The Right Foot: How to Create a Solid Foundation at the Beginning of the Year

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

In my twelve years of teaching, I have come to realize that how the end of the year goes has everything to do with how I start the year with my students. I have lived it, and I have seen it: a strong start to the year makes everything else easier, but a weak start to the year is, well, nearly impossible to amend. 

With this in mind, there are some foundational approaches that have served me–and my students–well. 

Let’s start with those pesky first impressions. Lots of research indicates that people need just seconds to form ideas about someone they are just meeting. How can we as teachers maximize those first seconds? First, presence

As much as I am annoyed at the weight of Haim Ginott’s comments that the teacher is “the deciding element” of the climate in the classroom, I have witnessed its veracity over and over. Here are some suggestions to be meaningfully present the first day of school: Welcome students at the door with a warm greeting. Make it clear where they need to sit. Dress professionally. Be intentional with your body placement and posture, eye movements as well as vocal approach, because at every moment students are reading you, consciously and unconsciously responding to (what I’ve always called) your vibe (but psychologists call “emotional contagion”). 

Next, space and place

Though teachers don’t need to be experts in Marie Kondo or feng shui, I have found it helpful to be mindful of the physical space my students are entering on the first day as it is ultimately an extension of how I feel about them. This includes having a tidy and aromatic room prepared with resources (tissues go a long way), a thoughtful desk arrangement with smart traffic flow, objectives/agendas posted in spaces clearly marked for specific classes, personal touches that reveal I am also a human while also generating conversation, background music, and a balance of posted content and free wall space for future student contributions. In addition to the space, a good way to make a positive first impression is making sure everything has a place. Disheveled paperwork, inaccessible resources or haphazard chaos not only communicate to students a lack of organization, it also comes back to haunt me (and them) later in the year.

Though presence, space and place are important, in some ways they are also just the window dressing. The real work of the start of the school year is about intention. As a teacher, what is true north that will guide everything you do all year long? For me, this is two-fold: relationships and clarity. 

Everything that happens during the first week or two of school is designed to build relationships. This starts with a proper introduction. One of my first day activities is always a get-to-know-you survey. Some of the best questions are: Who is a teacher who had a positive impact on you and what did they do specifically? What are your pet peeves as a learner? Are there any conflicts (with people or arrangement) in this room I need to be aware of?

While students are completing this survey, I make a point to walk around the room, introduce myself with a firm handshake and eye contact, request the names they want to be called and then make sure I can correctly pronounce it. 

Next comes those activities everyone loves to hate: icebreakers. 

As a language arts teacher who values storytelling and relationships, I tend toward writing and sharing activities as ice breakers. Here are some ideas:

  • Find and share about a _____(children’s book, quote, song, poem, cartoon, found object) that tells us something important about who you are.
  • Students imitate a mentor text and share theirs. Some good ideas are “I Am From” by George Ella Lyon and “My Name” and “Those Who Don’t” from The House on Mango Street. 
  • Write and share a piece like “If You Really Knew Me” (from Challenge Day) or “This I Believe” from NPR. 
  • Write and share a 6 word memoir

One caveat here: it is important for the teacher to engage in this process just as the students do.

In addition to a storytelling icebreaker of some sort, I also start the year with circles. This is a great way to share the work students have written, build connections, establish norms, as well as identify and address individual or community needs. 

Another important element of relationship building is modeling for students authentic reflection. I do this in a couple of ways. One, I read the surveys they completed and compile lists of their needs/pet peeves. Then I publicly share a bit about how I will leverage my strengths and improve my weaknesses to honor student preferences. I also share survey data from last year’s students to let them know what I do well and what I’ll be working on this year. 

Of course, all of this relationship building takes vulnerability, which leads to my second priority: clarity. 

Before any student ever shares, establish non-negotiable actionables that elicit respectful attention. And then constantly revisit them. This is pivotal not only for a strong community, but also for the risk that rigorous learning will later require. 

I establish other norms through student collaboration as well. A great prompt thread that I often use in circles is: What is your goal for this class this year? In order to reach that goal, what do you need from yourself? From me? From your peers? Without them even knowing it, they are generating classroom dos and don’ts that I can then post to reinforce. 

Day two or three of the first week, I will share the syllabus. Sharing the syllabus after we’ve built some connections demonstrates two important principles: that relationships are most important and second, that clarity matters in this class. Through previewing the syllabus, they are exposed to the regulations required by school, the class’s content and objectives, and an overview of what they can expect from my discipline and pedagogical style.

