What Comes After Fidget Spinners

My daughter knows I write this blog, and she asked me the other day whether or not I’d written about fidget spinners yet. I told her the topic was too trendy. Besides, I reasoned, the whole thing will blow over, just like Bakugan, Pokemon Go, dreams of 100% proficiency, and those little skateboards that infested my classroom a few years back. But I’ve changed my mind. Fidget spinners themselves won’t be around for long, but the trend that fidget spinners started just might.

The genius of the fidget spinner, of course, is that word “fidget.” This shamelessly transparent attempt to legitimize a toy is a lesson in how brazen marketers can be when their targets are gullible parents who will apparently fall for anything with an education word attached to it. It’s because of this that we aren’t done with fidget spinners and their nettlesome offspring. When the fidget craze ends, we can expect to see copycats. It’s really easy to do. Take a toy. Stick an educational buzzword in front of it. Voila! The next big distraction invading your classroom.

Rumor has it the following are already in production:

Gritty Bear

Place this cuddly taskmaster at the corner of your desk and pat his head during a tough math problem. He says things like, “Don’t give up!” “Winners never quit!” “You can do it!” “Persevere!” and “Don’t you know there are kids in Asia who will spend 20 minutes on a problem like this?” Manufactured by Duckworth Enterprises.

Focus Ring

Simply slip on this ring anytime you need to concentrate better. Taking a big test? Put on the ring and watch your scores soar! The focus ring is made of a copper alloy and infused with essential oils, guaranteeing its wearer a laser-like focus.

STEAM phone

Your school bans cell phones. How unfair.  But what school in their right mind would even think of banning STEAM phones? STEAM phones come preloaded with all your favorite math, science, and engineering apps! Forgot the symbol for antimony? Use your STEAM phone! Need to calculate large sums? The STEAM phone has a calculator! Thinking of checking Facebook or texting your friends during that boring history lesson? You can do that, too! But then you can go right back to doing STEAM stuff! Teachers love STEAM, and they’ll love these phones!
 

Growth Mindset Gnome

This adorable gnome with the face of Carol Dweck blows a raspberry anytime you have a fixed mindset thought. There’s nothing like a loud Bronx cheer to change your thinking from “Ah, shit! I screwed up again! I’m so stupid!” to “Mistakes help me learn better.”

Self-Regulation Marshmallows

Science has proven that children who delay gratification grow up to be adults who make more money, report higher levels of happiness, always put down the toilet seat, and never go bald. How did science learn this? MARSHMALLOWS! Now your kids can practice delaying that gratification all day long. Simply place the self-regulation marshmallows on students’ desks. Use the self-regulation marshmallow app (available on iOS or Android) to set a timer. Then sit back and watch students learn the Pavlovian way when they get a small electric shock anytime they touch the marshmallow before the preset time! FUN!

These are only the five I’ve heard about. But I bet, reader, you’ve heard of others. Tell us about them in the comments or on Facebook.

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10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

I’ve eaten at hundreds of restaurants in my life, but I’ve never worked at one. My wife was a waitress in college, so when we go out to eat and I complain about something, she’s usually able to offer me a logical explanation. The table next to ours received their food first because they ordered soup and sandwiches and we ordered pizza. That family was seated ahead of ours because a table for four opened up, but there isn’t yet room for our party of six. The restaurant may appear sparsely populated, but our food could be taking a long time because there’s a backlog of take-out orders.

 

Until you do a job, you can’t appreciate all that goes into it.  It’s this fact of life that accounts for many of the misconceptions parents have about teaching. So here are 10 things parents might not know.

 

We Have Less Control Over Things Than You Think We Do

The state adopts standards that we have to teach. The Board of Education approves programs that we’re required to use. The district’s administrators are under pressure to improve test scores, and that filters down to us. We may be “there for the kids,” but we’re also employees of our districts. So while we may want to teach your child other things and in other ways, we usually have less autonomy than you suspect. When you complain about our math program,  you put us in a difficult position. We might very well agree with you, but saying so would be unprofessional.

 We Do It All Ourselves

We don’t have office assistants. Any communication that comes home from us was typed by us. Because we have many urgent things to do, we likely typed that newsletter in ten minutes and read it over once before hitting print. If we make the same grammatical or spelling mistake three times, then you can safely assume we missed a lesson somewhere along the way. But the other typos are a result of never having enough time to do all aspects of our jobs at the level we’d like to.

