Good Teaching > Fidget Spinners

Over the weekend, I lost a bit of my patience with practitioners, y’all.  I’d just finished listening to a teacher rant and rave about “today’s kids being lazy” and “those damned fidget spinners.”  What I kept thinking during her rant came to life in the form of this Tweet:


I must have touched on a nerve because the Tweet took off — and not everyone was buying my central notion that good lesson planning is the best classroom management strategy.

People called my opinion “ridiculous” and “insulting.”  They said that I had “deprofessionalized and dehumanized” teachers.  They described my Tweet as “sententious BS” and called out my “neoliberalism,” whatever that means.


So I figured I’d articulate a bit on my central argument here in a series of “I Believe” statements.  Choose one and tell me where I’m wrong:

I believe that it is the teacher’s job to create lessons that are so engaging, kids aren’t interested in their distractions.  Plain and simple.  Bored kids fidget with spinners and phones and pencils and their bodies.  Kids who are engaged by challenging thoughts or provocative questions or tasks that are developmentally appropriate fidget with ideas.  If we know our kids and know our content, we OUGHT to be able to fill MOST of our lessons with MORE of those challenging thoughts and provocative questions and developmentally appropriate tasks.

Is that an easy task?  Nope.

But you can’t tell me that it’s an IMPOSSIBLE task.  All of you have taught lessons that left kids completely riveted.  Those are the moments that we live for, right?  And in those lessons, your kids aren’t flipping spinners or texting their girlfriends.  They are following your lead and listening to your every word and tackling whatever challenge you drop in front of them.

Can you create a riveting lesson every single day?  Probably not.  After 24 years of teaching, if I can wrap my kids in the perfect lesson two or three times every week, I feel like I’m doing pretty good.

But I also won’t be satisfied knowing that forty to sixty percent of my instruction is engaging, either.  And neither should you.

I believe that fidgeting kids are a GREAT source of feedback for classroom teachers.  I’m no expert at this teaching stuff, but one of the things I’m good at is being honest with myself.  In fact, I’m constantly trying to figure out whether or not my instructional practices are working for the kids in my classroom — and when I see kids fidgeting with spinners and phones and pencils and their bodies, I don’t get angry with the kids OR disappointed with myself.

Instead, I make a mental note that the lesson I am teaching needs improvement.  Maybe there aren’t enough opportunities for kids to interact with one another.  Maybe the content I’m presenting is too challenging — or not challenging enough.  Maybe my questions aren’t terribly provocative.  Maybe I haven’t worked hard enough to help my kids see the connection between the topic we are studying and their own needs and interests.

Whatever the issue, fidgeting is the symptom.  My job is to recognize it, diagnose the reason for it, and rethink my plans.

I believe that together, my peers and I can make ANYTHING more interesting.  Over and over again, teachers chirped at me that it’s unrealistic to believe that a teacher can make EVERY topic interesting to kids.  “What about punctuation?” they’d say.  “How do you make kids pay attention when you are teaching THAT?”  Or, “Some lessons are valuable but not interesting.  Like feminisim.”  Or, “Some lessons are just boring. That’s the way it is.  Life is boring.  Kids should get used to it.”

Those comments drove me nuts simply because I really AM convinced that there are ways to capture the attention of kids regardless of the topic — and while I may not always have the best ideas on my own, I teach with brilliant peers and I’ve got a digital network filled with thousands of like-minded colleagues who are willing to brainstorm with me at any hour of the day.  If I’m willing to reach out and tell other people when I know that my lessons don’t resonate with my kids, I’m GOING to find a better solution worth trying.

And if I’m NOT willing to reach out for help, I’m failing my kids by holding on to instructional practices that I KNOW aren’t working.

I believe that teachers face a thousand limitations that make high quality instruction challenging — but those limitations can’t become excuses:  I think the strong reactions that people had to my original Tweet stems from the fact that teachers really DO work hard on behalf of their kids.  We aren’t intentionally TRYING to create boring lessons for students to sit through.  Instead, we are slammed for time and slammed for resources and slammed for ideas.  Coming up with dozens of engaging, differentiated lessons for increasingly diverse student populations IS a darn near impossible challenge — particularly when your 25 minute planning period is spent arm-deep in a broken photocopier or answering YET another email from YET another aggravated parent.

And some of the crap in our required curriculum IS pretty boring.  And nothing meaningful ever seems to show up on the standardized tests that we’re held accountable for anyway.  And our bosses have stuff they are making us do.  And we teach kids who have grown up in a world where paying attention for fifteen minutes is required just about as often as juggling fourteen chainsaws to raise money for dinner.  And did I mention those damned end of grade exams yet?  They matter, you know!

I get it.  Remember: I’m a teacher, too.  I have all of those same challenges.

