The power of music

I’m fresh off of the North Dakota Google Summit this weekend. Nothing can energize me more than spending a few days learning amazing things with other passionate people.  And while I’m in no way ready to start to form a cohesive thought about all of the incredible things I picked up this weekend, I thought I’d share something that I talked about with a colleague while at the summit.


It is many of our students’ lives! They would sooner go without water than their iPod and their new Beats headphones. Music can change the mood of a person. It can change the feel of a classroom, and it can change the atmosphere of a school.

Because of Monte Selby’s advice at a Nuts and Bolts Conference, I decided that I would harness the power of music and use it to my advantage to make connections with my students, start class off in a positive way, and sometimes change the mood.

After starting my class with music for the past four years, I’ll never go back. Not only does the music give the students a chance to get themselves involved in the class, but it is also a signal for students that, when it’s over, it’s time to get started. Let’s talk about some of the details.

I start with some of my own music as well as older music. Students may complain that Frank Sinatra isn’t quite their style, but when they ask if they can bring their own music in, you know you’ve got them. Of course they can! As long as it is appropriate for school and under four minutes long, it’s good enough for my class. Monte’s advice was to not push them to bring their own music, but to make them bring it up.

“As a teacher, you cannot be the keeper of what’s cool.  Let them decide.”  That is a memorable quote from Monte, and it is so true. Student choice becomes a big part of the music in my class, but they have to follow the rules. I haven’t had many issues with rules being broken, but if they do play an inappropriate song or if a song is too long, we can go back to my choice for two weeks.

I allow students to bring in a song or find one on Youtube. My colleague had the idea of using a Google Form to submit song requests. This would eliminate the few times I experience frustration in waiting for a student to come up with the song title. We have the list of requests, move through them, and class runs like a well-oiled machine.

Now music is great just for the atmosphere and feeling of the classroom, but it also has value in building routines and signaling our class. During the song, there should be a few things that must be done before the song is finished. These are up to you, but here are mine:

  • Have a sharpened pencil with you as well as your English notebook
  • Respond to the following ___ in your journal
    (I rotate this with a question, quote, fun/interesting fact, and various other short writings)
  • Be quietly seated in your desk before the song is finished

Other ideas include:

  • Fill in your planner or schedule
  • Have certain materials out
  • Tell someone something positive
  • Ask a question about a topic that we are involved in

The main point is that with this routine built in, my students don’t feel that I’m immediately talking to them and starting class. It almost feels as if they have a choice and some time to breathe. But once that song is over, it is our time together. When the song ends, I greet them as a group and we begin our day together.

Another great part of the music is that I have a chance to greet my students at the door, take attendance, and do any other last-minute things before we begin together. This allows me to be fully prepared and not waste time. When we begin, we are focused together.

One story that I remember Monte telling us was about a principal who played music in between classes over the speaker system. The music would start out soft, giving teachers a chance to finish up their classes, then play until the fade out began, signaling that it was time for class to start again. He said that seniors would dance their way to class. Talk about transforming school culture!

And that is the power of music – whether it is changing a moment, making a connection, or shifting an entire school’s climate. Putting a smile on someone’s face with music can change their attitude, and attitude is everything.


What Creating Innovators means for me

After finishing Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner for a book study, I was asked to write a reflection on ways I would apply the idea of teaching students to be innovative to my teaching practices. I also just read an interesting piece of advice about saving your keystrokes and posting to your blog instead of sending an email for things like this. So hcreating-innovatorsere is what stood out to me as I thought about teaching innovators in my English class:

First and foremost, I want to create even more authentic opportunities for my students. I currently blog with my students, but even that lacks authenticity because I am asking them to do it. They don’t feel like they have to have it in order to succeed or to accomplish something. There needs to be a problem or a question that they are trying to solve. “How can I make money with this blog?” or something like that. This is something that I’m going to keep working on to design a way for my students to possibly collaborate and create a blog with a purpose.

One thing that I already do in class is to create feature articles. These are research articles that follow models from magazines. For next year’s assignment I would like to create a class newsroom with students collaborating to create some type of magazine, either electronic or paper. The students would work as a team to create the content (stories, photographs, etc.), edit, assemble, and publish their work. If I want to add some friendly competition, there could be an ad to a link where students could vote for that group’s publication. This would give the students a chance to see what was most effective in communicating with their peers.

