Summer Cleaning: Eliminating Bad Habits One at a Time

Due to the frenzy and fragmentation of the school day and year—after an appropriate, gentle and well-earned transition—summer is the best time to sweep the shed, clear the cobwebs and put your tools in order ahead of the imminent next semester. Here’s a simple—but thorough—step-by-step process for making it happen.

 

Due to the frenzy and fragmentation of the school day and year—after an appropriate, gentle and well-earned transition—summer is the best time to sweep the shed, clear the cobwebs and put your tools in order ahead of the imminent next semester. Here’s a simple—but thorough—step-by-step process for making it happen:

  1. Reflect: Identify a challenge or area of improvement in your teaching. Look for cross-sections in your practice that highlight issues not only for you, but for your students as well. Meditate on your method and vigorously interrogate your routines flushing out habits that may actually betray what you believe about learning.
  2. Research: Search for hypothetical solutions in published theory, personal experience and the practices of others. Read. Brainstorm. Crowdsource.
  3. Rehearse: Tinker meaningfully with your proposed solutions. The time needed to tinker will vary, but field-testing your solution is essential to sustainable success.
  4. Recalibrate: After you have tinkered for an appropriate amount of time, fine tune, make adjustments, refine and streamline. It’s unlikely you’ll get it right the first time around. Or, more accurately, it’s unlikely you’ll optimize your solution in the trial: reforms can always be re-formed.
  5. Renovate:  Clear the junk out of the garage, install revamped furniture and fixtures and arrange your new tools strategically in order to enhance learning experience for yourself and your students.
  6. Repeat: Identify another challenge or area of improvement: summer cleaning is a cycle, not a destination.

 

If you are reading this post at its publication, in June, you’re only positioned to engage with step one: reflect. And that’s where you should start: you want to remodel methodically and meaningfully—no rush jobs and no attempts to tackle twelve problems at a time. Go slow. Be thorough.

Luckily, like a good cooking show host with a pre-baked quiche waiting strategically in the oven, I have my own refined recipe from the past year to share as an example of the completed process:

 

Case Study: Memrise Instead of Memorize 2014-2015

  1. Reflect: Primarily a History teacher, I firmly believe that rote memorization is not a relevant skill conducive to academic or life success in the 21st Century. Nevertheless, I still work in a school and a system in which students of History are expected to prove their understanding of the subject by recalling memorized content on exit exams like the IB, AP and SAT. So, I still gave occasional multiple-choice quizzes and exams in order to test student content knowledge and to expose them to the characteristics of such assessments. After years of regarding these assessments as a necessary evil, I became committed to finding a stress-free and meaningful replacement for them.
  2. Research: By broadcasting my concerns to my Twitter PLN colleagues, I found Memrise, a language learning website and app that uses positive reinforcement, web design, gamification and spacing, to help learners retain content in their long-term memory in a fun, engaging and stress-free way. I decided to adapt Memrise for historical terminology, dates and events.
  3. Rehearse: Over the course of the first semester I tinkered with deadlines, scoring parameters and teacher-created terminology lists vs. student ones. I also actively solicited student feedback on Memrise (overwhelmingly positive—especially in comparison to the stress-inducing multiple choice quizzes and exams) and on establishing standards for using it to assess content knowledge. Responses ran from the self-servingly devious (“1000 points per unit is enough, Mr.T!” –We settled on 35,000 per unit…) to the sincere, (“It’s more work, but it’s better if we create the lists ourselves, Mr. T.”), as expected.
  4. Recalibrate: In the second semester, I made adjustments based off of the student feedback, planned out terminology lists, designated who would curate them and established clear standards and timelines ahead of each unit. I also relaxed knowing that students are far less motivated to cut corners or cheat without the threat of failure. And while a peer may be willing to move his exam paper closer to the edge of his desk for a classmate to grab a peek, he is going to be far less willing and far less likely to log into another student’s Memrise account and punch in “spaced” responses for 15 minutes a day.
  5. Renovate: I cancelled multiple-choice assessments entirely: no more class time wasted on stressful, and questionably useful, quizzes. No more teacher time wasted on grading such assessments. Student stress levels went down. Student retention levels went up.  Everybody had fun.
  6. Repeat: My students struggle with developing their essay writing skills. Maybe I can gamify writing instruction and essay review to increase engagement. Where do I start?

 

Some might find focusing on one change per year too slow, but experience has shown me that focusing on replacing bad habits with good ones one at a time ensures significant, sustainable transformation.

If you could only pick one, what change would you make this year?

Related categories:
  • Karen Cusolito

    High School English

    Kudos to a history teacher who stresses writing skills. English teachers can't do it by ourselves. The Turnitin program allows students to peer edit assignments. The teacher chooses the items to evaluate, how many peers to evaluate, and how much credit to give peer evaluations. It's easy to use.

    • wjtolley

      Urgh. 

      Urgh. 

      The dreaded “history teachers refuse to teach writing” meme. 

      I know that some old-school “Bueller?”-types have given us a bad name, but trust me when I tell you that all the good ones see writing as the essential skill taught in the history classroom. When you have a good team of English teachers and history teachers collaborating on a unit, magic happens. 

       
      Only problem is, the history teachers are so skilled at it, we often end up carrying the English teachers through. 😉
  • SandyMerz

    Right there now

    Thanks for this post, William, I’m beginning my fall plans and will keep these tips in mind. Coincidentaly, I had a related pieces published in EdWeek in May and my last blog. I hope to do another in an early blog in August or late July. 

    • wjtolley

      Hey Sandy, 

      Hey Sandy, 

      Great minds, eh? I like how you were able to more thoughtfully elaborate on the reflection process in the Edweek piece. Trying to share something like that in a more bloggish post of 500-800 words is difficult. 

      I will also be writing a similar piece in expectation of the new year! It will be a follow-up on my Minimalism in tech post focusing on minimalizing practice across the board. 

       
      I look forward to reading your work!  
  • Anonymous

    Any suggestions for teachers

    Any suggestions for teachers employed at 12 month schools? Full days throughout July and August?

  • Valerie Green Thomas

    Special Education

    Thanks for sharing Sandy,

    The steps are pratical as well as giving me the chance to really reflect and plan in an organized manner. Thanks to the history teachers who carried the English curriculum along.

    Val