Tag Archives: teaching

#WorstToFirst #WorstToNotWorst Classroom Decor

Last year, I can remember at least 3 times being visited in my classroom by my principal, who glared around my room at its bare walls and muttered “This classroom depresses me.” 1

So this summer, I spent a little bit of time 2 working on coming up with SOME better way to get my room to my liking, and a few weeks ago, I started working on making some changes to it. The biggest was switching the orientation of the room from LONG to WIDE, adjusting the projector and whiteboard accordingly, and adding in a ginormous map to one of the walls. Also, with the assistance of my amazing wife, we got a couple of cool new paint jobs to make life a little bit easier for yours truly. Check out what we did!

I’m super happy with what I’ve got in so far, and there are still a few things to do:

  • Mount a new Samsung 2.1 wireless soundbar that I picked up from Groupon for only *muffled voice that sounded vaguely like “$120″* so my classroom can have decent sound without running all kinds of cords all over the place.
  • Decorate the heck out of those bulletin boards to start out fresh.
  • Figure out something long and skinny I can put on top of my whiteboard—perhaps a timeline?
  • Put up my handsome “Romeo & Juliet” poster from Litographs.
  • Put up my custom-designed “Double your rate of failure” poster. 3
  • Waiting on a package from China 4 with a secret weapon for my classroom—Tweet-sized/themed “I Can” statements that will live on my wall all the time and be marked as which ones we’ll be using that day. More on this to come…

However, aside from those couple of jobs, I’m jazzed about what I had! I don’t know that my principal will be able to wander into my room and just be floored by what thing we did, but I know that at least I went from easily the worst in the school to a couple of spots better than that


  1. Noted.
  2. And money… Oh, the money…
  3. … that seems to be taking forever to get here. FYI: If you have the choice to print pictures online, avoid Artscow.com. Cheap pictures that are apparently good quality, but they clearly take the slowboat from China the long way around the globe.
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What a head-butting sheep taught me about teaching

I probably should have been working on my Master’s Project. Or grading that pile of essays my students turned in yesterday. Or, better yet, on an AP course syllabus that I’ve been procrastinating on for a couple of weeks now. Or even simply cleaning my uncharacteristically unorganized, dirty house before the Sabbath sunset.

But instead, I was on Facebook 1, watching this video that my friend Tracy posted. Watching it once. Twice. Again and again and again.

And also, I may or may not have had a solitary tear in my eye.

For whatever reason, as of late, I’ve been a sucker for sheep. I keep stumbling across them in the Bible, on the internet, and in my classroom 2. One of the teams in my fantasy football league is named after sheep. It might just be one of those things where X is always around you and you never notice until someone brings it up, and then you start noticing an abundance of Xs everywhere you go, but even so, I’ve been getting a sheep treatment lately.

So when I saw Tracy post a video about sheep teaching, it was over before it already started. I watched. I laughed. I rewatched. I giggled. I rewatched. I was silent. I rewatched. I was touched.

At the risk of getting too analytical over a silly 2-minute viral video, here’s what my teacher eye sees:


0:01—In education, this is called the set. A good lesson should have some sort of opening that gets the students’ attention and possible tease what we’ll be talking about today. Notice the sheep backing up, never taking her eyes 3 off her student, before modeling what he will be learning today.


0:06—CHARGE… but not quite. Notice that the teacher stops short, instilling curiosity in her disengaged student without actually making “a connection.” Again, this is part of a really strong set—get their interest, then get to the instruction.


0:18—What is she telling him? Ok, probably nothing, but she looks to be right in his face, giving him some sort of instruction on how to perform a solid head-butt. Of course, judging from the bull’s head-shake reaction at 0:19, he might have some doubts to how he can actually do this, but don’t worry—she’s ready to again model a successful charge to her doubtful student.


0:23—Again, she doesn’t turn her back to him when she resets herself—her eyes remain on her student. She’s done this before.


0:28—Contact! Ok, now we’re getting into practice-mode. Mrs. Sheep is still soft to her pupil, but this time, she’s modeled how to correctly make contact. Notice that, on impact, she doesn’t just slam skull-to-skull into her opponent; she lowers her neck to drive them down to where she can control the situation 4. This is a big next-level type of lesson for her student: “Ok, now that you know the basic plot, here’s how you can win when you’re charging.”


0:43—”Are you paying attention?” On her 3rd charge, he was looking off to the side 5 and wasn’t ready for her approach. Now, let’s be real—most of us would find this time to snap at the kid and head-butt them (literally or not) back into reality. Mrs. Sheeple doesn’t; she pulls up, gets in his face, says something, and softy prods him backwards. She’s showing his lack of attention isn’t acceptable, but she’s not making him pay for it. She wants to make sure he gets the lesson, but she’s aware his attention span is lessening, so…


0:47—She does a 4th run at him, but from a much shorter distance. It’s the equivalent of a golf coach modeling the follow-through of a swing over and over; this is truly the “hard part”, so rather than explain everything, she’s focused on the “closing,” or the part that she’ll be assessing for. Again, light contact to show him that it’s possible. The problem is…


0:50—Uh oh, he’s pissed off now. Or is he? He comes forward slow enough I can’t decide if he’s warning her he’s about to snap OR he’s try it out. Either way, notice that she runs away at her approach, but that she doesn’t turn around. If she was scared for her life, she would have done a 180 and got the heck out of Dodge, but the fact that she’s still pacing backwards says to me she’s still in charge of the situation.