 

We Forget Stuff

There are a LOT of things that happen during the day. We may read an email from you right before the office interrupts with an announcement and a girl picks a scab and comes running for a Band-Aid. The contents of your email can quickly become forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of our days. We don’t recall everything that happens. If we send an email home explaining that Tommy had a rough day, don’t be surprised if we’re unable to recall the six things Tommy specifically did that led to the email. All we know is he annoyed us all day.

 

We’re Really Busy

We don’t have office jobs. We have a computer, but there’s a very good chance we won’t sit in front of it at all the entire day. If you email  at 10 a.m. asking us to tell Timmy to ride the bus home after school and you don’t get a response back, you should call the office. We either didn’t check our email or we read it and forgot (see Forgetting Details above).

 

We’re More Annoyed Than You About Buying School Supplies

We don’t like asking you to provide notebooks, pencils, folders, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, and all the other things on those beginning-of-the-year supply lists. But our schools aren’t buying them for us, and we already spend plenty of our own money on things we shouldn’t have to. If you don’t want to buy the stuff on the list, that’s fine. But don’t complain to us about it.
 

 

 We Don’t Really Want Your Kids’ Toys and Electronics

We know it’s unrealistic to expect you to double-check your kids’ backpacks every morning and that most toys arrive in our classrooms without your knowledge. But please understand that when we take your sons’ toys we’re doing it because they’re distracting and if we allow one there will ten more tomorrow. So please, if your child takes a toy to school and it’s taken away from him, don’t bail him out by coming to school and asking for the toy back. Let him learn his lesson, at least for a week.

 

We Might Not Want Your Help

Schools are always talking about how they want more parent involvement, and some generously offer to help in classrooms. Sometimes, it’s greatly appreciated. But other times, it’s more work for us. We’re used to doing everything ourselves. We’re not very good at delegating. And if we know you’re coming every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m., we have to find something for you to do. We’ve also had parents who caused more problems than they solved. They joked around and distracted students, made too much noise when they were in the room, and modeled bad behavior for students. We don’t want to correct an adult’s behavior in front of the class, but we also don’t want our classes disrupted. Sometimes, we don’t want to take the risk, so we don’t ask for help at all.

 

If We Meet With You Before or After School,  We’re Working for Free (and We Probably Resent It)

If we need to talk to our doctors, we must do so on their time. If we call a business after it’s closed, we have to wait until tomorrow to get service. Even professionals like realtors or financial advisors who will meet with us after hours are doing so with the expectation of a pay-off in the future. During a meeting before school, we’re likely thinking about the all things we need to do in our classrooms. After school,  we’re tired and want to go home. We’ll be professional during these meetings, but we’re not happy about them.

 

There’s Not Much I Can Do To Punish Your Kid

Some of you want us to handle all things school-related, but there’s little we can do when your child regularly misbehaves. Ours principals may think we’re ineffective if we send your kid to the office too often. Taking away recess is counterproductive and punishes us just as much as your child. Other, more creative consequences may be met with criticism from you, despite your pledge to stay out of school matters. If your child isn’t doing her job at school, you’re in the best position to punish your kid because you can take away the things she really likes. You’ll send a stronger message by taking away her iPad, making her go to bed thirty minutes early, or not allowing her to attend a sleepover on Saturday than we will by giving her a lunch detention. If we’re telling you about your kid’s poor behavior, it’s because we want you to do something.

 

We Sugarcoat

If we tell you that your kid was disrespectful to his classmates, we’re really telling you your kid is often a jerk. If we describe your child as “difficult to motivate,” we’re calling him lazy. If we say Jill had a difficult day, we mean she was a major pain in the ass. Whatever we tell you, assume it was twice as bad as it sounds.

 

 

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Be a Better Teacher by Doing Less

About this time every year I open a file on my Chromebook called “Goals.” It’s a living document that changes every May.  I decide which of the current year’s goals I want to keep, what to scrap, which ones to tweak, and I add new goals for the upcoming year. The last few years, many of my goals have centered around me doing less work. That’s not normally something people admit, but in the case of teachers, doing less can make you more effective.

Like most new teachers, I read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School when I was starting out (I’ve also read it every August since). My favorite quote from the book is:

“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 0‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!”  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”
 
It took me years to internalize the truth of this. For most of my career, I have been the dominant presence in my classroom. My need to feel in control, my mistaken belief that my doing more would lead to greater student success, and the feeling that because I was the only one in the room getting paid to be there, I ought to be doing most of the work, all contributed. I was convinced that the more I did, the better teacher I’d be. I was wrong.

