Back To School, or How To Open The Door To A New Year

Life is all about first impressions and studies show that people size you up within milliseconds. After that they rarely change their minds about you. This quick judgement applies to first dates, job interviews, and the first day of school for teachers and students.

First Date vs. First Day

When trying to make a favorable first impression, the stakes are much higher for a teacher staring out at a classroom of 34 students than for a participant in the first date/small plate mating ritual at a wine bar.  If you show up late to your date with a stray chunk of spinach lodged between your two front teeth and your date is a stickler for timeliness and dental hygiene, they might immediately decide you're not their dream girl. Worst case scenario is you never see them again. However, if you stand in front of your students on the first day of school and immediately spill an entire large hot coffee on your blouse and then slip onto the floor, you are going to have to see those 34 students who think you're the Queen Spazz instead of Queen Bee for the next 10 months.  


I've been at my school for thirteen years, so many students often come in with a preset idea about me. Despite the fact that I can rest on the well worn laurels of my reputation as more of a Queen Bee than a Queen Spazz (for the most part!), I still can't help but to think about the power of my first impression to my new scholars on the first day of school.

You Have To Ask Yourself...Not Google

I started my search for how to make a strong first impression this year by perusing teacher and classroom Pinterest boards and Googling it. Then I realized that how you want to present yourself has to come from an authentic place. You can't just Google it. You have to ask yourself this question before you start deciding what to do on the first day:

 "What kind of teacher do I want to be for my students this year?"

By the way,  I say "this year" because I firmly believe that to be an effective teacher, one must approach each new year with a fresh perspective. Technology and studies on the most effective pedagogy are always changing and it is imperative that we inform ourselves. Then you can decide if it's a passing "fad" or a meaningful practice to incorporate into your teaching.

I want to play all the roles listed in the above image but I also want to ENGAGE my students in the learning process. I want to create a classroom that encourages students from Day 1 to take ownership of their learning and the flow of classroom operations. Sure, I am still going to lecture and create the unit plans, lessons, and activities but I want to be as transparent as possible with my students. I want them to feel involved and not just like recipients of learning. This won't only allow them to feel empowered but will provide them with skills that can transfer over to college and their careers. 

So, what kind of teacher do I want to be this year? A teacher that facilitates and manages my students' educational process but allows them as much ownership and independence as possible. This Chinese proverb sums up my teaching philosophy for this year:

I will open the door (with my content knowledge, my passion for social studies, and my enthusiasm for learning) but I will leave space for my students to enter the learning process on their own.

Here's my plan for how to make this happen:


I will start the first day by assigning classroom roles for each student. Each student will have a job so they will feel like a part of the class right away. I got this idea from Alan November. Check him out, he has a plethora of knowledge and ideas. I was lucky to see him speak twice!

Here's one way to do it:


I will share this video with my students so they realize that hard work (aka grit) actually pays off and might guarantee more success than a high IQ.

In this TED Talk she talks about how IQ isn't the only predictor of success. In fact, doing well in school and in life doesn't only depend on your ability to learn quickly and easily. Grit might determine success even more! I think this will motivate some students who might not be intrinsically academically strong to realize that hard work and smart studying can pay off.

--> Then I will have them take this GRIT SCALE test to determine their "grittiness".


I will also share with them that Cornell notes are NOT the only way to take notes.  

I have watched a lot about Sketch Notes this summer and I am going to share this video with my students. This is a fun new way to approach note taking that could engage my students who have a penchant for doodling:


Then I will give them their first assignment. A time capsule. Why? Because it will get them to actively create an historical set of documents. Then that will be the jumping off point to discuss primary and secondary sources and what historians do for a living.

-->Shout out to my friend Allyson Compton for this idea! In teaching, sharing is caring but you always have to give credit where credit is due!<--

They discovered Samuel Adams and Paul Revere's time capsule from 1795 this past January. I'll share this video with my students:

and then have them put together their own time capsule to share with the class. 