It may seem odd that there is no direct content instruction the first few days. But ultimately, the more solid of a foundation I can build at the beginning of the year, the more deeper learning with fewer management issues can thrive throughout the year. And that is a trade I am willing to make.

Transferring Ownership of Writing to Students

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)

Their Own Writes: Transferring Ownership to Students

Control a student’s writing, and you have a good paper. 

Transfer ownership to a student, and you have a good writer. 

Thought not exactly about fish anymore, this adage is something I am constantly striving for in my high school English classroom. The more I can set up conditions that allow students to be in control of their writing, the better. In this way, they will not just score well in my class; more importantly, they will foster the skills necessary across curriculum and throughout their lifetime to be effective communicators. Here are some steps I’ve applied over the years to transfer writing ownership to students.

Open the Gate.

One of the biggest pitfalls I see in my teaching is when students become reliant on me to be the gatekeeper of good writing. Some surefire signs that this is happening: they rely on weasel words such as “good” and “bad” that don’t really describe anything helpful; they don’t know how to use a rubric; I hear these questions: “Miss, is this good?” or “Miss, can you read this?”

I have found using models regularly in the classroom to be the best way to cede my role as gatekeeper. We can write collaboratively as a whole class to feel good writing form. I write models for students, either in front of them or often beforehand, and then we deconstruct it together, usually with color coding and annotations. Something I did this year that worked well was a station activity with student examples. Students previously wrote a paragraph and I selected some based on relevant skills. Then in groups, they traveled to each of the stations, discussing strengths and comparisons to their own paragraphs, and finally they independently reflected on a graphic organizer. However, the single most important strategy to stepping down as gatekeeper is the collaborative scoring of student samples. For this process, I pair students up with a rubric. They have to read samples, then come to a consensus for each criteria. After this process is complete, we moderate as a whole class. 

Provide a Mirror.

Once students become the gatekeepers, a critical next step is metacognition.

I build in lots of opportunities for students to reflect on their writing throughout the entire process. Recently, students were assigned to show up to class with half a draft. Their first task in class was a reflection form. I then used that to guide writing conferences, only zeroing in on their self-identified areas of feedback. Often, after writing mini-lessons and/or workshopping, I ask students to email me a plan as an exit slip outlining what they noticed in their writing and what are their specific next steps. 

Pass the Gavel.

Now that students know what constitutes good writing, reflect on it in relationship to themselves, it is time for evaluation. Any humanities teacher will gladly tell you about the time-intensive work of grading papers. But…if we can transfer ownership to the students, evaluation can be independent, thus ongoing and formative!

Very rarely do I have students submit an essay without self-scoring. If it is the final, I have them do it directly on the rubric. One of my favorite pieces of feedback to give is “I 100% agree with your self-reflection!” This puts the student in the driver’s seat of his/her own learning. If it is a draft, I like Google forms for this task. I also almost always build in time during class for peer feedback and evaluation of a completed draft. My favorite way to do this is with a graphic organizer broken down by rubric criterion (like this one [without scoring] or this one [with scoring]). The first task is for students to write down what area they are worried about and seeking feedback in (sometimes this is embedded on the graphic organizer; sometimes I have them write it on a post-it). Then students pass the graphic organizer along with printed essay for peer feedback and/or scoring rounds. 

Please Apply.

All of this sets up the premise that students can be in charge of their writing. However, what really matters is the space to apply the feedback. So often–just as it is in teaching–there is so much data without meaningful time to address it. Building in time for application is the final step in transferring ownership to students. 

I like to do this throughout the writing process with small chunks. For example, I often have students write, evaluate, rewrite and reflect on their thesis or topic sentences, or analysis, using a Google form. I also find giving whole class feedback on patterns and then having students revise one in their writing works well. Sometimes I anonymously take one student’s paper and we rework it as a whole class. Then, students need to rework their own piece applying what they just learned.  

I recognize all of this requires more time. But, ultimately, depth over breadth is another way we transfer writing ownership to students. 

Do you have resources or strategies to help students own their writing? I’d love to hear about them!

using circle practice in the classroom

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

Using Circles in the Classroom

When I think about my style as a teacher, two words come to mind: community and communication. First, I want my classroom to be a place students want to be, a place they feel safe and loved and valued; I want them to believe their stories matter. Second, I want my classroom to be filled with the presence and merit of student voice; I want them to tell their stories. These two qualities are inextricably linked. When students belong, they open up; when students open up, they belong. 

