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Everything I Need to Know About Classroom Management, I Learned From Lifeguarding

There are a lot of things I learned during my 4 years as a lifeguard at the Jersey Shore.  Some things I learned on my own, like always being mentally ready to act in an emergency.  How beautiful nature can be.  Or how important coffee is at 8 am.  Some I learned from watching other people, like not wearing jeans into the ocean— ever.  How you have to watch kids every second when they’re around water.  Or how amazingly bad an idea it is to offer a seagull a French fry.

There’s a lot I learned that I found applicable to my work as a teacher, too.  There are a lot of teachers on beach patrols— it’s the perfect job when you can count on summers off every year.  As much as I like the idea of year-round school, I can’t help but think about what that would do to lifeguarding and beach safety.   

I like to say that I learned all I needed to know about classroom management from lifeguarding.  Both are complex work, involve more than a little bit of people skills, and require experience for improvement.  Here are the three most important lessons I learned: 

1) Prevention is the Mindset

Any guard who has to go into the water over and over to rescue people isn’t doing the job well.  The first thing you learn about lifeguarding is that it’s not the number of dramatic rescues you make, it’s the number of people you never let get into trouble in the first place. 

A teacher that constantly needs to write discipline reports, give a dozen detentions a day, and take hours to call home for bad behavior may think he’s being vigilant or having high standards of behavior, but he’s missing the point.  Any teacher with these issues has to take a long, hard look at the kinds of things he’s asking his kids to do in class.  If kids are acting out, it may be because they’re bored.  I’ve heard plenty of stories about how “bad” kids don’t act up in shop class or gym, or in a certain teacher’s English or math class.  It’s hard to get bored in shop and gym.  And for the teacher that gives kids something worth paying attention to, they won’t have time to act out.  A teacher has to ask himself, “Am I asking my kids to do something that’s relevant, and did I explain why it’s relevant?”  And, “Am I presenting this in a way that challenges them, makes them think about possible answers, makes them try things until something works, lets them move around and work with each other, and lets them be creative?”  Those are all things that can be said about shop and gym, and those are lessons that academic teachers need to adopt if they want to be preventative about class management.   

On the beach, a guard has to scan his water continuously, and know where everyone is and how they’re doing, at all times.   Teachers need to adopt this mindset, too— a teacher that ignores a slightly distracted student finds that the student gets progressively more distracted, gets his friends involved, pulls other kids in, and ends up needing a full “rescue” from his behavior.   But a teacher with a preventative mindset only needs to redirect the student back to his meaningful work as soon as he notices the small issue.  “Rescue” unnecessary. 

2) Stay Calm in Rips

On the beach, rip currents form and can carry even the strongest swimmer dangerously far from shore.   Swimmers try to swim against the surging water and get tired, distressed, and panicked very quickly.   It’s a dangerous situation.  The thing that can save you in a rip is your ability to stay calm.  Rips aren’t out to get you— they’re not evil, and they’re not trying to pull you down.  It’s just water rushing along the side of an obstacle like a jetty, or through a narrow gap in a sandbar.  It’s not personal.  If you wait until you’re past the point where the rip is flowing, swim sideways out of it, and back toward shore again, you’re fine.  But it takes a very clear, level head to do that when things are quickly going out of your control, and what you usually do— swim straight to shore— isn’t working.

In a classroom, students are going to have outbursts from time to time.  They’re people, not robots— you can’t program them to always behave according to instructions.  People get frustrated, angry, hurt, and upset, and they act out.  I’ve noticed that often, it has nothing to do with you, the teacher.  It’s not personal.  It’s something with the student’s home, or his girlfriend, or another class, or whatever— sometimes, it’s just the need to be free from the tightly-controlled environment that is school— even if it’s just for a moment (like Andy Dufresne playing that music over the prison exercise yard). 

