Challenging myself to get out of the way – Edublogs Club Wk 6

Prompt: Write a post about challenging situations.

  • Share your biggest teaching challenge and explain how you overcame it.


I love being a teacher. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. If I may be so bold, I am pretty good at my job.

But I didn’t spring forth fully formed.

Some teachers knew they wanted to become a teacher when they were in like…fifth grade. That’s cool, but that wasn’t my path. I was good at school. History and English were my favorite subjects. I liked stories and I liked to read. But teaching wasn’t for me. I even said at the time that I don’t know what to do with History or English other than become a teacher…and that’s crazy talk. Mostly it was about self-confidence, or lack of I suppose. Let’s just say that standing in front of a group of people to talk wasn’t in my skill set at the time.

Anyway, flash forward a bit and now I’m ready. Let’s do this. I shall teach.

Getting my teaching degree was fun. I liked to learn. I liked History. So far so good.

Student teaching was…an important professional development experience. It was fine. I learned from great and not-so-great mentoring teachers. The most important thing I discovered is that I am a Middle School teacher. It was a bit of a shock. Nobody sets a life goal to be a Middle School teacher. Other people look at you with a mixture of pity and grudging admiration when you tell them it’s what you do. But it’s true. I love teaching Middle School, and this is totally where I belong.

Anyway, I survived student teaching and in the Fall of 2006 I entered the exciting world of day subbing. Within a few months I was very privileged to get a contracted permanent substitute position in my home district. It was a great gig. I got to know the students and the other teachers. I didn’t have any lesson planning or grading. Easy street. I did that for about a year and a half. Along the way I got certified in Middle School Math. That proved to be extremely advantageous.

A brand new position opened up in my school – gifted coordinator (i.e., GIEP case manager). The only degree requirement was Middle School Math, so I threw my hat in the ring and got the job. Great! My responsibilities were to teach one section of Geometry, handle the administrative duties for the GIEP compliance, and most important of all, make sure we didn’t get sued. Once my principal saw that I was good to go running the GIEP meetings with parents, I was on my own. The paperwork was a pain, but not a big deal once I got familiar with the process. Teaching Geometry worked ONLY because I had a class of just four students the first year (later on I would expand to two full sections of Geometry and Algebra).

But I was also supposed to “do something” to enrich the lives of our best and brightest students, and this is where I hit the wall. When do I meet with them? What do I do when I have them? This isn’t graded so why do they care? In fact, I’m probably taking them out of a study hall where they would otherwise be doing “real” work so this is actually kind of annoying for them. Also, I don’t actually know what I’m doing. And they know it. They’re being polite and all…but I can see it in their eyes.

The absolute best thing that ever happened to me in my career is that my boss didn’t look over my shoulder too much that first year. I had room to breathe and make mistakes.

I experimented meeting in big groups and small groups. Maybe we should work on study skills? How about some sort of enrichment-y research project? (That one was the worst – it basically involved me getting a lot of books out of the library and then being completely caught off guard when the students did not express immediate interest in reading them). Games? Actually, games worked…sort of. At least they pretended to play the board games and stuff while actually just talking and hanging out. It was a start. But it was a charade and everyone knew it.

I wanted to do big things. These were all high-potential, and in many cases high-achieving students. I basically didn’t have to worry about discipline. I had some leeway with the schedule. Most importantly, I had almost complete latitude as to my curricular goals for the program. But I had to do something soon. I was benefiting from an attitude of benign neglect from my building principal, but sooner or later I would be called to account for exactly what I was doing with all of my unstructured time.

I started to get irritable and sarcastic with the students. Once or twice the situation got tense and stand-offish. Looking back, I can’t blame them. I was flailing about with no clear goals, or even worse, constantly shifting goals.

Then one day about mid-year “it” happened. It was at the end of the day. The students had just left. Whatever I had planned for the day hadn’t worked out at all. I was so stressed out and didn’t know what to do to change things. However, the one thing I knew for sure was that everything would be OK if I just sat under my desk for a bit. Even better, a colleague came in and found me like that. It was totally not the most humbling experience of my teaching career. True story.


A historical reenactment of me hiding from my own bad teaching.


