Practicing Affirmation (Part 1): Why?

Recently, I was surprised to hear a student verbalize, “I don’t really feel like the teachers here are for us.”  Given the interactions I had seen and been part of with this student, I knew that was not true.  It was obvious that there was a “disconnect” in the communication process. So, I went on a quest to find a resource that could help me understand how to relate better to  my students, and I discovered Sam Crabtree’s book Practicing Affirmation.  This short, easy-to-digest book discusses affirmation through a spiritual lens and stands as a must-read for educators.  This blog post begins a series on this concept of practicing affirmation in our classrooms.

Before we can begin, we must first define our terms.  As Christians, when we speak of affirmation, we are not speaking of the worldly concept of building self-esteem.  (We’ll talk about that in a later post.)  We are speaking of, as Crabtree distills it, “truthfully declaring by complimentary word or action the goodness of something.”  In other words, we are affirming the goodness of our students, more specifically, the goodness of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives since that is the only source of goodness in their lives.

Why should we take time to contemplate affirmation?

It satisfies the soul.  If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we are all approval-junkies.  Our students are no different.  If we are going to meet their deepest needs, we need to grant them approval – of the right things.

God affirms.  God approved his Son, not for what he did but for who he was:  “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”  God commended men of faith and approved them as righteous (Hebrews 11).  Jesus affirmed Mary for her heart in Luke 10:38 -42.

It refreshes our students.  Consider your own life.  When someone affirms the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, is it not refreshing?  Our students need that same kind of refreshment!

It opens our hearts and eyes to really see our students.  Affirming students about the right things forces us to see beyond their behavior, their grades, or their attitude.  We must really know our students.

 

Stay tuned to coming posts as we consider not just why we ought to affirm our students but what it is and how to do it Biblically and consistently in our classrooms.

 

 

For further reading:  Practicing Affirmation  by Sam Crabtree  ISBN 978-1-4335-2243-7

Don’t Do That

***Things Effective Teachers Don’t Do

In a world of “Just Do It” and “You Can Do It!” refrains, the word don’t sounds something like a fingernail on a chalkboard.  However, with deep apologies to Nike and Rosie the Riveter, I must contend that there’s much to be gained from stepping back and pondering the opposite side of the coin.

What are some things that effective teachers don’t do?

Effective teachers DON’T . . .

. . . yell.

. . . get their feelings hurt easily.

. . . give busywork just to give a grade.

. . . expect students to read their minds.

. . . speak while anyone else in the room is speaking.

. . . craft “tricky” test questions.

. . . take themselves too seriously.

. . . mind admitting when they are wrong.

. . . assume that students heard what they said.

. . . sit behind their desk.

. . . assign a lot of homework.

. . . huddle with other teachers in the corner of the playground during recess.

. . . leave school at 3:30 every afternoon.

. . . try to teach children as if they were adults.

. . . avoid confrontation.

. . . teach as if every student learns like they do.

. . . care more about what students know than about what students love.

. . . go home without preparing for the next morning.

. . . try to do everything.

. . . ignore a good question because it’s not part of the lesson plan.

. . . lug hours of work home each evening.

. . . overlook teachable moments.

. . . answer all their students’ questions.

. . . take the easy way out.

. . . skip their personal devotions/prayer time because they are “too busy.”

. . . stop learning.

What would you add to this list of things that effective teachers don’t do?

Can They Hear Us Now?

A lesson from Charlie Brown.

“Mwaaahh, mwahhh, mwaahh  mwwahh, mwahhh, mwahhh.”  That’s all Charlie Brown and his classmates hear when their teacher talks.  Poor Sally falls face first onto her desk in slumber and Charlie Brown looks perpetually confused.

This scene might give us a chuckle, but sadly it may be an accurate description of what many of our students hear when we are talking.

Instead of asking our students, “Why weren’t you listening?”, let’s consider four ways that we can get out of the way of our message so that our students can really hear what we are saying.