Sometimes the best thing to do is to stay calm and let the student vent.  If you fight back by yelling and lecturing, you’re only swimming against the rip.  It’s not going to work.  The situation is going to escalate and spin out of your control.   Don’t get me wrong—outbursts aren’t acceptable when they disturb everyone’s learning.  You’re probably going to need to issue some consequences after things settle down.  We’re in school to learn how to behave in society, and allowing outbursts without consequences isn’t setting anyone up for success.  But calmly and unemotionally handling the situation will go a long way towards preventing an emergency.  Later, after the outbust is over, ask the student what’s going on that made him act that way.  Help him work it out and find a way to control himself next time, if you can.  Explain to him that there are consequences to his actions, but it’s not personal– it’s school, and it’s learning how to act and how to control one’s self.

3) Prepare

I knew I was going to be on the beach for 8 hours with limited opportunities to get food, get changed, or do much of anything not found right on my cramped lifeguard stand.   So I prepared.  I had changes of clothes, plenty of water, sunblock, food, a radio, sunglasses, and anything else I was going to need.   Preparation was mental, too.  On slow days, I would visualize what I’d do in certain situations that I knew mightcome up sooner or later.  I tried to figure out what I’d do if a pleasure boat was stalled in my water, or if someone went into shock, or anything out of the ordinary.  And that doesn’t count the hundreds of times I thought about the ordinary— the quick rescue, the lost child, the cut foot. 

Teaching is the same way.  If classroom management is a challenge for you, visualize yourself putting your management plan into action.  Picture how you’ll react if a student does _________.    Try to anticipate common and uncommon situations— students fighting, refusing to do work, sleeping, whatever— and decide how you’ll proceed.  If and when the situation happens, you’ll be prepared, and you’ll act the way you know is best.

But really— trust me on not wearing jeans in the water.


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Some Thoughts and Three Questions About Curricular Experiences

Part of my job involves writing curriculum.  For a long time I found it really hard to wrap my mind around exactly what that means.  Was it just thinking up some neat courses for students to take?  Was it reading through pages of complicated standards, and making sure that some class everyone took covered every one of them?  Was it even something that you could do well— and if so, how?

As I kept teaching, and then became a curriculum director, I saw that deciding a curriculum meant thinking about two things: first, what was it that students should know or be able to do; and second, what should students have to do in pursuit of that knowledge and those skills?

Depending on your school, the word “curriculum” is tinged with either freedom and excitement or restriction and rules.  It might be about learning, or it might be about coverage.  It might be a flexible, living set of ideas that can grow and shift to include new ideas, or it might be doctrine, a set of laws as immutable as the periodic table– which, maybe some chemist will tell me, actually can be mut-ed.  My hope is that when thinking about where students need to be and what they should do to get there, a few things will happen.

First, get the students’ input.  One thing that looking at 20th-century curriculum history tells us is that using a series of outside agencies, think-tanks, and other groups to decide what students to learn might be a good way to increase rigorous content, but it leads to a lot of back-and-forth.  Any time you have one group saying we need more math and science, there’s another saying that we need more art instead.  It’s the back-and-forth that’s behind the “reform wars” that prevent a whole lot from getting done.  It’s not to say that all outside agencies are bad; the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for instance, does a great job of figuring out exactly what those skills are.  But an agency that says its agenda is the secret to improving schools is necessarily short-sighted.  Schools don’t need just more math or just more art– they need more everything.   Asking students what they might want to learn about sounds simple enough, but as the professionals, it’s easy to get caught up in fighting our own battles, and lose sight of what the students in question might want to learn.

Second, involve the teachers in writing curriculum.  Curriculum specialists are all well and good, but since the teachers’ job is to enact the curriculum, they can’t be treated as soldiers who simply carry out orders.  Maybe the most leaderly thing a curriculum director can do, paradoxically, is give leadership away to those who will bring the curriculum to the students directly.  Treat the teachers like professionals, and give them their say.  That’s what leads to buy-in– a whole-school effort and everyone on the same page.

Maybe the most important, and final consideration when thinking about a curriculum is to ask these three questions:
1) Does the experience ensure the best opportunity for mastery of the subject matter?
2) Is the experience provided in a way that fosters the development of 21st-century skills and habits of mind in students?
3) Is the experience grounded in relevance and real-world application?