But the minute those challenges become an excuse to avoid reflection and continuous growth, we are failing the kids in our classroom.






Turning #hashtag180 Posts into a Digital Portfolio.

Regular Radical readers know that I’ve jumped on Kyle Hamstra’s #hashtag180 project — which is an effort designed to get teachers to understand their curricula on a deeper level by regularly Tweeting pictures, videos and/or lessons that are hashtagged with the specific essential standard that they are designed to support.

After two weeks of doing my best to share out examples of what I am doing with specific standards in my classroom, I’ve decided that I’m hooked.

I think what I love the best about the project is that it has forced me to think more carefully about my curriculum than ever before.  In fact, I’ve opened our state’s essential standards document more in the last two weeks than I have in the past two  years.

I’ve also decided to turn my daily posts into short video wonder questions for my students.

Need a sample?  Then check this one out:


The way I see it, by turning my #hashtag180 posts into short video wonder questions or learning moments for my kids, I’m maximizing the value of the time that I spend creating each new post because it can be used as a parent/student communication tool, too.  I’m more likely to continue creating new #hashtag180 posts if each post serves multiple purposes and helps me to tackle multiple responsibilities.

Finally, I’ve found a way to turn my #hashtag180 posts into a real live digital portfolio that would make George Couros proud.

Here’s how:  I’ve created an applet using IFTT — a cool service designed to automate certain parts of our online lives — that searches for my new #hashtag180 Tweets and then posts them on this dedicated Blogger blog sorted by standard.

All that I had to do was create a “formula” in IFTT — which stands for If This, Then That — asking the service to search for Tweets with my curriculum specific hashtag and then to embed those Tweets as new posts in Blogger.

Here’s what the formula looks like:

It took a bit of tinkering to figure out the right “formula” for my applet, but now that I’ve got it figured out, I just have to duplicate it for each of the standard hashtags that I plan to use during the school year and my digital portfolio will build itself over time.  For example, here’s the formula for the next standard that I’ll be teaching — and Tweeting about — #sci6p31:


Remember:  I’m not doing ANYTHING to create the posts that you see in my digital portfolio.  Literally nothing.  Once I point IFTT to the right posts in Twitter and to the right Blogger blog, the service does the rest.  It searches for the Tweets, grabs the “embed code,” and generates a new entry on my blog automatically.  And it will KEEP doing that forever — or at least until I tell it to stop.

Think about all of this for a second, will you?

Now, the two minutes that I spend each morning creating a short video asking a wonder question or sharing a demonstration or linking to an activity is serving THREE essential purposes:  It’s helping me to better understand my required curricula, it’s giving me an engaging bit of digital content that communicates classroom happenings to parents and students, AND it is automatically becoming a part of a digital portfolio that I can use as evidence of the work that I am doing with specific curricular outcomes.

That’s a helluva’ lot of value out of one simple Tweet, don’t you reckon?

So whaddya’ think?  Is this worth doing?  How would you improve on the steps that I have already taken?  Are there any steps that you would leave out?

Related Radical Reads:

Will You Join Me in the #hashtag180 Challenge?

Using a Dedicated Hashtag to Market my School.


I’ve Started Using a Dedicated Hashtag to Market My School.

About five years ago, I had the chance to coauthor a book with Eric Sheninger and Jason Ramsden on the different ways that schools can use social media to communicate and connect with the diverse stakeholders that they serve.  During the planning for that book, Eric kept saying something that has stuck with me ever since:  If you aren’t telling the story of your school, someone else will.

That’s true, isn’t it?

The fact of the matter is that the stories of schools are told all the time — by reporters, by community critics, by radio broadcasters, and by satisfied (or unsatisfied) parents standing on the sidelines of sporting events or sitting along the decks of a thousand community pools.  Sometimes those stories are accurate.  Other times, they paint an incomplete picture of events that have drawn attention.

My current school is a pretty good example of the importance of telling your own story.

Here’s why:  Seven years ago, we were converted from a traditional school calendar to a year-round calendar because our district was working to create capacity at a time of rapid population growth in our county.  The change was pretty darn unpopular at the time and it left our community divided.  Compounding matters, for the past three years, our county has had open discussions every April about changing us back to a traditional calendar.

The result:  Some prospective parents shy away from sending their kids to our building because they aren’t completely sure what our school calendar will be from year to year.

That’s been weighing on my mind a lot lately simply because I know full well that there are GREAT things happening in our school.  

Our teachers are passionate, funny people that are genuinely interested in helping to develop the kids in their classrooms as both students and as people.  We’ve got an award winning band, show choir, athletics teams, academic teams, Science Olympiad teams and robotics teams.  We prioritize questioning in our classrooms because we know that asking good questions is worth WAY more than finding the right answers.  Long story short:  Our school REALLY IS worth investing in, but no one really knows that because calendar instability is the primary story told about us.

