Tag Archives: Work

Teaching Kids to Do What It Takes

“Do what it takes,” I say. “Don’t let things happen to you… instead, make you happen to other things.”

This is all part of my push to teach high schoolers how to become professionals. One of the key rites of passage in my life was when I simply decided to stop making excuses.

It’s a small wonder that students become so keen to rationalize failure; when they’re young, they learn very quickly that they don’t have power over their own lives. The frustration that comes from not being allowed to make one’s own choices either festers into anger or stagnates into resignation. Then this lack of control becomes a convenient excuse for failure. This is not permanent, however; starting with high school, their choices suddenly matter – only someone seems to have forgotten to tell them about it.

“Do what it takes.” The premise sounds simple, but execution can seem agonizingly demanding to a student unused to accepting agency over his or her own performance. “My printer didn’t work!” a student would say to me, as if I had somehow failed to provide resources when giving an assignment.

“Oh. I guess you should just give up.” I reply. A sheepish grin is quick to break out over the student’s face then as they inevitably hear what they sound like. That’s when I hit them with all of the things they could have done. This list is very similar to below:

Did you:

  • Print it at school?
  • Text a classmate? (After all, they have to turn the assignment in too…)
  • Bike to the library?
  • Tell your parents?
  • Email ME, the one person who can grant pardons and stays of executions?
  • Take a selfie with the finished assignment in case they needed to verify that it was done on time?
  • Email it to a classmate to print?
  • Go to Kinko’s?
  • Make a handwritten version in a last-ditch effort to create a submittable hard copy?

The point is not that I expect students to spend money or anything like that – at least, not specifically. The point is to do what it takes. Nobody cares about your story unless you have results. No boss wants to hear excuses. They do want to hear crazy success stories. The crazier the story, the prouder you can be! Don’t try to impress me with how bad your luck is. Impress me with how far you went to make sure you got done what needed to be done. Try an idea instead of waiting for me to feed it to you when you tell me your life is impossible.

As more technology makes things more convenient, it’s amazing how life seems to be so much more difficult. “I couldn’t do it.” has a subtext of “it wasn’t convenient enough.” Really? Do you own a phone? Then you have access to pretty much the entirety of humankind’s collective knowledge. There was a time when writing a paper meant you had to visit the library and pore over volumes of text while being shushed by a lady who looked like a human raisin. Now you can do it in some cases without even looking at your phone.

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More than a mantra to repeat through the year, this simple concept of doing what it takes has been the theme bolstering my new curriculum and my attitude about putting in work hours. It wasn’t long before this concept led to regular attendance of Saturday School.

I should explain. The school at which I work has a program called START Saturday School. I’m sure there’s something clever that START stands for, but I have no idea at this moment what it is. What I do know is that it’s basically 4 hours out of the day on Saturday when students can receive help, feedback, and attention that they need. As if that’s not enough, the school gets back funds lost from the same students being absent during the week. Teachers are also able to work general tutoring or, with groups of 15 or more, be in their rooms and give additional lessons and/or customized support to suit the needs of their students. Teachers are paid for their time, and I’ve had the pleasure of telling students to come in on Saturday for more support and them of watching the relief appear on their faces.

I couldn’t tell students to do what it takes, and then also tell them that coming in on Saturday was not worth it to me.  So I started attending regularly.

This time has proven repeatedly to be worth it, and I find myself regularly inspired by the opportunity to show students that extra effort is met with a similar effort on my part.  I also find that without the pressure to lesson plan, the four hours become some of the most productive ever (for the students), because they feel like I am there specifically to answer their questions, rather than to screen their inquiries while I push my lesson out.

Teachers, if your school has a Saturday School program like this, I implore you to go, and to push it on your students like it’s a new iPhone.  Saturday School has proven not to be the chore it sounded like in my staff email inbox; instead, it has proven to be a regular reminder of why I became a teacher: to help students and lead by example.

