Tag Archives: K through 12

3 Things You Think Are “Cool” That Actually Make Middle School Kids Hate You

24 Apr
Cool emoticon

Cool emoticon (Photo credit: wstera2)

We all want to be cool. Often, even when we are the most experienced, knowledgeable, and confident person in the room (as we often are–though not always–in middle school classrooms) we still want our kids to like us. This is why we often do three very stupid things in the hopes of making ourselves more appealing to our kids:

1. Being sarcastic. We all have vague memories of a high school teacher who was sort of bitter and sarcastic, and we remember thinking he was entertaining.  He reminded us of that cool teacher from TV, right? So if we’re sarcastic in class, that makes us cool, right?

Wrong–especially with kids under the age of 14. If think back further, we remember that,while it was sometimes  funny when teachers made fun of historical figures, we never liked listening to jokes we didn’t understand, and we REALLY didn’t like feeling stupid or dismissed in class. Kids 14 years old and younger largely don’t understand sarcasm yet, particularly students from families that don’t care for that kind of humor (which are common, especially in inner city areas). Being sarcastic around kids who don’t understand sarcasm, or who feel attacked by it, can undermine trust and make you seem out of touch with their sense of humor.

2. Telling personal stories in class. Again, we all remember that high school teacher who shared personal stories about their crazy college days or  their first marriage. We remember, vaguely, wanting to stick around in that teacher’s classroom at lunchtime. It made us feel cool. So if we tell stories about ourselves it makes us cool and easy to relate to, right?

Again: wrong. While telling high school students the occasional tidbit about your life may get them to like you (though it is equally likely to make you look pathetic or needy), it DOES NOT WORK WITH MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS. Young adolescents are so consumed with themselves (remember how important that zit seemed at the time?) that they generally are not interested in the lives and feelings of adults. Talking too much about yourself is more likely to make you seem irrelevant than it is to make you look cool. The only exception to this case is if your story about your life directly relates to your students’ lives. (For example, sharing your acceptance or rejection letters from literary agents with your writing class could actually be very cool and informative.)

3. Giving easy assignments. New teachers often think that the easier an assignment is, the more likely it is that kids will be excited to do it. Not only is this wrong, it’s dangerous, and it can lead to lowered expectations and poor performance from your students. Think about it: would you want to play a game where you were absolutely guaranteed to win every single time? No! It would be boring. Likewise, your kids don’t want easy assignments all the time—they want you to give them a challenge.

Have you ever tried to seem cool for your kids and had it backfire (or work)? I’d love to hear your story!


How “Straightening Kids Out” Actually Cripples Them

27 Sep

I started a new Deep workshop with 6th grade students at a local middle school the other day. It was supposed to be a simple day—fill out some surveys, introduce ourselves, go over procedures—but it turned out to be one of the most frustrating hours of my life.

Not because of the kids—they are hilarious, and I adore them, and I called their parents to tell them so—but because of how the kids were used to being disciplined.

Ten minutes in, at least four kids had commented at how strange it was that I hadn’t yelled at them yet. I told them I wasn’t going to yell at them—I never yell—and they laughed at me. “You’re too nice,” they said. “Other teachers would have straightened us out by now.” Another said, “We’re underachievers. You gotta keep us in line.”

“No,” I said. “You have to keep you in line. You are going to make our rules, and you are going to stick to them. I’m just here to remind you of them and make sure you practice them.” They shook their heads at me, certain that I was nuts and had no idea what I was doing.

The reason I didn’t “straighten them out”—by which I mean yell at them until they shut up—was because, while yelling at or lecturing kids gets immediate and obvious results that my style of discipline takes much longer to achieve, it also does three other things:

  1.  Teaches students that yelling is what mature adults do to get what they want, though we all know honey catches more flies than vinegar in the real world. Though yelling sometimes works in the short term, it is rarely effective in the long term.
  2. Takes away students’ agency and self-worth—rather than complying because they know that it is the right thing to do, or because they understand the long-term consequences of their actions, they do it because they are scared of getting screamed at. This can be devastating to a kid’s sense of purpose and self-worth; one study shows that being constantly yelled at is a better predictor of future mental illness than sexual or physical abuse.
  3. Cripples students in creative or independent endeavors. Which is pretty much every high-paying job ever. Students who grow up with lecture-and-yell discipline learn to rely on a supervisor to keep them in line, rather than doing it for themselves, and bosses hate employees like that. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone who needed me to look over their shoulder all day.

So what should we do instead?