If a new curricular experience– a new course, an assessment, a trip, a collaboration– fulfills these three requirements, then it’s probably worthwhile.

Thanks to all my readers out there– I wish you all a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!


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Are We Slaves to Language?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how hearing, seeing, or speaking a phrase regularly can get someone to really believe it after a while.  I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Linchpin on CD, and after hearing him tell me that I’m creative,  exceptional, and could be a linchpin, I find this attitude emerging in my mind more than before.  It could be just a placebo effect, or confirmation bias– where you see “evidence” of things you expect to see– but maybe not.  In an appearance on The Accidental Creative podcast, Godin gave the advice to write “I’m exceptional” on a post-it and post it [that was neat] at your workplace.   The language with which we surround ourselves may in fact shape our thinking more than we realize.

This article on linguistics and psychology has dramatic implications for teachers.  Deutscher looks at the way language shapes our thinking in profound ways, as in the cases of non-English speakers who  say they  conceptualize objects as masculine or feminine, depending on the “gender” assigned to the word– think back to 9th-grade Spanish here.  English speakers don’t have this opportunity, of course; things are neutral– objects are objects, after all.  But there may be a kinds of richness in thinking that English misses out on– there’s something literary and epic in seeing everything as imbued with a gender, even if it is, most of the time, linguistically arbitrary.

If I’m in a classroom, and I tell kids every day, “You’re all capable of great things,” or “Every one of you is a success in training,” or “You are creative,” could this be the kind of language they need to hear in order to make what I’m saying real?  What about the opposite– if I tell kids “You can’t do that,” “You have to lower your expectations,” or “You’re not going to get anywhere that way,” how long until these prophecies fulfill themselves?

“Can’t” is a word that invites a lot of debate.  There are those in the “can’t-means-won’t” camp, and those that find solace in the pragmatic, “There are some things he can’t do, and that’s ok.  He doesn’t have to be good at everything.”    The difference for teachers is that we’re not in the business of limiting abilities.  We’re in the business of making things happen, not advising what we don’t think is going to happen.  If a student wants to get into a college that we think is way beyond his ability level, telling him he won’t get in takes him one step further to your being right, except for the exceptionally-resilient kids who take comments like that as fuel for their determination– but they’re exceptional, no post-it needed.

Of course, it does no good to mislead students, either.  If my D student wants to get into Harvard, I have two choices:

1) Say “You can’t get into Harvard because you get D’s in school.  If you wanted to go there, why didn’t you study more?”

2) Say, “To get into Harvard you need to have very high academic scores, to start with.  You also need lots of other activities, recommendations, and more.  Where do you stand right now in school?  How can I help you to get those scores to where they need to be for Harvard?”

There’s still a part of me that wants to admit that the first person is probably right.  But that’s not the kind of language I want in my head, because I believe that the language I use to think about things is going to shape who I am, just like the French think of forks as having feminine voices (read the article).  It’s time to use the language we use with ourselves and with our students as a catalyst for a more-productive attitude. Instead of “They can’t ____________,” try “I haven’t yet figured out a way to get them to ____________.”

If this becomes a habit in your mind, think how positive you could become.  I admit that it gives  some kind of cathartic release to be pessimistic sometimes– I like to put on 90s grunge and pretend I’m lonely and hopeless as much as the next guy.  But positive thinking is where innovation comes from, where creativity thrives, and where things get done.  When you use the way language shapes thinking to your advantage,  nothing is impossible, because impossible is just another way of saying “I haven’t yet figured out how to…”

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The Three C’s

Let me just say that as an English teacher, it drives me nuts that I have to write “C’s” when it’s not possessive.  English needs some new rules added.

In the process of reflecting on my own work, observing others’, and thinking a lot about “the secret” to good teaching, it occurred to me that there’s really one thing that we’re all shooting for up there in front of our classrooms:  student engagement.

