Friday, August 1, 2008

50 Cheap Mini-Lessons for Teachers: #41-50

Thank you to everyone who's been keeping up with the list all week! I hope that this final set of mini-lessons doesn't disappoint. I'm looking forward to reading your reactions, either as comments or emails. I'd also like everyone reading this to start thinking about what kind of mini-lessons you would want to be able to share with every teacher if you could. I'm planning on collecting those to extend this project. Here we go!
  1. Use music in your classroom. Music stimulates the memory in a powerful way, evoking images and emotions. When you connect a lesson to music, you make it memorable over long term. You can play a song as background music, play an instrument, sing, rap, maybe all of the above! I've been known to bust out my guitar on occasion, and other teachers have had similar success. It is especially useful for things that need to be memorized--I can still sing The Preposition Song I learned in elementary school. Finally, remember that you don't need to be an American Idol prospect in order to perform in front of your students. The fact that you get up there and do it no matter what goes a long way towards investing your students and building a positive classroom culture (see mini-lesson #9).
  2. Figure out how to use cell phones, iPods and portable video game systems to your advantage. Like it or not, integrating this kind of technology (#17) is where education is headed. You can get significantly ahead of the curve if you begin innovating ways to make them useful in the classroom. I understand this is hard for teachers (and especially school districts) to swallow, but I offer this evidence for you to consider:

    I know my school is interested in having students create podcasts, which would be beneficial on so many levels. I also understand that it would be near-impossible to pull off in the places I've worked in the past. Be creative and work within (and around) the confines of the system, and you'll find ways to make this work. For example, you could make materials like podcasts, videos and educational games available on a website you create and ask students to visit it outside of school.
  3. Make college a realistic goal for every student. I'm just guessing here, but I would be willing to bet that for most teachers, the goal of getting a college degree was a foregone conclusion from an early point in their lives. This is not true for a growing number of students, especially those in low-income communities. College is seen as something that only affluent white kids do. Thus the responsibility for preparing them for college both academically and practically falls squarely on us. Just talking about your college experience informally is a good start, and will often lead to discussions where you can talk about how they can afford to go and what they need to do to get there. Ask your students about their post-high school plans; you'll be surprised how many of your most talented students aren't even thinking about college! Encourage your students, even high school freshman, to attend college fairs, go on campus tours, and to seek out more information online. If you want to take it a step further, create a college profile bulletin board in your classroom, arrange field trips, or invite college students and professors to speak to your classes (and to be tutors).
  4. Keep a little perspective on how much school has changed since you were there. This is more true of middle and high school than younger grades, but the issues students are dealing with become more abundant and more complicated very rapidly. I would say that as quickly as computers become obsolete (every 2-4 years or so) middle and high school cultures experience another shift. This is true even for young, newly graduated teachers-to-be. For example, when I was in high school, there were no openly gay students that I knew of. Of course there were rumors, but I don't think my classmates were ready to tackle that sort of issue yet. The year I graduated high school was the year my sister started, and she later told me that openly gay students and couples were commonplace throughout her high school years. This was unheard of when I was there, just a few years earlier, but it proved to me how quickly things had changed. The lesson here is to understand and empathize with what your students are going through, and that no matter how long ago you were in your their position, things have changed.
  5. Don't get bogged down or depressed by negative portrayals of teachers in the media. Yes, I know that it seems like not a day goes by without another embarrassing story about a sex scandal or something just as bad. You must remember that negative stories draw more eyeballs to news and tabloids than positive ones, which in turn sells advertising (or more papers). It's all about money. The inspirational stories are out there, you just have to look harder (#18). In the end though, you have to know in your heart that you are in the noblest profession, working to make a positive impact on hundreds if not thousands of lives (see #50 below).
  6. Become a student of everything "local" to your students. This is similar to some of the advice I've already given (#7, #8, and #12) because it's another way to overcome the constant challenge of "relevance". It requires some reconnaissance work, traveling around, studying, listening and learning everything about the location, culture, language and history behind that community. Doing so serves two purposes: it gives you another way to make connections to real life and build them into your lessons, and it helps you understand your students better so that you can know how to invest them fully in what you're doing in class. For example, in all of the communities I taught in throughout south Texas, bingo was a huge part of the culture (it grew out of the traditional Mexican game of loterĂ­a). Everybody played it. So develop a math bingo game for class was a no-brainer, and not coincidentally a huge success.
  7. Pick your battles. Believe me, I know what it's like to be frustrated by everything your district and administration does. I wanted to fix everything, to fight for what I believed in, to save the world. I still have trouble accepting it myself, but you can't fix everything. You risk alienating people you need on your side for the really important issues if you focus on too many of the smaller ones. More importantly, you'll burn yourself out. I'm by no means telling you not to take a stand, especially when you're fighting for the benefit of your students, but do it for the things that matter most. Also, do it in a way that you won't burn any bridges before the inevitable battles to come.
  8. Learn the power of one-on-one student conferences. I've seen too many young teachers almost eager to rush into confrontations in the classroom because they feel the need to project some sort of dominating presences over their students. They'll take even the smallest, most innocuous student behavior and let it destroy the entire class. Even mild-mannered students tend to get offended and insulted when they are called out in front of the entire class, because they see it as a lack of respect. Talking to students on a one-to-one basis, either whispering to them at their desk, asking them to step outside, having them stay before or after class, or even pulling them out of another class for a few minutes are all better options for dealing with most situations. It helps avoid power struggles and minimize distractions for everybody. It also gives you a chance to really talk with those students, to build a better rapport and hopefully a constructive relationship with them. For more specific guidance on how to conduct these conversations, read the book I recommended in mini-lesson #38!
  9. Find a mentor or model teacher. I don't care if you've been at this teaching game for 50 years, as I said earlier this week: if you're not always striving to get better, you'll quickly become irrelevant to your students and your profession. Everyone needs a mentor or model, someone to look up to, to draw inspiration from, to bounce ideas off of. This doesn't need to be someone with more experience, either, just someone who helps make you a better teacher. New teachers, listen carefully: you need to find your own mentor. 99% of the people who are assigned to you are just looking for an extra paycheck or otherwise don't really have your best interests at heart. If you can't find anyone at your campus, find a good blog by a teacher you can model yourself after.
  10. Don't give up! No matter how much success I have, positive feedback I've received, or how many "I want to teach forever" moments I've experienced, I still have doubts. Even today, even while I'm writing this right now, I wonder if I can do this job for another year, let alone a career. Our profession is one of the most frustrating, stressful, and unhealthy imaginable. It's also one of the most rewarding, inspiring and life-affirming imaginable. It's easy to beat yourself up when things aren't going well, or to doubt your abilities, or to stop trying to get through to a student. My last and most important lesson is to never give up, not on your kids, and not on yourself. We have the most important job in the world--don't let anybody tell you different. The kids need you. The world needs you. To hammer this point home, I'm enlisting the help of two brave men who never gave up: Jim Valvano, college basketball coaching legend, gave his "Don't Give Up, Don't Ever Give Up" speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards while he was dying of cancer. The second is Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, whose speech known as The Last Lecture has inspired so many. Pausch died just a few days ago after battling pancreatic cancer, but his inspiration lives on. Good luck this coming school year.
You can read the other 40 lessons here: 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, and 31-40.

If you've gotten something out of this list, you should check out my book, Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom, available from, Barnes & Noble and other fine online retailers.