Four ways we can help students listen

  • “Lean in” – Students are more likely to listen to us when they feel that we are genuinely listening to them. We need to move toward our students – to “lean in” expectantly and listen to what they are saying if we want them to value our message.  We bless our students by paying attention to them.  As we bless them, they become more open to “leaning in” to hear us as well.
  • Affirm well and often – Remember the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? That may be true, but we can make that horse thirsty!  Leaning in toward our students leads them to the “water” of our instruction, but affirming our students’ growth, God-given gifts, and interests makes them thirsty for what we say.
  • Avoid “overtalk” – Often the urgency of our message causes us to “overtalk” a situation. Address the issue, yes, but avoid belaboring the point and exasperating the hearer.  Most of the time, “less is more.”
  • Say something worth listening to – Whether we teach math, writing, science, art, or Latin, the key to getting students to listen is to say something worth hearing. The things most worth hearing fall outside the content of a class, but rather lie in the character of the teacher.  Is our life – our habits, our attitudes, our actions – speaking something our students want to hear?
  • Encourage often – While affirmation looks to the past, encouragement focuses on the future. Words like “You can do it!”  or “I am confident in you” open a student’s ears to hear instruction on how to accomplish the goal.
  • Criticize/correct intentionally – No one likes to receive criticism or correction, yet often teachers fall into the trap of correcting in the name of “instruction.” Good instruction does require correction – possibly even admonition.  But if we want our students to hear us, we need to make sure that we are correcting strategically and separate from any affirmation or encouragement.  Only then will students be able to really hear our message.

As we consider our place in the classroom, we don’t need to ask our students, “Are you listening?”  We need to ask ourselves, “Can they hear us now?”

Great Expectations

3 R’s of a Positive Classroom Culture

Creating a positive classroom culture goes beyond classroom management.  Even the word “management” implies handling or controlling.  However, as teachers, our job is not merely to manage our students while they are in our classrooms but to prepare them to leave our classrooms ready for the next challenge.  If we only manage our students, we do them a disservice.  Our classroom culture should be one that equips our students for life-long learning and success.

It’s always a great moment on the first day of school each year when I announce to my sixth graders that there are no rules in our sixth grade classroom.  The boys’ eyes widen, and they begin to cheer.  The girls look somewhat terrified, and their face belies their belief that I am, indeed, the craziest teacher they have ever had.

It’s true, I tell them.  Our classroom will have no rules.

Rather, we will operate by three guiding principles – three “Great Expectations”
that apply to us all.  Everything we do (and how we do it!) will be filtered through these three principles: Respect, Responsibility, Restraint.

Respect

As teachers, we tend to see disrespect when it is directed toward authority, particularly our authority.  However, it is vital that we help our students learn respect not only for authority, but also for truth, others, property, boundaries, human life, beauty, goodness, and everything that God holds as worthy of respect.

Responsibility

Responsibility is the hallmark of maturity.  Responsibility comes from a proper understanding of our place in God’s world and an ability to see the long-term consequences of short-term decisions.  At an age-appropriate level, we need to foster responsibility in our students.

Restraint

This elusive quality naturally flows out of respect and responsibility.  Too often, however, we teachers correct lack of restraint but ignore the underlying lack of respect and responsibility.  As students begin to internalize a proper respect for their place in the world, they will begin to exhibit self-restraint, not mere conformity to a list of rules on the classroom wall.

“Great expectations can lead to great opportunities as we seek to instill in our students principles that will equip them to find their identity in Christ, esteem others higher than themselves, and fulfill the purposes God has for them.

What “Great Expectations” do you have for your students?

Principles For Crafting Effective Report Card Comments

Words Fitly Spoken

Proverbs 25:11 reminds us that a “fitly spoken” word is a beautiful thing!  Nowhere does this hold true more than in report cards comments.report-card

Teachers often find writing report card comments to be a daunting and dreaded task.  And, certainly, there are some pitfalls to avoid.  However, a well-crafted report card comment can bless our students and families.

Here are some principles for crafting effective report card comments.

Say something specific.  General comments like “Johnny is a good student” or “Sally needs to focus more” are too general to be helpful.  Be specific with comments, such as “Johnny consistently does his work and engages in class discussion” or “Sally is often distracted by extra materials on her desk.”

