Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Odd One Out: A Strategy to Get Students Thinking Critically in Any Subject

Example Odd One Out Problem
Have you ever played the game Two Truths and a Lie? It is generally used as a simple and fun icebreaker activity where each person gives three statements about him or herself and others guess which one of the three is a lie. “Odd One Out” is a lot like that except it can be used as a way for students to think critically about a topic. I first learned about this strategy at a science team meeting several years ago. I am not sure of its official name, but Odd One Out seems appropriate. Odd One Out problems consist of a circle divided into four equal parts. Each quarter lists a word or phrase from a related topic. One quarter’s topic does not quite fit with the others though.

How to Make and Solve an Odd One Out Problem

To make an Odd One Out problem, choose four words or ideas from a related topic and arrange them in the four quarters of a circle. One of those parts should be just a little different than the others. Take the topic of colors, as seen in the example above. All four parts contain a color, but one doesn’t quite fit. Know which one?

Once you identify the odd one out, circle or shade that quarter. Then explain your answer. An explanation might sound like this, “Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors. Orange is the odd one out because it is a secondary color, meaning it is the result of two primary colors mixing.”


When I assign Odd One Out problems to students, I require them to write a sentence explaining why their chosen quarter does not fit. Their explanation is the most important part of the problem because it shows whether or not they truly understand the topic. Also, in some cases, an Odd One Out problem can have more than one correct answer causing the explanation to become even more valuable. This can promote student discussion and build even stronger critical thinking skills.

Odd One Out Problems with Multiple Correct Answers

Consider this example with actors. What answer would you choose?

Who is the odd one out? Is there more than one correct answer?

You probably picked Jennifer Lawrence because she is the only female listed. But can there be another correct answer? If you know a little more about these actors, you might realize all but one of them are American. Therefore, the Australian Chris Hemsworth could also be a correct answer. In fact, there are a number of correct answers to this problem. Knowing more about a topic can lead to a greater variety and depth of answers.

Answers that Are Not Really Answers

Sometimes, you might have students whose explanations cannot be considered correct. For example, in the above problem about actors, you might have a student with an answer like this, “Clint Eastwood is the odd one out because he’s the only one whose name begins with a vowel.” Yes, technically this is correct. However, it has nothing to do with the topic of these actors. To avoid getting answers like this, remind students that their answers have to do with the topic at hand.

Use Odd One Out Problems in All Subject Areas

One of the awesome things about Odd One Out problems is how versatile they are. They can be relatively easy to solve or provide quite a challenge. Students can use their understanding of a topic to make their own problems to test their classmates. They can be used for a ton of different ages, ability levels, and subject areas.  Look at the examples below from each of the core subjects for ideas to start using Odd One Out problems in your classroom.





Example of a Completed Odd One Out Problem Set

The Elements, Compounds, and Mixtures worksheet below is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store along with a number of other science related Odd One Out worksheets

Example Odd One Out Problem Set

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

11 Tips to Reduce Grading Time (and Make Grading Less Painful)

It was around this time of year during my first year of teaching when I got completely overwhelmed with my grading load. My main problem: I felt like I needed to grade EVERYTHING. Until speaking with other teachers about how much time I spent grading, I did not realize grading everything was unnecessary and impossible to sustain. Right then I decided to change my grading habits.

My first year I was teaching English to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Since every class had two spelling homework assignments and a spelling test every week, the easiest way to reduce grading was to cut out redundant, practice assignments. My first grading change was to only grade one spelling homework assignment per week. I was still grading a ton of assignments, but just that one little change substantially reduced the time I devoted to grading. Since that first year, I have learned many more tricks to reduce grading time. Here are some of those tricks.