So that's my plan. Now I need to plan out the other trillions of seconds that will comprise the school year. At least I have the first  5,280,000 milliseconds mapped out (aka first days of school).

I'll let you know how it goes!


p.s. And maybe I can be as cool as the Dazed and Confused social studies teacher on the last day of school:


p.p.s.   Or, even better:

How Tech Has Upped My Teaching Game, and a Sneak Peak Into My EdTech ToolKit



Right before I enrolled at Columbia University's Teachers College to get my M.A. in Social Studies, I was working for an online music startup company. In many respects, I was lucky enough to come of professional age during the go-go 90's in New York City. Days and nights blended into one amidst the soundtrack of the Moby Play album and the ironically incessant presence of that Daft Punk song, One More Time.  In August of 2001, I sprang myself from the tech world.  Without even logging in one day teaching in a classroom, I went cold turkey into education. 

After an intensive fourteen months of studying pedagogy, historiography, and social studies content as well as unleashing my novice teaching skills on a classroom of Stuyvesant High School seniors, I had a diploma from Teachers College and was a certified teacher. I accepted a position at a New York City public high school assuming I'd make it for five years and then move on to an administrative or policy position. Almost thirteen years later I'm still teaching U.S. History at the same school.


One year ago on June 10, 2014, I found a post-it note with the same exact date but from one year earlier. What was most remarkable in this discovery was that my teaching to-do list was exactly the same minus the year difference. This was not the first time I found what I dubbed my "Groundhog Day Teaching To Do Lists". Around that same time, my school's tech guy told us about Google Classroom and I swore to myself that I would pilot this program in my classroom for the following school year. This decision wasn't about my scribblings on post-it notes but more about what they essentially represented: I was turning into THAT teacher...the veteran who just etched off the date from last year's lesson plan, replaced it with the new one, and taught it like it was brand new.  But my strategies were ten years old and needed to get with the ties. 

Changing my pedagogy with more tech could not guarantee that my students wouldn't stop staring into the smartphones on their laps all period but it certainly was worth a shot!


Of course the students were resistant at first. Getting set up on Google Classroom was different for them too and teenagers hate change more than adults sometimes. (Just swing by and watch what happens when I change their seats. It's as if I told them I murdered their favorite pet.) However, after about a week mostly everyone was on board with Google Classroom.  It felt as though I lifted a floodgate in my pedagogy from 2005 (when my lesson plans had been last updated) to the 2015 world that my students currently inhabited. I started introducing more and more tech and this upped my teaching game. 



GOOGLE CLASSROOM: This online site (and app) is basically a virtual space for each of my classes. You can set up each class and add all the students from your roster using their school gmail accounts. Once the students are invited and accept the invite by logging into their Gmail school accounts, you can share links (videos, websites, photos), assignments, and even create an online discussion thread. This has helped me to get my students both college and career ready because most schools have a similar university version and in the professional world keeping up with your email and various online responsibilities is a part of the job more and more. You can save documents/assignments into your school Google Drive and then share select files and documents from the drive with the students.

GOOGLE DOCS: This is Google's version of Microsoft Word...but so much better. Students can write essays/assignments and then share them with me. I can edit their papers and write comments. In addition, students can peer edit their essays using the same features. This allows me to more easily give feedback to my students.

GOOGLE SLIDES: Basically this is Power Point but also better because it exists in the Google Drive cloud so wherever I go I can add to my slides that I use for my mini lessons and then also share them with my students on Google Classroom. When students miss class, they can simple go on Google Slides and catch up with the notes. I also include extra videos for students who want to learn more about the topic at home or learn more on their own time.