Keep it simpleKeep your sentences short and your word choice intentional.  If you haven’t conferenced with parents before, you should shortly after they read this comment.  Allow you comment to summarize a previous conference or set the agenda for a future conference.  A report card comment should not explain concerns in detail.

Compliment thoughtfully.  Comment on what makes the student different from other students.  Parents are encouraged when teachers share what they see in their child.

Choose one or two “opportunities for improvement.”  Word your comment carefully to help students and parents recognize weaknesses as opportunities.  For example, “Sixth grade offers Suzy the opportunity to strengthen her organizational skills.”

Make a target suggestion or goal.  Give parents and students hope by offering specific suggestions.  The sentence above about Suzy might be followed by “Getting her daily agenda initialed by teachers every day would be a great place for her to start.”

Keep comments student-focused.  Don’t refer to yourself too often.  A well-crafted comment often never contains the word “I.”  Instead of “I enjoy teaching Ralph” (too general and too teacher-focused), try “Ralph’s curiosity makes him a joy to teach.”

If in doubt, don’t.  Report cards follow students throughout their educational career.  If you are in doubt about the content or tone of a comment, don’t use it.  Seek advice from a colleague or administrator and try again.

Do you find writing report card comments daunting?  What have you learned as you’ve undertaking this challenging task?

 

Meaning-FULL Vocabulary

wordle-2There is no doubt that a strong, robust vocabulary is the mark of an educated person.  However, moving our students from the mundane to the robust takes intentionality and some practice.  Just handing out a page with words and definitions on it is not enough to create a strong vocabulary in our students.  Students must interact with words in rich, intentional ways both inside and outside the classroom.

How can we make our vocabulary instruction “meaning-FULL”?  The most important thing teachers can do is to choose words wisely.  This may necessitate deviating from a list given in a reader or curriculum guide and evaluating each word carefully, adding and subtracting until we keep only the best words.

  • Choose words that students can define with words they already know.

Effective instructions links new material to what the student already knows.  Nowhere does this hold more true than in vocabulary instruction.  Students must be able to define a word with words they already know or the word is not an age-appropriate selection.  (No thesauruses allowed!)

  • Choose words students are likely to hear, see, or use again.

My first year teaching The Bronze Bow, I taught the word “phylactery” as a vocabulary word; however, actually bringing in a real phylactery was a much better instructional tool.   I removed “phylactery” and replaced it with the word “ravenous,” a much better selection. Vocabulary work should be saved for words that cross contexts and times.

  • Choose words that have instructional potential.

Words like “tenacity” and “capricious” offer opportunities for character instruction (both positive and negative).

“Vocabulary Work-Up”

For the past seven years, I have been teaching vocabulary through a system I call a “Vocabulary Work-Up.”  Students prepare for the class discussion by interacting with the given words in five ways (see below).  They bring their written work to class and share what they have found with the class.  The teacher guides the discussion, affirming correct understanding or redirecting student work as necessary.  Each student is responsible to follow the discussion and to correct their work based on teacher and peer remarks.  This discussion typically takes 60 – 75 minutes (for 10 words).   There are no worksheets, memorization of definitions, or extra pencil-work between the discussion and the quiz.  Students are encouraged to use a word each day in a sentence with me.  The sentences must pertain to their life.  This interaction allows me to hear their pronunciation, monitor usage, and correct nuance (and get to know my students a bit better, too!).  It allows the student to “own” the words and to begin to incorporate them into their vocabulary.  (Each proper sentence earns a small piece of candy.)

Discussion Preparation

Below are the guidelines given to students for their discussion preparation.  Each word is “worked up” on a separate page of a marbled composition notebook.

  1. Context – Find the word in the text and give the complete
  1. Definition – Look the word up in the dictionary to help you understand what it means. Then, write the definition in your own words.
  1. Part of Speech – Identify the part of speech of the word as it appears in the context. Leave room to write more uses as we discuss them.
  1. Synonym/Antonym/Illustration – Choose two:
  • Give a synonym (syn.) of the word.  Use a word that you already know rather than looking up words in the thesaurus.
  • Give an antonym (ant.) of the word. Again, use a word you already know.
  • Draw an illustration.
  1. Original Sentence – Write an original sentence using the word correctly.