  1. This one is probably the most obvious: limit what you grade. Whenever possible, I limit myself to two or three assignments per week. I feel like this is enough to give students, parents, and teachers a clear and accurate picture of the students’ understanding of each topic and overall effort. I can see their understanding with each assessment grade and see their general effort levels reflected in whether or not they finish their homework completely and on time.
  2. Prioritize the most important assignments or parts of assignments. Choose what will give you the best picture of student understanding and grade that. If you have a lengthy assignment, pick only a few sections to spend time on and give a completion grade for the rest.
  3. Occasionally give completion grades. When totally swamped with teaching duties, this can save your sanity. If students complete all of an assignment, I give them 100%. If they only do half, they get 50%.  I limit this to homework assignments and try not to do it too often because it doesn’t reflect student understanding. However, when I have more pressing teaching duties that will have a greater impact on my students’ learning I think this is acceptable.
  4. Have a no name policy you can handle. I used to post no name papers on the bulletin board (most remained unclaimed) and did detective work to figure out which paper belonged to which student. That took a lot of time and was not something I felt should be the teacher’s responsibility. After a couple of years of this, I decided my seventh-grade students should be responsible enough to do something as simple as writing their name on their assignment. Consequently, I communicated this to my students and made it my class policy to throw out no names. Whatever no name policy you decide to implement, make sure it works for you and doesn’t add more time and effort than it deserves.
  5. Limit late assignments. I used to take late assignments all quarter long (at a 25% grade reduction). This resulted in a deluge of assignments from students who waited until right before grades were due. It generated a ton of work for me when I needed to be wrapping things up. I had to remember how I graded each assignment, which was time consuming in and of itself. Cue a new late assignment policy: assignments are accepted no later than two weeks overdue. This policy makes it so I can still easily remember how I graded something and also keeps my grading duties at a reasonable level, even when the gradebook is almost due.
  6. Don’t let the assignments pile up. This can happen quickly and become overwhelming. Try grading in little spurts throughout the week so you never end up with more than a week’s worth of accumulated assignments.
  7. Have student helpers. Most students enjoy helping the teacher with little tasks. I often have students organize my ungraded papers so they are all neatly stacked, facing up, and paper-clipped by assignment and class period. The time saved really adds up.
  8. Let students grade their own assignments or swap papers with a classmate. This gives students quick feedback on how they are doing with a topic and where they can improve. You can discuss answers as a class and clear up problem areas as soon as they present themselves. When grading this way, I usually don’t add the grades to the gradebook because the students already know exactly how they did and it’s too easy for students to cheat.
  9. Always use a rubric when applicable. This sounds so important and obvious. But, let me tell you, there have been times when I was so overwhelmed with teaching that I didn’t have a rubric when I assigned the project. This is a huge no-no. Without a rubric, the students don’t have clear expectations. You will end up with all sorts of projects and no fair, consistent way to grade them. It becomes a time-consuming mess to grade. Trust me—always use a rubric.
  10. Design exit tickets with ease of grading in mind. Since all of my exit tickets go in the gradebook, almost all of them are short—between four and five questions long—and are mainly multiple choice. If it is important to see the depth of student understanding, I might add one question that requires students to answer in sentences. By sticking to this general format, I am able to whip through grading exit tickets. (If you teach middle school science you might be interested in my Exit Ticket Package, which contains a bunch of exit tickets designed this way.)
  11. Make peer reviewing part of projects. During big projects, take a little class time for peer reviewing. When students evaluate their classmates’ work, they learn from each other and learn to think critically. The peer review can be something as simple as providing one thing they liked about a project and one way to improve it. You could take it further by printing extra rubrics and having students grade each other that way.  If you include some form of peer reviewing once or twice before students turn in their projects, you will receive higher quality work which requires less grading time from you.

Implementing even just a few of these strategies will greatly reduce your grading time. Of course it’s impossible to completely eliminate grading so, if all else fails, make the time you have to spend grading as painless as possible. Use fun pens and stickers. Listen to music and light a nice smelling candle. Have a yummy snack and a special drink (or two). Wear comfy clothes and put your dog on your lap. Recruit a friend to help.

What do you do to save time spent grading? How do you make grading a more pleasant experience? Comment below to share your ideas.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Using a Reward System in Middle School

When I began teaching seventh grade science as a Teach for America Corps Member, one thing that set my class apart from others was my use of a reward system in a middle school setting. Prior to joining Teach for America, I had earned two degrees in education plus I already had two years of teaching behind me. By the time I joined TFA, I had my own ideas about classroom management and had begun to implement those ideas. However, one of the main reasons I joined TFA was to learn about different styles of teaching so I could become a better educator for my students.  I kept my mind open to new ideas. One thing TFA exposed me to during our five-week summer institute was the use of a reward system at a secondary level. At first I thought it seemed silly and impractical. Middle and high school students excited about earning little toys? Spending tons of my own limited income providing those goodies for hundreds of students? Huh? After dismissing the idea, I found myself thinking about it and considering how I could make it more practical for my own classroom.  When I began teaching seventh grade science students a month and a half later, I had a reward system in place as a way to decrease misbehavior, increase student engagement and achievement, and create a fun and positive classroom environment.  And what do you know? It worked.

