7 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships with Students

It’s one thing to philosophize about students in the summer; the fall is when the pedagogical rubber hits the road.

I’ve mentioned that I want to strengthen my relationships with students this year. Why? Because as the late Dr. Rita Pierson said, “students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.” And I want my students to learn. A LOT.

So, this year, I’m aiming to be a teacher students like. And no, not in a buddy-buddy way, but in a way that students know I have their best interests at heart.

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
Start small. Lots of small gestures add up to big feelings for kids.

I’ve attempted to foster relationships, so far, in several ways:

1. I’m teaching a low-stakes computer science class through Exploring Computer Science. There is no regents exam connected to the course, there is no homework in the course, and students drive most of the classwork. It’s fun and curiosity driven. It engages the kids. They learn in spite of themselves. The course isn’t even called “computer science.” It’s called “Solving Problems with Creativity, Art, and Technology.” We call it CAT Class, for short.

2. I’m trying to bring more fun into classes I co-teach. I wear silly hats, wigs, cat ears (ahem, CAT class), and try to incorporate games and interesting current events. This is an approach I’ve stolen from Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate methodology.


A picture of the author wearing a pirate hat and wig.
I look just like Christopher Columbus. This is a very serious picture.

3. I’m always on the lookout for free or PAID opportunities and contests for students at my school. Even the more ornery ones know that I’m the teacher who will help them out. Opportunities I’ve helped students get since June: paid summer experience with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, writing opportunities with Teen Reviewers and Critics Program, Internship with Metropolitan Museum of the Arts. I’m pretty sure that at least two more students will get into BAM’s Dancing into the Future program, as well.

4. I’m interviewing SpEd students about their goals and future plans so I have a lot I can write meaningful IEPs. Not only does it make the IEP easier to write, but the kids like answering questions about themselves. I’ve been using this survey because it has questions about their horse riding and car racing experiences that make my inner city students giggle. Curiously, I’ve learned that quite a few of my kids go bowling on a regular basis.

5. In one-on-one conversations, I’m giving advice less and listening and asking questions more. This is something I’m doing in my life, in general, inspired by The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols.

6. I’m being nice to myself. This is an important one. I used to beat up on myself a lot for not being better at lots of things. And when I felt frustrated at myself, the emotion spilled over onto my kids. Teens are living, emotion-sensing machines, and they know when you are feeling bad. Of course, they assume it’s about them and get defensive. So it’s important to try to feel good.


The author's hand with a cat sleeping on it.
Having a cat who will lay on my arm whenever he wants helps me feel good. Sorta. Not so much when I want to type, but otherwise…

7. I’m learning every thing I can about being emotionally supportive. I’m researching schools and youth organizations with Restorative Justice practices. In fact, I’m leading an affinity/research group on restorative justice that you are welcome to join if you are in NYC. Sign up here (public school teachers in NYC will be paid per session!): Sign up for The Restorative Justice Affinity Group.




Our Students Need More Time to Reflect and Prepare

It’s been a spell, and for that I apologize. I’ve been busy trying to get back into the grind of being IN BED at 10 p.m., up at 5:30 a.m. (because I am slow in the morning and need time to get my wits about me).

This year I have the best schedule EVER. I have a first period class three days a week teaching the Exploring Computer Science curriculum, which is fun. Five days per week, I have second period OFF to PLAN. Then five days per week, I co-teach two classes. Then lunch. Then advisory two days per week. Then co-teaching two more classes, then done! Or, well, done TEACHING. Still have to grade, eat, meditate, etc.


graphic showing all the different things to consider in managing time
There are so many aspects to time management. Perhaps we just need to allow ourselves more time.

Having breaks throughout the day does wonders for my state of mind. Frequent breaks give me time to get my materials together and to get my head right for the next task I have to do.

I have to wonder if many breaks during the day would help our students, as well. How many of them go from room to room having forgotten their books, their pens or pencils, some paper to write on, or a trip to the bathroom? So many.

A picture of a bomb
When a student comes to class without the right materials or frame of mind, they are a ticking frustration bomb.

