Lose the Harness, Use the Lever

Student energy is too often harnessed and too rarely leveraged.

Recently, I arranged one group of students in a circle for a discussion. I shared the standards for participating: hand raising was unnecessary; however, speakers should refrain from interrupting others, and they should wait for others to finish before adding questions or comments in response to a student.

The students were excited and full of energy.  After all, they were discussing self-selected research topics, which included the people, activities and ideas they valued, and they were in a new formation where they could see each of their classmates simultaneously.

This excitement translated into little following of my aforementioned standards. Comments flew from each side of the room as I dutifully prompted students to take turns. I then reacted by switching to a facilitator roll, requiring students to raise their hands to respond to an initial student comment. This stopped some of  the talking over talking, but much of it persisted.  By the end of the period, I felt my frustration mounting, but the students were still energetically talking about the topics.  In terms of following of my rules, the activity had failed.

After that class, I considered:

  1. What did I want students to be able to do for that lesson?
  2. What prevented students from being able to what I planned for them to do?

These were my initial answers:

  1. I wanted discussion to occur between students about their research topics, and I thought it was especially important for students who don’t often interact to be aware of each others topics.
  2. I thought that the students talkativeness was preventing the conversation from running smoothly.

My answer to #2 was conventional thinking.  Students must follow rules.  As the teacher, I establish the routines and procedures, and the students following of these habits helps the class run smoothly and effectively.

I believe those ideas. But in this case, my imposed structure of the conversation was an inefficient waste of student energy. I was trying to harness the energy, when I should’ve been leveraging it.

The next day students walked into the classroom: “Mr. Dawson, are we going to do a discussion again?” “Are we going to put the desks like that again?” “Can we make a big circle again? That was fun.”

Notice the disconnect between students’ reaction to the activity, and my perceived failure of the activity.

That second day, I had a new plan.

After much reflection, some ego-denying, and a little acceptance of failure, I change the discussion format.  This wasn’t anything revolutionary; we did “speed dating,” where students speak in pairs for a short period of time, before one group of students rotate, and a new conversation begins.

As I walked around listening to the many conversations, almost all of them were on topic.  Students listened to the person sitting across the desk.  These were conversations between students that would not occur in a social setting.

The same energy that had caused a perceived failure in the previous day’s lesson was now leveraged into a productive, active situation, allowing students to practice speaking, listening, and refining their ideas.

For other classes, a different conversation structure would work better. Each class has its own personality and energy.  Attempting to harness energy is bound to incite dissonance, but leveraging the energy brings productivity and harmony.

One example does not make a case, but for me it often leads to a realization.  In this case it was that the more that I am able to step back from my teaching, along with any other part of my life, and view it objectively without ego or fear of failure, the more I’ll be able to revise and make adjustments. Less dissonance, more harmony.





Maintaining Energy

When spring arrives, the warmth and sunlight can refresh us and change our thoughts.

Students seem full of energy, which might be guided into learning activities or might result in “rambunctious” behavior. Teachers notice that the sun is up when they wake and drive to school, and they notice the buzz of students in the halls.

During this time, while energy may increase, focus often wains.   Students and teachers both know that final quarter of the year has arrived, as have the thoughts and pressures of end-of-year events.  Teachers and students may feel an intellectual “lull”–like their brains are trying to cruise to the finish line.

This year I’ve tried to disrupt this simply by trying something completely new to the end year.  The multigenre research paper is a type of writing that I’ve never taught before, even though I’ve taught all the pieces of it. It includes brainstorming, researching, planning, and writing poems/essays/narratives/any genre you can think of in order to convey an idea about a research topic. It’s a totally new experience for me and my students.  I’ve never taught multigenre and they’ve never wrote it.

It seems that learning adds an energy to each day, just as the spring does.  As I seek out resources–both in print and in person–to guide me in teaching the multigenre paper, I find myself excited to implement the new ideas tomorrow or next week in the classroom. At a time when students may feel that the year is “winding down,” I hope that my enthusiasm about this new type of writing shows, and some of it transfers to them.