That was probably the turning point emotionally. One of those times you have to just pick yourself up and go back to work the next day. But it didn’t solve the actual problem. I mean c’mon, all I did was hide under my desk for awhile.

It should be no great surprise that my inspiration and solution came from the students themselves.

One day, one my Geometry students (also on my GIEP caseload) told me about a coding project he was working on. Just for fun and because he was interested in computers.




Kids have diverse interests outside of the classroom.

Kids work hard on things they love without needing an extrinsic motivation.

Maybe I should do something with that?


Yeah… paradigm shifts always seem obvious when you are on the other side.


Anyway, that was the beginning of the beginning.

I began to learn how to get out of the way.

Over time I set up a pretty cool framework for project-based independent study with my GIEP students. Students had freedom to select their topics but had to develop a goal and plan. They did some great stuff: shooting and editing movies, building models, creative writing, self improvement plans. You name it.

I learned how to become a facilitator and teach supporting skills. Project planning. Time management. Tracking progress. Reflection. Repeat.

It isn’t always easy. I like to be in the way. I like to be the font of knowledge. Me me me.

Getting out of the way doesn’t mean that I don’t make critically important decisions in terms of content and instruction. It takes a LOT of planning in advance to get out of the way.

Getting out of the way is NOT about efficiency. Students need a lot of time in class to work on skills and process deep content. I need to be comfortable not knowing the answer to all of their questions. I need to be comfortable with situations that do not have one clear “right” answer. I need to be flexible and willing to make big adjustments on the fly. Sometimes I need to ask the students to bear with me as I think out loud through a new procedure.

Getting out of the way means that I need to ask for help (totally my favorite thing…). I need to let other teachers see me teach and tell me what worked and what didn’t work. I need to collaborate with, and be inspired by other great teachers like @historycomics  @CHitch94 @ziegeran @paulbogush @hiphughes @joetabhistory @TomRichey and many more.

. . .

I no longer have the freedom of those early years. I teach in a “regular” classroom now. But there are still plenty of opportunities to get out of the way. Here are some that have worked for me.

Give them a menu of options to complete a HW assignment. Ask them to do illustrations instead of writing a summary. Make a choose your own adventure activity. Include kinesthetic group activities. Facilitate quick focused small group “turn and talk” discussions on a near daily basis. Provide a choice of questions for the essay test. Play a game. Build empathy for a big problem. Have them create their own guiding questions for a unit of instruction. Ask them to reflect on their learning experiences. Ask them to give ME improvement feedback.


HW menu


Sample student illustrations


Choose your own adventure


Sample timeline activities


Essay choices


Board games




Fantasy league


It’s not just about engagement, although that is a HUGE piece. Commit to getting out of the way and you will see visible results. Over time, students become stronger and more confident learners. They get better at writing, and researching, and generating their own questions, and dealing with ambiguity. Asking students to make a LOT of small low-risk decisions helps them to do better with the BIG decisions. Teach a person to fish and such.


Best of all – it’s now been almost 10 years since the last time I felt compelled to hide from the world under my desk.



Thanks for reading – leave a comment!

Do you have a “sitting under a desk questioning your life decisions moment?” How do you get out of the way of your student’s learning? What’s your favorite lesson, activity or project to teach/facilitate? 

Google Forms for the win – Edublogs Club Wk 5


As a teacher, there are two distinct phases of my career: life before and life after Google Forms.

A little background – my graduate school work focused on using reflective practices in the classroom to promote critical thinking. Which is great…until you have to collect and process all of that reflective writing. It can pile up pretty quick. I cannot overstate how much Google Forms has made life easier for me to collect data (e.g., polls, exit slips, journals). You can administer quizzes with Google Forms. Heck, they can even make it easier to plan for the next field trip.

  • You can create a variety of response types including open-ended, multiple choice, scaled response (e.g., rating 1-5) and more. You can even insert pictures or videos.
  • Share the link via email or post to Moodle, Edmodo, etc.
  • Respondents do NOT need a gmail account.
  • The best part, all of the responses are automatically compiled in a Google sheet (i.e., Excel-type sheet) in your Google Drive. You have the form automatically collect student id’s with one click, and all answers are time-stamped. You can view the sheet to see each students’ response or you can create a summary response. I have found summary responses to be especially useful for journal type responses and survey polls.
  • Even better best part, the newest version of Google forms provides automatic data visualization (e.g., pie charts, graphs, etc.) of the responses.