More importantly, the generation needs to learn how to do what it takes.  We live in a society that thinks “bring me solutions, not problems” means to not talk about problems we can’t solve.  No.  It means that we don’t accept no for an answer.  Even a “sort of yes” beats a no any day.  If you aim for the A, you might get a B, which is better than an F.

The point is nobody can begin to meet you halfway if you decide the path is too hard.  We’re pack animals – gregarious beings that compensate for the failures of the individual through numbers and diverse offerings – but in order for that to happen, everyone needs to offer what they have instead of not coming out at all.  Sometimes your part is to just put what you have on the table until someone comes along that needs what you have.

This starts with you doing YOU first so you can get to that point.  For some individuals on this Earth, that starts in MY classroom, doing what it takes.  I’ve made it my mission to ensure that if it starts there, it won’t end there.

Let’s make it happen.

Let’s do what it takes.

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The Bathroom Issue

This debate is one that often transcends any single plane of argument.  One minute it’s about logistics, the next it’s about ethics.  The situation starts as a simple hypothetical: A student asks to use the restroom in the middle of your class, at a time when you’ve just started getting your class into gear.  What do you do?

Online, I’ve noticed that there are several lines drawn here.  Parents almost unanimously cry foul at a teacher’s refusal, citing human rights for why their angels should be allowed to use the restroom whenever they feel the need, and that furthermore, they shouldn’t feel pressured to put themselves out in any way upon feeling said urge – the teacher needs to just let them go and suck it up, they say.

Students feel the same way – “We’re young adults, you can’t tell us what to do.  Just go, no matter what the teacher says.”

Teachers are divided: Half say “Don’t let them go.”  The other half says “Go, you don’t want to get sued, especially if admin won’t back you up.”  Sad truth.

I will first tell you my bathroom policy, followed by my responses to these arguments.

I tell my students that my class is like a car ride, and that they need to go before they get in the car.  If they ask to use the restroom, I use Classcraft to take 10HP from them with a preset called “Go on your own time,” or I say “No.” until they ask again.  I do tell them that they are at my mercy, as in my class I am the Morning and Evening Star.

Is this a power trip?  No.  I will explain.

First of all, this argument needs to be put into context so that I don’t have a swarm of Common Sense Media parents clamoring for my execution.  I teach high school.  Young adults, they’re called.  Not elementary students.  My policy is based heavily on this factor.  The three skills that I focus on in my class are the same that I would want my own kids to develop as young adults, and they’re the same traits that pushed me into adulthood and maturity.  Students find that mastering these three things is the only thing they have to do to be sure they will do well in my class – the rest happens by itself, usually.

Phan’s Trinity of Maturity
  1. Managing Time
  2. Managing Priorities
  3. Managing Communication

At my school, students are given a passing period to use the restroom, etc. and of course breaks and lunch.  If students don’t use the restroom during this time, then they are not managing their time, and they are certainly not prioritizing their own well-being.

What about a medical condition or an emergency?

The contingency I do allow is reliant on the 3rd skill.  If you have a medical condition or an emergency, you need to adequately and effectively communicate it.  That’s just survival.

My child shouldn’t have to humiliate themselves in front of the class to use the restroom.

Then certainly it’s their job – or at the very least the PARENT’S job if the student is determined to be helpless – to tell the teacher ahead of time and work out some kind of signal system if they have a condition… I mean, it’s not like effectively conveying need in an emergency situation in a quick and efficient manner is a life skill or anything.

Communication is the major skill here, because I’m not a robot!  If you can convey the gravity of the situation, you probably have nothing to worry about.  It’s about knowing why the system is in place.  The system says nobody can go, but the system is not in place to stop people with full bladders.  It’s to facilitate learning.

If you need to pee and you’re not just trying to escape class because you’re bored, then you’ll have no worries, because you’ll have no problem finishing the sentence you’re on before going.  You won’t have any qualms about handing over your phone while you’re gone either, right?  Since you’ll be right back and it’s not like you were going to call your friends or tweet for 45 minutes and come back when the bell rings?

It’s messed up to take points away for having to use the bathroom in class!