I have found an effective and meaningful path to both community and communication in my classroom is circle practice–or council as called by my training program–inspired by Restorative Justice (RJ). Though originating in criminal contexts, RJ has become quite popular in schools as of late. Many educators approach Restorative Approaches as an upgrade to traditional discipline approaches (moving away from mere consequences toward real responsibility based on relationship), but at its core, RJ is not meant to be a reactive program but rather a proactive program. This can be achieved most impressively through circle practice. Based on the ancient practices of indigenous peoples, circles are designed as spaces where everyone is equal, valid, present, and involved. 

I have used circle practice to serve academic, social-emotional, reflective, and restorative purposes in my classroom with students, as well as with my colleagues. Here’s how. 

Set Up

First, set up the physical space. After years of practice, I have a routine. On my centerpiece–a beautiful knitted round blanket I received from a colleague–are laid various “talking pieces”: rocks, crystals, stuffed animals, toys, etc that act as the physical signifier to indicate whose voice we are listening to at any time. Around that are enough chairs for all participants; these chairs must be in close proximity to foster the intimacy. Of course, this usually occurs in a classroom, so all this placement occurs after the requisite moving of desks. If you are just beginning though, a circle and one talking piece will suffice. 

Next, set up the purpose and expectations. If it is the first circle with a group, I have this overview printed as a handy guide. I explain the overarching purpose of circle: to form a community with open lines of communication–so important to taking intellectual risks. I set up the norms: 1, speak from the heart (only with the talking piece, authentic contributions); 2, listen from the heart (without judgment, with compassion, circle is the one place in society where we have the complete focus of people without distractions); 3, speak spontaneously (spend time listening, not thinking about what you’re going to say); 4 speak leanly (especially important with big groups); and 5, what is shared in the circle stays in the circle (I stress this fiercely). Because I always do this thoroughly early in the year, it sets up circle culture for the rest of the year. After this general set up, refine the intention for the current circle. Is it to build relationships? Is it to explore an academic topic? Is it to rectify a wrong? Is it to explore an issue of concern? Is it for reflection?

Structure

With the physical space and expectations established, it is time to set up the structure of circle. Three basic components comprise a circle routine: opening, prompts, and closing. 

The Opening

The opening consists of the norming (as already discussed); directions (after the prompt is posed, pick a talking piece that speaks to you, share, then pass to the left as the sun moves across the sky); the name round (if participants do not know each other); and an ice breaker question (a light, easy question that invites everyone’s voice into space without threat, such as what is your favorite music, ice cream flavor, season, etc). I also lead a moment of mindfulness to begin. 

The Prompts

After the opening comes the prompts: the best part about circle! It is so flexible and the prompt rounds can serve a number of purposes. This is where the magic happens.

Circles are effective at the beginning of the year as a means to start identifying and planning for students’ individual needs. The following questions serve this purpose: What kind of learner are you? Who is a teacher who has influenced you greatly and why? What do you need from your peers to be successful? What are your learning pet peeves? How do you feel about reading, writing and/or speaking? 

Circles are also great to close the year. The intention of these prompts are celebration and reflection with questions like: How have you grown this year? What do you wish you would have done differently? How has this course prepared you for next year? What is a favorite memory from this year? 

Circles build relationships. I print out a bunch of get to know you questions, lay them around the centerpiece, and students pick which questions to use for the prompt rounds. Or students craft questions to ask each other. 

Circles can be used for a restorative approach as well. One time when I was absent for PD, the sub reported disrespect and damage to the room. The questions that time were RJ based: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was affected and how? How do we repair the wrongs? Following the circle, the students cleaned the room and wrote apologies–per their conclusion.

Circles serve academic purposes as well. For example, before beginning Ceremony, I printed many articles with information about issues affecting Native Americans. I laid them all out around the circle centerpiece with baskets of pens/pencils/post-its. I then give directions (pick an article that attracts you, read and annotate, be prepared to share). Then I asked questions such as: What predictions do you have about the novel based on these articles? What is something that stood out to you and why? What comparisons can you make between these texts and others we have read? 

Circles are spaces to care for students in their moments of stress or trauma. One day in my IB class, things felt deeply off. Instead of a lesson, we meet in circle to discuss: How are you? What’s overwhelming you? How do you self-care? Who lifts you up when you are down? How can we support one another? After a heartbreaking flare up of gang violence in one school’s neighborhood, we wept together in circle, answering questions like: What makes you feel afraid? What makes you feel safe? What do you need? How can we move the community forward? 