The idea that we have a certain amount of “whimsy” and fun in what we do is important. We are providing a place for students to play with a lot of different parts of their learning. I want to get students to collaborate more often in order to accomplish a goal. And that goal should be one that is created by students. “People who innovate care about what they do, care enough to take a chance, spend extra time, care about people they are working with. I also want them to feel that what they’re doing makes a difference” (p. 215). It is necessary to expose students to the various important things happening in the world if they are going to develop the empathy to want to change them.

Each year we do a Hero Project in my 7th grade classes. This is a fairly structured project where we choose five traits of their hero (someone in the student’s life) and write a paragraph on each of those in addition to the introduction and the conclusion. The project is then turned into a movie and is always successful and enjoyable for students as well as meaningful for parents, the most common recipients of the project as a gift. This year I am going to open it up a little more to my students. I am going to create an example using my grandmother where I interview her and use her voice and film of her to add to my project. It is usually the student reading over the picture of the hero, but the video would make the project go even more in depth.

Meaningful feedback for students is another part of the book that is important. I have played with some different forms of grading thanks to discussions with an English colleague, and using the standards as individual grades on a rubric has helped me to give better feedback to students. Instead of just receiving a letter grade or a percentage, students can see more of what actually made up the grade because I respond to them and point to evidence. This is in addition to the constant feedback during the writing and creating process.

And meaningful feedback should not just be for our students. I have done some videotaping of my teaching, but I want to continue and grow that habit. We do not always find time to reflect as teachers, and when we do it can be inaccurate. Using video is a way that I can analyze myself. It is also a way for teachers to share their successes and strategies. Instead of living in the bubble of our own classroom, let’s get out through the use of technology and see all of the wonderful things happening in our own districts.

Lastly, I truly want to be the educator that students see as passionate and worth being around. I want to push for continued improvement in all areas of teaching and learning. And I want students to feel that I truly cared about them as a person and gave them the tools to be successful in the world.

No really, when?

A few years back I remember reading an article about how we, as teachers, would soon look back and shake our heads out our former selves for banning cell phones from schools.

Why isn’t that time now?

Do teachers and administrators expect students to walk inside the hallowed walls of our fine institutions and cast away all thoughts of the outside world? When are we going to realize that students are people just like us?

In today’s world it is hard to imagine being cut off from the outside world for an hour, let alone an entire school day. But that is what we expect our students to do each time they walk through our doors. Under our current cell phone ban, students have to sneak their phone out of their pocket or ask to use the restroom in order to steal some time for a text message. If students were allowed to use their phones between classes, we would greatly decrease the need for secrecy and sneaking around.

Our students, much to the dismay of teachers, have lives outside of school that are very important. Lives that they care about, and lives that they can even learn from!

Instead of focusing on the social aspect of cell phones, think of the possibilities for learning and student engagement that they present. Facts and information are more powerful when found by a student instead of told to a class.

How are we going to find a balance with cell phones in schools? We have students with phones that can film HD quality footage, be used to blog on the go, or even to read a book. We also find information at the blink of an eye as well. But somehow schools continue to ban these powerful tools because of fear. Cell phones are resources that students are already familiar with. We want students to feel ownership and care for the devices they use? Use devices that they own!

Right now my middle school supplies each student with a netbook. Want an easy way to cut costs and make students happier, more engaged, and perform better? Let’s start bringing our own devices! And if a student is unable to afford a device, they can check one out for the year from the school. Even if only half of the students choose to bring their own device, think of the costs that will be cut! This article from Forbes is a good resource that addresses some concerns.

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These Tweets over the weekend were fitting. Let’s take the devices out! Allowing teachers to use these student-owned devices at their discretion could be a huge asset to classrooms, especially those that are concerned about budget issues.

Like it or not, we rely on our cell phones and so do our students.

#AMLE2013Day2 – Questioning

As I dive back into my notes, I’ll post some highlights and important ideas that I want to use in my classroom. On day 2 I attended Spence Rogers’s session How to Use Questions to Engage and Teach All. I fully expected to get into another session or two, but this one ended up taking up the entire post! I hope some of these ideas hit home for you in terms of how we ask questions of our students.