If you really need to go, you can’t control it, right? It’s like having bad weather that cancels your practice.  If you take the hit, then work extra hard to make up for the hit!  That’s being responsible.  If you accidentally break something, you still own up.  If you have to go to the bathroom, it’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s not your classmates’ fault, so obviously it comes down to you to deal with the issue – and sometimes that means taking the hit.  You know what?  Life will go on.  I don’t know what the aversion is to losing points for things that aren’t anyone else’s problem.  That’s life.  If I’m paid by the hour for a job and an asteroid strikes my car and keeps me from going to work, I’m not going to insist I get paid anyway.  No, I take the hit.  If your dog eats your homework, you take the hit and then in the future you take better care of your homework – and your dog.

And as for the student insistence that they have the freedom to just “go, no matter what the teacher says?”  That’s true, you have that freedom.  A teacher won’t bodily stop you.  I can technically walk out of the classroom whenever I want, too.

You see, freedom comes only to those who accept the consequences.  If a teacher forbids you to go, and you need to go, then by all means go.  Then take the referral the teacher writes you, serve the detention, whine about it to your mom, and sleep soundly knowing you were in the right.  Then use your knowledge of your teacher’s jerk attitude and the system to avoid having to go in their class anymore.

As for getting sued… well, honestly, no teacher can do anything if they fear being sued.  My advice for that is usually just to be smart, be transparent, and always do your very best to do what’s right in your heart, and the world will have a hard time condemning you.

Yeah, sometimes I’m more naive than the students.  I don’t really see how anyone who isn’t an idealist in some fashion or another can become a teacher, though.

Updates – May 19th, 2017

So I’ve had a lot going on lately, with a lot of activity resulting in very little blog output, so I thought that I’d provide some information for the nosiest people among us.

Phan Summer Tour 2017

I’m kidding around.  I am doing no such thing.  That being said, I will be doing a little bit of speaking at some Google Summits and things about Classcraft and Hip Hop Ed.  I may vlog it.  I may even vlog it and edit it, who knows?  A lot of this year has been new experiences in networking, classroom implementation, and in professional projects.  Most of this activity will be as part of the wonderful Classcraft Ambassador program, which has plunged me headfirst into gamification and engagement strategies, not to mention reignited some of my passion for teaching.  This is also rather alarming because I didn’t really need reigniting, so the enthusiasm level right now is real.  Yes, that’s right, I’m using real the way some people use unreal or even intense.  Or hardcore.  You just have to say it right.  Get a little of that Logan growl in there when you say real.

Nice, good job.

Some passion projects have included:

Classcraft

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Using Classcraft has transformed my classroom!  A lot of time and energy has also gone into making the MOST out of the benefits it has provided.  This has trickled into other parts of the profession, of course, but it has also put my brain into more of a “teaching” gear.  As a result, the blog also seems to have gained a focus on education, rather than scattered topics.  Never fear, I shall continue to write unrestrained, as the initial idea was to write about all aspects of being a teacher – including the parts that people don’t want to talk about.  Like what being a teacher does to your work-life balance.  Or your finances.  Or your relationship.  Or your gaming hobby.  Or your consumption of media.  Or your rule about using fragments.

Podcast: Phan’s Homework

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Click to listen/subscribe on Google Play

I actually started this with my wife.  She’s helping me organize the huge gaggle of content that is my brain.  I have a passion for speaking that I can’t quite capture in the written word.  Also, I think I’m funny, and I need you to check my ego.  After all, who needs self-esteem?

The appeal of a Podcast to me is that when I talk about things, the content tends to arrive organically in a way that mirrors how I – and hopefully by extension, some other humans – actually think.  This makes the consumption of the content easy to follow and intimate.  I don’t think I’m some masterful guru with wisdom to share, but I do think that I’m learning every day, and I do think that the way I tend to reflect and connect events in my life is possibly useful to other people.  Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, or maybe it’s why I’m a teacher: they way I talk tends to provoke thought, and the process itself along with the result is more often than not an amusing one.  Hence: Phan’s Homework – a teacher’s Podcast about school, home, and the limbo between.  Please, if you join my audience, do write me with feedback.  I want to commiserate, provide catharsis, and spark inspiration.  I want more teachers listening to podcasts and less teachers burning out and thinking nobody understands the struggle.

