Pick a Pic – Edublogs Club Wk 4

Prompt: Write a post that includes an image.



So I wrote this as a warm-up yesterday (more thoughts on warm-ups here).

I didn’t really have a conscious plan. I didn’t have homework to assign, and mostly wanted to write something compelling to see if the students would notice. I certainly wasn’t planning to write this, with the exception of the 47% part – that was deliberate at the end.

But hey, I knew it would at least get their attention so I let it ride.


Background context

We just finished our Middle East unit which was largely devoted to an examination of the Syrian refugee crisis. Heavy stuff under any circumstance – especially so given the recent changes under President Trump. To turn it up to 11, I teach in a community that has a large Syrian population. I have several students whose parents immigrated to the U.S. They have friends and family still in Syria. One girl told me that she had family members turned back at the airport when everything went down this past weekend.

So yeah…heavy stuff.

The Middle East unit is always challenging. There is never a lack of pressing and emotional topics to explore. Refugees from civil war. Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and AfPak Taliban regions. Etc.

The students consistently report that they find it important and interesting to learn about these topics. But that doesn’t make it enjoyable to learn about them. It’s a drag man. The world can be a cruel. 8th graders are at a developmental level where they can and should begin to grapple with big messy scary issues. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t challenge them to view the world with open eyes. But still…after a few years of teaching this unit, I’ve come to recognize that slump in their shoulders and grim faces as they leave the class. It’s not that they don’t care. They care so much, and they don’t know what to do with it. Knowledge is power, and a burden.


Back to the picture

So it totally got their attention. Fun fact – it takes at least 20 minutes for most 8th grade students to realize that any part of it was meant to be humorous. It’s because I added the “counts as 47% of your total grade” at the end. Students do not find it funny when you joke about grades.

But it would have been cruelly cynical to just say, “Haha, never mind, you actually don’t have any homework at all. I just wrote that because I was bored.”

So what followed was an impromptu speech where I just laid it all on the line. The fact that I know they value learning about these issues but it is emotionally draining. The fact that it is hard for me too. The frustration of not being able to actually solve these problems – and knowing that real people suffer from them.

I talked about the importance of simply being knowledgeable about current events. We can’t solve problems if we don’t know about them. I encouraged them to keep learning about important issues even when it is a little painful or challenging to their worldview. I asked them to talk to peers and parents about these issues. They know more about the Syrian refugee issue than 90% of the rest of the country at this point. Students, particularly young students, rarely appreciate their own content mastery.

It’s not enough to be nice and polite. That’s what most of them assumed I really meant at first. Just be nice – hard to argue with that, right? But, I went on to say that it wasn’t enough to not be a bad person. We need to actively look for, and sometimes create, opportunities to do good things. Small things for the most part. But small things matter. And small things have impact, particularly if a lot of people are doing a lot of small things consistently.

So I implored them to look the small opportunities to do good. You don’t have to organize the donation drive, but you can easily participate in it. Action breeds confidence and motivation. The way to fight despair is to keep swimming. Do the next right thing. You feel productive because you are productive. It’s a start. A small but necessary start.

And so on.

I’m not ashamed to admit it. The Walp was on fire. I had a captive audience. I was doing it! I was making an impact! Looking back, my only regret was that I didn’t think to stand on my desk.


But there is a tiny postscript to my story – and it perfectly captures why I love working with in middle school.

At the end of the period, I had a very nice, but slightly nervous student ask me on the way out, “So, I’m confused…do we have any homework?”.

True story.


Thanks for stopping by, please comment with a link to your blog!

What is your inspired, impromptu standing on a desk teaching moment?

Iran vs. Saudi Arabia

Here is my compilation video on the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It includes background information on the Sunni/Shia split, major conflict areas (e.g. Yemen), the Iranian nuclear deal and a recent news clip about the cutting of ties between the two countries.


At 12 minutes it is a bit on the long side. Allowing for teacher commentary and pair and share time for students, this will probably take the better part of a 40 minute period to view. This is the sixth compilation I’ve made this year, and I feel that I am starting to get a sense for the editing and pacing needs.

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?