I Want to Do Research in Switzerland


The article is titled, “Surprise! Beer Makes You Happier, Friendlier,” by Mary Elizabeth Dallas of HealthDay Reporter, and can be found at m.webmed.com.

Surprise!? Why I am shocked — shocked, I tell you — that beer makes people happier and friendlier. This stunning result comes to us courtesy of Swiss psychopharmacological researchers. They discovered that beer makes us happier, friendlier, less inhibited, and apparently even sexier. My own research suggests that “sexier” may only work when both members of a pair are drinking. Further research should be conducted to confirm my observation.

I like the fact that these findings were actually published in the September 19th journal of Psychopharmacology. The results will be presented in a few days at the annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, as researchers gather in one of my favorite European cities, Vienna, Austria. I bet gallons and gallons of beer will be tested at that conference. Research on hard cider, screwdrivers and raspberry lambic will not be far behind.

Eduhonesty: I did laugh as I read this article. Sign me up! I don’t want to drink the placebo, either.

But I saw a message for teachers in this article. Administrators today often want teachers to use techniques tested in academic research that may not apply in all situations. Yes, Think-Pair-Shares may have worked great in that urban school with the extra teaching assistants and talkative students. But I worked under a principal a few years ago who wanted all classes to be doing think-pair-shares regularly and I quickly realized something that my principal did not seem to grasp: Think-Pair-Shares work poorly in bilingual classrooms, especially when too many students have reached the well-documented silent period. Bilingual students often shut down verbally when they become good enough to hear the small mistakes they are making. They stop talking because those mistakes embarrass them. Eventually, as their comfort level and language skills rise, those students will rejoin the conversation, but until then think-pair-shares become think-pair-try-to-get-the-other-guy-to-talk. If neither partner wants to talk, then another version may be think-pair-try-to-avoid-the-teacher-you-go-to-the-bathroom-first.

I may publish related educational tips shortly, but for now I want to reiterate a point I made recently: Look around the room. If that technique from the latest professional development does not seem to be working, go back to the drawing board. Will it help to shift kids around? Will different materials work? Do you need to drill expectations again? Shifting the pieces around the game board may solve your problems. But if you keep trying and trying, and your new technique does not seem to come together, consider the beer experiment.

Not all research represents new, groundbreaking insights that lead to methodological improvements.

In fact, some research qualifies as just plain silly, although I’ll be happy to write the pear cider grant application. Using surveys, I propose to study whether pear cider with semi-soft cheeses produces greater levels of happiness than pear cider with chocolate-covered nuts. I may have to expand my research to include pizza combinations.

I expect my research will take years to complete, but I feel the need to sacrifice myself for the good of science, like those noble folks in Vienna.

In the Time of Web MD Leprosy Risk Factors


I wonder how many Americans realize that we have classrooms of clinically anxious kids nowadays? I subbed in one today. The sub instructions for one class said that all the kids had access to fidget toys* and all were allowed to go out for walks if they felt tense and needed a break. I had specific diagnoses in my sub file for Generalized Anxiety Disorder and other emotional challenges.

I had a great time with that class. We discussed emotional issues of today and the recent past, the Holocaust, heroism and self-sacrifice. I’ll sub in that room any time.

But I nonetheless found myself sobered by the very existence of that classroom. When we can build whole classrooms around fear, anxiety and emotional distress, we ought to be looking at the environment our children inhabit. Yahoo today contains stories on broken marriages, dirty school water, a 13-year-old girl abducted from a park and raped, parents killed and daughters critically injured on a dream vacation to Disneyworld, a mall shooting, brain-hostile education, and a woman who has lost four sons to gun violence. New HIV information has become available, and research suggests that anxiety increases men’s cancer risk. I hated “Devastated Mom Writes Open Letter to the Man Who Killed Her Family’s Dog,” but I read it. If I wanted to further depress myself, I could read about the 40 celebrities who committed suicide. My phone just gave me a list of leprosy risk factors. I plan to redouble my efforts to avoid armadillos.