The struggle is real. (Don’t forget the growl.  Good.)

I am unsure about some the logistics of putting the podcast out; I have released it on Google Play Music, and I’m in the process of iTunes… I suppose I can have the feed run in a sidebar on this site, or simply link to it above.  I could have used a feed from a category on this site, but I gave it its own site in case people still want to consume this content without having to see my podcast.

Some other things you may hear about in the days to come include but are not limited to my YouTube channel, reading Oathbringer when it’s finally released sometime this year, playing Injustice 2 over the summer, trying to get my exercising back on point, and other things that come up when you’re an English Teacher and a gamer.

Yelling at the Ocean

During a staff collaboration, our department head showed us a TED talk by Eduardo Briceño that discussed the reason why people’s skills at their profession tended to plateau in skill despite large amounts of time being invested into their improvement.  Specifically, he said that the average person has two zones:

  • In the Learning Zone, people are relaxed and situations are very low-stakes.  The emphasis is on becoming better.
  • In the Performance Zone, the emphasis is on execution and evaluation, and the stakes are higher.

Briceño then stated that the problem is that most people almost always place themselves in the Performance Zone, and are seldom in the Learning Zone.  This is apparently impressed upon us at a young age: we are taught that school is evaluative through grades, and are often punished or docked for mistakes, enforcing the principle that mistakes are bad.  Furthermore, because the Performance Zone is one of judgment, not of improvement, the mistakes made are not used to improve any skills.

The first thing that came to mind when Briceño discussed a low-stakes situation Learning Zone was my time playing soccer.  More than any teacher making me spell and write repeatedly, my time playing soccer – especially with my father – taught me the importance of practice.

When I started playing soccer, I was typically awful.  However, about two or three years into playing the game, my skill level spiked suddenly.  This was not just due to maturity, or finally understanding the sport.  My kicks were powerful for my age, and I was able to aim the ball precisely – almost with x, y, and z-axis precision.  I was able to trap almost any ball flying toward me at my feet with a technique involving my shin.  These skills made me a valuable asset to my team, despite my lack of precise ball control as a dribbler.

SONY DSC
Demosthenes projecting his voice over the ocean.

As I reflect now, Briceño’s words color my experience with a new significance.  His example of the Learning Zone was made clearer by his reference to the orator Demosthenes, who practiced posture by suspending a sword blade above his shoulder, who spoke against the ocean on the beach to perfect his projection, and who put rocks in his mouth to master enunciation.  Individual skills were perfected and honed in ways that far surpassed the difficulty of what he was practicing for – but the situations were low stakes.  Nobody would know if he failed during these exercises but himself.

Soccer practice ran similarly.  No matter how much we begged for a scrimmage (essentially a simulation of an actual game), both my coach and my father would instead focus on drills, which were little tasks that perfected individual skills in preparation for the game.

“There’s no point in a scrimmage if you have no skill.” said my dad to me once in the car.  Essentially, using a soccer game to practice for a soccer game was limited in usefulness because it was a performance zone.  Drills were specialized in practice: We practiced dribbling.  We did sprints and liners to practice changing direction.  We did the Give-and-Go.  We juggled the ball with our feet.

When I reflect now, I realize that the things I spent the most time practicing with my dad (mostly because we couldn’t really run around) were my kick (shooting the ball with my father as the goaltender – he was better than any elementary kid would be) and my trap (my dad would always expect me to trap the ball – no self-respecting soccer player would do otherwise if a trap was possible.)