This approach has been successfully modified for use in younger grades and intensified for use in middle/high school.  Using this approach allows my sixth graders to master 180-200 words each school year and makes vocabulary the most meaning-FULL thing we do all year.

How do you approach vocabulary instruction in your classroom?

(For practical help in vocabulary instruction, check out Bringing Words to Life:  Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Beck, et. al.  This book offers excellent advice for word choice and some superb examples.  The companion book by the same authors, Creating Robust Vocabulary, offers practical application as well.)

What Do You Want Your Students To Love?

Prioritize Your List

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” James K.A. SmithBasic RGB

Photo Source: Wikipedia

It’s August and the first days of school are upon us!  It’s time to plan lessons and prepare schedules.  It’s time to craft tests and make lists of topics we want to cover. It’s time to get out the curriculum guide and review all that we need to teach our students this year.

It’s also time to pause:  pause to reflect on what it is we are really doing.  It’s time to ask ourselves the question posed by James K.A. Smith:  “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?”

What if . . .

. . . loving virtue were more important than memorizing facts?

. . . loving others were more important than excelling at a sport?

. . . loving beauty were more important than finishing everything?

. . . loving truth were more important than being right?

. . . loving learning were more important than making a good grade?

. . . loving God were more important than getting into a good college?

What if?

Would we still have our students memorize facts?  Of course.  Push them to excel?  Absolutely?  Encourage them to finish well?  Think rightly?  Make good grades?  Pursue college? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.

But, I wonder, what would happen if we started our yearly plans with a list of what we want our students to love and then made our list of what we want them to know?

Would our schedules, plans, lessons look different?  I think so, even for seasoned Christian educators.  I know they do for me.  I am thankful to be able to walk by a large banner of this quote every day in the lobby of my school.  What a poignant reminder that our real purpose is not to fill minds.  Rather, it is to train affections.

How would you answer this “What If?” question?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(If you are interested in pondering this topic more, you may enjoy James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, C.S. Lewis’s Weight of Glory, or Richard Riesen’s Piety and Philosophy).

The Beauty of Community

Health Update on Edward

Last month featured a two-part post on Recommitting to a Christian Philosophy and Community.  I was refreshed by several points Dr. Uecker makes; however, this past week, I was reminded in a very tangible way of the importance of the very type of community that this blog seeks to create.

As many of you may know, last week, Edward Earwood, the editor of FOCUS the focus blog, was hospitalized with serious health concerns.  As word of his condition spread within the Christian education community, people around the country and around the world began praying for his healing.  His family have received numerous visits, calls, and expressions of kindness and concern.  On behalf of the family, thank you!

We are pleased that God has seen fit to answer those prayers and that Edward’s health is improving. He’s out of intensive care and looks forward to being released from the hospital in the coming days.  Please pray for his continued healing and rehabilitation.  As those who know him can imagine, he’s eager to return to his work to edify, equip, and engage the Christian education community.

Apple Nailing or Apple Picking?

In his Christian school seminar presentation Your Christian School:  A Culture of Grace?, Paul David Tripp warns of the dangers of behaviorism in our approach to discipline in our Christian school classrooms and advocates for discipline that pursues the heart.

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Tripp likens correcting behavior without addressing the heart to nailing apples onto an apple tree in order to create a harvest.  The futility of such an act strikes us as absurd, but Tripp’s point is that Christian school educators “apple nail” through threats, manipulation, and guilt to produce well-behaved students.  But, these same students go to college and, in growing droves, abandon their faith.  Behaviorism creates “smarter sinners” who are skilled at jumping through hoops to avoid consequences.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall!

Who’s the fairest of them all?

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In the famous Brothers Grimm tale, the queen uses a magic mirror to affirm her as the most beautiful (“fairest”) in the land.   Ask students in our classes today who is the “fairest” of their teachers, and they are not considering outward appearance.  Students today see fairness in light of its modern definition:  “free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.”