GOOGLE FORMS: I use this program for quizzes and surveys with my students. Students can take the quiz/survey on their phones (or computers) and then I can get real time data (in the form of pie charts and graphs) as to what percentage of my classes got the right answers. This is a great "check for understanding" (as they call it in the education world these days) so that I know if I need to slow down and go over content from previous lessons. In addition, I set up the surveys with questions that are related to the lesson discussion topics and I use them as a jumping off point for when we have "Accountable Talk" discussions or Socratic Seminars on topics such as "Was the U.S. justified in using the atomic bomb?". I have so much fun telling kids to "take out your phone" and take the quiz I just sent them when they come to class since teachers are normally telling them to "put away that phone." Basically, my goal is to turn their phones into educational tools as long as they are going to be staring at them obsessively in class all period (or thinking about what's on their phones awaiting them after class if I tell them to put the phone in their bags).


SOUNDCLOUD: I'm not just promoting Google on here, I promise. Soundcloud is an entertainment site for DJs and lovers of song remixes but for one of my unit assignments I allow students to create playlists of songs that align with each mini lesson from the unit. For example, one unit was on the Civil War and Reconstruction and students picked modern songs and wrote up a paragraph for each song on the playlist and explained how the lyrics and/or tone of the song aligned with the content. I find this to be a really effective way of getting the history to be more relatable and come alive for the students. Teenagers love their music so this is usually fun for the one who choose this option. Then I link to their playlist on Google Classroom.

KAHOOT: If you want to have pretty much every student lose track of time while learning all the while, Kahoot is where it's at! I am starting to create my own quiz games to align with my lessons but the other day I just picked other teacher's quizzes (there are over 14,000 to choose from and meta-tagged so that it is easy to find the topic in which you are covering/reviewing) and my students were 100% engaged (except for one canoodling couple in the back but they are teenagers after all!).


The results are stored in an excel spreadsheet (broken down by participant and their answers) so you can share the results with the class and use the data to figure out the content/topics that students need more assistance. I had students say to me "I learned more today than I did all year because when I play a game I'm more motivated to learn and get engaged." I have to say that I had the most fun all year too just watching them get so excited about history.

QUIZLET: This a great site for kids to create flashcards that they can review on their phones instead of (or in between) Snapchatting, having "selfie sessions", stalking random people on Instagram and texting emojis to each other. 

WHYSAURUS: This is still in beta mode but I worked with these brilliant guys earlier in the year by having my students test out their pilot site for some of my lessons. The genesis of the site is that the creators were getting concerned with all the unsubstantiated arguments that they found online without concrete evidence. They created this site to provide a format that would allow for online discussions with arguments (claims and counterclaims) with reasoning behind them. I had my students use the site to participate in an online discussion about if John Brown should be celebrated as a martyr for his actions leading up to the Civil War. This site provided them with a visual structure for effectively crafting arguments that helped them write stronger essays. 


Note: This list of ed tech I love is not exhaustive but just what I've used the most this year. 


When I left the online space fourteen years ago to teach, I had no idea how much my two careers would end up intersecting. Throwing these different apps, sites, and programs into my teaching toolkit has engaged my students in ways I didn't think was possible. Just the other day a student used the song One More Time in her playlist for the 1920s/1930s Unit. Now I can associate that song with my achievements as a teacher instead of my longstanding record of attending the most industry parties in one week. 


A Springspiration Playlist, and a Multiple Choice Question To Determine If This Music Might Suit Your Mood

My apologies for the multiple choice format but I'm a social studies teacher so it's my default line of questioning. 

This Springspiration mix will suit your mood if:

a) You live in NYC or other places where it's not spring at all yet.

b) All you want is for spring to descend upon you with its warm, tulip-blooming breezes.

c) Instead your slush covered duck boots (that you responsibly bought back in late October so proud of your adult decision to plan ahead even though you had such big dreams that it would be a mild winter this round) laugh at you & your stupid Smart Wool socks every morning when you dip your feet back in them for the 50th time. They say: "Ha, ha. You thought this winter would be different. You have seasonal amnesia. It's always cold and snowy every winter."

d) You like music inspired by spring arriving and winter departing so you can stuff those boots where the sun doesn't shine: a storage space. 

e) All of the above.

