Teaching is Persuasion

In the small–decidedly geeky–circle in which I interact, the recent piece on NPR about persuasion has been a big topic of discussion.  In the online “print” version of the radio story, writer Shankar Vadantum briefly explains the major techniques that skilled individuals have used for centuries to coax others into doing what they want.

How does this relate to teaching?  Well, the obvious answer is that our students need to learn to be persuasive.  Bill Ferriter spent an entire chapter of his recent book “Teaching the iGeneration: 5 Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills With Web 2.0 Tools” on an activity for students to practice their powers of influence.  It seems clear that being able to make your point of view heard and encourage others to agree is a 21st century skill if ever there was one.  But, there’s something more here.

As any practicing educator will attest, more than 50% of our time in class is often spent on classroom management.  Engagement is the first step in teaching: those who excel at creating inviting lessons spend much less time managing behavior in their teaching spaces.  It’s not enough to be a “fun” teacher or allow your students more freedom than other teachers, you need to convince them that learning what you are teaching is exactly what they want to do.

If that’s not persuasion, I don’t know what is.

photo credit: Vagabond Shutterbug via photo pin cc


Engagement through Digital Conversations

I’ve started using edmodo again this year.  I had played with it years ago when it was little more than a discussion platform for students.  I gave up on it when my district made it clear that social networking was evil inappropriate for educational purposes.  Soon after, the folks at edmodo decided to change the look and make it much more Facebook-like, and then began to add more features at an amazing rate.  It has become much more of an instructional tool than ever before.

This year, in a strange twist, my district decided to purchase a district license for edmodo. The social networking policy hasn’t changed, but edmodo is now a de facto exception.  As I began to use it and train others in its use, it was clear that this would become an integral part of my classroom this year.  In fact, you can expect a future post about the assessment tools and their usefulness for classroom teachers.

As the year began and I introduced my students to edmodo, I knew that they would find it engaging (although we require that all discussions be “school related”) for its social interactions and the taboo of 11-year-olds using their own “Facebook”.  What I didn’t expect is the level of self-motivation that this medium would provide.

I posted on edmodo several items to help my students prepare for an upcoming quiz, including Quizlet flashcards and reminders of the date of the assessment.  One evening last week, just prior to the quiz day, I noticed that one of my students had posted a study guide for the quiz.  He had created his own outline of the content and a fill-in-the-blank practice quiz, and then posted it online for all of his peers to use!

In my wildest imagination, I had not expected that I would have students volunteering to do extra work and share it freely without any reward in the first month of using this tool.

Obviously, my experiences might be unique.  Your students may not take to it as mine have.  You might need to use the “badge” feature as a sort of intangible reward system, offering badges to students who show citizenship, leadership, effort, etc.  But, this is definitely a tool with lots of potential, and a great example of how digital conversations can be powerful ways to engage your students.

How do you engage your students using online tools?

photo credit: timsackton via photo pin cc


A Motivating Read [Book Review]

I often get asked about my reading habits by other teachers. Some want to know how I find the time to read–my answer includes bathrooms, lines at Walmart, and Instapaper–and others are curious about what I read. Recently, I spoke with a colleague about one of the most useful education books I’ve read in the last year: “Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges” by Larry Ferlazzo.

Those of you who peruse the interwebs may already be familiar with Larry and his award-winning resource-sharing blog. You may even remember that I mentioned Helping Students Motivate Themselves in a post about good education reads last summer. Now that I’ve had a chance to use some of his lesson ideas, I want to share a more in-depth review.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Ferlazzo focuses on several critical questions that teachers have been asking themselves since the dawn of time, like “How can you regain control of an out-of-control class?” and “What can you do to keep your students–and yourself–focused at the end of the year?”. For each question, he provides some relevant research data and some personal anecdotes, and then follows up with a lesson (or series of them) to address the issue. For some questions this means one lesson, but for others (and this is where he sets himself apart) Ferlazzo suggests a year-long series of repeated lessons to really make a concept stick with the students.