There are a lot of different ways teachers make sure students are engaged.  Some let their personalities shine.  They use humor, sarcasm, jokes, stories about their time working in the carnival, whatever–there are teachers who are just so entertaining that students can’t help but be engaged.  Some let the lessons speak for themselves.  Students who are asked to evaluate, analyze, be creative, and break the mold of what usually occurs in classrooms will listen up and wonder, “What are we going to do today?”  Some just try to bully students into being engaged.  That usually stops working around 7th grade.

But what about the rest of us who are trying anything and everything to get students engaged?  What can we learn from studying the “naturals?”  I think it comes down to what I call the “three c’s”: Clarity, Continuity, and Concurrency.

Clarity is about one question:  Is the teacher clear about exactly what his students should do?  If a teacher doesn’t know why he’s doing an activity, you can bet that the kids won’t, either.  If there’s no objective in mind, whatever learning occurs will be accidental, haphazard, unpredictable.  Classrooms without clear expectations for behavior, attitude, and achievement will have kids mired in mediocrity, at best.

Continuity is about putting it all together– one of the most important things a teacher does is make coherence out of complicated, difficult subject matter.  A teacher showing continuity begins class with an opening deisgned to pique interest not only for that day’s lesson, but as part of a think-back to the day before.  At the end of a class, she does the opposite– make sure students understand all that was done that day, and link it to what’s coming the next day.  And most importantly, she doesn’t move on if her students didn’t get it!  A teacher with engaged students will also be consistent in policies— if you’re wishy-washy from one day to the next about how things go down in your classroom, guessing your mood will be distracting.  Good teachers are also continuous learners— you can’t be finished learning when you’re done your master’s or a workshop or a seminar.

Concurrency is maybe the most mercurial of the three because it describes something that’s tricky to articulate: “With-it-ness.”  We all know people who are “out of it” and people who are really “with it.”  That’s not unique to teaching.  But there’s more to concurrency than just being “with it.”  Concurrency is about being in the moment, whether we’re talking about in the classroom moment, with our students, engaged in them as we want them to be engaged with us… it’s also about being in the moment with the world, and being aware of what’s going on out there– the issues and problems students in your community have, the digital tools they constantly use as fluently as we drive our cars, the unique structure of their social lives and how different it is than that of kids just 10 years ago– and certainly how different it is than most of their teachers’ K-12 years.  Being concurrent means being in touch— in touch with the individuals, the human beings in front of us, the community in which they live, and the world in which they’re situated.  Concurrency gives you credibility– everyone, especially kids, knows who’s with it and who’s out of it.

Clarity, Continuity, and Concurrency isn’t a magic incantation, and they’re not habits that spring up overnight.  But I hope they’re a guide for any teacher looking to get their students engaged– because student engagement, more than anything else, leads to “magic” in the classroom.

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Sit Down and Play the Drums

“You have to run before you can walk.”

This is good common sense to a lot of people. It’s good common sense in a lot of cases, too. If you’re a toddler, then yes, you’re going to walk first. If you’re learning to drive, learn to drive in a parking lot before flying down I-95 at rush hour. But with learning, there’s a lot to be said for a different adage: “Run! It’s fun! Learn how to walk later!”

Robert Duke shares a great story about teaching kids to play drums. It’s something I can relate to, having learned to drum at a young age– unfortunately for me, it was by using the practice pad he mentions @ 56:00 mark. This video is worth the watch. If you fast forward to the section from 54:00 to 1:02:00, you’ll catch up on Duke’s story about “getting to the good stuff first” in education.

If you didn’t watch the whole video, Duke talks about getting students to fall “in love” with a discipline by introducing them to the good stuff first– the kinds of things that make our subjects fun.  Too often, we as teachers think that we need to start with the essential elements of a discipline, the kind of drudgery that people in relevant jobs do because they have to– it’s part of the job.  Science students are taught the metric system, English students are taught the parts of speech, music students are taught scales.  These building blocks are important for mastery, for sure– but how many well-meaning teachers have driven kids away from loving a subject because they began with the drudgery, the painstaking fundamentals, and the things that need to be practiced and done over and over until you get to have any fun conducting experiments, writing stories, or playing a song?