What did I want in a reward system?

I wanted my system related to academic achievement. I wanted students to be individually rewarded to increase their investment. More importantly from a behavior standpoint, I wanted them to work together for class rewards because peers can often influence behavior in ways a teacher cannot. I did NOT want to spend oodles of money making it work. My reward system developed when all of these ideas rolled together.

What does the reward system look like as a whole?

Here is a quick synopsis of my reward system. First of all, it has two parts—an individual reward and a group reward—and both parts involve earning class points. Students earn tickets individually that they enter in daily prize drawings. The number of drawings a class gets depends on how many points a class earns for good behavior. In addition to daily drawings that reward individual students, class points add up for whole group rewards. 


Earning Class Points for the Individual and Group Rewards


How do students earn class points?

Students work together as a class to earn points. They do this by following directions, doing things quickly, participating, being on task, doing exceptionally well on lab days or during lively activities, having a class average of over 80% on a test or quiz (five points each time), and getting good reports from substitutes (fifteen points per day). When the class earns a point, I let them know right away. Letting them know when and why they earn a point is important because it rewards them instantly for their good behavior and encourages them to keep it up.

Do you ever take away points?

No. The students earned the points they received. Many times, most of the misbehavior comes from only a few students. Taking away points punishes the whole class making well-behaved students less invested in earning points because they feel those points can just be taken away by the poor choices of others. The only time I’ve ever taken away points was when a sub wrote a very poor report about a class and the majority of the students didn’t get the assigned sub work done.  (The students who did get their work done were rewarded for their actions.)

How do you keep track of class points?

I have a mason jar with a lid labeled for every class. Each point is represented by a fuzzy thing (actually called pom-poms, but “little fuzzy things” was the name we adopted for them). During class, I put the little fuzzy thing the students earn into the lid. (I want to keep them separate for the individual reward that day.) At the end of class, I count how many points we got for the day to determine how many prize drawings we need to do for the individual reward. Then I add the little fuzzy things collected in the lid that day to the jar to accumulate over time (for the group reward).

Individual Reward Information


How do students get tickets for the individual reward?

Students earn tickets for getting 80% or above on assessments. An assessment includes tests, quizzes, and exit tickets. I always have at least one assessment each week so students have plenty of chances to earn tickets. Whenever a student performs well on an assessment, I attach one ticket onto their paper. When students get their papers back they detach the ticket, write their name on it, and enter it into the drawing where they have a chance win a prize of their choice. Check out a set of reward tickets here.

How many class points does it take to get one drawing?

Every five class points triggers one drawing. For example, if a class earns a total of ten points they will get two drawings. If a class gets nine points, they will only get one drawing.

How many drawings are typically in one day?

That depends on a few different factors, the biggest one being overall class behavior. In a 90-minute block schedule, I usually do between two to four drawings. In a shorter 45-minute class, the students earn one or two drawings. I’ve had some disastrous classes (haven’t we all?) where students didn’t earn even one drawing. I’ve also had spectacular days (yea!) where a class earned six.

How and when do students submit tickets for the drawing?

If I have any worksheets or assessments to return to students, I pass them out while students complete their Do Now at the beginning of class. Any student who receives a ticket at that time can add it to the class’s bag. I usually send around a student who finished his or her Do Now early to collect the tickets in the bag.

Where do you keep the submitted tickets for the drawing?

I have a gallon-size Ziploc bag labeled for each of my seven classes. When it comes time to do a drawing I empty the class tickets into a bucket so students can select a winning ticket without seeing the name written on it.

When do you do the drawing? Who does the drawing?

I like to do the drawing at the end of every class period. It only takes about two minutes, so I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing class time (especially since we accomplish so much in class when the students are motivated to be well behaved by the reward system). If time is running short, we carry over the drawings and do them at the beginning of the next class. In the past, I’ve tried doing the drawings only once a week on the last day before the weekend, but I’ve found the students aren’t quite as motivated if they have to wait that long.