Doing less benefits me. It also benefits my students.

Doing less work means I have more energy and more personal time. I get home early and eat an early dinner (as recommended in my five-star book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss (how’s that for a shameless plug?)). I achieve a healthy work-life balance by doing things I want to do instead of more work. I exercise, read, write, go to my daughter’s softball games, and just hang out with my wife on our deck with a couple of beers. I get seven and a half hours of sleep every night, and I return to work the next day recharged.

 

I’m in a better mood at work because I’m less stressed. My better mood means I’m more patient with students.  Being well-rested means I’m less likely to make bad decisions and more likely to be calm, use humor, and build positive relationships with students and colleagues. It makes for a more pleasant environment for everybody.

My well-being directly impacts my students.

While doing less work benefits me, which in turn benefits my students, it also makes me a more effective teacher.

 

When you do less, your students must do more. That means they’re more likely to learn. The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning.

 

Talk Less

I used to spend large parts of my day talking at students. Now, I try to present information in other ways. Sometimes, I ask students to read the information. Other times, I assign videos that teach what I would have taught. It’s arrogant to think we’re the only ones who can provide students with information or model a process. For directions, I’m transitioning to putting most of them in written form in Google Classroom, so my students can start working without having to listen to me.  In writing, I usually teach a short lesson, then let students actually write. They share their document with classmates. Those classmates are required to offer at least three comments about their writing. Instead of me giving all the feedback, I’ve shifted some over to the students.

Help Less

As I wrote in this article, I also try to help less. Helping less tells students that you believe in their abilities to figure out their own problems. It counteracts the helplessness many students have learned and empowers them to actually try. It allows students to fail, which allows them to learn.

Reduce Behavior Problems

Stepping back from my starring role at the head of the class has also helped those students with the greatest behavior challenges. Many of these students have a hard time sitting and listening. They get bored and wiggly. To entertain themselves, they make noises, leave their seats, or start bothering others. Many of these students do much better when they have work to do. By curtailing my role and increasing theirs, I cut down on the number of times during the day when these students are asked to sit still and listen, which is often when they get in trouble.

Plan Less

I’ve also tried to plan less. I used to do most of the work for students. I’d locate articles, copy them, require students to read them, and then ask them to respond in some way. I’d find exemplar texts for students to study before a writing unit. For a social studies unit, I’d locate all the texts, videos, and activities students would need. I’d compile a packet of worksheets. Then I’d guide students through each and every one of them.

 

But that’s now how anyone in the real world works. When I wrote my book Happy Teacher, no one gave me a stack of articles and books to read. No one provided links to the best web sites on happiness. I had to find them. I had to decide which ones best served my purposes. I had to select what information to use. I decided how much and what parts of each book to read. I had to evaluate the sources. This is the work students should be doing. When we do it for them, we miss powerful opportunities to teach authentic skills.

 

This year, for a unit on Native Americans, I did less work. Students did more. They collaborated to create a Google Slides presentation about three Native American groups that lived in Michigan. I provided the guidelines and different colored index cards to record notes. I modeled some of the skills outlined above. Then I set out every resource I had in my closet and let kids have at it. I allowed them to search online for videos. My role was limited to offering guidance, getting kids unstuck, and teaching lessons on evaluating the resources for how well they helped students meet the guidelines.

Assess Less

I didn’t do much assessment either. Students shared their slideshows with kids from other classes that had yet to study the topic. Those students were given a short form to complete that provided my students with feedback. They should know that my opinion on their work isn’t the only one that matters.

 

Some groups did well, others didn’t. They may not have all learned everything they were supposed to about Native Americans of Michigan, but they did all learn about working in a group, managing their time, evaluating resources, the importance of design in their presentations, and many other lessons that are more applicable to the real world that what kinds of houses the Chippewa built (wigwams, if you’re curious). And besides, they don’t all learn what they’re supposed to learn when I do all the work, either.

Enlist Their Help

In the last two years, I’ve also started to use student mentors. In math especially, there are students who are  head and shoulders about their classmates. These students often finish early and need more to do. In the past I gave them busy work, let them read, or gave them some free time. Sometimes I offered enrichment activities (which they usually resented). Now, these students become “coaches on the floor.” When they finish their work, they let me know. I check it for accuracy and write their names on the board as my mentors. When students raise their hands for help, the mentors assist me in providing it. Sometimes, the students are more patient and do a better job explaining things than I do. It also gives the mentors a chance to solidify their understanding. We learn best when we teach others.

