8 Guiding Principles For Reaching Educational Destinations

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

David Foster Wallace (2005)


As educators, our days are fraught with distractions. Time is precious, attention spans short. Less is more, but which less? To what—and how–should we pay attention?

Here are some guidelines that help me when I feel overwhelmed by all the options—and by all the limitations.

  1. Choose connection. Take time for students. Validate them. Laugh together. Cultivate moments of light. Trust me, you will not get to your destination faster by skipping this step.
  2.  Choose to breathe. Relax. Be clear but do not rush. You will not get to your destination faster by talking faster.
  3. Choose deep meaning. Foster debate, discussion, comparison, reflection. Allow students time to wrestle with an idea. You will not get to your destination faster by covering a topic superficially.
  4. Choose lucidity. Plan carefully, understand thoroughly, explain succinctly. You will not get to your destination faster by talking more.
  5. Choose the arts. Research shows that the arts support academic achievement. You will not get to your destination faster by eliminating them.
  6. Choose physical education. Daily PE is necessary. You will not get to your destination faster by having kids sit all day.
  7. Choose structure AND creativity. Structures (routines, graphic organizers) provide the framework for productive creativity. Without structure, you will have chaos; without creativity, you will have tedium. You will not get to your destination faster by using just one or the other.
  8. Choose risk. Try something different. Dare to fail. There are no ultimate right answers. Taking a serendipitous path could be a shortcut or long detour. Taking chances is one way that you just might get to your destination a little faster.

So what are your guiding principles? Have I missed something obvious?

Leave a comment!


Monday After a Holiday

It’s a Monday, but not just any Monday—the Monday after Spring Break. The transition from home to school is difficult. Many students require nonstop monitoring. Like shopping carts with wonky wheels, the second you remove the firm hand of guidance, they veer off the path.

It’s one minute into the day, and I am greeting the last few students as they enter the classroom. But what is happening to the others? Despite the fact that I have met them at the door, given them directions, and have an activity posted on the overhead, several of them are chasing each other around the classroom.  One starts intentionally yelping. Several start opening snacks. One has pulled out a jumbo Slurpee from inside his jacket. Someone starts banging on a desk. Another tries to get into the laptop cabinet.

I take a deep breath and begin. Within a few minutes, the Slurpee is confiscated, snacks are put away, the runners are seated, the yelper has gone down to get his medication, the rest are settling, and some students are even pulling out books. It’s calm—for now. But getting quality learning to happen will be an  uphill battle (it’s not supposed to be, is it?). At times, it feels like despite all my knowledge (and attempted implementation) of effective classroom discipline, I am playing a day-long game of “Whack-A-Mole”—I just get done with one kid and someone else pops up, and another, and—another.  And just wait a sec—there’s one more (got ‘em!).

I love how teachers have to attribute children’s antsy behaviour to something. Here are some favourites:

*it’s a Monday

*it’s getting close to the weekend

*it’s almost (Christmas, Spring, Summer) break

*it’s too hot

*we’ve had too many inside days

*we’ve had too many interruptions lately

*those students have been in the same class for too many years

*too many hormones

And our all-time favourite:

*it’s a full moon!

So what are your Mondays like? Which day is your favourite teaching day? Here’s my analysis of the week, from favourite to least favourite:

  1. Tuesday
  2. Friday
  3. Wednesday
  4. Thursday
  5. Monday

 Send me your list, and I’ll tally the results. In the meanwhile, hang on to those shopping carts with both hands!


Students and Organization: Junk Drawers and Bento Boxes

A headline in this weekend’s Globe and Mail caught my eye: “Rethink your junk drawer,” exhorts Shirley Meisels, design and organizing expert. “Think of it as a Japanese bento box.”

Well, Shirley, you will be happy with my activities in the classroom this week.

I have been thinking a lot about students’ executive functioning (EF) skills, all those strategies that help students stay organized, think logically, and self-regulate. According to Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel (2008), the executive functions “are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

As I teach in a school where almost 25% of the students have Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s), I spend considerable time helping students with weak executive functioning. For some, this will be a lifelong struggle (especially those students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome).

But the cause is irrelevant. The reality is that many activities in school require executive functioning. So every lesson requires scaffolding that will help build mental order. Which brings me back to Shirley.

When Shirley first encountered the junk drawer, it was a jumbled mess. So she dumped it and installed compartments.  Then she sorted like with like. Alas, many of my students lack idea compartments. Their brains are one giant junk drawer of tangled information, and when asked to locate something, they are stymied.

So I work to create mental shelving. How?

First off, I consistently use templates (“shelving”) with higher level thinking skills. What this does is reduce the cognitive load: students only need to focus on thinking, not their thinking-and-how-they-are-going-to-organize-thinking. (Students with weak EF skills are not multi-taskers. Cognitive overload will cause the learning fuse to blow.)

So what does this look like in the classroom?

Let’s take math problem solving. At the beginning of the year, my students had no (remembered) strategies to organize their ideas. So I did some research and created a Math Problem Solving template. We glued this template inside a new notebook for easy reference and reviewed it numerous times. Then we numbered the notebook pages, allowing one page per problem.

Meanwhile, I copied a bunch of numbered word problems and made a little booklet for each student. We were ready to begin!

I modeled the steps, thinking out loud, while students watched me. (Don’t have them copy down at first—avoid multi-tasking! Just have them watch. Will it sometimes drive you crazy to go this slowly? Absolutely! But remember your ultimate goal.) At first, all I wanted the students to do was watch my thinking. The next day, I started with the same question. The students and I worked through the problem together, and they copied off the overhead. For a week, we did one problem a day together and it took about 30 minutes (per day–which might seem like a lot for one problem, but your patience will pay off!).

I gradually introduced independent think time at the beginning of class, encouraging students to set up their pages, find the facts, figure out the “Big Q,” and show their thinking. I repeated this mantra to the students: “You don’t need to SOLVE the problem! Your goal is to UNDERSTAND the problem and SHOW YOUR THINKING about the problem.”

After several months, I am now at the stage where student are keen to share their thinking. Volunteers come up the overhead (or Elmo) and share. Students compare and contrast their thinking. When problem-solving time is up (usually around 20 minutes now for one problem), I collect their notebooks and booklets. By far, this is their favourite math activity.

Watch for more “shelf-building” activities next week! And in the meanwhile, why not share how YOU build mental shelving?