Students love being involved in this system, so unless we are running really short on time a student will do the drawing. I choose a student at random and invite that student to the front of the room where I am holding the bucket of tickets. Without looking, the student chooses a ticket and reads the name of the winner to the class.

What prizes do students earn in the drawing?

I try to have something to appeal to every student. I have bathroom passes and homework passes. Before school starts, I stock up on the amazing deals that can be found at Office Depot and Staples. There I find folders, pencils, pens, notebooks, and erasers for as little as a penny each. During the summer I go to garage sales for inexpensive books or fun little items I think my students will like. My mom loves to make jewelry, so she provides earrings and bracelets. Many parents love to donate for the reward system, so I always request the most popular items of all: food, drinks, and gum. They go to Sam’s Club to get good deals in bulk. I ask them to keep each item’s cost less than 50 cents.

Where do you keep the prizes for the individual reward?

I keep the prizes in a glass display case with a lock. One of the walls in my science classroom is made entirely of these lockable glass cases and it makes for the perfect way to both show the prizes and keep them secure.

What do you do with the huge number of tickets that are collected but not drawn?

I dump the tickets into the recycle bin each quarter. I do this because some students earn a lot of tickets during that time and others only receive a few. I want every student to have a chance to win and when certain students have a stockpile of tickets it makes that difficult. I also dump the tickets each quarter because some students made poor choices and deserve to start over with a clean slate. The rationale I give to my students is the bag can’t hold that many tickets and students should have a chance to start over and make good decisions.

Whole Group Reward Information


How many class points does it take to get a whole class reward?

One hundred and fifty points seems to work best. On average it gives a whole class reward about once a month. One hundred comes around too often and two hundred drags on causing the students to become apathetic.

What whole class rewards do you use?

I provide a list and let the students vote.  No matter how many choices I give the students, only two have ever been chosen. Classes always vote for either free time with electronics (I give between ten and fifteen minutes) or permission to bring and eat snacks during class. 

 
When do you count the class points for the whole group reward?

I don’t keep a running tally of the number of points. Instead I have a student in study hall count each class’s points at the end of the week. I announce the total on Monday when we go through the weekly schedule. If at that time a class has reached the 150 points needed to trigger a whole class reward, we vote for what the reward will be and when it will happen.

*********************************************************************************

In summary, this reward system has two parts. The first part is an individual reward. The class earns points to trigger drawings at the end of each class period. The drawing prizes go to individual students who earned a ticket from getting 80% or above on an assessment. The second part of the reward system also involves getting class points, but the whole group works together to earn 150 points and trigger a whole class reward.

This system has helped me build and maintain a positive classroom environment in my seventh grade science classes. Students are excited to come to class and learn. They are motivated to do well on their assessments and be good students in class. Plus, it’s a lot of fun for me. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Back to School Site-Wide Sale on Teachers Pay Teachers!

 SALE!

Great news! Teachers Pay Teachers is having a two day sale starting tomorrow. Get ready for back to school and stock-up for the year ahead. Everything in my store will be 20% off. Most other stores will have sales going on as well. Remember to use the code "BestYear" when you checkout so you can get even more savings.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Away for a Little While

Hello! My family and I are going on a canoe trip in Canada for the next week and a half, so I will be away from all technology. If you send a message or ask a question on the blog I will respond when I get back. Enjoy your July and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Successfully Using Stations in the Middle School Classroom

I’ll admit, when I first began using stations the main reason was so I didn’t have to make copies for 200 students. The copy machines at my school were frequently broken, out of toner, and often inaccessible due to high need from other teachers and the lack of regular and predictable planning periods. If I wanted to make copies, I either had to get to school around seven or stay well after the final bell rang.  Even then I might not be able to print what I needed for my students because the paper might be locked away to save the district some money. Stations were a perfect solution to my copy machine dilemmas. However, once I began using stations I found many more reasons to keep using them in my seventh grade science classes. Perhaps most importantly, students love stations and are motivated simply because they can be out of their seats and be more in charge of their learning (more on that later). Stations are super easy to differentiate and can be used to meet the needs of all of your students. Also, they are easy to use and quick to set up. If you’ve never heard of stations, ever considered using stations, or if you currently use stations and they aren’t quite as effective as you’d like, keep reading.

