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.




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…

View original post 1,261 more words

Teaching Tips for “At Risk” Students

So, I’ve recently fallen in love (metaphorically) with the witty “bro” millionaire writings of Ramit Sethi. And, along with being funny at times, Sethi has some great free products that will teach you a lot about getting started in entrepreneurship, much of which is incredibly astute. I’m talking Stanford University *ahem, my alma mater, ahem* astute. And, oddly, applicable to education.

It occurred to me this morning, as I was reading some of his book on my kindle that a lot of the psychology he applies to making sales applies equally to teaching a class.

Follow these rules when selling a product or service (or day of education):

1. Do not rely on pure information to sell folks on the value of what you’re selling. Rely on RELATIONSHIPS and PERSONAL CONNECTION. It doesn’t matter whether or not your class will help them pass [insert standardized test here]. It matters that you connect with them on a personal level. Heard the description, “she could sell water to a drowning man?” That’s what teachers need to do.


2. Baby steps, my friend, Baby steps. Just like with dog training, baby training, or any kind of training, students learn best through praised baby steps. Priase ’em for walking in the door. Praise ’em for turning in a HW assignment. Praise ’em for apologizing. Praise ’em for farting outside the classroom. Praise ’em for sitting in their seats the whole class. Praise, Praise, Praise! Start out praising the small stuff. When they have all (or mostly all) gotten the small stuff, move on to the bigger stuff, then praise them for that!

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 8.22.55 PM



3. Praise feels sooo gooooooooood. It sounds so silly, but, recently, when I took an entry-level French language course at Alliance Francaise, I felt a bit of ABSOLUTE JOY when the teacher told me my answer was right. I was a grown woman in my 30s, and I knew my answer was right, but it was still a huge rush when my teacher told me so. Imagine being a teenager! Double the rush! Triple the rush!

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 8.25.47 PM

Remember: your students are human. When they seem difficult–chances are that they are just acting like all the other humans act when they are forced to do something they don’t want to do!

And that’s when you have to become a salesperson. 


How to Make High School Meaningful for Everyone

I learned a couple of days ago through The National Center for Learning Disabilities that President Obama has mandated local training programs be made available for young adults with learning disabilities. I am so excited about this because because it shows that somebody in the educational trenches has finally made their way into the federal government to let the powers that be know that “Get ’em all college ready” is just not a viable approach to providing positive future outcomes for all students. 

Not only are there significant numbers of students who come to school lacking basic academic skills who need extra learning time to catch up (which, often times, they cannot commit to because of responsibilities at home), but there are also some students who are just not interested in going to college. Not interested at all. I think that many folks who are from privileged backgrounds forget that not everyone wants to live to work. Some folks want to work… so they can live. They don’t want a high powered job that has them working 60 hours a week. At least, they don’t think they want it age at 18. And that’s okay. Life is long. There is plenty of time to figure out what you want.

Here is where I get to the point:

If we want students to be interested in high school, we have to make it relevant. “This will help you pass the VERY UNIMPORTANT TEST” is just not good enough. Learning doesn’t just happen at school. Sometimes it happens at Career One Stop, at an internship, at a conversation around the dinner table with family, on line at the super market. As teachers, we need to point students in a direction that will help them achieve their goals, even if we don’t approve. And sometimes that will mean NOT sending them to college, but to a training opportunity that appeals to their own sense of what is important in the world.

How To Keep GenEd Teachers “In The Know”

An IEP only works when everyone approaches it without cynicism. Unfortunately, because there is so much information to know, and there are so many people involved in sharing information and there are only 24 hours in a day, it can seem like a daunting task to let Gen Ed teachers know how they can help the student with special needs in their CTT classes.

Sharing IEP Information

Here in New York, we have a useful system of keeping teachers up to date on students’ accommodations and yearly goals called SESIS (Special Education Student Information System) that serves as an easy-to-access source of IEP information, though it leaves a lot to be desired in the design department (it looks like it was created during the DOS era).

But what do you do if your school district doesn’t HAVE a SESIS-like system?

You have three possibilities:

  • Tried and True. Print out all of the IEPs in the beginning of the year and give relevant IEPs to each teacher.

  • Speed it up. Print out summaries of all of the IEPs in the beginning of the year and give to relevant teachers, being sure to let them know that hard copies are always available through you.
  • Tech It Up. Find a SECURE SESIS-like system that you can buy for your school. I have found a couple online that look pretty interesting, like  IEP Writer (which is easy to use and beautifully designed).

No matter what you do, it’s incredibly important that you let the GenEd teachers know what the students with special needs will require to function optimally in their classes. As we all know, it can be difficult in an ICT situation to get the GenEd teacher to incorporate your SpEd expertise. But don’t let that stop you from providing GenEd teachers with the information they need to best serve the students.

Make it easy to find, make it easy to use.