Circles can also be meaningful for staff as well. Circles are a great way to establish collaborative norms: What do you need from your colleagues? What are you collaboration pet peeves? How do you best handle difficult conversations? How do we want our group to be defined? Circles are great openers for staff at the beginning of the year: What are you most looking forward to this year? What are you apprehensive about? If your colleagues needed to know one thing about you, what is it? Circles are great protocols for staff to reflect on their practice: What’s going well? What are you working on? What’s been a successful/ineffective lesson you’ve taught and what made it so? Circles are a safe place for staff to respond to their own trauma/stress. During the same period of gang violence mentioned above, we had a circle for staff to cope and process as well: What is worrying you? What is your wish for our community? How can we move forward? What do you need from your peers? What do you want for our students? I hosted a circle for interested colleagues after the most recent presidential election: How does this affect you? How does it affect our students? How can we move forward? What do you need? What resources can we provide our students. 

Circles can serve any purpose. All you need are meaningful prompts. 

The Closing

Because circles can be so powerful, they necesitate closure. There are a couple ways to do this. You can keep it light with a group high five or a silly coordination game. You can do a witness round in which participants share one word on their mind. You can end with a sentence starter prompt such as “I was… but now I am…” The closing offers an opportunity for participants to transition in a healthy way. It is also critical to remind participants of the norm that what was shared in the circle stays in the circle. 

Some of my most memorable moments in the classroom have been inside of a circle, and they are always treasured moments of community and communication. 

I think my students would say the same. 

creating positive adult culture

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

Some of the best professional advice I keep coming back to is designate time to what you want. If a teacher wants a stronger classroom community, he/she needs to “sacrifice” instructional time to accomplish this. If leadership wants more collaboration, they must allot time in the master schedule. If a school wants a strong adult culture, this goal must be given proper time and attention.

And schools should want this. Kent D. Peterson indicates culture is always at play in a school’s success or failure, whether members of that culture realize it or not. Other research indicates schools focused on building relational trust among staff are more successful at sustained implementation of best practices. Even a Google study says the “psychological safety” of members is critical to the success of a team. And speaking from personal experience, the more I know and trust my colleagues, the better I work with them.

Fortunately, I have worked in several schools that alloted time to building a strong adult culture; here are some of the best strategies.

Let’s start with schoolwide systems.

  • Social-emotional PD sessions. We’ve all been there: tired, burnt out, insecure about our efficacy. I know this from my experience to be especially true in schools serving at-risk populations. In one of those schools, our leadership approached this through direct SEL PD–“Fill Your Cup” sessions. We had staff sign up for hobbies they enjoyed leading such as yoga, cooking, book club, running, biking, karaoke…really anything that brought them joy. Then staff signed up for two of those sessions to “fill their cups.” These sessions were always the most highly rated by our staff, and the next day in school always seemed to have a lightness in the air. It provided a chance for staff to get to know each other in new ways, to blow off steam, to build stronger connections with each other, and to break down barriers of mistrust.   
  • Public acknowledgements. Many schools start and/or end staff meetings with shout-outs, a beneficial practice. I have seen leadership go beyond this as well. One way is through what I’ll call “collective cards.” Our leadership arranged tables of mixed-role staff members. Each person then writes his/her name in the center of a paper. Then he/she passes to the left or right so each staff member can offer a note of thanks or acknowledgement; this continues until everyone at the table has signed all collective cards. This opportunity allows for people to offer a compliment they might not normally have the time for, and it also encourages staff to find the good in everybody. A different approach is through the ending of meetings; one school’s leadership offered a non-traditional exit slip: encourage staff members to email a colleague a note of thanks.
  • Gatherings. We all know the cliche: the family that ___ together, stays together. However, this can apply to school communities as well. Offer opportunities for social events outside of the school day. Make sure they don’t always include alcohol; instead, it should be a variety of activities meeting the needs of many different types of groups. Organize a social committee. Offer opportunities for staff’s families to mingle.
  • Food. Need I say more? What meeting hasn’t been improved by the addition of food! However, sometimes it’s not always in the budget. This is where potlucks and staff sign-ups can play a role. Either way, caring for a belly is caring for a heart, and that goes a long way.

Sometimes it’s hard to start with schoolwide systems. Here are some smaller scale initiatives I have also experienced as successful.