Students practice identifying variables and writing hypotheses
with these Scientific Method Stations.

What are stations?

Stations are a way for students to practice lesson content while moving around the classroom instead of being seated at desks. (That might sound scary when considering certain classes—believe me, I’ve been there. However, I’ve used stations with even my most rambunctious, out of control classes of 35+ seventh grade students. It can be done successfully.) Stations can be questions or short tasks posted on the perimeter of the room. In my science classes I typically used questions that could be answered with students’ notes, textbooks, knowledge, or skills. I included a variety of question levels—some easy and straightforward and others rigorous and challenging. I have also set up measurement stations with tasks to complete such as finding the volume of an object using the water displacement method or predicting the mass of an object and then using a balance to see how close their predictions were. When I noticed students had a hard time finding information in textbooks, I had stations where students had to find a specific piece of information using glossaries, tables of contents, or indexes. I’ve even cut up a worksheet and posted it around the room as stations. Answering the questions on a worksheet can be tedious, but when that same worksheet is in station form it becomes more engaging and meaningful.

When students are up and around the room doing stations they’ll need to record their answers. This can be done on notebook paper that they hand in when they’re finished or in their interactive notebooks.

How do I set up stations in my classroom?

Start off by writing the questions or tasks you want your students to answer. Use fairly large font so they are easy to read from a distance of several feet. Then print them out and cut them up. If you want, you can laminate them so they are in good condition by the time the last class of students goes through them.  I personally did not laminate them, so I always had some rips or pencil marks on the papers by the end of the day. Instead of laminating I just used extra tape to prevent the majority of damage. 

Once you have your stations printed, cut out, and maybe laminated you can tape them around the room on walls, windows, or tables. Finding space in my classroom was always easy because my room was ginormous. I also had countertops bordering the walls of three-quarters of my classroom. The space you leave between stations obviously depends on how many stations you have, but whenever possible try to leave at least a yard between them. This helps the students stay focused on their task instead of socializing with nearby groups.  It also helps the teacher spot misbehavior earlier and sprout fewer gray hairs.

When should I use stations?

There were two purposes for using stations in my classroom: practice or review. If I was using the stations as a way to reinforce the material we learned, I scheduled them after taking notes and doing a whole class practice. Basically, I wanted my students to have the fundamentals down and the ability to be decently independent before beginning stations. If students needed to review material, I typically used stations as a review activity the day or two before a test.

I’ve also had luck using stations before big breaks like Thanksgiving break, winter break, spring break, or summer vacation. Whenever students are especially squirrelly, stations are usually a good choice because students can move around the room and still engage in the material they need to learn and understand instead of wasting learning time.  (Stations have kept me sane on more than one occasion before a break.)

What behavioral expectations should be established before beginning stations?

Before beginning stations, you MUST go over your behavior expectations. Otherwise, the students have a 95% chance of turning feral within three minutes. Here are the station expectations I went over every time we did stations. 
  • Students will have no more than three students to a station at any time. If there is already a group at that station, then they must go to another station.
  • Students do not have to go in order. They may skip around to any station as long as they write their answers in the correct location on their own papers. 
  • As long as students are on task and working, students may pick the student(s) they want to work with. Students may also work individually.
  • Students will receive only one warning for off task behavior. If they are off task a second time, they will have to complete the assignment individually in their seat using a worksheet form of the stations.
  • Students may only visit the answer sheet twice during the stations.
  • When students finish the stations they need to check all of their answers and return to their seats.


How do I monitor behavior during stations, and what do I do about misbehavior?

If you aren’t directly supporting a group of students, walk around the room and monitor behavior. Keep an eye and ear out for horseplay. Whenever students misbehave or don’t follow a station expectation give them a warning. If students have a second problem, direct the offending students back to their seats and give them a worksheet form of the stations to complete individually. Remind students they cannot get out of their seats for the remaining station time, otherwise you might find them messing with their friends and wandering around the room “working on the stations.” Depending on whether your stations consist of questions or tasks, your students might not be able to do every station on their worksheet. In that case instruct them to skip the station or complete it individually later on.

Biggest advice here: don’t let small misbehaviors get out of hand. Immediately give the warning/consequence and briefly explain to the student what they did wrong and why it’s a problem. Here is an example of how that might sound: “Billybobjoe, you were visiting another group again. When you do this it is distracting to other students and you can’t learn. Because you didn’t follow the station expectations, now you will finish the stations at your desk by yourself on this worksheet.”