Playing Mortal Combat, Battle with the Mist Zombies, or whatever new title has come out, seems wholesome in comparison to the news today. At least our students know that Grand Theft Auto sprang from the minds of well-paid computer programmers. I am getting close to deciding that playing games may be an emotionally healthier use of the internet than random surfing.

Eduhonesty: I have few recommendations here. I see no way to get the genie back in the bottle.  But I would like to make an observation: One of the most compelling reasons I can see to cut back on this decade’s deluge of standardized testing rests in that basket of fidget toys. These kids are stressed enough. They don’t need additional text anxiety to load on top of the mother who killed her two kids and the brain tumor symptom — headaches! — you should never ignore.

We talk about safe classrooms. If we want to create safe classrooms, we should recognize that high-stakes tests are landmines in our educational landscape, potent sources of anxiety for lower-scoring, less-resilient children. No data justifies rubbing kids’ noses in their inability to hit ever-rising targets.

Readers, please put yourself in our kid’s shoes. How can we help escalating stress levels in middle school and high school especially, those years when kids get nearly open access to the whole of the internet, through their phones, if not at school?

One recommendation I will make: When you know your kids will not do well on those tests, opt out. When you know your kids may do well, but can see those kids becoming more scared by the month or year, opt out. We have to shut the data train down. One unemphasized test requiring two school days at most toward the end of each year, combined with an unemphasized benchmark test given at the beginning and middle of the year to track individual student progress ought to be all the standardized testing the state and federal governments need.

These weeks of high-stakes data-mongering must be shut down. If we don’t have enough data by now, our incompetence at testing and data analysis should not become a hammer we use to pound down our students, some of whom are already medicated for panic attacks in their teens, and others of whom are self-medicating through blunts and bongs, alcohol, and random drugs of the street.

* Check out http://theinspiredtreehouse.com/child-develoment-what-is-a-fidget-toy/ for a good, quick definition of a fidget toy.

Tip #28: When One Size Fits about Ten out of Twenty-Seven


The whole dilemma of teaching today can be expressed through one issue, that group-read that occurs in school when we plunk a one-size-fits-all book in front of 27 students.

Reading instruction in schools works best when developmentally appropriate. Appropriate instruction happens only when teachers are free to consider their students, free from rigid curricula based on anticipated test questions. I’ve blogged this observation before: An unreadable book might as well be no book. When we pick our books for test preparation, or pick books set at “grade level” because we intend to drag our students up to that grade level whether they like it or not, we set up reading failures. What is the effect of looking stupid when called on to read? What is the effect of watching students answer questions that you cannot understand, much less answer? “Odelia’s” dislike of books and reading probably stems from that source.

“I don’t like to read,” she said to me today.

I tried to find an area of reading interest. She rejected all my suggestions. This eighth-grade girl has quit reading, except under duress.

I love reading and I strongly support challenging books, but teachers should be selecting the best book for the group – a book that may or may not contain optimal test preparation material. We should be selecting the most interesting book available – if we should be selecting a single book at all. 

In these times, when benchmark tests can show members of a single class to be reading anywhere from a second to ninth grade level, the one-size-fits-all book will be incomprehensible to the kids at the bottom and suboptimal for the kids at the top. Benefits from shared reading and discussion will be minimal for outliers, the highest and lowest readers. That may call for breaking up into groups that read different texts.

As we group, group, group — and readers know I am a proponent for whole-group instruction when feasible — ideally, teachers should select readings based on students’ interests, rather than administrative decree. Who knows our students’ personal interests? Who talks with parents about family situations and student social lives? Who watches students becoming frustrated when a book has too many unfamiliar words and phrases? The classroom teacher has boots on the ground. That teacher knows far better than distant politicians or even local administrators which books and materials provide the best fit to different students.