Unlike a lot of teachers, I’m not organized by nature. It’s something I have to work on a lot. I have learned all my organizational systems from books. Except one: I give myself lots of time to complete tasks. Remember what I said about getting up at 5:30 a.m.? I don’t actually leave my house until around 7 a.m. I only need 20 minutes to get ready, but I always think of something else to do in the morning. Maybe I want to spend extra time with my cat.

Cat sitting on open laptop
Okay, so maybe he DEMANDS that I play with him in the morning.

Maybe the weather report didn’t quite match the weather outside, and I need to come back in and get a warmer coat or lighter sweater. Maybe my mom (yes, this happens) decides to call at an inopportune hour. Maybe NPR plays a song that I MUST SHAZAM IMMEDIATELY.

How can we provide students with more time to think in class? How can we change the school day to allow for real reflection and not just academic channel-flipping every few minutes? Yes, I’m a special education teacher, but this isn’t just a special education accommodation. I think a lot of students need more time to think.

How to Make Worksheets POP! Part II

I recently wrote How to Make a Worksheet POP!, a super-simple primer on how to make beautiful worksheets for your classes.

Recently, I found two other tools that I think will further strengthen your worksheet design. At the end of the post, you’ll get to see a “before” and an “after.”

1. Canva

Canva Landing Page
Canva Landing Page

Canva is a FREE, easy-to-use design program for making worksheets, posters, or invites. Maybe you’re not so familiar with MS Word. Maybe you’re just tired of the MS Word look and fonts.

Canva isn’t a miracle. You may need to do a lot of tweaking to get the look you want, but it’s a great starting point.


2. Hemingway App

Screenshot of Hemingway App LandingPage
Screenshot of Hemingway App LandingPage

I don’t know about you, but I’m out of writing practice. I like Hemingway App because I can use it for writing worksheets, grant applications, cover letters–lots of  stuff. It’s like having a second set of eyes that make sure I write clearly.

The app doesn’t write FOR YOU; it color codes your writing so you can see what you should consider rewriting.

Unfortunately, this app isn’t free. It’s $6.99 for the desktop/laptop version, which is a multi-computer license. But! It’s worth it if you struggle with having too much jargon in your worksheets. It’s also worth it if, like me, you struggle with using too many asides.


Fun Fact: The app isn’t perfectly named; actual writing by Hemingway doesn’t always score well! This is no biggie, since common sense understanding of Hemingway’s writing style is based on many untruths.


If you’re a writing nerd, here’s a great article about the app from The New Yorker that explains why Hemingway doesn’t “write like Hemingway.”

Those who favor more of a Joseph McElroy approach to writing will just find this app annoying.

Name drop moment: I took a class with Prof. McElroy, and he is a sweet man with a first-rate mind and a love of writing and reading. His writing takes lots of concentration to read, though. He enjoys complex ideas and long, long sentences. Word nerd.

Feeling awesome moment: I used HTML to design part of this page. Thanks, Codeacademy!

See “Before” and “After” after the jump.

Continue reading “How to Make Worksheets POP! Part II”

5 Ways to Bring Career Education into Your Classroom

When I was a high school student, I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Why? Because I liked to write in my

A picture of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye
I wanted to be just as rich as J.D. Salinger, but much less world avoidant.

journal, I got a kick out of writing and reading poetry (in English and in Spanish in the style of Lorca, thankyouverymuch), I enjoyed writing letters (remember those?) to friends and to (gasp!) prisoners, I had fun writing (admittedly terrible) essays for English and History classes, and because I thought it was a great way to become wealthy and famous when I was older.

No one told me that I could publish a book if I put my mind to it but that I was unlikely to grow rich from it. Frankly, I’m not sure that I would have appreciated it very much if someone had shared that important wisdom with me. I was too young to hear it (though hear it I did, in a wonderful book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird that I read when I was 23), and it didn’t really matter anyway. Because my belief that I could and would become the most wealthy of professional writers pushed me to try very hard in my English classes in high school, college, and for a few beloved years after college when I still pursued a writing career. I was encouraged at every turn to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. I was encouraged to write for the school newspaper, for the school literary magazine, for the alumni magazine, to visiting poets.

