A School Year Spent Learning With My Son

“Would I want my own child to be a student in my classroom?”

As educators reflect on our practice and commit to improve our craft, no question makes professional development more personal. What we deem acceptable for ourselves and our learners takes on a new meaning with our child’s best interest at stake. Without question, compassion, empathy, and respect become priorities in the classroom.

As a parent, I begin to consider the diverse needs and interests of my two children. A sudden panic hits as my thoughts shift to my impact as a teacher. What kind of experience do I provide in my classroom? How do I make each child feel important while challenging them at their appropriate level? Do I treat everyone fairly? Communicate clearly? Will I inspire or stifle their learning? Do I provide clear feedback and prepare students for the next level? Will they resent the workload or fear my assessment practices? What would my child’s peers say about me?

There is no faking it. My child will know exactly what I do and who I am as a professional. He will know if I am an effective educator. I want to watch him learn, support his productive struggles, witness his growth, share the experience. Will my son still look at me with wonder and awe, pride and respect?     

Such a scenario is laden with pressure. There is obvious pressure on the teacher-parent, but potentially more pressure on the student. The expectations of a teacher’s child are already high. Every action and interaction is judged. Any success may indicate preference or favoritism. Peers (and their parents) will talk. “Of course you know the answers. You can get away with anything. You can always get extra help. You better get an A.” In the eyes of onlookers, nothing the child does is going to prove worthy of praise. No personal accomplishment will be recognized as hard-earned or well-deserved.

It’s complicated. But it became my reality in the 2018-19 school year when my son sat in the passenger seat on our commute to school, entered the building by my side, and dropped his backpack at a table in my first hour English class. From the first period of the first day of school, our relationship would be forever impacted.

1st Day of School

A year of car rides, shared experiences around school, conversations at home, and increased time spent together strengthened our father-son bond (I just checked to make sure…he confirmed my claim). Although I was technically the teacher, I learned more from my son than I could ever deliver to him as a student in my class. Fifteen years ago, when I became a parent, I became a better teacher. But I can honestly say nothing made as great an impact as teaching my own child.

I was accountable. I had to be intentional in my preparation, words, and actions, and as a result, more reflective than ever before.

Here are 10 lessons, reminders, and takeaways from the school year…

1. Start class on a positive, personal note.

Nothing in the content of the course is as important as the relationships created in a welcoming environment. What we teach is significant. What we model is paramount. Beginning each class with informal conversations and personal check-ins may not score points on an administrative evaluation, but they earn lasting respect from those that matter most–our students.

This is why Joe Sanfelippo stresses the importance of being intentional in creating a culture of trust every 30 seconds. We cannot force students to want to attend class or love our curriculum; but we can provide a safe, inviting space where everyone has a voice and an opportunity to find success. I hope all of my students, including my son, know they matter.

2. Pay attention.

In order to reinforce Angela Maiers’ YOU MATTER Manifesto, I had to remind myself to be more aware. More empathetic. More real. I made a genuine effort to pay attention to what every student was involved in after school, note when their mood changed, recognize when they looked tired, understand when my class lesson was not a priority in their stressful day. As a result, I respectfully knew when to push and when to back off.

3. Be intentional with every decision.

On the ride to school, I expected my son to ask, “What’s the plan for today?” I had to be prepared with an answer and a rationale. Purposeful planning  became a priority, as it should be, but having to verbalize what and why forced me to be aware of my delivery. My son provided immediate feedback. He helped me consider alternative options and let me know if the activity would be well received or bound to fail. These simple conversations also helped me rehearse before sharing with a room of freshmen. Consequently, I provided better directions and set clearer expectations than in the past.

4. Don’t be boring. Bring it everyday.

I dreaded the very real possibility of my son having to hear some form of honest criticism from his peers. “Your dad’s class sucks…” While it’s hard to please everyone–and reality says my class is certainly not everyone’s favorite–I needed to bring it everyday. “It” refers to energy, enthusiasm, a sense of humor, a smile, spontaneity, and fun.

My students and I set the vibe together, refusing to simply go through the motions of school. I gave students permission to challenge the relevance of any lesson. They held me accountable for being up front with the purpose of what I invited them to learn. Likewise, I insisted they attack every challenge by making a personal connection to the concept and add their unique voice to everything they produced.

5. Make the experience meaningful.

In order to provide a meaningful experience, I had to determine what was worthwhile for our limited time together. What are the essential elements of what I teach? How do the units fit together within the school year? What needs to be assigned and how can we go into greater depth in our learning? Although it hurts to eliminate old favorites, some activities are simply time-fillers. More than anything, what do I want to guarantee my son knows before he moves on to the next level of his education? Certainly, I don’t want him to have any gaps in his learning, considering I had the opportunity to fill in the blanks.

