When Teaching Gets Tough

I'm posting my favorite quotes from the ASCD member book, When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game by Allen N. Mendler.

The best way to learn responsibility is to practice making choices and decisions, and then experiencing the consequences of those decisions.

BEEP: belief, energy, emotion, passion

Changing behaviors is almost always very difficult.

How can I make this person's life better?

Get better than you were yesterday.
How did you get better than you were yesterday?

You can't control what the pitcher throws, but you can practice hitting different pitches.

Give class time for students to catch up on old assignments. If students are not behind, they can earn extra credit for helping students who are.

Readiness for change is usually promoted by asking for small things first. When seeking change, it is sometimes necessary to be satisfied with singles because home runs are a lot harder to hit.

If you make people look good, then they will make you look good.

Don't change your dream, change your strategy.

Your brain releases endorphins when you smile, whether you mean it or not.

Being mindful means paying attention to the experience you are having without trying to change it.

Because we might not always recognize a moment of importance to somebody else, make it a point to say or do something appreciative when someone does something thoughtful.

The key to moving on to step into the emotion rather than running away from it.

Seek Your Own Compliments

I'm currently working my way through the ASCD member book, When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game by Allen N. Mendler. In Chapter 3: Working Successfully with Unappreciative or Irritating Adults, there is a section called 'Seek your own compliments'.

We don't usually receive feedback when things are going well. The book suggests a couple different ideas for getting positive affirmation:

  • Give your students a homework assignment to tell you the two things you do that they like the most.
  • At an open house, ask parents to write down at least one positive thing they have heard or seen from their child about the class.
  • Ask a colleague to observe you teach and then share specific things he/she thinks you do really well and any suggestions they might have for how you might get even better.
  • Consider writing occasional notes of appreciation to colleagues and administrators as well as to students when they do or say something that is thoughtful of others. 

But the one that sticks with me most is one I first read in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book when I was a young teenager. A teacher named Ms. Mrosla had all of her students write down one positive thing about every student in the class. Then she gave each student the comments that were made about them. One of her students ended up later dying in the service and at the funeral the mom told her that they had found his list in his pocket. Several other classmates that were attending the funeral pulled theirs out too. The students had kept them years later for when they needed a boost. That story impacted me deeply and reading it in this book brought it back to my mind.

I decided to do this with my achievement period. It's the most laid back class of all and I feel like the students have had a lot of fun with each other. I started them out by telling them I was going to do something lame so let's go ahead and groan and get it over with. Then I split them up so that everyone was sitting by themselves. I asked them to put their mature selves on and to be really thoughtful and write a positive comment about each person. I asked them to avoid saying 'he's nice' or 'she's funny' but to really give it some thought. The class was completely silent while they thought and wrote. I was really proud of them for that.

I put "First Hour Fan Club" on top of the paper, then 'I am a fan of ________ because:' and I put myself on the paper too. If I want to know what my students think about me, all I have to do is ask.

Later I asked them their favorite color. I printed the first letter of their name as big as I could get it on colored card stock. Then, I took all the comments about each person and wrote them inside their letter.  I did this for two reasons. 1, so they would not know who wrote which comments and 2, because handwriting is so much more personal than typing it up on the computer. As I was writing them, I added my own comments to make sure that everyone had plenty to read.

Here's what they looked like.

I'm not going to share any of the comments written because they are personal to my students and me. I wanted to share an idea that makes a positive impact on students and yourself. Students really enjoyed reading them and a lot of them went and told what they had written. Some didn't. It was a beautiful thing.

I have an encouragement wall next to my desk where I have cards from when I graduated college, thank you cards, pictures students drew me, school pictures of past students, quotes, and anything that just encourages me and boosts my spirit. This will definitely go up there as well. I want the students to see that their comments are important to me.

There's two other things I do that really means a lot to students and I'm sharing them so that you can think about ways to impact your students in the same way.

One is that on a student's birthday, I buy them their favorite candy and I write them a little letter. Of course they enjoy the candy but they've told me how they hung the letters up in their room or keep it in their mirror, etc. It's something I'm good at and enjoy doing but mostly I think everyone deserves to receive something on their birthday, something that makes them feel noticed. I think of my letter as "I notice you..." letters. It's more about what I see in them than anything related to their birthday. Maybe you don't want to spend the money but writing a note or just expressing what you notice is cheap and easy and meaningful. We have the gift of being able to see what a student can be as well as what they are. It's hard for teenagers to step outside of themselves and make observations about who they are. It's hard for adults too. We know how powerful and lasting an impression a teacher can make. I consider this my contribution to forming their identity. Maybe they can't see what I see, but maybe knowing that I see it is a start.

The second thing is that at the end of the year, I make certificates for every student in every class I teach. I just make something up on PowerPoint and then give everyone something that starts with "most likely to..." and describes them. The important thing is not what you write but that everyone is noticed, everyone feels like they have a title or position, and that everyone receives some positive feedback. This is always a hit with the students. I wait until the last day before finals to read them, calling each student up to get theirs. After the first few, students are clapping and laughing after each one is called. It really creates a positive mood in the classroom and is just a fun way to wrap up the good memories of the year. Later some students tell me this is the only certificate they've ever 'won' and how much it means to them. 

Paper is cheap but telling someone how important they are is priceless.


I did this really cool project in high school that I wanted to share with my kids.

We built rhombicosidodecahedrons.