For students who have IEPs and who may or may not pursue college education because of (unfortunately) long-term self-esteem and resilience damage from lots of school failure, such encouragement in the job skills that are also academic skills is SO important. Here are some ways to use students’ desires for future occupations (even very unlikely ones) to help them engage in academic work:

1. Ask them what they want to do for a living, and if they have an IEP, incorporate that desire into both their transition plan and in all of their yearly goals. For instance, if little Jessica wants to be a professional singer when she grows up, make sure to mention in her math goal something about the importance of understanding fractions for reading musical notations and understanding rhythm to help her pursue her goal of become a musician.

2. Whenever possible, connect what you are doing in class to the occupation that the student is interested in clearly and directly. Don’t just show dance videos that are interesting in your study of a piece of literature on dance, but specifically say to the students, “Hey, I know some of you want to be professional dancers. Here are some dances that you might not know the names of and that you might consider learning a little bit about for your future careers.” Or something less awkwardly worded than that, haha.

Encouragement in the job skills that are also academic skills is SO important for students who have struggled a lot in school.

3. If you know someone in the industry your student is interested in, see if you can connect the two of them via email or phone or Voxer or Skype (with parental permission, of course) or Twitter. Make sure to have the person talk (or write) to the student about how academics connects directly to the occupation SEVERAL TIMES. And if you don’t know someone in that industry, meet someone using the power of the internet. Often times a nice letter from a high school kid will get a response from a professor, an author, a (not incredibly famous) singer, a government official. Reach out! And ask parents/guardians to help you reach out, too!

4. Set up a work study opportunity or internship for the student or help them actually apply for jobs after school or during the summer. I teach in Brooklyn, NY, so there are loads and loads of free and paid opportunities for students to pursue all sorts of interests. I like to let students know about opportunities I hear about through the weekly school announcements.

Youth Rules! DoJ screenshot
Youth Rules! is a Dept. of Labor initiative to get young workers informed about laws and expectations for working teens. http://www.youthrules.dol.gov/index.htm


5. For kids who really aren’t on track to graduate, try to get them involved in a career training program so that they have something in pocket if it turns out that coming back for a fifth or sixth year of high school is too stressful or embarrassing. Here in NYC, there are plenty of job training programs for kids from low-income families. Then there is also Job Corps, which is a federally funded program.

And that’s all she wrote! What other suggestions do you have to get school-wary teens engaged with academics? Let me know in the comments so I can steal your ideas and give my students all the tools they need to take over the world mwa ha ha ha ha!

The Most Important Part of Teaching Is…

I’m 38 years old (ssssh), and I’m a little heavier than I was at age 28. I’ve known my doctor for a long time, and for years I’ve been going to see him every summer for my annual checkup. I know he’s a competent doctor. I know he cares for my well being. But this year, I’ve been dragging my heels. Can you guess why (hint: it’s in the first sentence)?

Because last summer, when I went to see him, he commented on me gaining weight, told me that I should hurry up and have a child because menopause comes as early as 40 for some women, and then asked if I’m engaged to anyone. (The answer is no.)

A picture of Captain Kirk from Star Trek, being mean.
Oh, Captain Kirk, you can be so cruel.

He was joking around, but it sounded a whole lot like, “You are a failure.” And this, despite my knowledge that he’s a great doctor for me, he sees me at a moment’s notice if I’m really ill, and he genuinely cares for my well-being.

But choosing to not engage with my doctor this summer isn’t about logic; it’s about emotions. It’s about me wanting to avoid possible negative emotions. The funny thing is that if he knew I felt this way, he probably wouldn’t have said those things. How was he supposed to know that those are hot button issues for me? I don’t actually look overweight, and I actually enjoy my lovely, child-free life in many ways. Despite all appearances to the contrary, unfortunately, what he said really hurt.

Of course, students are the same way. If you speak sternly to a students on Monday, he will walk in Tuesday with that bad interaction at the top of his mind. And either he’ll act super sweet because of it, or he’ll tune you out. He may avoid or skip your class. Your job, as an educator of CHILDREN, is to let that kid know that yesterday was yesterday, and today is today. Your job is also to let your student know that even when you make a social mistake (and let’s face it, sometimes teachers make mistakes!), it’s not from a dark place in your heart.