I offer this as one more reason why America desperately needs to return control to the classroom teacher. In academically-struggling districts, “rigorous” books are killing interest in reading. Other educators have coined a term for this: Readicide.*

Eduhonesty: I’d rather have a gifted student read Nancy Drew and enjoy the book than have that student slog through War and Peace. If schools want to create readers, teachers and administrators should focus on what makes reading fun for students. In this time of games and cell phones, we can’t afford to keep boring America’s students with unsuitable book choices.

I’d like to advocate for small groups based on reading ability. Then I’d let the students pick their own books within limits set to keep the teacher sane. For example, I’d pick ten familiar, not-too-easy reads for my low group and let the kids take it from there. If Odelia wants to read Little House on the Prairie and Justin wants to read Freak the Mighty, as long as the books get read, I can handle the extra paperwork involved in grading and creating separate materials.

Because, in the end, if Odelia quits reading now, she’s done. She may or may not make her way through high school. She won’t be ready for high school. She certainly won’t be ready for college. She won’t be ready to be a responsible citizen when it’s time to vote. Odelia has reached eighth grade, but if we can’t convince her to read, eighth grade will be about as far as she gets, even if her body is still occupying a desk for the next few years,

*I recommend checking out Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.




Tip #27: Keep Groups Simple


My previous post felt like an autopsy. The truth of the time that inspired that post: I had no chance to win. I was obliged to follow a common lesson plan that included a nonstop barrage of 7th-grade, Common Core materials in math classes that had an average benchmark score in mathematics at the 3rd-grade level. Bilingual and special education classes were supposed to be doing exactly what the regular classes were doing. The bilingual teacher and I were clobbering our guys daily, but no one listened when I protested. She didn’t protest. She just started teaching the test on Friday before giving the test on Monday. Her students still didn’t pass. Mine sometimes passed on Saturday morning, during tutoring make-ups that allowed time for one-on-one attention. My Saturday morning tutoring sessions at McDonalds seldom drew more than six kids. I even paid for some breakfasts, but getting up to go learn optional math at 10:00 A.M. on the week-end separated the motivated from the unmotivated quickly.

The last post refers to group work problems in our time of group group group work. I would like to add one more piece to my autopsy. I made my life harder by creating new and changing group projects. That required teaching “how-to” often  to groups, and I now believe I spent too much time on “how-to.” All instructional minutes carry an opportunity cost, the material we don’t teach while teaching something else. “How-to” minutes are teaching technique, not content. Too many new, creative activities and the how-to minutes begin to take on a life of their own.

As I try to help new teachers and others, I should share my mistakes as well as my successes. My groups suffered from my enthusiasms. I had to teach groups how to do their new group activities, time that was taken from instruction.

When a whole class learns how to make a foldable study guide together, the cost of teaching the foldable can be expected to be recouped in study benefits, and since the whole group did instructions together, time loss is minimized. When I teach my group a foldable, though, and then show the group a vocabulary exercise, and then tack on a third website activity, I will end up spending a fair amount of teaching time on “how-to.” By the time I break into groups, a quarter of my period may be gone if that foldable proves complicated. I will lose more time to questions about what to do from confused students as they shift stations and suddenly have to figure out how to access that website I showed them earlier.

Looking back, I’d say more repetition would have benefited my students. If I had that last year of crazy to do over, I would teach my students the foldable and use that template for most future foldables, give them a limited list of websites and stick to it, while doing the same vocabulary activities regularly with changing vocabulary. I would spend more time drilling transitions at first to save time later.

You have to mix it up to keep student interest, but too interesting sucks up instructional time quickly. Groups need to understand exactly what you expect. When they don’t, Marisol may start talking quietly to Shaniqua about Brad’s new haircut while you are working with another group. Instructional minutes start flying away.

That suggestion yesterday about making everyone work from the same Google Doc/PowerPoint while in different groups? If groups dynamics are flummoxing you a bit, you might try that set-up. Then stick with the format for awhile.

Too many changes are not your friend.

We creatives can forget that fact as we search out the latest fun activity to try out on our students.


