What Being a Student Has Reminded Me About Good Teaching

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of teaching, sometimes not really thinking about the things you know you should do, but run out of time to make happen. Unfortunately, time is a limited resource, and teachers are in a perpetual cycle of never quite being “done” with their work. Even if you’ve planned all of your lessons, graded all of your papers, updated all of your bulletin boards, and answered all of your emails, there’s always something more you could do to improve upon what you already have. 

As I’m finishing up my first year in a PhD program, I’m completing my final assignments before the university goes on winter break and reflecting on what my experience as a student has reminded me about good teaching practices.

  1. Timely feedback is important! The sooner that feedback can be given, the better, and the more specific it is, the more valuable it is. If your students believe you’re not looking at their work anytime soon, they’ll lose the motivation to complete it.
  2. Grading the quality of a first attempt at a skill is setting up your students for failure. Especially for a first try, students need the safety net of being free to fail and learn from those mistakes without major consequences. Either give feedback without a grade attached, or offer a do-over if you must grade that first try. 
  3. If you’re looking for something specific, providing an exemplar is really helpful. If you aren’t able to provide a strong example of what you’re looking for when you assign the task, at least provide a rubric so students know how their work will be scored. 
  4. Offer options when possible. Sometimes you really need students to practice a certain skill in a particular way, but often standards are written in a purposefully vague way that is open to some interpretation. Use that as a springboard for your students to be creative in how they show their learning. Offer options, and maybe even be open to your students coming up with their own variation of the task sometimes. 
  5. Be mindful of the issues that so often arise during group work, and attempt to avoid students having to depend on one another too much in order to complete their part of the task. The most common issue I’ve encountered as both a student and a teacher is specific people not completing their portion of the work, or not completing it in the timeline and to the standard their group mates expect of them. Consider how you will combat these issues when you assign group tasks.
  6. Offer optional opportunities for students to expand their learning. Whether it’s a review or a bonus task that dives deeper into the content, offering additional learning opportunities can help your students gain a better understanding of what you’ve been teaching. 
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The Power of Books

I hope everyone has read at least one life-changing book, but I think that many times books change us as readers without our even realizing it. For example, this article at Smithsonian.com discusses a study that was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that those who read Harry Potter, “might develop greater empathy and tolerance toward people with disadvantaged backgrounds.” Based on observation, it seems that my students who are Percy Jackson fans seem to not have any negative stigma regarding ADHD. In the series, it’s a known fact that many demigods have ADHD and dyslexia, since their ability to pay attention to lots of different things helps them in battle, and their brains are hardwired to read Ancient Greek, not modern English. In the hopes that students will show more empathy towards those who are different from them, physically or otherwise, I’ve read “Out of My Mind” to my class for years, and I have many colleagues who read “Wonder” to their classes for the same reason.

I think that it’s equally important that literature featuring protagonists from different cultural backgrounds are read by children of any race or cultural background. Everyone deserves to read about a character with whom they can identify, but they also all benefit from reading about others to broaden their perspective. This is precisely why the books I offer students to choose from for our historical fiction unit featured a wide variety of protagonists: Esperanza Rising features a Mexican girl who emigrates to the US; Bud, Not Buddy features an African-American boy looking for his father; The Watsons Go to Birmingham features an African-American family from Michigan who travel to Alabama in 1963; Number the Stars features a Jewish girl in Denmark and her best friend, a Christian girl whose sister died as part of the Resistance during WWII; In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson features a Chinese girl who emigrates to America in the 1940’s; Sylvia & Aki features two girls based on a true story, Sylvia is Latina and is not allowed to attend the “white” school and Aki is Japanese-American and is sent to an internment camp during WWII.

What books do you use to enhance your curriculum, teach your students life lessons, or give them a different perspective of the world?

Growth Mindset and Always Learning

If you read so much as the title of my blog, you probably know I’m an educator, but I’m also a parent to 3 boys (all age 9 and under). Not long before the school year ended for my sons, we sat down and made some goals for the summer, because when you have a lot of time on your hands, it is sadly really easy to let it all slip away. Before we realize what has happened, it will be late July and we will have accomplished nothing more scintillating than watching a whole lot of Netflix if we don’t form some semblance of a plan.

They chose their own goals, but I gave them some suggestions. Some goals are things like working on belt loops for Cub Scouts, going to the local science museum and zoo, swimming, and reading a book now and again.

One of the things I know they need to work on is their fine motor skills and handwriting. While some kids may get really excited about practicing forming row after row of individual letters and contrived words, mine simply don’t. I knew that printing handwriting pages off the internet would only end in tears (more than likely mine). Instead, we have implemented Family Art Time. Each night one of us chooses a YouTube video that features “how to” step by step instructions for drawing a fairly simple picture, and all of us attempt to draw it…even the grown-ups. For now, we’ve been choosing from kidsarthub’s channel, but their last video was uploaded 2 years ago, so I know we’ll need to find another at some point. We each have our own little blank notebook to use as a sketchbook, and I hope that they realize at the end of the summer how much their drawing improves over time. We might even revisit some of our early videos in August to see how much better we are at drawing something familiar after so much practice.
We’re still very early in the summer, but so far the results are good. The boys are excited about family art time, they work to control their pencils carefully to create what the video shows, all of us are improving our drawing skills, and we’re spending time together as a family.

One of the things I love about Family Art Time is that it has given us a natural situation to nurture a growth mindset in our boys. They see Mom and Dad erasing when we make mistakes. We have already had one kid remark in frustration that he just isn’t very good at drawing the picture du jour, which led us into a conversation about how practicing is the best way to get better at things.

Want to follow my journey as an artist? I’ve been documenting it on Instagram @thecurriculumnerd.