So I made a decision a few weeks back to start a #WhySalem social media project.  Here are the current details:

As often as I can, I create a short social media post highlighting something super cool about our building.  Here’s a few examples:

I tag each post #WhySalem.  My thinking is that over time, we’ll have an easy to search and easy to share collection of really good examples of the untold stories of our school.  Maybe those stories will be shared on our school’s website.  Maybe they will be seen and spotlighted by local media looking for content.  Maybe they will be seen and shared by other parents who follow us in social spaces.  Either way, a common hashtag makes categorizing content possible.

I’m using video clips as much as possible in my #WhySalem posts.  I think video creates a stronger connection than simple text posts and/or pictures.  I want people to see me and hear me and know that I’m a real person who is genuinely enthusiastic about the work that we are doing in our building.

My video clips are short — less than 90 seconds — and they are not edited at all.  Let’s be honest:  Anything longer than 90 seconds is asking for too much attention from social media users in today’s day and age.  What’s more, I’m not trying to bury viewers in information.  I’m trying to get them interested enough in our building to come and find more information.  Finally, short, unedited videos are easy to make — and “easy to make” is a priority if I’m going to be able to sustain this project.

I’m going to try to get students to make #WhySalem posts:  I haven’t started doing this yet because I have to double check our photo/video permission lists before using kids in any of my videos — but I think having students in videos will bring even more personality and genuine energy to the project.

I’m going to try to get my peers to make #WhySalem posts:  The fact of the matter is that I don’t even know all of the cool things that are happening in my building!  My view of what’s worth spotlighting is limited by the grade level that I teach, the colleagues that I know in different spaces of our building, and the time that I have to interact beyond my own room.  That’s why I’ve got to find peers in other places who are willing to make regular posts.  They will have different stories to share about our building — and that matters.

I need to clearly articulate the purpose for #WhySalem posts to everyone that I work with:  Our school already has a presence in social spaces through our primary hashtag — #SalemProud.  But there’s a difference in purpose for each tag in my mind.  #WhySalem posts should be aimed at potential parents and should highlight something that makes our school unique as compared to our peers.  #SalemProud posts are currently aimed at current parents.  They are more general celebrations in nature.  Keeping the streams separate is important if #WhySalem is going to succeed at changing the perceptions of parents who are considering our school for their kid.

I need to start cross-posting #WhySalem content to other social spaces.  Right now, all of my posts are going to Twitter because that’s the social space that I’m most active in.  The problem is that Twitter is probably NOT the social space that potential parents — the audience I’m trying to reach — is most active in.  Chances are that our school could gain a bigger audience if our #WhySalem content was being shared in Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.  I’ve got to figure out who controls those accounts in our building and get them to start reposting #WhySalem content everywhere.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?  

Have you got any additional suggestions for me?  Does this seem like a project that you could replicate in your buildings, too?  Are you actively telling the story of your own school?

Related Radical Reads:

Communicating and Connecting with Social Media [Excerpt]

Note to Principals:  You Can’t Keep Ignoring Social Spaces

What Radical Readers are Saying about Social Media in Schools.


Will You Join Me in the #Hashtag180 Challenge?

Have you guys met Kyle Hamstra yet?  

He’s truly one of the most genuine educators that I know.  Passionate about teaching and learning and driving improvement no matter the circumstance, I love connecting with him every chance that I get.

For the past several years, Kyle has been nudging teachers to use hashtags on Twitter to document their practice.  

His thinking is simple:  If teachers start to grab videos and pictures of the work that they are doing with specific curricular objectives — or of examples of their curricular objectives spotted in “the real world” — we can all start learning from one another.  More importantly, we create complex “digital portfolios” that we can return to when we are looking for evidence of our “practice in action” AND we can become more aware of exactly what it is that we are supposed to be teaching to our students.

Recently, Kyle has started what he calls the #Hashtag180 challenge.  

Here’s how he describes it:

HOW:  Tweet one experience on each of the 180 school days of the year, and hashtag it with your learning objective and #hashtag180.

WHO: ALL Educators

WHAT: The #Hashtag180 Challenge was originally designed for educators to access and share learning resources very specifically by tweeting life and classroom experiences, hashtagged with learning objectives and #Hashtag180. Where does it go from here? The possibilities are endless…

I totally dig Kyle’s idea — and I’ve started posting regular Tweets designed to spotlight the work that I’m doing with specific curricular objectives.

Here are a few examples:


Now, if I’m being completely honest, I’m NOT posting these examples because I’m super interested in helping other teachers to find ideas for introducing the required curriculum to their kids.