  • Door banners. Who doesn’t want to walk up to their classroom and see wonderful things written about them? At one of my schools, the leadership organized door banners. We put chart paper on a teacher’s door and then organized times for staff members to visit each other and write celebration notes. Not only was this beneficial to teachers, but it was also important for students to see the adults participating in a healthy, collaborative culture.
  • Positive classroom observations. So often when teachers are visited by observers, they tense up knowing they are being judged on what’s not good enough. Additionally, in our professional desire to be better, we forget to pause and reflect on what’s going well. As an instructional coach, one way I alleviated these deficit-based approaches was to visit teachers with the lens of effective teacher moves. During these observations, I would take notes about all the instructional decisions that were to be celebrated…and there were many! Classroom visits focused on strengths shift a school away from a deficit-minded model to an assets-based model.

I want to end with the importance of a staff’s voice. The most important element of adult culture is that staff never feel like things are being done to them, but rather with them. Some of these might work for your school; some of these might be counterintuitive. The only way to know is by asking. Use surveys to gather feedback about adult culture, suggestions for improvement, reflections on PD sessions, and/or other creative community-building ideas.

After all, a school where teachers know, trust, honor, and risk with each other is a school where students learn best.  

mindfulness in high school

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)


Some classrooms have a certain “aura,” don’t they? Upon entering, there is a sense of peace, community, clarity and active presence from all stakeholders. That is the kind of classroom I want to create. One way I have sought to accomplish this is by taking a course in mindfulness for educators. Since then, I have lead daily mindful moments in all of my classes. It has been transformative; here are some of my favorite examples:

  • One day in my IB class, students arrived with a heavy sense of deep fatigue radiating from them. After checking in, I led a mindful moment in which we focused on gratitude. After, we shared one compliment about the person beside us. Everything about the students and the classroom shifted.
  • One of my sophomores approached me in the hall to remind me of the upcoming anniversary of his relative’s death. He then asked if he could come to class early for a mindful moment. When he did, he and I sat for a moment of breathing and mindful honoring of his relative. As his classmates rolled in, they did so quietly, respecting his space.
  • I hear phrases like this from my students: “Guess what? I practiced mindfulness before my soccer game” or “Mindfulness helped me with my presentation” or “I used mindfulness before I went to sleep last night.”

I am fully aware of our field’s important reliance on (empirical) data, but all I can tell you is that in these kinds of moments, my classroom feels a certain way. And that is more than enough for me.

So, how did I get there?

First and foremost, I focus everyday on my own practice of mindfulness. As teachers, we know our students can spot a fake within three seconds flat. If the mindfulness practice in the classroom feels fake, meaningful engagement decreases. Some ways I have focused on my own practice: regular use of an app, retreats, research. (For more information, here is a piece in which I discuss my own regular practice.)

I introduced mindfulness from day one, giving the heads up to both students and parents that we would be practicing daily mindful moments, why, and what it would look like.

Each period after greeting students, I project something like this:

To begin the practice, I guide students into a space of mindfulness: computers at half mast, phones away, lights dimmed, voices off. Then, I cue the posture: often it is seated with a tall spine, neck tucked slightly, feet firmly planted on the earth, with eyes gently closed. Though sometimes it is legs up the wall, or student choice. After, I cue attention to the current experience: most often breath, sometimes sound, emotion, mental activity, etc. Some days, that is it; I close the practice verbally or with a student’s chime of the singing bowl. Other days, I introduce a specific kind of mindfulness focus. All of this can last anywhere from 1-10 minutes.

Often, mindfulness in education programs begin with small lessons where teachers explain the practice, then spend a few moments in mindfulness. I have found learning through practice to be the most beneficial, as well as the most time-effective. As such, it generates questions from students, allowing their experience to be more authentic and relevant.

Since this has been the first semester of leading daily mindful moments in my classes, at the end of the semester I solicited student feedback. It is clear students appreciate the practice:

  • I understand the value of having mindful moments every day. Average: 4.3/5
  • I benefit from our mindful moment practice. Average: 4.1/5
  • I want to continue our mindful moment practice next semester. Average: 4.4/5

(Here is a link to the full results; included are prompts, averages, individual responses, and student comments.)

Despite such positive results, there are challenges.

Some students just don’t get into it, resulting in whispers, giggling, and other forms of disengagement. I approach this both publicly and privately. Publicly, while the distractions are occuring, I address it head on through verbal cues such as, “Notice, without judgment, the sounds in the classroom: giggling, texting, etc; it is a part of our experience.” This minimizes the power of distractions. Then privately, I pull students for a chat. Typically that conversation goes something like: “You don’t have to like mindfulness; in fact, you don’t even have to participate. But under no circumstances can you distract your peers who might be benefiting from it.”  