 

So as I start thinking about next year, I’ll be looking for more areas where I can pull back and ask my students to step forward. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

 

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Why You Shouldn’t Take Away Recess

I stopped taking away recess as a punishment for classroom behavior two years ago. I’ve never regretted it. The elementary school where I work uses a stoplight system for behavior management. If you’re unfamiliar, students start out with a clothespin on the color blue. If they break a rule, they move to green. Break another and it’s on yellow. Three strikes and it’s on red. Many teachers take away 10 minutes of recess from students on yellow and the entire recess for those on red. I used to.

 

I stopped for a selfish reason. Then, I justified my decision with other, better reasons. Here are the reasons you should stop taking away student recess for classroom misbehavior:

 

Stop Punishing Yourself

There were days when I made sure I didn’t put any students on yellow because I didn’t want to babysit during recess. I had stuff to do. If I was going to take away a student’s recess, that student had to be supervised by someone. Often, that someone was me. I’m a big believer in not punishing people who don’t deserve it, especially if one of those people is me.

 

Those Students Need Recess the Most

For the most part, the same kids lost recess over and over again. You know the type. They couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t leave other kids alone. Distracted others and interrupted me with their impulsive behavior. They weren’t made for sitting for long periods. They needed to move, make noise, and run into things. So what did I do to punish them for moving, making noise, and running into things? I took away the one time of their day when they could move, make noise, and run into things. The students I punished by taking away their recess were the ones who needed recess the most.

 

Everyone Deserves a Break

Some people see recess as a privilege, something to be earned. They tell their classes that if they want a recess, they better work for it. That’s wrong. Recess is a break. Everyone needs breaks. When you attend a training, one of the first things you want to know is when the breaks will be. If your trainer blithely blows past your break time, you’re going to be pissed. If your trainer makes your break contingent upon you working hard and participating, you’ll likely feel condescended to. The United Nations mandates that all prisoners receive at least one hour of exercise in the open air daily. Murderers and rapists get an hour of recess. But you won’t give Marcus a fifteen minute break because he interrupted your lesson a few times?

 

It Doesn’t Work

If the same students are losing recess more than once per week, that should tell you something about the effectiveness of taking it away. It doesn’t work. Most of the students whose recess I took away had problems self-regulating. They were impulsive. They acted, then, like thirty minutes later, thought about their actions.

 

Sometimes.

 

These are not the kinds of kids who think to themselves, “Hmm, if I squirt water on Sally’s hair then the teacher is going to move my clip. Since I am already on green for shouting out, “My butt is stinky!” in the middle of the social studies lesson, I shouldn’t squirt this water because that will result in my clip being moved to yellow, which will subsequently lead to me losing ten minutes of my recess in three hours.”

 

When stuff doesn’t work, don’t keep doing that stuff.

 

Snowball Effect

Some students have a difficult time settling down in the morning. Their home environment is loud and chaotic. They may have not gotten enough sleep. They didn’t get breakfast. As they enter the room with their classmates, they quickly become overstimulated and do something stupid. You catch them. They’re on green. Ten minutes later, they’re talking while you’re teaching. Boom. They’re on yellow. They’ve already lost ten minutes of recess. Again. “Well,” they say to themselves, “today’s shot. Might as well go all in.” You’re not setting up students for success when they know they’ve already lost the one thing they look forward to all day long. In fact, you’re making your job much harder. Why would you want to do that?

 

The Lone Exception

I do have one exception that I explain to my students on the first day of school: “I will not take your recess away for your behavior in here. I know some teachers will take it away if you’re on red. I won’t. But I will take your recess away if you are ruining other people’s recess. Everyone has a right to have fun at recess. If you are making it not fun for others because of your choices, then you can’t be outside.”

 

Students want to hear this. They want recess to be fun. They want to know that adults won’t allow jerks to run rampant on the playground.

 

Parents like the policy. Parents with students who have lost many recesses in the past really like the policy. Many have written to thank me for it.

 

So what do I do about student misbehavior? Just ignore it?

 

No. I send emails or texts to parents any time their child ends the day on yellow or red. The great majority of parents want their children to do well and behave in school. Most of them are willing to do their part to make this happen. But they can’t do anything if they don’t know about the problem. The email simply states what the student did to get on yellow or red. I should also note that students can move back off their color if they improve their behavior, so there’s always a chance they can avoid having that email sent.