Duke’s point is that instead, we need to hook students with the fun, then show them the elements they need to perfect their discipline.  And even then, remember to infuse the joy of doing the discipline into it– witness the history teacher who has students research the history of their house or their family first, before introducing the details of the transition from farm life to city life in the 20th century.

I immediately related to this when I watched this video.  As a musician, I’ve taught myself to play several instruments.  Without realizing I was doing it, this is the way I made myself learn– when I learned guitar, I figured out three chords and played along to “Sweet Home Alabama” before I even thought about practicing finger exercises.  I taught myself violin– one of the most technically demanding instruments, I’ve found, and after figuring out how to hold the bow, I learned a few easy fiddle tunes.  They were fun to play, so I that’s what I did.  Later, when I was “hooked” on the fun, I wanted to play scales– so I could learn more and better songs.  And it wasn’t drudgery anymore.  It made me imagine a kid loving the experience of Skyping someone in Montreal for French class, then wanting to learn French grammar and spelling so he could speak better and write better to his friend.

No one wants to play an instrument so he or she can play really great scales– it’s so that you can play a song.  But that same student might tune out and stop playing because scales are what his teacher tells her she must learn before she can experience the joy of playing a song.  Any teacher can take his or her subject and apply that same lesson– figure out what in your discipline is fun, and then let your students sit down and play drums.

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Don’t let perfect get in the way of good…

A lot of teachers are control freaks.  I can be.  It used to be worse.  As a new teacher,  I felt like everything had to go exactly as planned.  I think it’s because I saw a good number of teachers– soon-to-be-ex-teachers, it turned out– melt under the pressure of being in charge of the classroom.  A young teacher starts out with the best intentions, plans his lessons, gets talking, gives an assignment, then they’re finished– a full 10 minutes before they were supposed to be.  Next thing you know, someone’s video recording a paper fight on a cell phone and posting it to Youtube, two kids are fighting, and somehow, someone has a small, floofy dog on her desk, and he’s yapping furiously.  And a book is on fire.

It’s easy to cling to a carefully-scripted lesson in which every lead-in, every “anticipatory set,” every activity, conversation, assessment, and conclusion is scripted and laid out according to an airtight plan.  That kind of planning makes teachers feel secure.  Any administrator who walks in will see a teacher in complete control.  Kids’ heads will be attentively bowed, obediently doing what the teacher tells them.  The kids will know that Mr. Johnson “means business” and “don’t play.”   And Mr. Johnson will understandably assume that he did a good job.

Except that the only thing the kids in this room are learning is to do exactly  what Mr. Johnson tells them.  As long as there’s a Mr. Johnson, they’ll be fine.  They’ll probably hate it, they won’t know why they’re doing it, they won’t be passionate about it, but by God, they’ll know how to follow orders.  But that’s likely to be it.  No thinking, no imagining, no dreaming, no aspiring, no creating.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have an orderly classroom.  No one’s going to learn  if there’s chaos.  But sacrificing a little control doesn’t always lead to riot.

What if Mr. Johnson instead challenged kids with a perplexing question, then asked them to figure out a way to solve the question, using him, the internet, and each other as resources?  He could circulate around the room, posting hints, answering questions, leading a discussion, and validating effort.  The students would talk, pull out their phones, look things up on Google, call down to the teachers’ workroom, text their uncle who “does this for a living,” and, most importantly, figure out ways to solve the problem Mr. Johnson posted– solve it in their own way and via their own path.

But I get it– it won’t go this perfectly.  Someone will stumble onto a site that sells Viagra and everyone will laugh, another teacher will scold them for having their phone out in class, a parent will complain that school wasn’t like this when he or she was a kid.  But if you’re not afraid to let it be messy, it will still be better than the alternative– learning to do exactly what Mr. Johnson says to do, never mind the reasons, or the passion, or the deep knowledge, or the understanding.

As a teacher, I try not to let perfect get in the way of good.  Nothing is perfect, as everyone knows.  Teachers, especially, know this.  It’s when we can’t see past the illusion of the perfect lesson, the perfect outcome, the perfect student, that we miss the potential for the great and abundant good that greets us every time we walk into our classroom.

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