Also, some days are better than others (said every teacher everywhere!). I accept this, without judgment, as part of the experience. Rather than using mindfulness as a technique to control student behavior (which can never be the aim), I neutrally observe what is the actual experience. As in all areas of instruction, I come back to the importance of my own practice: it is my authentic investment which encourages students to invest.

And in the end, it is worth it. Mindfulness helps with student stress, confidence, relationships, communication, metacognition, health, and focus–just to name a few.

And, it creates the kind of classroom where we all want to be.

all about the bump: promoting positive adult culture in schools

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)

Here is the link to the edited post as it appeared on Edutopia.


I cannot count the number of times I have heard a colleague advise a student to “do what makes you happy.” Yet ironically, I wonder often how many teachers are happy in their jobs. Research indicates job satisfaction was at a 25 year low in 2012, turnover trends are alarmingly high and costly, and morale is consistently demeaned by societal and political commentary. Moreover, who needs statistics? Just look around during a staff meeting to see the weight educators carry.

In an effort to counter these patterns, stakeholders need to put into place systems of support for each other. Even better when those support systems are grassroots efforts instead of mandated. One such way I have done this for the past several years is through the “Hump Day Bump,” which is a weekly compilation of staff-to-staff notes of gratitude and compliments emailed to staff each Wednesday. I started the “Hump Day Bump” as a way to spread much needed positivity in my first urban school. Poverty, violence, and limited resources overwhelmed the students. A sense of defeat pervaded the staff, compounded by low scores, exacting evaluations, divisive cliques and grueling hours. Internal and external pressures strained the tensions already present between administration and staff. The “Bump” gave all staff the chance to read good news in their inboxes, observe good things in each other, and share those in a non-threatening medium.

However, the “Hump Day Bump” is not just a tool to counter pervasive negativity in our field. It is also a way to build capacity. First and foremost, a viable adult culture based on mutual respect is critical to a school’s success. It is nearly impossible as an educator running on empty to give the absolute best to students; a healthy adult culture helps keep our tanks full. Additionally, hearing affirmation for what part of our pedagogy and professionalism is effective boosts teacher efficacy, another critical component to both the happiness of teachers as well as the achievement of students. Most importantly, to capitalize on the aforementioned benefits, our field is in desperate need of teachers who are in it for the long run. A revolving door of teachers benefits no one: neither students nor schools. Teachers who feel valued for their contributions are more likely to stick around; I know I am.

If you’re looking to implement your own “Hump Day Bump,” here are some easy-to-follow steps:

Plan and send your inaugural “Hump Day Bump.”  (Or pick a different name; I have a colleague who calls it the “Bump-Ups.”)

  • In your email system, set up two folders: one titled “Fishing” and one titled “Hump Day Bumps.”
  • Pick a small group of colleagues across a variety of configurations with whom you already collaborate frequently. Send them an email that describes how and why you plan to implement the “Hump Day Bump.”Ask them for their notes of compliments and/or gratitude for their peers. I call this the “Fishing” email.
  • As your colleagues respond, keep all those emails in your “Fishing” folder.
  • When you have some time (it usually takes between 10-30 minutes depending on the quantity of “bumps”), copy and paste all fishing responses into the body of an email. Format them so names stand out and they are bulleted for easy access. Delete emails as you copy and paste for organizational purposes.
  • Send your inaugural “Hump Day Bump” to the full staff. It is best to use BCC for this. Give an overview of what it is, why it matters, and how you’ll approach it each week.

Set a routine.

  • I usually send “Fishing” emails on Friday for the following week’s “Bump.” If I don’t get adequate responses, I will send a reminder on Monday or Tuesday.
  • Either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, I synthesize those “bumps” into an email as I did for the inaugural edition.
  • Email out on Wednesdays. I typically end each “Hump Day Bump” with a call for shout-outs for next week’s “Bump,” as well as some kind of funny image, meme, or video.
  • Keep all “Hump Day Bumps” in your designated folder.

Make it work for you! Here are some modifications and precautions.

  • Include students as recipients or authors of “bumps.”
  • Start a “Bump” activity in your classroom.
  • Use a verbal version to start collaborative meetings.
  • Elicit specific “bumps” for certain educational holidays e.g. Secretary Appreciation Day.
  • Keep track of who is not receiving “bumps.” Reach out directly to their colleagues for something to add in the next edition. If there is a downside to the “Bump,” it is that it has the potential to highlight those staff typically highlighted and ignore those typically ignored. Tracking involvement can help mitigate this.

Have any other modification and/or implementation ideas? I’d love to hear them!

Eleven years and four schools later, the “Hump Day Bump” is still going strong. In fact, not only have I carried it to all my schools, but so have several of my colleagues. The “Hump Day Bump” has now spread beyond state and continent borders! I hope now it can provide some positivity in your schools.


To see my first post on Edutopia about Socratic seminars, follow this link.

Learning in Circles: Implementing Effective Socratic Seminars

An edited version of this post first appeared on Edutopia.

“Socratic seminars help me understand other people’s perspective as well as advance my own through critical thinking…They have also helped me become a better leader by engaging my peers in the discussion through deepening questions.” ~BQ, class of 2016

One of my favorite moments as a teacher is when guests come into my classroom, and despite their best attempts to locate me visually and auditorily, they can’t. I am hidden quietly among the students, who are engaged in a student-led, high-level academic discussion.

Throughout my nine years as a high school Language Arts teacher, I have discovered and refined a pivotal strategy that results in such a moment in my classroom: the Socratic seminar (hereafter known as SS). These student-led discussions–based on Socrates method of student inquiry rather than teacher lecture–elicit student ownership, deep thinking, critical questioning, respectful communication and collaboration, academic vocabulary usage, and a rooted sense of community. Though seemingly “off stage,” a meaningful and effective SS only occurs through intentional teacher moves before, during, and after.

SS brought us closer as a class, building a comfortable community and they were fun.” ~RP, class of 2016

Before: Planning

The most important part of a meaningful SS is the planning embedded throughout the year.

  • Let’s get comfortable.
    • There is no SS without risk. And there is no risk without trust. An effective SS occurs because there are thousands of invisible strings of connections already built among students and teacher. Build these connections through social-emotional circles, games, laughter, student surveys, journal entries, icebreakers, sharing of stories, high expectations and follow-through regarding respect, positive postcards home, cheerleading at student games and events, humility and authentic care.
    • Norm, norm, norm. At the beginning of the year, establish classroom procedures, routines, and expectations. At the beginning of every discussion, do the same. Hold students accountable for demonstrating the utmost respect to each other. More often than not, my classroom management is unseen and private. But I never let a disrespectful comment or laugh or eye roll go unaddressed in front of the class. For students to feel safe, they need to know I publicly and privately support them and the safety of our classroom.

“I like SS because it gives us a chance to become leaders and it builds our relationship as a class.” TS, class of 2019

  • Let’s get academic.
    • Use anchor charts to teach, model, and expect use of target vocabulary every period. Establish some way of students recognizing each other’s academic vocabulary use (snapping, tracking). This ensures students both identify and apply target language, offering ample opportunity for practice. Provide resources such as sentence stems, directly teach and model language functions, and expect students to practice them in conversations.
    • Use strategically crafted questions to create daily opportunities for academic conversation in a variety of configurations: partners, tables, small groups, concentric circles, around the world cafes, and kinesthetic activities such as 4 corners or line ups. Use a roster to track participation and ensure all students talk sometime throughout each week.
    • Practice gradual release of discussion leadership throughout the year. At the beginning, model strong facilitation skills and verbally label them for students. Create anchor charts collaboratively of what makes a strong discussion leader, participants, and conversations. Reflect on the day’s discussion: strengths, weaknesses, modifications. Eventually poll the class to see who wants to take a more active role in leading class discussions. In a small group with them, discuss strong and weak leadership moves. Norm with the class how to treat a student taking a risk. And then let them run the show! Afterwards prompt students to reflect on how the the progress of the leader, the class, and themselves. Through this process, by the end of the year almost every discussion is like a SS because the cognitive and discourse responsibilities have transferred entirely to the students.
    • Directly teach, model, practice, and assess analytical and text-based questioning. The top resources I’ve found for this are from AVID. This skill is essential in reading comprehension, high-level discourse, critical thinking, and holistic success in a world inundated with messages. What I’ve found works best is delineating between right/wrong, yes/no questions and those that produce divergent discussion. Additionally, text-dependent questions ground students in the work rather than speculative thinking. Use these types of questions as class discussion and/or writing prompts, collaboratively evaluating and adjusting them as needed. This makes a great opener activity, enhanced by a Teach Like A Champion “building ration through writing” strategy. Teach students to craft these kinds of questions as they read, forming a self-monitoring strategy.