Durstopia Introductory Video

With the intent of making sense of a full year of curricular units in English 9, students began telling their learning story on day one. Their plain crashed on Lit Island, the first world of Durstopia. There was no going back. Did they have what it takes to survive? Could they conquer the series of missions and challenges to navigate their way through each world? Of course, they could. And did. Yes, Durstopia is gamified, but it is not a game. There is meaning behind every learning decision, woven together in one cohesive story line rather than unrelated topics from one isolated unit to the next.

6. Make it memorable.

If I claim to be a collector of memories in the classroom, I need create opportunities for the memorable to happen. Provide time for Ruby to share her “joke of the day” before starting class. Take a hike around campus on the first day back from spring break before diving into the new unit. Insist that Sydney perform the song she was anxiously rehearsing for her after school choir audition. Stop everything for a day of play (GSPD). Or, better yet, play the game Kolton created during the Global Day of Design challenge. Pass the fake microphone to someone other than me, so I’m not the only one talking.

7. Capture the experiences.

8. Be respectful of time.

When I paid closer attention to the school calendar, I knew when groups of students would be busiest. Although I joke about teachers intentionally planning times where students have to suffer with multiple tests or major projects due on the same day, by knowing what was going on in other classes, I was more flexible with due dates and pacing.

If I didn’t want my kid to stay up all night completing an assignment for my class, I didn’t assign it. If we could not take care of the work in one class period, we always had the next day. So, there’s no homework, just coursework. The message communicated from one year of students to the next is clear. If students take care of business in class and respect time dedicated to study, they should not have to drag extra work into their personal time after school.

My son, whose backpack was full of work every night, appreciated not having to worry about tedious English assignments. Periodically, he chose to read further in a novel or review a presentation, but rarely considered the work a burden. Justifying the excessive workload to my wife would have certainly created dystopian conditions in our household.

9. Be fair.

How do I look around the room and not play favorites (could be my own kid or the model student who shows genuine interest in every lesson and laughs at all of my jokes)? By getting to know students as individuals and as learners, I could better challenge, support, and guide their experience. According to the feedback I received, the pacing of the course felt comfortable; students rarely felt overwhelmed or rushed. Learners acknowledged expectations were high, but work was not burdensome as it feels in some classes.

Activities were hands-on and creative; learning was “unforced,” “natural,” and “relevant to our lives.” They appreciated having options for designing outcomes and having choices of how to show their learning.

Fair, Unbiased, Anonymous Feedback

I also had to deliver unbiased assessment. Fair assessment means increasing transparency. Expectations need to be clear. I learned to provide specific directions with concrete steps for the more sequential learners. I frequently checked to ensure the assessment matched the target. I modeled examples and made sure all students understood success criteria before submitting work. I increased my use of anonymous feedback on formative assessment for all to see. Ultimately, I became a better teacher.

10. Find balance.

The healthy reminder. It is fun to relive events of the school day, but there are new adventures waiting at home. I need to balance work and play. Professional and personal. Attention to other children and my own. Time spent planning and time spent reflecting. Giving time to others and taking time for myself. Working and resting. Talking and listening. Teaching and learning. Understanding at the end of the day, I am enough.

Reminder for students and educators

Conclusions

Yes, I would want my own child to be a student in my classroom. In fact, I cannot think of anything more gratifying in my teaching career. Both of us proved to have what it takes to survive in Durstopia. My son may have escaped from the final world in Durstopia, but his name will forever be embedded in its title. He not only left a legacy in my first hour class, he has pushed me to be more intentional in teaching all students.

And I’m not done being held accountable for improving my craft. I have two more years to get better before my seventh grade daughter puts my teaching to the test. She’s on her way. And she expects my best.

I would love to hear from other teacher-parents. How does being a parent impact your teaching? If you already taught your child, what did you learn from the experience?

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(App)Smashing Test Prep: 2-Minute Tutorial Videos

While exploring the pattern of the hero’s journey in literature, my juniors partake in their own learning journey through literacy and life. To experience the structure of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, I organize my World Literature and Composition course according to four major stages of the hero’s journey.

  1. Separation from the Ordinary World
  2. Initiation: The Trials and Challenges of Heroism
  3. Transformation: An Inward Journey
  4. The Return

Image result for hero's journey

After they accept the call to adventure, juniors cross the threshold into an unknown world of trials and challenges during quarter two. As we study the adventures of heroes through selected epics, I am responsible for guiding student progress and training for greater tests of skill.

My young heroes have to build strength, endurance, and stamina to perform admirably. They need to become critical thinkers, careful readers, and confident writers. But without the assistance of divine intervention or supernatural aid, I simply want to give my students the advantage of understanding their human flaws and feeling secure in their abilities. A seemingly daunting ACT/SAT exam is nothing more than a one-day opportunity to allow for easier passage to the next stage of their journey (and can be retaken). It is not a predictor of future success or self-worth.

This year, learners are attacking their training and preparation for battle. So what’s making the difference? My courageous juniors are not only exercising their minds; they are expressing their voices. Continue reading

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… Continue reading

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