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Soccer practice was low-stakes but higher in difficulty.  If I missed a goal (you know, because my goaltender was a full-grown adult), I just had to try again.  Every time I missed a trap, I just had to run and get the ball.  There was no punishment. I practiced for way more hours than I ever played in a game.  I realize now that my father kept me in the Learning Zone.  Every time I tried to shoot a ball past my father, I was Demosthenes yelling at the ocean.  The drills that I performed faithfully improved my skills.  Accordingly, the drills that I performed less diligently – like running laps, dribbling, and ball-handling – did little to help me.

My skill plateaued eventually – and again, that’s easy to explain.  As I got older, I was shorter than a lot of my teammates.  When they did better than I did in practice, I was disheartened, instead of focusing on myself.  I practiced less with my father, and soon I only heard his feedback from watching my games.  Without realizing it, I had transformed my practice time into a Performance Zone.

Many parents make this same mistake with their child’s education.  Low grades are punished, average performance ignored, with only high performance receiving acknowledgment. – implicitly teaching that mistakes are bad.  If mistakes are bad, then everything is high-stakes, which makes school a Performance Zone, not a Learning Zone.

In addition, the social imperative mirrors this as well. For some reason, teenagers care what their peers think, to the point that their worst nightmare is to be caught in a vulnerable position.  The fear of becoming a social pariah as a consequence is about as high as stakes get, with teens tossing and dodging labels like “snitch” and “slut” in their day-to-day lives.  If you worry about what other people think, how can you be safe enough to make mistakes?

I’ve talked before about how we need to be uncomfortable.  In order to do that and get to sword-suspending and ocean-yelling, we need to identify our Performance Zones and our Learning Zones and treat them as such.  This is also why hobbies are a good idea: you can use the skills they give you in their assorted Learning Zones with your Performance Zone.  For example, rapping has been a low-stakes way of building confidence when speaking and demanding attention, which is something crucial when teaching teenagers.  It also expands my vocabulary and refines my pronunciation.  Blogging helps me with my writing skills and with expressing my thoughts in words, which is definitely an imperative for an ELA professional.

The concept of the Learning Zone is the rebuttal we’ve been looking for to the tired claim that you “don’t use what you learn in school anyway.”  Yes, you do!  Of course, problems aren’t like they were in school.  A school is a Learning Zone.  School tasks are drills.  School is yelling at the ocean.  Real life replaces the ocean with real people and raises the stakes – because now the waves can hear you or destroy you, and your words matter.

How I Infuse Joy into My Teaching Day.

Life can seem difficult as a teacher; we have notoriously difficult jobs, and that can bring us to put our own morale aside. Students can pick up on this quick, however, so it’s just as important to keep your enthusiasm up as it is to maintain the enthusiasm of your class. Here are some things that I do to keep the beast at bay and bring maximum happiness into my career.

1. Journal Questions

Journal Questions are often a missed opportunity to connect with students… and to have a little fun.  The first 5 minutes of class are for answering the journal prompt – then the second 5 minutes are for sharing, with Fridays for Friday Freewrites.  The important rule that I like to apply to make it fun for me is that I share last.  The students like these questions because they get to share themselves – and find a little bit out about their teacher.  Questions like “What do you believe happens after death?” and “Describe your daily routine as a vending machine.” keep kids engaged.

2. #Custom #Gamification

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Tools like the awesome Classcraft can be tailor-made for your class.  In Classcraft, there’s this feature called the Random Event.  The first thing I did with it was I went through them and added custom events based on information I knew about my students.  I have events based on TV characters, characters from the books we read… no limits!

3. A Change of Scenery

I use a projector in my class to help the students follow along when we read or to model how to do some of the assignments.  One thing I like to do is change the desktop wallpaper every week or so.  Students appreciate the change – and they love when they can connect with something like what show you’re watching lately or a trip you went on based on whatever image you use. You can also use pictures from the news if you want to start a conversation that way.

4. Take risks.

You may have gotten so experienced that you are loath to reinvent the wheel by trying anything new. One thing I’ve learned though is that if you dread it, the kids will dread it. If something is going to be painful, take your own time and remake it. Tell the kids what you did! “I was going to have us read Medea, but then I realized we’d all have more fun with The Merchant of Venice!” Students seem to like when I go out on a limb for them.