 

It doesn’t solve all problems. But it works better than taking away recess.

 

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Both Sides: Whole Class Punishments

A confession: Although I usually write as though I’m 100% positive of the suggestions I make on this blog, the truth is I rarely am. There aren’t many sure things in education. What works for one teacher won’t work for all of them. What works for one class won’t work in other classes. Hell, sometimes what works for a teacher one year won’t work the next. But most people don’t want to read unassertive, maybe-you-should-try-this articles. They want new ideas or solutions to problems. So I play along.

There are many education issues on which I have vacillated. One is whole class punishments. Early in my career, I used them on occasion. I felt I had good justification for doing so. I still feel solid arguments can be made to support their use. I’ll share those arguments below. I haven’t personally used whole class punishments in probably seven years. However, I can’t write a post titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Use Whole Class Punishments” because I see their merits. Instead, I’ll present both sides and let you argue in the comments.

Why You Should Not Use Whole Class Punishments

There are a number of reasons I no longer use whole class punishments. The first is I hated them as a student. I was a good kid. Never got in trouble. So when some asshole ruined it for the rest of us, I resented it. You don’t need to be very old to comprehend when you’re getting jobbed. A whole class punishment didn’t teach me anything except that adults were power-hungry despots who treated saints the same as convicts. I don’t want to be one of those adults.

I also didn’t like what whole class punishments did to my classroom culture. It pitted the well-behaved against those who struggled to follow the rules. The kids who ruin it for others are almost always the ones who need the most support. When you punish the whole class for the misdeeds of the few, those students who did nothing wrong will resent those who did. It invites the well-behaved students to mistreat the behaviorally-challenged. When you punish everybody for the actions of a handful of students, you shouldn’t act surprised when your class gangs up on the handful.

The third reason is parents don’t like them. Some will complain. They will have valid arguments. I usually try to avoid doing things that anger parents because I’m a chicken.

The last reason I no longer use whole class punishments is that whenever I made everyone put down their heads or took away everyone’s recess, I felt like a jerk. Which was a pretty good indication that it was the wrong decision.

Why You Should Use Whole Class Punishments

Bill Cecil was the 2003-2004 Michigan Teacher of the Year. He’s a fifth grade teacher in the Lansing area. In his book, Best Year Ever, Cecil makes a compelling argument for whole class punishments. I had given them up by the time I read it, and he didn’t quite cause me to reverse my decision, but his arguments did make me think.  Here’s what he writes:

I have the students working together to earn their recess each day. It’s quite simple to earn recess. All they have to do is end the day without two checks on the board. However, if they get two checks in one day, they lose recess and write the rules during that time to refocus on what they as a team need to be doing to be successful.

Cecil justifies:

It never fails that someone will say that they weren’t doing anything wrong, and therefore, it’s not fair they lost their recess…I tell them it’s similar to when I used to play soccer. In some games I may be playing great and even score a goal. But if we aren’t playing well as a team and our defense lets up three goals, we still lose. I still lose the game despite my good performance.

Cecil’s argument is predicated on three beliefs:

  1. This class is a team, and we will succeed or fail as a team.
  2. Behavior is everyone’s business. If you see someone doing something they shouldn’t, get them to stop because that behavior is going to harm all of us.
  3. This classroom will reflect the real world.
I would add that in addition to Cecil’s soccer analogy, we can find many other examples outside the world of sports.

When the housing bubble popped in 2008 it wasn’t just those with bad mortgages who were screwed.

Homeowner associations exist because we know that having neighbors who don’t mow their lawns and fly Aryan Nations flags can ruin the whole neighborhood’s property values.

The reason you can get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt is because too many people weren’t wearing them.

You might be a great teacher, but if you work with a bunch of idiots, your school is likely to get labeled in a way that damages you just as much as the idiots.

In the real world, we are often in this together. Our success or failure hinges on the choices of others, as unfair as that sometimes is. Why should students be protected from this reality? Isn’t one of our jobs to prepare students for life outside of school?

Where you fall on this issue likely comes down to a bigger question: What is the role of school? Should schools reflect society at large? Should they prepare students for the unfairness and harsh realities of the world outside their doors?

Or should schools rise above society and strive for a more idealized version of it? Should schools offer a sanitized experience in the hopes that our students will grow up and change the world for the better?

What say you? Are you for, against, or do you fall somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.

Note: While I disagree with Cecil on whole class punishments, his book is excellent. It’s especially useful to teachers preparing for a new year.  Buy it here.

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