Procedures, baby. Instead of screaming at kids for doing the wrong thing, be fair to them and show them exactly how to do the right thing. Help them practice it over and over until it is easy. Any time they forget, ask them to do it over again correctly. And praise the heck out of them when they get it right because adjusting to school life is tough, and they deserve some serious kudos for getting the hang of it. I’ve started this process with my new students, and I’ll admit: it’s slow, and it takes a lot of work and repetition. But they are awesome kids, and they are absolutely worth that effort.

How to Help Your Students Write Faster

27 Jul


Zoom and Bored

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks to my addiction to the WordPress stats page, I now know that the search term “teach students to write faster” brings several people to this blog every day. (Google doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve never actually written on this topic before.) Since so many people seem to be concerned about this topic, I thought that I would share my two cents.

So you would like your students to write faster? I have a short answer and a long answer for you.


Long answer:  Imagine that you are trying to learn how to knit. You are awkwardly fumbling with the needles. The yarn keeps getting tangled. On most rows, you have to pull all the stitches and start over at least three times before you finally do it right. You know that this is normal–it takes everybody a while to get the hang of it–but you still feel frustrated and defeated.

Now imagine a scary old lady standing next to you, staring at every move you make, telling you, “Go FASTER! Knit FASTER! Come on–you can do better than that!”

Do you think that would help you any? Or would it just make you nervous and slow you down?

Wouldn’t it be better if the old lady said something like, “Good job! I know it’s tough, but you’re doing well for a beginner. Take your time and just keep practicing. Here, let me help you with that stitch.”

The same goes for students who are learning how to write. I know that standardized tests put a lot of pressure on teachers to get their students to write quickly, but intense scrutiny and pressure will only make a hard task seem impossible.

Writing is difficult. Good writing often takes a very long time. James Joyce famously wrote only seven or eight words a day for most of his career. Worrying about how fast your students write isn’t going to help them write faster; the only real way to get a student to write faster is to let them practice in peace, with supportive feedback (good rule of thumb: three compliments to every criticism).

Why do you think so many teachers are interested in making their students write faster, rather than better? What ideas and advice do you have? Let me know in the comments section!





Stop Your Kids from Whining in 3 Easy Steps

17 Jul

no_whining (Photo credit: frotzed2)

In my last post, I wrote about an amazingly resilient student of mine. I also mentioned a student who would complain about anything (literally: she once stopped class to announce to me, sniffling, “My nose itches!”)

This sparked a great discussion in the comments section, and I thought that I would share some tactics that I’ve recently discovered for preventing whining in the classroom, and for bringing out the resilient, adorable darling within every kid:

Step 1. Clearly define “whining” with your kids. In my book, whining is:

  • Asking me to solve a problem that you could have solved yourself. (For example: the floor is sticky here! Well, go get a napkin and clean it up. I am not your maid.)
  • Complaining about a problem that cannot be solved. (For example: Maria doesn’t like me! I’m sorry that’s the case, hon, but I can’t make her like you, and you have to learn to accept the fact that not everybody will always like you. Other examples: I’m tired, I’m hungry, it’s hot. I can’t give you a bed, feed you, or change the weather in the middle of class. Sorry.)
  • Comparing yourself to another kid. For example: But you let Billy do a special project yesterday–so I should get to do one, too!  or You got me in trouble for this, but you didn’t get mad at Anthony! This is the toughest one to swallow, especially with younger kids who are obsessed with fairnessbut I can’t always catch every classroom misdemeanor, and to be a good teacher, you sometimes have to accommodate individual needs. This means that kids who are falling behind might get more attention than kids who are doing fine. Kids who are ahead of the game might get to do special enrichment projects. Sometimes, kids get away with breaking a rule because I don’t see the infraction. Is this fair? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Your students need to accept this. 
  • Pouting because you didn’t get what you wanted. (For example: our team lost the game because Lucy wasn’t fast enough! or I don’t want to practice multiplication today!) Too bad, kiddo. Unless it is either physically injuring you or seriously hindering your ability to learn, you’ve got to learn how to handle being in situations that you don’t like, sometimes. It’s a valuable life skill.

Step 2. Outlaw whining–and have consequences to back it up. This worked wonders with my itchy-nosed student–I told her that the next time she pouted and stopped participating in class, I would ask her to leave. She tested the waters once, but when I pointed out that she was pouting, and that this meant she would have to leave the class if she kept it up, she pulled herself together and joined right in. We haven’t had a problem with her since, and it’s been great to watch her apply her newly discovered energy to some really wonderful, creative work!

Step 3.  Offer constructive ways for students to share their needs and opinions. Whining is about attention–kids who are whiners just want you to listen to them. So give them attention for creating solutions and offering suggestions! Here are some tools that work well:

  • Class Comment Box. Offer students a place to put complaints and suggestions after class is over; this way, it doesn’t disrupt your work, but you still get to see what kids are thinking and adjust to their needs.
  • Individual Conferences. If you check in with your students individually, it will help clear the air of any serious problems and develop the trust that will allow them to accept your decisions even when they don’t like them.

