Don’t write off your bad student

troubled student

We all have at least one trouble kid. Secretly, we might wish him out of the class (“maybe his family will move…”). Privately, we might enjoy sending him to the principal’s office (“now I’ll be able to teach!”).

But while the kid disrupts others’ learning, do we take the time to consider the needs of this bad boy/girl? Do we speak harshly to this person?

Maybe the reason why he/she is a class clown is because he/she is hurting. Maybe there’s no love at home. Or maybe abuse.

Are we so insensitive as to pile more abuse on top of the other abuse?

Yeah, I know. We get frustrated with the one student who is blocking the education of the many. We would rather just wash our hands of him/her and forget it.

But teachers do much more than just prepare students for standardized tests. And teachers need to focus much more than just helping your school to score higher on average so as to get more state money, or get that pay raise by scoring highly on average. We have to think about helping kids to NOT become criminals. We have to think about helping kids discover that they ARE valuable and that they DO have talents and that they CAN make an honest living performing a valuable function. You may not get a pay raise, but you are making a difference in what truly matters.


Self-esteem is not…

self esteemBuilding self-esteem is NOT about creating false expectations that the world will be easy.

It IS about showing kids that they have talents and can please people.

Building self-esteem is NOT about cultivating self-centered kids who expect the world to bow to them.

It IS about healing children’s hearts that have been broken by broken families.

Self-esteem is NOT about deluded them about competition and making them think they will win without effort, discipline and vision.

It IS about fostering effort, discipline and vision in people who have none.

Self-esteem is NOT about flattery or false praise.

It IS about finding positives in a world accustomed to negatives.

I’m a believer in self-esteem building. My close friend came from a very broken home. I can’t print the words he used to describe his parents. He had an old school teacher who ran his classroom like a dictatorship. As much of a jerk as he was, the teacher left my friend with a golden nugget. At the end of the semester he said. “It’s too bad you waste so much talent.”

My friend’s take-away? For the first time in his life, he got the notion that he was good at something. He possessed “so much talent.”

This prompted him to try to get into an advanced writing class, to which he was admitted. Ultimately he went to college, the first in his extended family to do so.

That is what self-esteem building is about.

The culture of each class

good studentsEach class has its own culture. Not always do the rebels, or the clowns, lead. Sometimes, you luck out. The majority want to learn, enjoy your lessons, praise you on teacher reviews, and prove your worth on standardized tests.

I wish all my classes were optimal.

The leaders pull along with the rest with a positive energy. The sloth gets motivated to study. The jabbermouth shuts up and listens. The clown, instead of throwing the class into disarray, shapes up.

In my experience, there isn’t much you can do to form the culture of the class. I’ve had groups that fought me tooth and nail and refused to learn. I’ve had students who have excelled and made me proud. What’s your experience?

One rule for writing compositions: part 2

Since the myriad rules are confusing to students, I have whittled them down to one, just one. This is the supreme, over-arching rule for writing. It is the secret to good writing. You may fail in every other area, but if you meet this requirement, your paper has redeeming value. Conversely, if you observe impeccably all the other rules but fail at this, you can’t get better than a C.

What is it?

Don’t be bored writing.

Yes, it’s that simple. If you are bored writing, you’re writing boring stuff. Your grader will be bored, and your grade will reflect that.

But if you get passionate about what you are writing, if you feel it, if what you are saying really matters to you, no matter what your mistakes are, the reader will sense your excitement and grade you accordingly. I prefer that an assault on my own personal beliefs than boring regurgitation. I may pick apart logical fallacies, but the passion with which you write is exciting nevertheless. If you challenge my ideals, I’m intellectually stimulated. And I grade accordingly.

If you are bored, what you write is probably mindless drivel. If you get entranced by your proving your thesis, your words will be golden.

Of course, I don’t mean using exclamation marks. Nor all capital letters. Nor mocking your opponent’s position. No, you must challenge your opponents thinking with thinking of your own. And you will only think, if you get excited about the topic.

Of course, grammar, spelling, logical progression, use of logic, logical separation of sub ideas are all important. But they are the boring details. Spelling and grammar errors only work negatively into your grade; if they are bad, you get down-graded, but they are good, you don’t get up-graded.

In my next post, I will give one strategy to get excited about (almost) any subject.