One example is his chapter entitled “How Can You Help Students See the Importance of Personal Responsibility?”. Here he provides several lessons that use current events and well-known people to make the point that successful individuals own up to their failures and don’t blame others. Students explore the way that they have felt in situations where they cast blame on someone else, or had that done to them. It’s a remarkably effective method of addressing an issue that would more often result in eye-rolling than real learning. Even more amazing is that he makes it work with high school students!

Later in that same chapter, Ferlazzo recommends an activity for building students’ self-esteem. They discuss the meaning of the word “value” and then identify their own personal values by choosing from a broad list. They write about why they find these things important–examples of these values include membership in a social group, religious values, and living in the moment–and how they have felt when they made choices that supported them. He suggests repeating this short writing activity at several points during the school year to both reinforce its importance and to allow students to track changes in their own motivation.

I find this sort of practical long-range lesson idea to be quite rare in the cookbook world of education books for teachers. He presents very easy lessons with very little preparation needed (the publisher’s website allows owners of the book to download his handouts) that have stimulated compelling discussions in my classroom. I highly recommend the book because you can do much of what he suggests without any major changes to your teaching style or lesson pacing.

Perhaps most importantly for me, Ferlazzo’s lessons from Helping Students Motivate Themselves develop metacognition and student awareness of the skills that they need to be successful in life. It’s hard to imagine a more important 21st Century Skill than that.

Anybody else read it and want to share your opinion? That’s what the comments are here for!


Never Stop Learning

Okay, so we know without a doubt that some characteristics are incredibly beneficial for life in the 21st century.  Among these is a habit of learning something new at every opportunity.  An example is learning a new thing through online college classes.  This love for learning (notice how I avoid the overused cliche: “lifelong learning”?) has been identified again and again as critical to success in our knowledge-based economy.

But, how do we educators instill this habit in the minds of our students?

Sometimes it feels like what I imagine Physical Education teachers go through when they try to combat obesity and unhealthy eating habits by stressing the importance of exercise and nutrition in their classrooms.  I don’t think that many children change their ways as a result of this instruction, because the real factors that contribute to obesity begin at home and in a child’s genes.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that we teachers can’t impact our students, either in their health or their learning, but rather we have to be more coordinated.  Hollywood might think that a single teacher in a single year might be able to change the life of a child, but in reality it takes a dozens of teachers and many years to truly change the trajectory of a student.

And there’s the rub.  I can decide to spend every available moment modeling adult learning for my students and I can talk about its importance with them everyday.  I can teach lessons that help them understand how their future can be better if they never stop learning.

But, I can’t make them learn.  Right?

That used to be my attitude, but lately I’ve become almost obsessed with the idea of trying to find a way to motivate those students who can’t find their own “juice”.  It’s been said that the best motivator is an engaging lesson, but all veteran teachers know that even the most engaging lesson is not capable of reaching those who have significant challenges in their lives.  I’ve sought (and followed) the advice of Larry Ferlazzo and others.  I’ve dug deep and talked to those students in an effort to get to the cause of their lack of motivation.

Can anyone sympathize?


Looking for Something to Read this Summer?

Despite my year-round teaching schedule, it seems natural to catch up on my reading (both fun fiction and work nonfiction) during the summer months.  I spend a lot of my limited free time enjoying (and annotating) various professional and personal books.  Here’s my recommended list:

Helping Students Motivate Themselves” by Larry Ferlazzo

This new book does a great job of taking Ferlazzo’s lessons from his own classroom and making them feasible for any teacher.  His activities that are designed to teach self-control are particularly awesome.


Ahead of the Curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning” edited by Doug Reeves

What? You thought that I might not mention a grading book?  Ha!  This collection of essays by assessment experts gives a nice cross-section of the current thinking on assessment and grading.  I especially recommend that chapters by Ken O’Connor and Bob Marzano.


Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life” by Carl Zimmer

This beautifully written book, like so many science books written by Zimmer, is appropriate for any level of science fan.  It’s as close to fiction as you’ll find in this list of recommendations.


Have you read any of these?  Have strong opinions that you are dying to share?  Put ’em in a comment!