend was spent unpacking, organizing, and planning for students. Without the typical August preparation in the classroom, I had to plan my classroom setup from home. Continue reading

Discovering New Superheroes: Learner Backstories

Despite their flaws and all-too-human struggles, my students become my heroes in the journey we share. This school year, like any other, is off to a great start in World Literature and Composition—a course I am teaching for the 20th year. After a summer of reflection and planning for the new year, I have made several changes that I am excited to put in writing.

This September, juniors were greeted by the following message and introduction.

Consistent with past years, the course is structured thematically within the framework of the hero’s journey. Each quarter focuses on a major stage of the journey, full of learning adventures, personal quests, and literary study.

In order to personalize learning in this class we traditionally spend time identifying who we are in our Ordinary World before crossing the threshold into an unknown world of trials and challenges. I ask new classes to reflect on their interests, learner strengths and struggles, learning preferences, and future plans as a means of getting to know my students and to help them develop a personalized learner profile (PLP).

The improvement to this year’s approach was simple, but the response was significant. I challenged learners to re-create themselves as superheroes. Without hesitation, fifty high school juniors accepted the Call to Adventure and have since been fully engaged in their design process.    Continue reading

The Path to Humanity

In preparation for the annual study of Elie Wiesel’s Night, freshmen are introduced to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many are unaware of the document’s existence. When they explore the United Nations’ website, they initially consider the thirty articles common sense. Then, with general awareness of current events and simple research of news headlines, they recognize blatant violations of such rights around the world. After careful consideration, my students identify conflicting messages within and interpretations of the human rights on the list.

My students react with compassion. From a safe distance, a global concern becomes a topic worth exploring—something to address in a research paper or presentation—much like a history lesson. The natural human response to social injustice is sympathy—feelings of pity and sorrow for others’ misfortune. My freshmen acknowledge progress begins with education. Knowledge builds understanding. Understanding creates perspective. The more they learn and process about the world, the more they recognize issues closer to home. The lessons are internalized—the experiences personal. At this point, fifteen-year-olds open their eyes and hearts to their surroundings. The time has come for the adult in the classroom to step aside and proudly observe what evolves. Continue reading

The Pac-Man Model of School

Ready! Chomp – chomp – chomp – ch – ch – ch – chomp. Eat the dots. Avoid the ghosts. Clear the screen. Repeat.

How many hours did children of the ‘80s invest in Pac-Man marathons, navigating that maze, staring at the same straightaways and right angles? Enough to create repeatable patterns to clear each screen with nearly mindless precision. Yes, the game required some strategy and skill; however, once players understood the concept, game play was reduced to a matter of accumulating as many points as possible by eating dots in a maze before running out of lives.

Flash Pacman

Got some time to kill? Play a round of Flash Pac-Man on-line.

Old School Design

Pac-Man is a classic video game—as old school as it gets. However, while fans of retro video games still exist, many of our young gamers are not attracted to the simple graphics and redundant concept. With more appealing options available (such as Call of Duty games) to this generation of gamers, Pac-Man fails to maintain their attention long enough to keep them engaged. As video game systems continue to be part of our everyday lives, improved models have evolved to meet the standards of emerging technology and consumer demands. The most popular games present stimulating challenges, authentic experiences (multiplayer options, online gaming, first person views), multiple options to explore, real-time feedback, ability to save progress, and fast-paced action.

Toru Iwatani designed the game to have no ending, as long as the player had at least one life remaining. Only the gifted arcade all-stars would see the game through all 255 screens. Sounds frustrating to the common gamer; yet, we continued to insert the cartridge into the Atari 2600, reset the game, and play again.

The Pac-Man Model

It’s no wonder, in the Pac-Man model of school, students feel trapped in a maze, facing the same routine everyday. The bell signals the start of another day. Down one hallway. Turn left. Then right. Hesitate. Look around for a moment. Resume.

Even during his strongest moments, Pac-Man is a consumer, not a creator. Times of empowerment are limited. The best players take advantage of each power pellet. They make significant progress toward their destination in a short amount of time. However, the further they advance, the more the game seems to speed up. The ghosts get quicker and return to the chase almost immediately. After chomping one ghost (surviving a quiz?), Pac-Man knows he will be challenged by a similar test again.  

Do we ask more from our students? Not according to the Pac-Man model of school. Continue reading

Academic Anxiety in an ‘A Culture’

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions.

We live in an ‘A Culture.’

In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment, they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. The A Culture creates a mentality of winners and losers where success and failure is determined by data, high stakes test scores, and grades. In a traditional system, weighted grades, grade point average, and class rank sort kids by calculating formulas for reporting educational worth. When students sense assessment, they know they are about to be judged, quantified, and assigned an academic price tag—creating all-time high levels of academic anxiety and perceived learner apathy. Continue reading