I know this is easier said than done. That’s why I’m really excited to see a rebranding being touted by the folks over at the National Center for Learning Disabilities called Understood. Apparently the new site will have some new, innovative features to help families manage learning disabilities that can make schooling difficult. Here’s the part that really interests me, though:

Through Your Child’s Eyes: Experience the world as your child does. Simply select your child’s issue and grade. From there you’ll be guided through a simulation of what it’s like for a child with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADHD or executive functioning issues.”

I’m SO EXCITED for this feature. If the Through Your Child’s Eyes feature works as well as it could, it could open up teachers’ and parents’ eyes to the understanding that despite the way things seem to be, sometimes the things we say to students and others we care for can hurt them deeply. Empathy is the way of the future (and the past, and of all time).

reference.com definition of Empathy
Empathy makes the Special Education world go ’round.

And that’s a message for you too, DOCTOR!

How to Make a Worksheet POP!

Sometimes, it hurts to say it, there really is not enough time to do justice to a really interesting topic in history. With the amount of material that needs to be covered, particularly in history, and particularly in schools whose very existence is tied to student performance on standardized tests, coverage is the name of the game. As a good teacher friend of mine once said, “they can’t all be gold.”

A picture of a popping bubble gum bubble
Even a black-and-white handout can POP as if it has pretty colors. With a designer’s eye, all things are possible.


For those instances when you don’t have the time or you don’t have the energy to do gourmet   teaching, a la Grant Wiggins’s Authentic Assessment , or Project-Based Learning (PBL), or a Webquest, or a hands-on project like a foldable, you’ve gotta make a handout that pops.

I’m very pleased to share with you some basic information that I used to to make my handouts and student worksheets easier for my students to read.

1. Get rid of serif fonts. I, for one, love a good serif font. I grew up having “Times New Roman, 12-point-font” droned at me throughout high school and college, and I have found it difficult to break the habit of using it all the time. For those of you who aren’t typography nerds, a serif is a tiny little flourish on the end of a letter. Here’s a little graphic to help you out.

The difference between serif and sans serif is that serif letter have little "ledges" on them, like a little flourish.
And if you REALLY want to become a typography nerd, check out the movie HELVETICA.


Students with ADHD, students with dyslexia, students with poor vision, and students with low literacy skills sometimes find serif fonts to be very confusing. Try to avoid them.

2. Use tables to make it easier to align EVERYTHING on your page. I practically kicked myself in the head (yes, that’s how intensely I felt) when I read this tip. How did it NEVER occur to me to use tab to divide up my worksheets into easy-to-find sections? For years, I’ve been limiting myself to Microsoft Word’s page break function and a sophisticated system to tabs, space bars, and different sized carriage returns. I like to divide my page up into three imaginary columns, and then hide the columns and rows when I’m done with my layout.

A picture of a student desk
No, I don’t mean this sort of table.


3. Use a consistent “look” across all of your handouts. This gives students a sense of comfort when they look at something from your class. Over time, they don’t have to wonder where to look for information because they always know just where to find it. I can’t tell you the number of times that students asked me what to do after the “do-now” when I gave them a worksheet with instructions at the beginning of class. Consistent problems in this area tell me that the handout design was not leading them as it should have. Like it or not, students today are used to good, clean design. It’s time to rise to the challenge of giving students information that is both useful and beautiful (or, for us beginning designers, pleasant).

For more detailed information about designing student worksheets, please see this wonderful handout, created by librarian Anna Johnson at Mount Hood Community College, and inspired by Edward Tufte, Graphic Designer Extraordinaire.

Is it really the least restrictive environment? Special education vs Mainstream

“Holding to rigorous standards” doesn’t always mean what it seems to mean for students with severe disabilities, especially when it comes to standardized testing. See below for why.

The Qwiet Muse

*The following is based on personal experience and observation both with my own children and those I have advocated for in the past. I realize there are indeed success stories involving a smooth and beneficial transition from a special education setting to a general education one. Unfortunately, there are many more examples of the system failing.

The methodology behind mainstreaming special needs students into the general education classroom is too often poorly thought out and implemented. It takes too broad of an approach to the special educational needs of many students, and in doing so, only serves to hinder, not help.

Special education was created for a reason. For a population of students with different needs than many of their peers, different abilities which sometimes require a separate and unique forum in which they can learn, an environment better suited to meet their needs. The school system has been caught…

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