Here are some examples from my class this year.


Collecting feedback at the end of a unit or project




Collecting lunch menu selections for a field trip



Take a quick poll for fun or to support class discussion



What should you do next?

Do it. Use Google Forms. Here are some resources to help you get started.


Google Learning Center: Getting started with Google Forms

Educational Tech and Mobile Learning: Google Forms for Teachers – A Must Read Guide

Tech Tips for Teachers: 4 Ways to Use Google Forms

Chalkup: How to Create Quizzes Using the New Google Forms






Thanks for stopping by – leave a comment!

Do you use Google Forms already? What is your favorite or most useful Google Form feature? Do you have questions about using Google Forms? 


Teaching Toolkit: The Warm Up

Ah the warm up. It’s a simple but powerful concept. Have the students do something when they enter the room.

I don’t know why, but it took me years…literally several years of teaching…to “get” warm ups. Are they supposed to look at a picture? Review their homework? Talk about something? Is there a difference between a warm up a hook and a set? How do find time to include a warm up? Do I check them? If so, do they count for credit? Do I need to do one every day? Etc.

After much trial and error, this is what works for me. (Full disclosure: Getting back to using warm ups was one of my New Year teacher resolutions. I don’t know what happened…one day I just realized I wasn’t using them anymore. Back on the wagon.)

The goal of a warm up

For me, the primary goal of a warm up is simply to get kids settled in, thinking about the content, and ready to work. Or in another sense, I simply want to prevent the loss of instructional time at the beginning of class. That’s it. Everything else is optional.

  • It doesn’t need to be exciting or innovative. To me, this is the key difference between a “set” or “hook” and a warm up. A set gets the students interested in the next lesson or topic, usually by getting them excited, agitated, or confused. For example, an interesting picture, a riddle or brain teaser, a map, playing music, etc. These are great and necessary components of good unit planning, but I don’t think they are effective warm ups. They get students wound up instead of them settled and focused. I prefer to use a set after the warm up.
  • It doesn’t need to provide a seamless transition between topics. If this happens, great. If not, no problem. Again, the primary goal is to get students settled and focused.
  • It doesn’t need to happen everyday. However, it should happen most days. Students should come in expecting to do the warm up. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if I have a big flashy sign that says “WARM UP!!!” on the board…they aren’t looking at the board…they’re talking to their friends or reading a book. (Trust me…I tried that). My experience is that everyone gets into a groove if I have formal warm ups three days a week on average.


The first rule of warm ups 

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.

At least they have never worked for me. Don’t misunderstand me, I love small group discussion. I use “turn and talk strategies” every single day. But it doesn’t work as a warm up. The students aren’t tuned in yet.

Discuss your homework? Nope.

Hey, check out this picture, what do you think? Nope.

Read this section in the textbook? Nope.

Chat with your partner, what did we do yesterday? Nope.

Sadly, I have to keep re-learning this every year. Whenever I forget it, I find myself spending 5 (or 10…) minutes circulating around the classroom putting out fires and trying to get kids to pretend more effectively that they are actually reading or talking about the warm up topic. I waste as much time, or even more, than I was trying to save by doing the warm up to begin with!

The second rule of warm ups

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.


The ingredients of an effective warm up

The students need to produce something.

They need to take notes, draw a picture, write a journal, or write down the answer to a question. Here’s the trick though, it should be something that takes a few minutes of actual concentration or reflection on their part. Remember, the goal is to get the students settled down and focused. So in my opinion, simple questions (e.g., yes/no, fill in the blank, etc.) aren’t effective as warm ups, unless used in a list.

Bonus points:

    • If using a writing prompt, it is important to give length guidelines. My experience is that a 3-5 sentence response is the perfect amount for a warm up. 
    • I also like to have a mix of fact and opinion prompts.

Examples from my most recent unit:

Describe Sharia Law in 3 sentences.

Describe an example of how Sharia law impacts women in Saudi Arabia in 3-5 sentences.