Tip #26.75: A Sudden Insight — or Covert Whole Group Instruction


One reason I still love this blog is that, after years of teaching, I still stumble on new insights as I write. This post will not apply to many teachers, but for those who are being mashed in the garbage compactor of increasing governmental and bureaucratic requirements, my thoughts may prove useful.

From a post a few days back:

During the day, frontload the most important part of any lessons for the first 25 minutes of their class period/time block. Attention spans vary. If you want a rigorous new math concept to make the journey to long-term memory, introduce and practice the concept when students are fresh. Later in the period, you can add necessary reinforcement. Even in the later afternoon, those first few minutes of a math, English or history period tend to be the golden minutes, windows of opportunity.

The above idea of frontloading important instruction almost assumes whole group instruction. In our time of furious grouping, that instruction may never happen. Classroom timing gets put on the backburner as we plan how to cycle our kids through the latest common lesson plan.

Let’s say I have set up the day so that Group 1 will work on the math program on the Chromebooks, Group 2 will work on the new concept for the day, and Group 3 will work together on vocabulary. Every 20 minutes or so, the groups change. After the first change, Group 1 now gets the day’s new concept. After the second change, Group 3 finally gets to the new concept during the last third of the hour. Group 2 got the best of my time, those first minutes of the hour. Group 3 ended up with the dregs, at the end when some members are likely getting antsy and watching the clock, waiting for the bell.

I vividly remember when my then-Assistant Superintendent said, “We no longer do whole group instruction.” Every teacher in my school was expected to be grouping the whole time, managing groups and transitions, I think because the Assistant Superintendent was trying to show off his familiarity with educational fashions. Actually, I have no idea what he was thinking or where he had found that carafe of Kool-Aid he chugged.

Instead of doing what happens to be in fashion, though, we ought to do what works. If I have a class where not a single student knows a new concept,*  then whole group instruction will likely be my best strategy. In terms of using my best, early minutes wisely, whole-group instruction will also be my best move, depending on the material under consideration. As I write this, I can think of caveats and exceptions to what I wrote. I can think of those because I AM THE TEACHER. I have spent time with the students I am teaching. I know what my students don’t know. I know where reinforcement will be needed.

As a teacher, I also know that mandatory, non-stop grouping can impede education, as we lose our best minutes getting groups underway when we ought to be learning new ideas. Fashions sometimes trump flexibility and common sense.

Tip #26.75 or something like that:  Hang on to your golden minutes at the front of the hour. If I had this one to do over, I would have taken much less “advice.” I would have taken the common lesson and given it in a Google Doc to the computer group, a hand-out to the vocabulary group and in person to whatever lucky group had me first. Then I would have had everybody track what I was saying and doing. If admin had walked in, I would still have been able to show off my groups while doing covert whole-group instruction.

In order not to be caught doing this whole-group instruction, I suggest you have the computer group add notes to their Google Docs or PowerPoints, while having the vocabulary group highlight problematic words. Then you can use that material to launch your next lesson.

Eduhonesty:  Don’t lose your first minutes because somebody, somewhere, who has not been a classroom for years, has a brainstorm that sucks up those minutes. The kids come first. But direct opposition hardly ever benefits a teacher. How can you make it work and still give the appearance of going with the program? How can you follow directives and yet mitigate the damage? That’s your challenge. Fortunately, I don’t know any group of people anywhere who are better at thinking on their feet than teachers.

Because this post was built around a specific situation, I can see its content getting lost in the many pieces of advice on education. I hope readers will hear the thrum of an underlying theme here. Outside interference with classroom pedagogy keeps worsening. Not all outside advice should be regarded as useful. If you are a new teacher trying a new technique and that technique appears not to be working, I suggest going with your gut, not the research. Many study results end up being broadly applied despite the fact that their good results required a low student to teacher ratio combined with paraprofessionals and extra assistance from resource teachers. If you don’t have that paraprofessional or those resource teachers, please don’t doubt yourself because your students don’t look like the kids in the video they showed you.


*I should not have this class, but as we pick Common Core materials based on test-expectations rather than prior learning, this student/material mismatch happens too often.