How can I use stations to meet the needs of all of my students?

Stations are excellent for differentiation purposes. Students can choose what works for them. For example, I let my students determine if they wanted to work independently, with a partner, or in a group of three. They also determined the order in which they completed the stations. They could skip around or go in numerical order while working at their own pace. Posting an answer sheet gave my students support by allowing them to check their work or get help with a problem they were struggling with. While my students were working, I was free to meet with a small group of students who needed extra support. Sometimes I determined ahead of time who should be in that day's support group and other times I left it up to the students to come to me for assistance.

Consider posting answer sheets (like I did with the
Changes in States of Matter Stations) so students can
check their work and get assistance if needed.

Another way to differentiate is by arranging the stations from easiest to hardest. For the most part, students are pretty good at determining their levels of understanding. Whenever I arranged the stations this way, I explained it to my students and let them choose where they needed to be. Providing the right context and reasoning is important for this. Don’t just say: left is easy, center is medium, and right is hard. Then you’d have a flock of students on the left with no one really benefiting. Explain that the stations on the left side are for students who feel they are having difficulty with the content and need to build up their knowledge and skills first. The stations in the center are a medium level of difficulty for students who feel they have a fairly good understanding of the content and are ready for reinforcement practice. The stations on the right side of the room are for students who feel they understand the material very well and need a challenge. When I explained it this way, my students didn’t feel bad if they were on the left side. As for the right side, many were eager for a challenge and would start by looking at the questions to see if they were ready or needed to go more towards the center.

When arranging by level of difficulty, give your students a number of stations to complete. If there are 30 stations, maybe have them choose any 10. Having students complete all of the stations can defeat the purpose of arranging them this way.

What do I do when students finish the stations at different times?

There are several solutions to this. You can set a timer and have students complete as many stations as they can in 20 minutes. If there are a small number of stations or if the questions/tasks are relatively quick to get through, you can start a five-minute timer after the first five students finish; then announce that everyone needs to be done in less than five minutes. You can have students begin their homework or an individual class assignment at their seats. They can read a book. I’ve tried all of these methods in my class and switched it up depending on the student or lesson needs.

What stations do you use in your own classroom?

I'm so glad you asked. :) In my Teachers Pay Teachers store you can find several of the stations I have used in my seventh grade science classroom. I’m in the process of getting other sets available in my store as well. Currently, these are the stations in my store:
  • Scientific Method Stations: These can be used in a variety of ways. Most often my students used these stations to identify independent and dependent variables and write hypotheses.  
  • Changes in States of Matter Stations: These stations give students practice with the key points of melting, freezing, vaporization, condensation, and sublimation. 
  • Human Body Organ System Stations: Students practice the important characteristics of the skeletal system, circulatory system, respiratory system, muscular system, digestive system, and nervous system.
  • Properties of Matter/Physical Science Review Stations: I use these stations to review physical science concepts before the unit test. They go over atoms, states of matter, changes in states, physical and chemical changes, law of conservation of mass/matter, homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures, elements, and compounds. 

If you haven’t already, try using stations in your classroom. With the correct implementation, they can really benefit your students. Plus, you don’t have to make a bazillion copies ;)




Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Ways to Grow as a Teacher in a Secondary Classroom

In my classroom, I’m always looking for ways to improve. To grow as a teacher, I reflect on my lessons and consider what went well, what could have been better, and different methods to try in the future. In addition to self-reflection, I welcome feedback from others—administrators, mentors, other teachers, and my students. I’ve even participated in Great Teachers, Great Feedback, which is a virtual coaching service.

I’ve been observed countless times during my teaching career. My first year teaching I was observed by my mentor multiple times each month and my program director several times a year. A couple of years later when I was a part of Teach for America I had advisors in and out of my room on a regular basis in addition to visits from the principal and vice principals. While I’ve never enjoyed being observed (who does, right?), I looked forward to hearing their thoughts and ideas. Whether the feedback was good or bad, I wanted to hear all about it. I grew into a strong teacher quickly because I was so eager to learn from others. I’ve always been naturally reflective, but the comments from administrators, advisors, mentors, and fellow teachers showed me where to place my concentration.

