Monday, November 1, 2021

Easy teacher tips to improve classrooms


Our kids are exhausted. What should we do?

I've been bemoaning the modern culture of high school for a while, and now both of my daughters are victims — yes, victims — of it.

My girls often are tired, overworked, stressed and bombarded by paperwork. My students tell me they're feeling the same way. And I get it. The schoolwork system can be toxic, but we educators can make a difference — a slight difference.

Look, the ridiculous stress bucket that high school is nowadays existed well before the Covid shutdown. But now, it's even more so. Something has to give.

High school kids have a cornucopia of resources at their fingertips with their phones, laptops and Chromebooks, yet their schedules have remained the same, stuck in time. Does that make any sense?

Kids face all the expectations of being digitally savvy in a tech-driven world, yet they reap none of the benefits from tech with their schedules. They do more work, more efficiently than any generation, yet they're still clocking into every class on-time like mill workers, sitting in old-school desks and asking permission to go to the bathroom.

In contrast, I know many adults who now have abbreviated in-person work schedules post-Covid because, like high-school students, they do their work digitally. I also know adults who no longer go into their offices and never will. But what the heck are we doing with our teenagers?

Technology has enabled kids to learn much, much more than yesteryear, yet high schools remain locked in their Industrial Revolution model, preparing students for factory work that no longer exists. So our kids face a double whammy. School is like having both a factory job and tech job, and then they're even forced to do schoolwork at home. What a disaster!

So now what?

I believe in optimism, and I believe we teachers can make some key decisions that can help ourselves and not add to our students' burdens. I don't have all the answers and am open to doing anything in my power to help my classroom feel as if it's in 2021 and not 1921, 1950, 1980, 2010 or even 2019.

Here are easy things teachers can do to help themselves and their students and ,better yet, move out of the compliance model of education and toward actually education:

1) Stop assigning homework — once and for all. I have railed against homework here and highly recommend The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn, yet apparently teachers still assign paperwork. Why? Again, I know of zero studies that show homework improves learning. Please, just stop it.

2) Stop having so many graded assignments. I know students need to be assessed, but why can't teachers do it more informally, without grades? Why must we grade them weekly or even daily? How about monthly? Why don't we turn down the dial on these constant graded assignments?

3) 20 percent total for all tests and quizzes. Haven't we had enough of high-stakes testing? Why do teachers have high-stakes testing in their classes? I see my students so stressed out some days, and when I ask what's happening they often say, "I have a test next period." 

When I started teaching, it was suggested to not count any type of category of grading more than 20 percent. I've kept that plan all these years, and my five categories of grading are tests, in-class writing, reading responses, polished writing assignments and projects.

4) Actually get to know your students. Why are we in the classroom in the first place? Isn't it to support our students? At my school, teachers have 165 students. It turns out those 165 are human beings. While I teach the content standards, human beings are much more valuable than those standards.

5) Model emotional maturity. Sadly, some teachers never left high school, emotionally. I've seen some throw tantrums, assume the worst from their colleagues and students and act like children. I understand that good teaching involves emotion, and it's crucial that we stay emotionally mature, especially when faced with adversity.

The good news is that I am seeing more dialogue on social emotional learning, post shutdown, and how this is more important than our old-timey curriculums. Thank god for that. But I often wonder how teachers can promote SEL when they themselves struggle with self-awareness, social skills, relationship building and their emotional lives.

6) Be vulnerable but pick your spots. It is important to be vulnerable with our students, but don't overshare. The class ultimately is about them, not us. While some sharing of one's life can be healthy, don't overdo it.

7) More student choice. I never have liked being told what to do, and, ooh lordy, high school kids constantly are being told what to do. The more choice we give give students, the better.

8) Stop dominating. High school still perpetuates a dominator-control culture. We need to do everything in our power to stop it to stop dominating and actually work with our students. We're their teachers, not their bosses.

9) Exercise. I found a huge secret to enjoying my school days more: I do light exercise for a mere 15 minutes when I wake up. It gets the blood flowing and makes me feel better throughout the day. No matter what happens, I at least had that minor success in the day.

10) Meditate. With so many face-to-face and digital interactions a day and covering a lot of material, meditation helps. In the era of Big Tech's dominance, I find meditation to be an important part of our well-being. Turn. It. Off.