It's not super mathematical and I probably need to do some kind of reflection or mathematical questioning but for now, we just enjoyed making something pretty.

I don't know how familiar you are with these but they are made out of 12 pentagons, 20 triangles, and 30 squares. Here are the templates.

The project starts with a lot of tracing and cutting. We used poster board but card stock works just as well. It's important to cut the little notches in each shape so that they can be folded. Fold up each edge to create a little tab. The tabs are then stapled to the tabs of another shape in a pattern.

Start with a pentagon and staple five squares on to each side of the pentagon. Then staple a triangle between each pair of squares. Now the pattern is that you only staple squares onto pentagons and triangles onto squares.

I don't have very good directions to give but this website helped a lot (scroll a lot), even though this guy did it differently and loves cats, it's still helpful to look at the pattern.

I should have taken pictures along the way to explain it better. But I didn't. 



Surface Area Tin Man Project

I've never taught my area unit very well or went beyond basic area formulas that students have been learning for years. This year I heavily focused on composite areas and perimeters, surface area, and volume.

I did my first real project of the year (um, my career) on surface area.

Each pair of students built a tin man out of boxes, toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, Styrofoam balls, and cones. They had to use a formula sheet to first measure the surface area of the parts, showing all of their work for each part. Next they had to tape the parts together. The tin man had to have all parts attached and be sitting or standing on its own. Then I would give them the exact amount of foil they measured for, no more and no less. They had to cover their tin man as completely as possible without running out of tinfoil or having extra leftover.

After their project was complete, I had them answer twelve reflection questions about the project. I also created a rubric that they used to self-assess and then I used the same rubric to assess them as well. This was the first time I've ever used a rubric myself, and also the first time having students self-assess using a rubric.

If none of the above links work, please try this one :)


The students worked hard and really enjoyed the project. It was complete insanity while it was happening but the students were so engaged and surprised by how little their tinfoil was and yet it still was enough. They finally figured out that math actually works. 

I really didn't have the time to spend on this but measurement is a weakness in our curriculum throughout all courses and plus, they deserved it. This was my big crazy geometry class of 24 students who all hated the class because it was so loud and chaotic. I wanted them to have one good memory of this year and this class and I think I succeeded. I actually got this idea from my English teacher bestie who did it in high school. She hated math but that really stuck with her and I want to do something each year with my students that will stick with them that long as well.

I felt like they answered the reflection questions honestly and thoughtfully. My objective  was for them to summarize their learning throughout this process. I think it was a good way for them to switch from active, hands-on builders to serious, reflective thinkers. I also think I need to add something into the rubric about how much work they did. In one instance, a girl did all the work and the boy was just getting supplies and doing whatever she said. But, he ended up with a higher grade than she did because he did better on his reflection questions. She was upset and I knew she would be. On one hand I understand. On the other hand, I clearly explained the things I would be grading on so she can't really argue with me. But I hated that she felt I was being unfair.

Overall, the project was a success and I will definitely be doing it again. My algebra I and II classes are totally jealous now and want to build one as well. Some students suggested that next time we create accessories as well or maybe even a heart. Cuteness.

Good times...


Dichotomous Rubric for Assessing Math Portfolios

My final project for our Writing Across the Curriculum class is to develop the template for my math portfolio. It's due May 5th (I think?) which means I haven't really started on it yet. I have ideas in my head and a few resources. I plan on it being a mix of data (graphs from Lee Jenkins) reflections on that data, the math part, and reflections about the math part. A lot of writing, but not an overwhelming amount. It has to be doable. And my goal is not just for them to write but to use writing as a tool for learning. I may or may not have that part figured out yet.

Anyway, Lee Jenkins came a couple weeks ago to meet with us again and even though I haven't started any of his ideas yet, he did introduce me to the dichotomous rubric. The examples he showed me were about writing but so is my math portfolio so it wasn't too far of a stretch.

So I've made my own and it's the first real contribution to my portfolio but hey, it's a start.

It's pretty and it's colorful and I quite like it.



Post It Note Answer Key

I first read about this idea from Amy Gruen's blog.

During my area unit I was teaching composite areas for the first time. I found a worksheet on BetterLesson that I really liked so I edited it and made a powerpoint to go along with it. The worksheet has a direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice section. I've never taught this before and I was really nervous that everyone would be lost and confused. I was expecting tons of questions and chaos. So I needed some kind of structure or strategy that would keep me from pulling my hair out.

Here's what I came up with. I worked out the answers to each problem individually on a post it.

On the chalkboard, I wrote numbers with a square under it and put each post it inside the square.

I told the class as they worked to check their answers with the post it. If they were stuck then they could also go look at how the problem was done. This is better than letting them take the post-its to their seat which would mean temptation to copy every answer. If a student stood up there long enough to copy down every problem, I'm pretty sure I would notice that. 

It would have been a good idea to spread them out more but I only have one chalkboard.

It turns out that since my students are so lazy, most of them didn't bother to get up and look but instead just asked the student sitting closest to the board to tell them the answer. And that was okay, because they were still able to check their answers and I knew they weren't cheating.

I also told students I would not be answering any questions like "Is this the right answer?" since they could easily answer that themselves.

What went wrong is that since we were doing composite areas, there are many different ways to getting the answer. Which is good. But looking at my post it note with only one way to do it...not so good. 

In theory, the idea was great and it's a strategy I will try again. But probably on something that's a little more...straightforward.