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 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.

Help Is Everywhere

I’m lucky to have so many resources to help me improve my teaching.

Colleagues share their stories, plans, and materials with me.  They open their doors and allow me to observe their lessons.  This is an undervalued and underused kind of professional development.

A row of books lines my desk, each written by a man or woman who has successfully done my job, and has shared the wisdom they’ve accumulated while doing it. I sometimes re-read a professional book, pick out a technique, strategy, or philosophy I find valuable, and make it a point to use it at least once in each of my classes during a week.

The Internet provides so many (too many) sources for any question I may have.  English teachers share what works and discuss the specifics of the profession every day via Twitter. People on the English Companion Ning have taken time to respond to my personal questions about lessons, units or teaching in general.

And at the end of each school day, there is the power of reflection: I replay the day in my head, deciding what worked, what didn’t, and recognizing the small changes that will make a big difference when the next group of students walks in the door.

Paying Attention

Designing presentations–PowerPoint, Prezi, Capzles,–is practice for close reading, isn’t it?

As students design presentations for an audience of their peers, they are motivated to pay attention to all of the details.  Each choice they make–fonts, colors, words, images, and placement of everything–is intentional.

What will look the best? What matches my purpose? What has the most emotional impact?

I present students with principles of effective design, and after viewing a few examples of “good” and “bad” design, they begin applying the principles to their work. There’s no convincing them that these principles matter; they see the evidence in the examples, and they see the positive change in their presentations when they begin designing like a designer.

This is the same intention I want students to notice when close reading. Students are reluctant to acknowledge the impact an author’s craft has on our comprehension and reaction to literature.

Words, punctuation, structure, and the way these work together to create images, convey attitudes, and ultimately transmit purposes are less easily seen then the clash of a font color with a background color, or the ill-placement of an image.

However, if students can orchestrate words and images with intention, then noticing it in the books they read should be a little easier.

Slowing Down

When walking in the hallway, I sometimes notice that I’m traveling quickly. It’s an arm swinging, rigid-stepped pace.

It’s as if I’m rushing to a meeting that has already begun.  Most likely, I walk fast often, but fail to notice it for the most part.

In these moments, I’m not late for anything.  Walking quickly through the halls is the default setting on busy days. When my mind is racing, my body naturally imitates the pace of my thoughts.

When I catch myself in this needless sprint-walk, I slow down, almost comically, to a casual stroll.

I instantly feel calmer and more relaxed.  I haven’t changed anything external; I’ve just noticed the needless rush and slowed down. The day will still be busy. I still have plenty to do.

But my mind won’t be frantic as a I read the next essay or talk to the next student.  I won’t be needlessly sprinting through the experience, racing late to a meeting that exists in my mind.

Instead, I slow down, read carefully, and listen.



A thoughtful professor once told me: “always err on the side of mercy.”

I’d abused a gratuitously lax due date; he instructed me to remember his words when future students plead sad cases.

As a first-year teacher, this motto seemed soft.  Students would trample over me unless I offered rigid due dates and punishments for missing them.

I showed little mercy. I had missed the point entirely.

The idea is to treat students as humans with challenges, responsibilities and lives. Knowing them and speaking to them gives me some insight into when students may truly need more time to get things right, and when they are pushing it.

Am I naive? Might students take advantage after experiencing leniency once?

Probably yes, and some will.  It is my responsibility to maintain high expectations, while still treating students as humans.

And if I’m wrong, I’d rather err on the side of mercy.