 5. Character Study

Sometimes I teach with different voices or accents. This can be taken to an extreme; what if you taught a science lesson as Charles Darwin? What if Atticus Finch ran today’s discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird? You don’t necessarily have to be an awesome actor for this; you just have to commit. Don’t break character for a moment, wear the right clothing… and of course, if someone uses your real name, act confused, but tell them that they sound like a really good-looking person.

These ideas can breathe new life into your work – and provide the morale boost you need to get through the day. Most importantly, they can teach and model for the students how being in the professional world doesn’t necessarily entail a moratorium on happiness; all it can take sometimes is the right combination of factors for your passion to ignite theirs.

 

The Art of the Answer

Hopefully, most adults already know the information that I’m about to share.  I know for a fact that most teenagers fresh out of high school do not.  Therefore, if you are in college, I’m about to give you a huge boost over all of your peers.  This may help you professionally, but it will DEFINITELY save your personal relationships, mostly because the fix is so subtle that most people only notice the effects and not the cause, meaning you get the credit but still maintain your mystery.

If someone you respect – perhaps even like – says something that you didn’t hear or don’t understand, you have been presented with an immediate test of maturity and adulthood.

Person: “Hey Steve! Can you poejopfwfkoepqk…”

Steve: “What?”

Steve has failed the test.  Hard.  “What?” is an innocent question that teenagers are used to asking – and that’s because teenagers don’t know anything.  A young adult will condition himself to answer differently.

“Yeah,” you might think, “but you’re a stuffy English teacher.  I don’t need to use your rules in my personal, casual life.”

You don’t know this because most people don’t know this unless they think about it, which they don’t: “What” and “Huh” as one-word questions both induce maximum rage.  Think about the last time you explained something and someone answered, “What?”

In fact, think about the last time you called someone’s name and they answered, “What?”

Have I proven my point yet?

“What” at the wrong time can derail a conversation and ruin an interaction before you can even begin to think about why it happened.  That’s because “What” or “huh” imply any of these 4 things.

  1. “Uh… what?” You’re stupid.  Your mind is too simple to comprehend what was being said.
  2. “… what?” You aren’t paying attention.  Disrespect.
  3. “What?” You don’t care.  Disrespect.
  4. “What?!” (What.) You’re spitting attitude. Disrespect.

None of these 4 things are good for your personal relationships – especially if they already know you aren’t stupid.

“Huh” is even worse than “What” because it makes you make a stupid face while you say it.

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“Huh” is the reason your parents still think you can’t handle your business.

“Huh” is the reason you being on your phone counts as you being “on the phone all the time” instead of just the one time you were using it in front of them.

“Huh” is the reason nobody thinks you can multi-task.

Try this experiment.  The next time someone calls your name, answer with “How can I help you?”  The next time someone says something that you don’t hear, answer with “I heard something about ____ but I didn’t hear all of it.” or even “Could you repeat the last sentence you said?  I think I misheard you.”

You’ll avert so many arguments that you’re used to having.

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This lesson needs to be taught in schools.  I told my students about this, and one of my students asked, “Why?”

I told her that she didn’t know it yet, but she actually hated people who say it.  “You won’t find this out until you move in with someone and ask them something from the kitchen while he’s in the living room.”

Parenthood will also bring this issue up really fast.  My parents weren’t having it.  “Yes, Mom!” was the answer demanded, and had I more courage I would have met this demand with goose-stepping and the obligatory salute to these fascist dictators.

We weren’t really good about saying that until we were older, but if you wanted to get on my parents’ beatdown list all you had to do was say “What?” when they called your name.  If it was for something bad, you were automatically in trouble for it regardless of the explanation, and if it was for something good, it was immediately canceled.

“HOAN!”

“What?”

“Never mind, you can eat tomorrow.”

Even armed with the explicit knowledge of exactly how our parents wanted us to answer them, we were awful at avoiding our parents’ wrath for this particular offense.

Avoid my mistakes, children.  Be better.  Right my wrongs.