0:57—What an amazing 7 seconds! He’s so done with this—the bell rang, and it’s time to gather up his things and mosey to the next class. But she’s not letting him off the hook. “It’s not quitting time until I say it’s quitting time!” She charges at him not once, but twice, and by the 2nd time, he’s figured out that she’s not going to quit coming at him until he lowers his head on her attack. Ladies and gentlemen, that bull just LEARNED. And that’s no bull. 6


1:02—HE’S READY FOR IT! Again, no judgment, but I get so excited by seeing the student finally understand 1) what is about to happen, and 2) how to deal with it. That’s huge! It’s taken her 7 runs at him, but he’s finally got the idea of head-butting down.


1:20—”Uh, Senora Sheeple? I got it. Let’s move on to the next lesson.” NUH-UH. The teacher has taken a few more runs at her student because she’s noticed that, although he’s acquired the basic concept of the lesson, he has still not reached her “level of mastery.” This is one of the most controversial A-words in all of education: ASSESSMENT. She needs to see if he actually has learned what (in her opinion) he needs to, or if it was just a couple of lucky flukes.


1:27—Oops, maybe he’s not as ready as his test says he is. She’s going to keep testing him and, if possible, reinforce the lessons from earlier.


1:45—One of my favorite sheep-based lessons from this video is here: SHE. WILL. NOT. LOSE. He’s no longer interested in studying; he’s tired, bored, and ready to go home, but she’s pressing him on to be the best he can be. And better yet, she’s doing while not being a jerk about it. He’s so much bigger, he’s so much stronger, but he recognizes that what she’s saying is valuable and important—it’s why he’s giving ground to her.


2:09—The other part of this I took inspiration from this video took place in the last 30-seconds: nothing. Nothing significant happened. At least, nothing appeared to happen. I like to think, though, that after a heated “battle”, the fact that he’s letting her stay so close shows that he’s willing to listen. It shows that he doesn’t hate her. It shows that he values what she’s teaching—he might not like it, but he gets it, and he respects her for it. In my short time being a high school teacher, I’ve found that despite their stated desires, students truly appreciate teachers who are not only caring, attentive, and willing to adjust, but also firm to what they believe and concrete in their expectations. In a world that young people find increasingly confusing and difficult to “figure out”, they can and will respect principled adults who don’t waver in the wind depending on their moods or circumstances, but believe what they believe and expect the best from their students. 7

Is this too much to get from a clip of one of Old MacDonald’s animals ramming another? Probably. But truly, as I watch this video for the nth time, I can’t help but be touched by the sophistication of the instruction that a sheep 8 was able to provide in 2 minutes. I’m inspired to develop better sets to get my students motivated for a lesson. I’m motivated to model what I’m looking for from them. I’m excited to experiment with new ways to provide quality instruction to them. I’m pumped about assessing what they’ve learned in class. And most importantly, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to be an example to the kids that walk into my classroom every day.

And truly, that is no bull. 9


  1. also known as “The Great Timewaster”
  2. Student-directed BURN! :-)
  3. With your permission, for the sake of pronouns, I’m going to assign this sheep the gender of a female, as her uninterested bull “student” is logically a male. If I’ve insulted either party of the video, feel free to contact me immediately so I may rectify the situation.
  4. There’s another lesson here: she must know she’s battling someone physically (and mentally?) different than her, but she’s proceeding by tossing her hesitancy aside and just going for it. She’s not concerned about his family background or his IEP or what experience he’s come from or if he’s scared—she’s in the moment, taking cues from how he is reacting to her right then. She can, and should adjust to him, but without preconceived notions of what is best for him. She’s truly with him, right then. Beautiful.
  5. Staring out the window? Playing with his phone? Dozing off?
  6. You have no idea how long I’ve been holding that joke in. I apologize—it (most likely) won’t happen again.
  7. One of the first major hurdles I see new teachers consistently facing is making this something love-based and not a power struggle. It cannot be an ego thing—neither “You’ll do what I say because I say!” nor “My way or the highway!”—but an authentic expectation for relentless betterment of themselves.
  8. Keep in mind that sheep are known to drown themselves while drinking from a river…
  9. Please tip your waiters and waitresses.
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What’s best on TOAST? JAM makes it all the sweeter!

Recently, while perusing Reddit (the best place to waste time online), I stumbled across a quote where someone said something to the effect of YouTube being the place where logic, clarity, and civility go to die. While I’m not sure how 100% official that is, I think, to at least some extent, there is some truth to it. Online discourse is emotional, petty, illogical, and often times very hate-filled, and while my main duty, as an English teacher, is to instruct students on reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills, as an Educational Technologist, I have a responsibility to teach students how to disagree and argue effectively, fairly, and lovingly.