The Tortoise Won the Race


Inspired by the Curriculum Death March, a year in my life that helped me to see the edge on the curricular sword, I am taking a short break from tips to explore an idea.

Bureaucrats, school administrators and politicians often seem to forget we need to “sell” education to our students. America’s students are not cooperative, little sponges waiting to be filled with the water of knowledge. They are not vessels into which we can pour English when the whim strikes us.

Current educational strategies based in “rigor” and “raising the bar” miss at least one critical piece for teaching and learning: At least at first, slower may produce better long-term results. Teaching content should be subordinate to inspiring interest. Once I have sparked student interest, content will follow. In Spanish, doing group projects and having a good time working on theme-based units while adding words and phrases naturally works better than plowing through long, obligatory textbook chapters. Educators know this from classes and professional development seminars where they are taught various methods to engage students in foreign language instruction. But teachers can only employ those methods when they are allowed time and flexibility to do so.  When higher-ups demand that students cover over 300 pages of a history textbook in their entirety over the course of one school year, they risk creating students whose main goal in history class is to get out of history class.

Too much rigor and shoving up that damn bar can lead to disaffected students who are spending most of their class period waiting for the bell to ring.

Tip #26.5: More on Magic Hours


In my last post, I suggested that the day’s most important concepts should be taught in the mid- to late-morning. I’d like to add a few more thoughts on timing. In the plethora of details that teachers deal with every day, timing tends to get lost, a victim of the need to get 6 impossible things done before breakfast.

Let me add a suggestion to yesterday’s post: During the day, frontload the most important part of any lessons for the first 25 minutes of their class period/time block. Attention spans vary. If you want a rigorous new math concept to make the journey to long-term memory, introduce and practice the concept when students are fresh. Later in the period, you can add necessary reinforcement. Even in the later afternoon, those first few minutes of a math, English or history period tend to be the golden minutes, windows of opportunity.

Take advantage of your best minutes before you break into group work. Whole-group instruction has become much maligned nowadays, but the period’s best minutes should not be used only for a fortunate few. Find ways to share the front part of your time block with all your students. Those early minutes are hammers that can pound down the toughest nails.


Tip #26: Take Advantage of the Magic Hours


My magical time comes early, before the sun breaks over the horizon. I used to get up at 5 or even 4 A.M. when I was in college. But I am a true morning person.

Most children are not. We have a fair amount of research suggesting that our kids should start school around 10 A.M. if we want them to perform at their best. That late morning start will never happen. Bus schedules, parent work schedules, and long-established tradition make potent arguments against changing the current system. Our dislike for school days ending after dark alone would prevent this switch, I’m sure.

But we can still fiddle with the school timetable sometimes. If you have schedule flexibility, I suggest putting the most important activities into that midmorning slot. Do your math and language arts from 9:30 to 11:30 when possible. Move less vital lessons into the late afternoon, when students are tired and squirrelly. All other things being equal, midmorning classes will always have more attentive, awake students than midafternoon classes. It’s worth keeping this fact in mind when scheduling the day’s activities.

Time to go teach … I hope readers are having a great September.

Tip #25: Drill Drill Drill those Routines


I am a retired teacher freely subbing, dancing my way from district to district and room to room. As I slip in and out of lanyards, I am doing a version of action research that I was never able to do while a full-time, single-district teacher. My research is yielding highly mixed results. I have already written a post on the heat. I had long known the value of air-conditioning, but the stark contrast between my hot and comfortable classrooms still surprised me.

Today I was left to reflect upon the effect of routines. I taught a marvelous 4th grade class and a feisty 2nd grade class. I won’t return to the latter. I’ve crossed that room off the list of places I choose to work. We went over the rules in that 2nd grade class. The kids knew the rule chant perfectly. But a regrettable percentage seemed oblivious to their own rules. The peace sign served as a quiet signal but not enough students cared about that peace sign. The teacher admitted she seldom used her sign. She had forewarned me about various students and I’d say she knew exactly who was in her class.