Sure — that IS a likely outcome.  Other North Carolina teachers COULD follow my hashtags and spot ideas for teaching concepts that they hadn’t considered — and if other teachers in our state begin using the same tagging language, I COULD learn from the ideas that they are sharing, too.


But my primary reason for participating in Kyle’s challenge is selfish.

I want to force myself to think more deliberately about the questions that I am asking and the activities that I am creating.  I want to make sure that each task is actually connected to the specific objectives that I am required to teach.  I figure that by forcing myself to post each day, I’ll also force myself to look carefully at my curriculum each day, too.  That has value in and of itself.  I’ll become more knowledgeable about just what it is that the state expects my students to know and be able to do.

And I want to create an easily searchable library of the somewhat spontaneous ideas and questions that often come up during the course of an instructional unit that I can refer to in later years when I’m looking for a new way to introduce concepts to my kids.  If I’m persistent about my tagging language, I SHOULD be able to do some simple searching in Twitter next year to track down strategies that have slipped my mind.

Does any of this make sense to you?  Is taking the #hashtag180 challenge something you’d ever consider?

Related Radical Reads:

Simple Truth:  Hashtags can SAVE You Time.

Five Twitter Hashtags that can Save School Leaders Time

Who Wants to Play Hashtag Bracketology?

More on Compliance and Motivation in Schools.

Not sure if you’ve had the chance to read it, but I was thinking a lot about compliance and motivation last week.  

It’s a topic that drives my thinking all the time simply because I’ve got a second grade daughter who isn’t terribly good at “being compliant” and I LOVE that about her.  I want her to push the envelope and challenge authority and walk her own path — but I’m not sure that those kinds of behaviors are encouraged or celebrated in traditional schools.

So my fear is that school will crush her independence — and that I will start to push for her to be more compliant regardless of the circumstance simply because I don’t want her to be labeled a “behavior problem.”

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the comment section of that post, you SHOULD.  There have been some TERRIFIC thoughts and reflections shared that are continuing to challenge me.

One of the general themes in many comments is the notion that having kids who are intrinsically motivated is great — but the fact of the matter is that life is full of situations where drudgery is the reality.  In schools, that might look like introducing students to basic skills that are best learned through repetition or pushing kids to complete tasks because learning about meeting deadlines really is an essential skill for becoming a productive contributor.

Stated more simply, you can’t really be “college and career ready” if you think it is OK to pick and choose the work that you are going to complete and the work that you are going to ignore.

There’s truth in that thinking, right?

The fact of the matter is that we ALL complete tasks — both in our personal and our professional lives — that we aren’t inspired by.  We don’t do it because those tasks are intrinsically motivating.  We do it because we want to keep our jobs or to please our spouses or to avoid the consequences that come from ignoring expectations set by other people.

But as Dienne so eloquently describes, schoolkids are BURIED in mindless tasks that do little more than demand compliance.

She writes:

Honestly, as far as the routine stuff that does have to be done, I think we all do see the point and we all do chip in when it comes down to it, albeit sometimes grudgingly.

I think even a kid like Thomas probably likes to wear clean clothes and eat off clean dishes, so he can probably be talked into helping out with those things. Similarly with school work, I think if you can convince Thomas why he needs to know/be able to do something, he’d probably be willing to work hard enough to show you that he knows/can do it.

But repeating the same inane task (such as, for instance, reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering trick questions just to try to figure out what the test creator is thinking) probably isn’t going to happen. And that’s where we need to ask ourselves, why should it happen?

And THAT’s the key:  Inane tasks are the norm rather than the exception to the rule in the lives of students.

It’s reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering multiple choice question after multiple choice question.  It’s solving questions 14-33 on page 86 of the textbook and showing your work.  It’s making YET another PowerPoint for YET another class — and then delivering YET another five minute presentation to your peers on some topic that you are going to forget before the end of the month.

Worse yet, inspiring tasks are like white rhinoceroses:  Oddities that are rarely seen, long remembered, and hunted by darn near everyone.

Need proof?  Then try this:  Create a list of every experience from YOUR school career that you were genuinely inspired by.  What are the individual projects or tasks or classes or field trips or learning experiences that you KNOW changed who you are or how you feel or what you know.

Or if you are REALLY brave, get up from your desk RIGHT NOW.  Walk into five classrooms.  Observe the lesson that is being taught and ask yourself, “How many of those lessons will be remembered two weeks (or two days) from now?”

Short lists, right?

That’s heartbreaking, y’all.  Kids spend YEARS and YEARS in classrooms.  Shouldn’t the number of inspiring learning experiences outnumber the number of innane learning experiences by AT LEAST a factor of a thousand?

And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we be questioning the role that schools are playing in the lives of our kids?  



Related Radical Reads:

Compliance ≠ Motivation

Are We Too Busy Schooling?

Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored.