Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What to Do if You’re Having an Off Day – Learning from Failure

Boy, oh boy. When I think back to my first year teaching (I was a new math teacher at a high school just outside Washington, D.C.), I wonder what kind of damage I might have inflicted on those students!! I was brand new to teaching, had just moved to the area and didn’t know anyone, and my daughter was just entering her teenage years – sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? I had a mentor teacher from a different high school - and she was a wonderful mentor - but there were lots of days when I felt like a complete failure and just wanted to wallow in my own misery. Don’t get me wrong – there were good days, too! Seeing the light go on for students (remember, it’s math!) is what kept me going back everyday. So how did I learn to deal with those off days?

My mentor teacher gave me lots of hints. The first and most important was to learn from any perceived failures in class. I still use this lens when I have the opportunity to teach a class. Here are three recommendations from Josh Stock who wrote about failure in this article on the Edutopia website:

1. Before the lesson goes wrong, always have a backup plan. 

2. Ask yourself: "Why did that lesson fail?" 

3. Come up with a plan for the next day. 

Number 1 supports my recommendation of “over prepare” in case things do go wrong. Have short activities that you can insert which will bring things back together. Remember that formative assessments “take the temperature of the room,” and you should have a few “back pocket” techniques, as author James Lang calls them, that you can whip out and check on how things are going.

Numbers 2 and 3 fall into the category of reflecting on your practice. As Josh Stock says, “Having a bad lesson doesn’t make you a bad teacher. We all have off days. It’s what you do afterwards that makes the difference.” Bring mindfulness to your teaching and make room for reflection. This is where YOUR learning takes place. Even though at the end of the day there is grading and MORE planning to do, take several minutes to review what happened (or didn’t happen) in class. Were students not engaged? Were they not responding with correct answers? Did you get looks from them telling you they had no idea what was going on?

Sometimes it’s possible to recover during the class, but if not, at the end of class – in the last 5 minutes – ask

students to do a 5-minute write on the class. I like to raid the recycling bin and find all those rejects from the copy machine that are printed on just one side. I cut them in half and then have a stack in the classroom. Grab a couple and ask students to summarize the class as an “exit ticket.” You could ask something like, “What was the most important take-away for you today?” After class it’s important to read the responses (as much as you might not like the responses, students are EXCELLENT sources of data!) and then report back to students what you learned. Closing the feedback loop will let students know that you heard them and are truly interested in their learning. Tell them what will happen as a result of what you heard. You can begin the next class with, “looks like I need to review the quadratic equation today, so let’s begin with another example.” That tells students that this is an important topic and you are willing to spend a bit more time on it. Of course, it may be the case that the class wasn’t as bad a failure as you thought! Using a formative assessment like this helps students to be more reflective, too. A win-win all around!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Mindfulness – Merriam Webster defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” I’ve come up with my own definition – paying attention on purpose with purpose. Mindfulness is one of those “hot topics” these days. TIME Magazine even devoted a special issue to mindfulness, and included this quote: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” – Ferris Bueller. Who knew we could learn from everyone’s favorite high school wise guy?

It turns out that many of the problems we encounter throughout the quarter can at least be mitigated if we take a mindful approach to planning that first day of class. Here are some great ideas that you might think about from Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University:

Take some time in that first class to do a mini-lesson on one of the exciting, weird, intriguing, or controversial parts of the course material. Let your own enthusiasm for the material shine, and let it be a model for your students. If you’re teaching a new prep, use the novelty to your advantage — what are the interesting questions you’re going to cover in the course?

Sometimes an explicit discussion of your course structure — the pedagogical decisions you’ve made — can be powerful. By letting students peek under the hood and see the method and purpose of certain aspects of the course, you’re demonstrating that they’re partners in its success.

The first day can give students a taste of everything they’ll be expected to do during the quarter. If the course is going to be discussion-heavy, then a brief class discussion should be in the first day’s plan. If students will be doing a lot of the group work, then a group activity should be on the docket. If you plan on interleaving activities such as think-pair-share or minute papers, give your students an opportunity to experience that routine on the first day, and model your expectations and feedback for them.