With this new unit comes the miniature failures and success, frustrations and realizations, complications and serendipitys that come with trying anything new in the classroom. But as I’ve tried to remember throughout this year, if I wait for the time when I feel fully ready to try something, that time will never come.

The best time to try something new is today.


Floss One Tooth

I sat down recently to outline my philosophy on student writing, and a phrase from blogger James Clear came to mind: 

Floss one tooth.

Fear not, I am a proponent of full-mouth dental hygiene. But the implications of this phrase are useful and varied.

These directions, according to Mr. Clear, are the results of a psychological study on habits. When researchers challenged participants with flossing their whole mouths, they performed inconsistently, often failing completely. But when researchers changed the directions to “floss one tooth per day,” almost all participants adhered to the habit…and almost all flossed all of their teeth every time.

When a goal seems too big, the flight response kicks in, and people don’t both to begin.

But when the goal is small–laughably small works best–it feels silly not to complete it.  Once you’ve flossed the first two, you’re in front of the mirror, floss in your hand, and you might as well finish the task.

I apply this to teaching writing by giving focused, minimal feedback. (See Grant Wiggins for a great definition of what feedback is and isn’t.)  

My current process is as follows: I read the entire paper. I ignore most of the errors. I point out the few (1-4) changes that will “nudge” a student writer forward.  I provide instruction or suggestion on how to revise or edit, and allow students to identify similar situations in the rest of the paper.

When the goal is simple and obviously attainable–“fix this misplaced modifier, find the others at least two others like this one and correct them on your own”–students see a reasonable suggestion, and one that requires action and thinking on their end. They will often revise more in the process.  

Notice I didn’t even say that I point out every error of a single kind that the student has made, but instead I point out one, provide instruction (using Kaizena.com) and then allow the students to identify and edit/revise the rest.  This results in me giving individualized instruction, and students taking ownership of their writing.

The “flossing one tooth” philosophy requires restraint, patience and trust, which are three virtues that I find difficult to cultivate.  Others likely feel the same. But giving students something reasonable to achieve, even if it might appear to others as minimal, is better than dreaming up unattainable standards in the name of “doing my professional duty” of correcting every error.


I recently read a story about a man who worked at a successful and large company.

He had a work meeting coming up, and the boss told him it’d be on Sunday.

“I don’t work on Sunday, Sunday is for God,” he said.

The boss was annoyed but understanding, and he told the man he’d move the meeting to Saturday.

“I don’t work on Saturday, Saturday is for family,” the man responded.  The boss was angry now, and walked away.

Many reading may believe that the man was fired for not acquiescing to the boss.

But, the boss came back later and said, “Fine, we’ll move the meeting to Friday.”

While I admire this man’s dedication to his religion and family, this post is about neither.  The important idea here is the concept of non-negotiables.

As a teacher, I need to know what my students must learn, practice and experience on a regular basis.  These are my teaching non-negotiables.

For my freshmen class, this year’s non-negotiable is independent reading.  For my sophomore students, it’s one-on-one writing conferences.

These are the essential experiences that I feel will help each of these groups meet their academic needs.

The truth is that these should both be non-negotiables for each of my classes.  I’m working on designing my lessons and units so that is the case.

The man from the story above didn’t get fired, even though many might believe he did if they heard the story.  Most people fear standing up for what they should hold as non-negotiables because they worry others will react to a perceived lack of flexibility.

But the man who stood up for what he felt was non-negotiables was respected accommodated because of his integrity.

When internal distractions and external interruptions encroach on my teaching and my students’ learning, I need to remember my non-negotiables.

And I’ll keep adding to my list.



When planning units, lessons, activities, etc., my thoughts may become clouded with ideas.

When this happens, a few questions focus me on what’s important:

What is the goal of this unit, lesson or activity?

What do students need to learn or practice to reach the end goal?

How can I simplify the instructions?

What is the best way to arrange the students, the materials and the class time?

As I answer these questions, I keep in mind the broad principles that guide me: teaching and learning through inquiry, student choice, scaffolding of questions and tasks, varying modes of learning to reach all learners.

Just as the best lessons often involve the least talking from me, the best plans often involve the least clutter.