What do you think is the most restrictive rule women face in Saudi Arabia? Why do you think so? (3-5 sentences)


Students should have a set place where they keep their warm up responses for a unit. Just have them reserve space in a physical notebook, or create a dedicated electronic document. This saves time AND makes the warm up more valuable for the students because they can serve as review notes.

Time management

The warm up is only useful if it doesn’t become a time sink. Remember, that is one of the problems I am trying to solve. As the students arrive, I direct their attention to the warm up and ask them to get started. Once the bell rings (i.e., a concrete start point), I start a timer and tell them how much time they have. I usually allot 3 minutes for writing, and give them a countdown update every minute. This might not seem like enough time. It is…if…they actually get started right away. Sure, once in awhile I might fudge it a little bit if they really need a few more seconds, but my recommendation is to stick to the timer as a rule.


A short follow up discussion is the glue that holds it all together.  It reinforces the concepts through multiple modes of communication. It provides an opportunity for me to address questions for clarification. At the very least, students do the warm up because they don’t want to be unprepared when I call on them. However, I don’t check warm ups for points, and it is OK if the student doesn’t finish the warm up. The goal was to get them settled and focused.

Bonus points:

    • If the warm up is a writing prompt or reflection, I ask students to read what they have written OR ask a question for clarification.
    • If the warm up is copying notes, I ask students to restate the concepts in their own words OR ask a question for clarification.
    • This is the perfect time to use a random selection method to call on students. If anyone is a potential target, everyone does the warm up.
    • Watch out for scope creep if the warm up is a review question or reflection. It is very easy for the discussion to turn take up too much time. I pick three students, take one to three additional volunteers, and then move on. The entire warm up process can be done in less than ten minutes once you get comfortable with it.


But I don’t have time for warm ups!

Yes you do.

If you don’t have a warm up system, you are losing time every class period anyway…probably more time than you think.

If you don’t devote time to review of concepts, then you are fooling yourself if you think they actually remember what happened last class.

If you are really jammed up for today’s lesson, skip it. Warm ups don’t have to happen every day…just most days.


So what does it look like in practice?

First bell rings…students begin to trickle into the classroom.

The warm up is posted on the board. What is sharia law? (3 sentences)

Me: “The warm up is on the board. Make sure to put it in your “Middle East Warm Ups” document. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

Second bell rings to start the class. At this point, students should actually be writing or rereading their notes. (Side note: I used to think that the warm up should be completed by the bell to start class. However, under no circumstances has that ever worked for me. I have come to terms with the fact that students actually need a few minutes to transition from class to class, no matter how stressed I might personally feel about time.)

Me: “Ok, you have three minutes, then we’ll discuss. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

John calls out: “I have a question about the next test.” (It’s a trap! If I answer John’s question I am signaling that I don’t really care about this warm up nonsense. Rest assured, three more students will immediately call out with their own questions…then a few side conversations…then everybody is just hanging out and talking like it’s lunch or something.)

Me: “I’ll answer that after the warm up.”

Me: “Two minutes.”

During this time I am circulating the class, taking attendance, etc.

Me: “One minute.”

Me: “Thirty seconds.”

Once the time is elapsed, I give any administrative announcements for the day. I know that they can hear me because everyone is settled and focused. Some students are still writing, but that’s OK. The announcements are also a way to surreptitiously buy some time for them.

Me: “OK, chat with your partners about what you wrote.”

This is an important step because it gives students a chance to clarify their answers before sharing with the whole group. However, this should only go for a minute or so.

During this time I use my random selection method (e.g., I use numbered popsicle sticks in a big coffee can) to pre-select students for discussion. If it is a student that struggles a bit, I can let them know in advance that I will call on them.

Me: “Ok Ryan, what is sharia law?” If he isn’t done, or doesn’t feel confident in his answer, I just ask him to read what he has written so far.

Me: “Ok Helen, can you add to that or say it another way?”

Repeat this step for any pre-selected students. I usually restate what each student said so everyone can hear.

Me: “Anyone else…is there something important we missed?”

I take a few volunteers (i.e., one to three max) then move on to the topic of the day. No worries if there are no volunteers to continue discussion, the warm up has done it’s job.



Comments and feedback welcome!

What do warm ups look like in YOUR class?