No matter how often you’re observed and receive feedback, you won’t grow as a teacher unless you are willing to listen to advice and try out new ideas. Don’t shut down when an observer shares a criticism.  Ask questions about turning things around instead.  True, not all of the advice you’ll receive will be helpful. For example, one of my observers always told me to rank my students from highest performers to lowest performers and create an elaborate seating chart based off of that ranking system. It was such a time consuming process with seven classes of around 30 students each. However, I tried it anyway. For several weeks, I used this new seating chart system.  When no benefits of the new seating chart showed themselves I went back to my old arrangements. Out of all of the advice I received and tried over the years, this was the only one that stands out as impractical. While the idea didn’t work out, it did get me thinking about other options for seating charts and table arrangements. Not every idea will be beneficial, but most of them are worth considering. I’ve discovered a lot of wonderful teaching methods this way.    

Self-reflection and routine observations aren’t the only things that shaped me into the teacher I am today.  Some of the best feedback came from the people who were in my classroom every day: my students. Simply watching your students can tell you so much about the efficacy of your lessons and teaching methods.  I think most teachers can tell when their students are bored. There are many hard to miss signs there—slouching, open mouths, excessive doodling, drooling, sleeping, acting out... You can tell when your students are engaged, eager to learn, and excited. A quick assessment can tell you how much each student understood the content. There are many informal ways to learn from your students.

Besides observing students’ behavior and assessing their work, you can do something as simple as asking questions. Ask your students how you’re doing. Ask what they liked and didn’t like about a lesson. Ask them what was clear and what was confusing. Ask them what helps and what doesn’t. Many students will be hesitant to answer, especially at first. Not many teachers ask their students’ opinions on lessons and teaching practices. If you can get them talking, you might be surprised at their insight.

Several times a year I have my students give me a more formal assessment. Most students are more candid about their thoughts when they don’t have to express themselves in front of a classroom full of students and their teacher. To give the formal assessment, I have my students grade me at the end of each quarter. Basically, whenever my students get report cards I get one too.  Or, in particularly challenging classes, I have students complete a formal assessment ASAP to help identify the problem and get students back on track to learning as much as they can in the short amount of time they have in my class. 

When my students “Grade the Teacher” they fill out the answers to questions on a piece of paper. It’s fairly quick: between five to ten minutes. You can ask questions about whatever you think would be useful like classroom management, lesson pacing, types of homework, how students feel in your class, clearness of expectations, ect.  I often change up the questions each quarter. I always include a portion about what letter grade I deserve and why. I usually include a question about what unit they learned the most from and why. If you’re considering letting your students grade you like this, I recommend you read through the advice below.

  • Explain to the students that you are giving them the feedback form because you want to know how to improve your teaching. Encourage details and examples because those will give you a better idea of how to improve.
  • Tell students to focus on your teaching, the lessons, and the classroom environment. Not your clothing choices or appearance or other irrelevant things! When students first started grading me, I got comments about how I’m stylish and have beautiful eyes.  Flattering, yes. A little creepy, also yes.  Helpful, no.
  • Clarify that students should be completely honest but not hurtful. Giving examples of what is and isn’t acceptable is helpful. Example: Mr. Dude sometimes seems mad and yells and it makes students feel uncomfortable. Nonexample: Mr. Dude is a mean teacher and everyone hates him.   
  • If you want, you can have students complete their evaluations anonymously. This might help them be more comfortable being honest. Personally, I like to have students put their names on the evaluations so I can follow up with them if I have any questions or need clarification.
  • Consider having a question about the student’s level of effort in class. I’ve found this helps the students consider their role in how class goes on a daily basis, and this causes them to be more fair and reasonable in their evaluation of me.
  • This part is hard: Try not to take criticisms personally. Not every student will give you glowing reviews. That’s ok! Remember, you gave them this evaluation to improve and their ideas can often help you with that goal.
  • You can use the Grade the Teacher feedback form I created with your students. I use some version of this with my students every quarter.  It’s in English and Spanish so all the voices in my classroom are heard.

If you’re serious about improving as a teacher you should reflect on your lessons, invite people into your classroom to observe you, try new teaching methods, and get feedback from your students.

Click on the picture below to learn more about the feedback form I use with my students. 

 Grade the Teacher: teacher evaluation tool