I’m not saying today’s 2nd grade class may not be making great progress. Subs often get tested, even in second grade. But what struck me was the fact that students pushed their boundaries fast and hard. Feet on the floor? Why shouldn’t I be sitting with my chair backwards, legs splayed out and my feet on the table? We’d hardly met and conversations were popping out between pairs of students across the room, even as I explained how to glue our foldable. I ended up having to separate pairs to get our work done.

Eduhonesty: Any landing you can walk away from is a good one, and I am here now and planning to enter a different 2nd grade classroom tomorrow. But my post mortem on today’s experience suggested I add this latest tip: Drill your routines. Then drill them again. Sweat the small details. Don’t make exceptions except in genuinely special cases. Don’t answer the student who did not raise his hand. If you do, students will be blurting answers all year and the rule-followers will become discouraged. If Bobby always gets to answer questions first without raising his hand, soon eager Anthony will do the same. Don’t let the bossy girl slip in front of the line leader. If Tiffany keeps succeeding at budging in line, soon others will be budging too. Don’t let side conversations continue. Those conversations can proliferate like bunnies and skunks in the spring.

Routines establish the tone for your entire year. If students do not learn to be quiet in the halls in September, establishing this habit later may be next to impossible. It’s easy to loosen the reins once behavior has been established, but toughening up later… Students resist unlearning habits that have been enjoyable for them, such as talking to friends whenever they feel like starting a conversation.

Here’s the point that can be missed: Every day, in every way, you ARE establishing routines, whether you intend to be doing so or not. Blurting, budging and blathering to buddies can become the class routine if those behaviors are not swiftly blotted out. Teachers have to sweat the small details from the outset.

What are your rules? What are your routines? Whatever they are, those rules and routines have to stick. If not. blurted answers and side conversations will slip into your class like poison oak stealing into park greenery. You don’t want to have to worry about behavioral issues when you are teaching.

So snuff the misbehavior sooner, rather than later. Get rid of the poison oak before you become afraid to walk into the woods.

P.S. I taught a different 2nd grade class the next day and that group knew their routines and expectations. We had fun. I will happily return to sub for that teacher.


Tip #24: Walk the Aisles — Closing the App Store

ipad(Pad from Iconbug.com)

I managed to land in an upscale suburb for the day when the iPad tech person arrived to help students set up their devices. Students can rent, rent to own, or bring their own iPads. Last year, those students who rent or rent to own had access to the App Store, creating a large traffic jam of gaming, as students walked through the halls with iPads blocking their view. Sometimes they would set the date ahead on their iPads so they could get more cars for a favorite game. That led to occasional havoc with district programs and mail.

The App Store has been shut, at least for renters. Those with their own iPads were told that school rules prohibit playing games on the premises. I watched various students smirk at that information.

Games will be played, if fewer than last year. Consequences will be dealt out to students who cannot keep those games stashed for later. Education will trundle along as books are replaced by software and students adapt to a less paper-laden life.

We can’t put the technogenie back in the bottle. I wrote about my own recent problems with the worm game a few weeks back. No small part of today’s cyber-challenge rests in the fact that many adolescents are faster and better with their devices than the people in charge of those devices. I’m betting the renters will have games. I can already think of one way to add a few games, admittedly less easy and elegant than a quick trip to the App Store. Once you give kids access to the internet, the game to add games is over.

So what can be done? My latest tip applies to more than iPads and the technobeasts they spawn. Walk the aisles. Walk the aisles regularly and walk them often. Set up your desk so you can see screens but also be sure students sense that you may turn up at their elbow at any time. These strolls prevent chatting, note passing, texting, and other distractions, while keeping discipline. You might want to count steps, adding these trips through the classroom to your fitness routine.

Eduhonesty: I have to admit I was entertained by the idea of students advancing the date on their iPads to get more cars to play their game. I wonder how many months or years worth of cars were created. Were some students living in the year 2020?

This post also seems ironic. I’ve spent nearly two hours today playing my favorite. game. But, fortunately, I don’t have to get me ready to go to college.