Recently, I posted my TOAST blog rubric, which is how I assess student writing success in blogposts. However, I don’t always stop there. Often times, after assigning a blogpost, I’ll ask students to visit each others articles and comment on what they saw. It’s important to me that they learn to communicate in a distinguished fashion, so I also developed a follow-up mnemonic to TOAST to help them remember how to comment.

And honestly, what makes TOAST better than a nice scoop of JAM?

Source: Tumblr

Source: Tumblr

I instruct students that, when commenting on each others’ blog posts, they MUST use do at least one of the following:

  • Join the conversation by adding new information, opinions, or perspectives.
  • Ask a question related to the post.
  • Make a specific compliment about the post.

No “THIS STINKS” or “I LIKE IT” or superficial statements—what goes in must contribute to the article and support it.

Just like with my post about TOAST (#rhyme), feel free to take this and incorporate it into your classroom—just let me know how you use it so I can better serve my students!

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Got students blogging in class? Teach ’em TOAST!

In the past few months, there seems to have been an increase in the number of teachers considering using student blogging for their classes. There are a lot of excellent posts as of late that one can look to to get them started—for example, this—but I have yet to see anyone address how a teacher can easily grade and give points to students who do quality work. 3 years ago, when I began having students blog assignments, I recognized a need to assess the level of their work, so I started researching what a good blog post looked like:

Weak blog posts Strong blog posts
contain obvious, easy-to-correct grammatical mistakes. look like they’ve been proofread, edited, and checked a few times.
echo things that have been covered on countless other sites. bring something new to the table.
jump around topics, without any sort of main idea or point. quickly and effectively get to the point and present clearly.
aren’t aesthetically pleasing; don’t include any sort of media. look classy, sophisticated, and tech-savvy.
have no heart. motivate an audience to be interested in the subject.

There are some similarities between blogging and, say, writing an essay; however, a teacher really shouldn’t be grading an informal blog post and an end-of-the-semester essay the same way. So then what should students be focusing on?

In my classes, I’ve instructed my students to consider TOAST when writing their posts:

A giant sticker of TOAST expectations in my classroom.

A giant sticker of TOAST expectations in my classroom.

  • Technical elements: grammar, linguistics, spelling, etc.
  • Originality: creativity, new perspectives, different outlook.
  • Appropriateness: Completion of the objective of the assignment (e.g required length, subject matter, quality).
  • Supplements: Inclusion of applicable multimedia (e.g. images, video) and formatting (e.g. lists, links, blockquotes, text formatting).
  • Time invested: visible effort put into the assignment, not simply thrown together.

When it comes time to grade posts, I read through the entire thing 5 times—once for technical issues, once for how original/different it is, once for how appropriate their response is to my expectations, once for how “pretty” or cool the post is, and once for the overall je ne sais quoi. Each element gets rated on a scale from 0-to-3, and each element gets an explanation from me on why they earned a 0, 1, 2, or 3.

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 9.28.15 PM

An example of a student blogpost

The last part is most controversial—both the scores and explanations are posted publicly as comments underneath the post. This happens for each students’ posting, so they, their classmates, and the entire world can see how well I think they reached my expectations. While a few students aren’t thrilled about their grade being open, I find that most of them rise to the occasion and work even harder to meet my standard of excellence!

In fact, the biggest reason I personally love student blogging over a contained universe (ala Moodle or Edmodo) is that there is the peer pressure to put their best foot forward.

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Recent obsession alert: Professional Learning Communities

This is what happens when you search for “binge” on Google Images. Imagine those doughnuts are websites—that’s me. (Also, if you imagine those doughnuts are doughnuts…)

I’m a bit of a binge-learner; I love to stumble upon a new subject area and research it to death until I feel like I’m an expert on it. In the last few weeks, my obsession has been circling around the idea of “growing up” as a teacher. I’m in my 4th year of teaching, and while I’m privileged to daily go to a job that I truly love, I still question what it’s all about for me. Every day, I press my students to push themselves to work harder and harder and reach higher and higher, but what about me? I’m currently in a Masters class that is, frankly, not challenging me to be a better teacher, and I’m (strangely) one of the most experienced teachers at my school, so being mentored doesn’t really happen. How, then, should I grow?

That’s the big reason that the concept of Professional Learning Communities struck such a great chord in me.  I see so many people on Twitter talk about the benefits of Professional Learning Networks (the digital version of PLC), and I’m so jealous. I’ve tried to break into conversations with other teachers on #edchat and #engchat (without much response), and while it’s something I’ll continue to do, I’d rather work with and compare notes with my TAPA colleagues. So, a few weekends ago, on a nice rainy Friday, I sat at Starbucks and learned everything on allthingsplc.info. As I read more and more, I realized that PLCs were exactly what our school family was missing.

I believe in God, and I believe that God is always looking out for me, even before I know what I want. As proof example #4,525, without having talked to anyone beside my wife, I was asked to present to fellow teachers what I learned from my study binge. Below (and here) is the link to that presentation. It was received pretty well. 🙂

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

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