SS help me to understand a novel with much more depth. When I read a book I see the events in one way but in SS I was able to deepen my previous thoughts and create new ones based on what everyone else shared.” ~DGC, class of 2016

  • Let’s get prepared.
    • Choose a rich text that offers cross-content and real-world connections. I often use whole novels as the basis of my SS.
    • Create prep work based on learning objectives and student data. Whether in 9th grade Intro to Lit class or AP Lit class, I found that prep work allows students to feel confident going into the SS: a game-changer.
    • Schedule the SS, providing students enough time to complete the work (either in class or out).
    • Repeatedly explain the purpose and expectations of the SS. I use a contract clearly outlining expectations.

During: Implementing

“A well-run SS is is an artful blend of awkward pauses and meaningful analysis.” ~CS, class of 2016

Once the culture and preparations have been established, it is time to set the scene for the actual SS.

  • Let’s get physical.
    • A SS is best in a circle, where students are equal and I–as a facilitator and not participant–am on the outside. There are a couple of ways to do that based on the class size and dynamics. One giant circle for all students or fishbowl style (where there is an inner circle and an outer; the inner participants speak, the outer participants coach).
    • Announce what supplies are expected in the circle and only allow those (e.g. text, homework prep, assessment sheet).
    • Set up the SS so the target vocabulary anchor charts are visually accessible for student use.
  • Let’s get ready.
    • When students arrive on the SS day, I create a “do now” activity that will last between 5-10 minutes so that I can individually check for prep completion. I do not allow students who are not 100% complete with the prep to participate. At the beginning of the year, this is harsh. But as the year goes on, students rise to expectations and accept this is designed to ensure a better discussion (and often grade).
    • The first SS of the year begins with a lot of direct instruction going over what makes a good one, a bad one, and how students get an A (targets). These targets–which can shift throughout the year–are based on standards and can be active voice, upgraded verbs, academic vocabulary, transitional phrases, textual evidence, clarifying questions, etc. Every SS thereafter, I still spend time at the beginning directly establishing these norms and targets. I also have students set goals.
    • I often start with an opening round question that is light (from ice cream flavors, weekend plans to favorite quote or character). This invites all voices in, helping students take that initial plunge into the conversation.
  • Let’s get better.
    • I practice gradual release of SS throughout the year. Early on, I am inserting myself into the conversation more frequently. These interruptions can be feedback about strong moves, ways to improve, lessons about conservation strategies, highlighting of impressive questions or insights, muting dominant voices, soliciting reserved voices, and/or pausing conversation so students can self-assess and adjust moving forward.  As the year goes on, these interruptions occur less and less as students internalize expectations and step up as facilitators. I’ve also found that the shorter SS are in the beginning, the easier it is for students to master them.
    • In any SS, there will be awkward pauses. Here are some ways to approach those. First, I stress every time this is to be expected and honored as thought time. If it extends unreasonably, I will try any of these strategies: switch seats, whip around, pair share, walk and talk, talking piece, self-assess and/or check grade.
    • Students come to SS with a range of abilities and needs. I’ve found that assigning leadership roles and differentiated targets to be successful for upward differentiation. For scaffolding, provide scripts, sentence starters, peer coaches, small group instruction ahead of time and/or differentiated tasks.

After: Following

SS have helped me with speaking verbally, because at the beginning I didn’t talk and was shy, but now I feel confident.” ~AG, class of 2019

  • Let’s get assessed.
    • The hardest part of SS is assessing them. But over the years, I have refined a tracking and assessing strategy that is easy, accurate, and best of all…it works.
  1. Use a roster. Highlight students who are able to participate. Mark those who are not with a 0 and put a line through the row.
  2. Establish “A moves” (e.g. using academic transitions, speaking in literary tense, using and explaining quotes) and codes for those.
  3. Track student participation using the codes. A colleague of mine does this visually on the doc cam so students have live access to their progress. I also do it privately on a clipboard. Here are some examples.
  1. After, highlight each “A move” a different color. Head a column with number of “A moves” and then another for score. Count up the “A moves” and use predetermined scale to establish grade.
  • Let’s get reflective.
    • The final element to any meaningful SS is reflection–both for student and teacher. Here are some prompts I often use.
      • Teacher: How natural was the conversation? How varied was student participation? How analytical were student comments? How authentic and accurate was the use of academic vocabulary? What do I need to reteach? How do I plan ahead to make the next one better?
      • Student: What do you think your grade should be and why? What did you do well? What did your colleagues do well? What do you need to improve? What does the class need to improve? Did you feel safe sharing your ideas? How can we improve community? How has your thinking about ____ changed?

SS have helped me because it allows me to expand my thinking.” ~MC, class of 2019

What I love the most about effective SS–from community to text analysis to rich discussion to student ownership– is that it feels like a college class. And my students deserve this. As do all students.  

 

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