Do you have any tactics for preventing whining? Please share them!

How to Recover from Burnout this Summer

1 Jun
Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at desk (Photo credit: George Eastman House)

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the first year of teaching is nearly always a disaster. Becoming a competent teachers takes at least two years, and becoming a master teacher takes around five.

Yet, it’s also a pretty well-known fact that most new teachers quit the profession within three years. (Interestingly, one of the few professional careers with an even higher turnover rate than teachers is that of nonprofit development directors–my other job–at 18 months. Who knows how I get myself into these situations.)


Avoiding burnout and sticking around is absolutely key in making a difference in the lives of our students–so here are some ideas for things I plan to do this summer to rejuvenate myself:

Take on a side project. It’s best if it has nothing at all to do with your current job–try gardening, singing, running, or scrapbooking. Some teachers like to take on another job in the summer, and this can be fun, too, if you let it. Just be sure that whatever you take on iis something simple and achievable, if also challenging (I know that I’ve bought years’ worth of knitting supplies before realizing that I actually hate knitting and am terrible at it.) It’s important to feel successful at the end of the summer. I’m planning on finishing another draft of the middle grades novel I’m working on, and helping out with other cool nonprofits like this one.

Focus on relationships. Having a network of people who love and support you makes every school year easier. I know I would have quit long ago if it wasn’t for the unflagging support of my family, my friends, and my fella–so I plan on taking some time this summer to support them, too, and spending some quality bonding time together.

What do you do to avoid burnout? How do you spend your summers?

Got Lazy Students? Get Them Writing With One Simple Trick.

10 Apr
US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing fl...

US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing flag football (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I had a student who kept goofing off during writing time. He had written barely a sentence, and he kept distracting the students around him. I knew that he was clever and fully capable of doing the assignment; he was just being lazy.

My solution? I turned my back to the student and focused, instead, on a friend of his who was doing a great job. I praised her (loud enough for the disruptive student to hear) and joked with her for a minute about a funny line she had written. I smiled at her and told her to keep doing exactly what she was doing.

Then I turned back to the disruptive student. I asked to read his work and picked up the (nearly blank) sheet of paper. I smiled and raised an eyebrow: “Really? That’s all you got? You got some real catching up to do if you want to keep up with these other guys. Check out the great metaphor that Shondra just wrote.” I said. I put his paper back down on his desk and turned away to praise another successful student.

You might think that this was mean (and if you do, you probably this that this is mean, too)–but my student didn’t think so. He actually smiled, laughed, and got to work.

Thirty seconds later, he was scribbling furiously. He even asked his friend to look at her paper so that he could see what she had done and (I quote him directly here) “Do it better.” His final piece was fantastic, and he felt happy and proud at the end of class.

Competition–ranging from formal contests to informal rivalries–is an instant cure for laziness. Some teachers are hesitant to use it because they are afraid that it creates a tense or adversarial atmosphere. While I understand that concern, I believe that competition can actually create a jovial and supportive atmosphere, when used well. Kids love playing sports, even though they lose games all the time.  In the same way, students enjoy academic competitions, even if they don’t win them every time–in fact, losing just may inspire them to work harder next time.

Fair warning: this isn’t the right tactic for every student. Here are a few things to keep in mind when introducing competition into your classroom:

  • This works best for students who are confident, resilient, and have a good sense of humor (and with whom you have a good relationship). If you don’t don’t get along well with a student, or if they take offense easily, then they might feel attacked rather than encouraged.
  • The younger a student is, the more likely it is that competition will light a fire under them. It’s a surefire technique up until around 8th grade. Unfortunately, high school students are more likely to try to “logic” themselves out of working by saying things like, “I don’t care if Stacy’s poem is better than mine. I’m not going to be a writer anyway.” Making high school students compete in teams is often more effective because energetic students are likely to inspire their lazier teammates to work harder.
  • Make sure that you only challenge students who have the capacity to do much better than they are currently doing. If a student is obviously trying their hardest but still failing, it is cruel to compare them to their classmates. The best way to help a student like that is to praise them for their hard work and offer them assistance. If, however, students are not trying at all–or doing only the bare minimum when you know that they can do much more–they are fair game for a little friendly competition.
  • Don’t use this tactic on students who suffer from anxiety, social problems, or a serious lack of confidence. This kind of direct confrontation can be harmful to students who already suffer from social anxiety.

Do you use competition in your classroom? What works best for you? Let me know in the comments section!