Instead of using the traditional model of initiate-respond-evaluate in which we get one answer from one student and assume that all students understand, we need to hold every student accountable.

Spence put it like this: we should teach as if we were a coach. If I was coaching a basketball team that was getting ready for our first game, I would want to make sure we had the basics down. “Let’s see if we know how to dribble. (Pull out a popsicle stick from a canister.) Bill? Will you dribble down and back for me? (Bill dribbles successfully.) Ok, looks like we got that down! Time to move on!”

Questions that are important enough to be asked are important enough for everyone to participate and learn good answers. Rogers’s big idea was Total Directed Learning, which says all students find, record, learn, and say the complete correct response. Instead of saying, “What is…” say, “Learn…” This does not let students off the hook who do not know right away. They must learn the answer by searching, discussing, or reading.

iStock_000003401233XSmall-300x199“Make sure everyone around you can tell me…”

Instead of calling on one student, call on all students. Of course we will not be able to hear every single voice, but teachers know who to watch and read lips of! And when students use complete answers, the words are very similar to each other. Make sure everyone has acquired and written the same complete sentence in an area in order to be on the same page.

The class then can repeat the sentence three times in order to get all involved and to allow the teacher to check for understanding of all. Don’t be afraid to play it up and act like you have a superhuman gift that allows you to hear and separate all voices in your head either. Also, keep it interesting and have a little fun with this by using different voices to repeat the answer:

  • Like you are talking to a three-year old
  • Write it with a finger and say it as you write
  • Say it like you are really angry
  • Like you’re falling off a cliiiiiffffffffff…..
  • Like you are completely in love with the answer
  • Or in any voice that you choose!

I was a little skeptical at first with the repeating of an answer like that until we did it. I can still remember that e = 2.718, and the AMLE conference was almost two months ago!

Unfortunately many students are held back by fear in the classroom. They do not want to be embarrassed, and when we give a wrong answer that is exactly what happens. In fact, we become incapable of learning for up to 20 minutes due to the adrenaline caused by the fear and embarrassment of giving an incorrect answer. Having the confidence of a group making sure everyone is on the same page is one way to combat that.

The deflected question is another way to avoid fear. Allow the student to put the pressure on someone else with questions like these:

  • What did you hear as an answer to that question?
  • What would someone else in the room say the answer is? This way the student should say, “I heard someone say…”
  • “What will the next class struggle with the most?” This one is my personal favorite. We all know that when we get to the point where we ask, “Any questions?” that the room is going to be completely silent for as long as we choose. By asking for advice one what the other class will think is the most difficult concept or idea from that day, we are allowing the question to be deflected to another class. Brilliant!

So what would the teacher in the next room find most helpful about this post?

Excuse me, but what’s the point?

“Mr. Sanders, wh-…oh never mind. I shouldn’t ask that.”

Now I’m always too curious to let something like that go. We were nearing the end of creating short stories in our 8th grade English class, and this comment came up while discussing the standards for narrative writing and revision. So, of course, I pressed on, assuring my student that it was fine to ask the question.

“Well, what is really the point of this creative writing story? I mean, I like it and everything, I just don’t know when we are going to use it.”

The showdown at the OK Corral was on. All eyes were on me as the first bullet had been fired in my direction. What would I do? How would I defend myself against this personal affront? How dare a bright, hard-working student dare question her teacher!

But I was thrilled that she asked! We were able to talk, as a class, about the fun, the practice with words, and the experimentation that narrative writing encourages. We talked about other students’ uses for being creative and telling a story, even though nobody wanted to be a published author. And we were able to talk about the power of a story in persuasion and argument as well.

Narrative writing, however, is not the point of today’s post.

The point is that an 8th grader was so worried about asking me if she would ever use something we were doing in class that she almost didn’t ask it. Our students have been trained that the teacher will teach, and learning will happen in our classrooms. But where does the ownership and freedom come in?

If I am going to choose something for each of my students to do in my classroom, I better be able to articulate exactly why we are doing it, what my students should get out of it, and how it will benefit them now and in the future.