Here’s part 1 in the series.

Go to part 3.

The most important part of writing: crafting the thesis statement (part 1)

CS LewisSpend a great chunk of your time working and re-working your thesis statement. This is the most important part of your paper. All the rest of the paper proves your thesis. If you don’t have a good thesis, you can’t have a good paper. When a teacher reads a stellar thesis, she expects to give an “A.” Only if the rest of the paper is sadly disappointing will she lower that expectation. If you have a weak thesis, the teacher already has a “B” or “C” in mind. Rarely will you be able to “pull up” your paper to an “A” because your start is so bad.

Not all sentences are equal. The thesis stands above every other sentence in supreme importance. That’s why it deserves so much more attention than the other sentences.

When you craft your thesis statement, make sure it:

  1. states an opinion that is original (maybe even controversial).
  2. is beautifully expressed.
  3. uses the perfect words (not just big words to show off).
  4. is not boring.
  5. takes a side, doesn’t just cover the opposing views (especially in English class; other classes like history can survey existing positions only).
  6. tries for shorter and golden rather than long and academic (contrary to popular conception, convoluted writing is not by any means better. Just ask Hemingway about that.)

When I grade papers, I want thesis statements to be exciting. I totally agree with C.S. Lewis that most people don’t like to have to read essays. They prefer to read/hear stories. So if you don’t excite me with a though-provoking thesis statement, I’m hunkering down for a miserable affair.

Read part 2 here.

Pay attention to the subplot


Klinsmann with his former assistant and friend, Low.

On the surface, USA’s pass to World Cup knockout stage leaves people scratching their heads. We lost, but we won?

On the surface, the Germans dominated, as expected. And the United States did a decent job defending and mounted a few attacks. They managed the result, which with low-scoring loss combined with a favorable Portugal-Ghana scoreline, helped them to the next round.

But if you dig deeper, there are fascinating subplots.

Take the U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He’s German, marshaling forces against his native country. Would he throw the game for Sacred Mother Country? He’s basked in the sun of Southern California since 1990, but does German blood course through his veins?

Or even more thought-provoking is the question of rivalry. The current German coach, Joachim Low, was his former assistant. Actually, the previous friendship and collaboration made the current contest more intense. Low has criticized his former boss’s tactical ability. Klinsmann declared before the faceoff: “We want to go for gold!”

The subplot if the major story. What happens on the surface is just a product of what happens below the surface.

When your students enter your class, it’s the hell at home that’s dooming them. If you can give your student the tools to calm the inner storm, you can help him pass your class.

Pay attention to subtle signals of inner turmoil. Who is being bullied in your class? Who is socially outcast? Who is so insecure that she flaunts and I-don’t-care attitude?

Dig deep because today’s teaching assumes a chaotic and distracted mind. There’s no more Leave-it-to-Beaver households in America, and as a result the kids are venting their frustrations at school.

In the end, the U.S. lost to superior fire power, not coaching prowess. The players made the difference. But they lived to see another day in World Cup play.

In the end, the student whose heart you touch will be transformed in his/her educational success.

Cyberbaiting and taking down the teacher

What’s a teacher supposed to do?

cyberbaitingThe pendulum has swung this far. Bored students used to shoot spit wads. Today’s class has gone much further. They provoke a teacher (baiting) until she reaches her breaking point (who doesn’t have a breaking point) and then secretly film the subsequent yelling or crying to post it online and further humiliate her.

A recent survey of 24 nations found that 21% of teachers had suffered some such shaming. One teacher cited experienced a nervous breakdown and was placed on indefinite administrative leave. This is the new fun, a way to while away the school year, to put a flavor into the dry algebra class. Has the “Question Authority” mantra gone too far? If they take out a teacher, a lot of kids congratulate themselves: “Well, she wasn’t apt for teaching anyway.”

imagesNever mind that most of us enter the profession with illusions of serving humanity, changing lives, rescuing souls. We are purveyors of light and understanding. But we are shouted down by the promoters of Middle Ages.

Granted, teachers have long humiliated students. But cyberbaiting turns the tables, it would seem, in a much nastier tenor. (It is supposed that teachers strive for classroom management with an illegitimate technique, but students have no worthy end to justify their actions.)

This article has useful tips to avoid such provocations. What do you think about such student goading?