Answer: e) All of the above. But if you selected other choices you can still enjoy the mix!



Why You Need a Theme Song, and It Is Ok If You Choose One By Bobby Shmurda

Last night my friend made the best decision of 2015 so far when she dumped her deadbeat boyfriend. Then she made the best morning-after decision when she woke up and chose her breakup theme song. (If you're curious a) she gave me permission to use her love life as an anecdote for my blog and b) her music selection was "Try Harder Than That" by Meghan Linsey.) Listening to that song on repeat on the subway was certainly not a panacea to all of her breakup emotions. However, it put her on the right track to moving on and further proved my case for why we all need theme songs to get through life. 

When I start out the school year with my students, I make them write out their top three goals for my class (U.S. History!) and then they need to pick a theme song that will inspire them to reach them. This year a lot of them chose Bobby Shmurda (not exactly the idea I was going for) but they made the case that his music got them "fired up to learn" so I allowed it. 


So what's YOUR theme song? Here are some possible moments in your life when a THEME SONG could come in handy:

1. The commute to work BEFORE you get coffee because you are always late and don't have time to make it. (I favor any songs with the mellifluous vocal stylings of Michael McDonald. )

2. Walking into a job interview. (You can add some irony to it and play 9 To 5.)

3. Walking into work to quit your job. (Don't play Take This Job And Shove It. You can do better than that.)

4. Heading out on a first date with someone you met online (which often feels like you are walking yourself straight to the guillotine so try to keep your head up (haha) and choose something a little more uplifting or some French rap)

5. You are in the mood to be in a moody mood and you aren't going to let anyone cheer you up for the next 48 hours. (I'd suggest Portishead but I overdosed on those jams in the late 90's and not sure if you or I should go down that path again.)

6. You are angry and want to add more ire to your fire. (This is a go-to for that.)

7. You are happy and want to get happier (Don't play Happy. That's all I ask of you. Or Love Shack. Also, don't play those songs if you want me to dance at your wedding.)

8. You want to get motivated to work out (It's ok that it is still that Justin Bieber/Nikki Minaj mega-hit Beauty and the Beat from three years ago. If you are ready to let go of that one, I highly recommend Run the Jewels)

NOTE: I tend to enjoy listening to Everything She Wants as my general theme song in life. The lyrics don't apply AT ALL to my me (in case you were wondering) but I just like the song...even if it makes no particular sense at using Bobby Shmurda's music to fuel your school motivation.

What other moment/song pairings am I missing? Comment below!

Break a Sweat To This, or How I Learned To Stop Watching Bravo (at the gym)

I'm a runner. I've been running since I was fourteen. From my high school days of oversized, ill-fitting cross country uniforms with prerequisite bad bangs to twenty six years later when I lost the bangs but did some major damage to my knee, I've been running and running. Surgery was the answer to my knee injury and now I'm still waiting for the healing to allow me back on those mean streets. 

I had to find a way to wait it out until my leg was ready to run again. The elliptical wasn't doing it for me. I did catch up on every episode of "Vanderpump Rules" without even wanting to do so. I think that show just follows you (ok, fine, me) from one elliptical machine to the next one and then straight back into your living room. Let's just say for the past couple of months I was ellipticalling through a Bravo-induced daydream barely breaking a sweat.

Then I decided to try spin class. I hated it. I was out of breathe and sweating. That's when I knew I had found my temporary replacement for running. Basically the lesson I learned is that you will probably get the best workout anywhere that you don't have Bravo programming in front of your face. You always somehow get wrapped up in Stasi's drama and forget that you're supposed to be actually breaking a sweat.

So here's the mix I made for myself on Soundcloud for when I lift weights and do core/abs workouts.

Tip:  If you want to watch "Vanderpump Rules" on the elliptical you can always put the gym TV in that closed captioned mode and listen to this mix in your earbuds. I bet Jax would totally work out to it. As would Stasi, I think...