Why would I be offended? At what point in our school culture did we decide that our students should not be able to think for themselves, value their education, and be concerned about doing something pointless?

When a student politely asks me why we are doing something, it shows me that she is interested in owning her learning and is engaged enough with what we are doing to care about why she is doing it. Now how could anyone be upset about that?

And because I had an answer for her, it was a worthwhile experience in everyone’s eyes.

Listen up!

We demand it, we ask for it, we give it, and we get it. At least we hope so. But respect is extremely important when thinking about how we use the Common Core in order to engage our students in close readings, discussions, and Accountable Talks.

Respect is shown when we look at someone who is talking, when we recognize what was said, and we do not repeat each other because we weren’t paying attention. Simple listening skills that we all expect our students to utilize. Yes, I would love to have students doing this while I speak, but I also know that it is a must for when students are speaking to each other. 

Now the question is: how do we teach this? I’ve seen videos like this one from the Teaching Channel that show students listening, reacting, interacting, and commenting appropriately when other students speak. And those are just fourth graders! I want that! Actually, I need that in my classroom.

Is this something that comes from having the same expectations across a team or grade level? Instead, we set different rules and expectations, or worse yet, simply lament the fact that our students do not seem to care about what their body language says to their speaking peers.

As I was reading Kim Campbell’s book If You Can’t Manage Them, You Can’t Teach Them, she talked about respect and the role that it plays in teachers’ sets of rules.

One of my expectations is that we respect each other… After several years of this approach, I realized I was operating under the (faulty) assumption that students understood exactly what I meant. Teachers continually demand respect. But students do not always know exactly what it means or what it looks like in a classroom.

Uh oh. That sounds an awful lot like me. I am very conscious to avoid long rules lists on the first day of school. The word respect encompasses everything that I want to see in my classroom. But the meaning of the word respect varies greatly among my students. That is what needs to change. We need to know what respect looks like in my classroom because that can have the same meaning for everyone.

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One thing I am trying is the use of the hand signals that you see to the right. I recently added the “I agree with you” signal to encourage active listening as well. This gives the listeners a reminder that it isn’t just about the person speaking. It also asks the listeners to think about what they plan to say ahead of time and see where that fits in with what is currently being said.

As teachers, we can spend our time complaining about the poor manners, listening skills, and peer interactions, or we can start teaching students what to do instead. I’m in, now I just need to know where to start!

What is my job?

babyI find myself thinking more and more about that question as an English teacher. Along with the reading and writing that we do, it has become increasingly important to do more than simply teach basic skills inside the walls of a classroom. How can I help students prepare to be successful? How can I help students to get involved in something they believe in? How can I help students to question? How can I help a student be happy?

Deep. I know.

But there is so much opportunity to be deep in an English classroom. We can explore opinions and defend our own real-world ideas. We can know what is going on in the world. We can practice habits that will lead us to being happy.

After watching this excellent TED Talk by Shawn Achor, I wanted to incorporate some of the habits that help lead to happiness in my classroom. Achor talks about the belief that once we accomplish something we will be happy, but that only leads to setting another goal. True happiness comes before we do anything. People with true happiness do not depend on something to trigger it. Their happiness triggers something else in their lives, and this is often success. Happy people tend to have a happiness advantage:

  • Better at keeping jobs
  • Superior productivity
  • Less burnout
  • Less turnover
  • Better sales

In my classroom we spend the first few minutes writing in our journal. What a perfect place to accomplish some happiness building! Here are Achor’s ways to train your brain and rewire it to help you work more optimistically and more productively:

  • Three gratitudes – Write down three new things that you are grateful for each day for 21 days in a row. Your brain will develop a pattern of scanning the world for positive instead of negative.
  • Journal – Write about one positive experience that you have had over the past 24 hours. It allows your brain to relive it.
  • Random acts of kindness – Write a note or an email to someone and thank them for what they have done for you.

We are losing the battle of raising conscientious human beings. Too many young people are stuck thinking only of themselves and never feel the joy that comes from making someone else happy. If we want our children to grow up and become positive individuals, we cannot take for granted that this is going to come from home anymore. School must be a place where we are helping children develop emotionally. These three small things, interspersed with the other daily activities, are my way of trying to do more than just teach English.