If it’s interesting, they’ll listen


Which high school subject is most interesting to students?

  • Economics
  • Pre-calculus
  • Physics
  • English
  • History

The answer: None of the above.

No subject is inherently the most interesting; what students find interesting depends on how we teach the material.

I was reminded of this twice in the past week, thanks to my AP Psych students.

First, I read their semester experiment posters. One of my groups this year tested “boring” v. “engaging” instruction by teaching a brief lesson on the Bay of Pigs to two junior/senior English classes.

In one class, they used “enunciation, energy and movement”; in the other they read the information slowly off of their phones.

They found that not only were students in the monotone class less likely to remember the material — scoring an average of 4/10 on the quiz compared to almost 7/10 for the better class — many were unwilling to engage at all.

“The class with the good presentation took us seriously and showed us more respect,” the students concluded. “The other class didn’t even care.”

Sound familiar?

Second, I watched several hours worth of students’ video presentations on various psych disorders, like schizophrenia and generalized anxiety disorder. Almost every group did a solid job researching the symptoms, history, epidemiology, etiology and treatment of their assigned disorder, but some of the videos were so monotonous that I found myself checking email and doing shoulder exercises to distract myself. It was just too hard to sit still and listen.

Some groups, though, managed to put together swift, concise and really engaging videos, with a storyline and vivid examples to illustrate the symptoms of their assigned disorder. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and as a result, so did I.

I’m sure the students watching them noticed the difference.

Any subject can be fascinating, if it’s presented the right way — with choice details, a human interest story, a bit of suspense, and some activity on the learner’s part. Any subject can also be boring, if we strip it of life, as we too often do in our haste to “get through everything.”

I know every subject on the list above can be interesting (even if econ is my favorite). Unfortunately, our students will label them all “boring” if they have one bad experience. If we want our students to stay engaged, we can’t afford to let that happen.

What I wish I knew starting out

cropped-class-hand2.jpgThis weekend, I was asked: What do you wish you had known when you first started teaching economics?

Although there are plenty of economics concepts I wish I’d understood better back in 2002, like the relationship between bonds and interest rates, how to calculate terms of trade, what a liquidity trap is (I told kids it wasn’t a real thing!) and how to explain a monopoly graph, most of my responses were more about teaching strategies than content.

What do I wish I knew 20 years ago, when I was really new at this?

  • That you don’t have to have all the right answers. It’s so embarrassing as a new teacher when a student stumps you. But who among us knows everything? Just say, “I haven’t considered that. Let’s figure it out together.” Trusting students to be partners in learning is empowering to them, and it doesn’t have to make us nervous. (Now, I just ask someone to look it up in class.)
  • That you do need to figure out how to explain the wrong answers. How many times did I cling to my highlighted AP answer key, uncertain why some of the responses were wrong but ready to provide the right answer? It doesn’t help students to say, “C is right.” You do have to be able to help them to understand why A is wrong, or you’ll never get anywhere.
  • That understanding how students think about a problem is a prerequisite to helping them. We often assume we know why a student got a question wrong – not studying, forgetting a principle, confusing a vocabulary term. But sometimes they actually do everything right, and their logic leads them down the wrong path. Reiterating definitions to them will not help.
  • That students learn more from doing, experiencing and discussing than they do from listening. Students forget most of what we tell them. We need to give them a chance to work with concepts, build models, manipulate ideas, use terms in a meaningful context. That’s what makes learning sticky.
  • That we have to actively break students’ reliance on memorization, or they’ll rely on it for everything. We teach students to memorize everything from a young age, but memorization doesn’t work very well when you’re faced with challenging questions. On my last test, 70% of my students picked “recessionary gap” to describe a situation where an economy is operating above full employment, because it looked like a similar problem (about an inflationary gap) on their homework. They weren’t reasoning – they were trying to remember – and that strategy failed them.
  • That students are capable of a lot more than they let on. They’ll tell you they can’t do it even when they can. We need to be the ones who see a student’s potential, cultivate it, and help them see it too. I’ll never forget a brilliant young man telling me his older brother had once advised him, “Don’t let them see how smart you are, or they’ll just expect more!” We’ve got to break that pattern.

I don’t know if it’s possible to share advice like this with new teachers — or if everyone just has to figure it out for themselves — but it’s worth a try.


What makes history stick


When I was in high school, I found history pretty dull. We spent a lot of time listening to lectures, watching filmstrips, taking notes, and regurgitating facts onto tests.

Only a small fraction of our time was spent debating historical questions (should we have dropped the bomb?) or participating in simulations (like a constitutional convention) — and even less reading about topics of interest to us.

These are common complaints, I know, but it’s too bad. History can be fascinating, if we would get out of the way and stop insisting that what interests teachers (or textbook writers) must be what matters to everyone.

This weekend I was able to visit the Museum of the City of New York, and it made me think about how we can make history more engaging to kids — and what the barriers are. The biggest challenge is our reliance on multiple-choice testing, which forces us to focus on the trees instead of the forest.

Continue reading “What makes history stick”

Show kids the possibilities


Silver Falls State Park, the site of the wedding

Last weekend, I went to a former student’s wedding in Oregon. In high school, she was a journalism kid, a writer who was always interested in other people, especially the underdogs.

She wrote a particularly compelling editorial — after a school shooting in rural Minnesota — about the students at our school who survived on the fringes, who felt ignored and angry. It was powerful and upsetting to many, and it was really important to her.

I thought she would probably spend her life doing something like this — if not in journalism then in social work or law.

Fast-forward to now. This young woman works for Space-X, developing nutrition programs for astronauts. Her husband is an astrophysicist. I never saw that coming.

Now she is passionate about the universe, about exploration, about all of the mysteries of life here and elsewhere. And also, still, about writing.

Seeing her in this new light — literally, in this new world — brought two things to mind. One, we need to be careful about pigeonholing our students or ever assuming that we know what the future holds for them. Two, we need to figure out better ways to open students’ eyes to the myriad directions their lives can take.

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Are there good reasons to miss class?

No one likes it when students are out of class. Absenteeism is a big reason students fall behind (and fail), and it’s frustrating when students miss instruction, can’t grasp the material independently and then require our help outside of school hours.

But what about when they are absent for a “good reason”?

When I was a new teacher, I didn’t think there were good reasons, besides illness. When students were out for golf or skiing or this club or that club, and they returned asking, “Did I miss anything?” I wanted to scream. (Truancy, of course, was even more frustrating.)

But now, I’m sometimes the culprit. In the past week, I caused students to miss classes twice — once for the State Econ Challenge (last Wednesday) and once for the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics competition (last Friday).

Some of the same students also missed class last week for a robotics competition, and some will miss two days this week for a national journalism conference — and even more days for upcoming college admit weekends.

While I was sitting at the Boston airport with eight students waiting to fly home last night, I received emails from several other students, one of whom is missing an entire week for a school activity, and one of whom will be missing several days due to a death in the family.

I can’t really get angry anymore, especially when I’m sitting in another city with students I took out of class. Even so, I can’t help but feel that familiar frustration.

Continue reading “Are there good reasons to miss class?”

A perfect place to learn


Last week, I experienced the ideal learning environment.

For five days, I learned Spanish at an adult immersion program in Samara Beach, Costa Rica. The fresh air, the warm sun, the sound of the ocean, the small classes (just six students with an instructor), and the motivated students were all big factors — and ones we (sadly) cannot realistically replicate in our public high schools.

But there was much to this experience that we can replicate, and I’m going to try.

#1 – We didn’t talk about the growth mindset, but we lived it. I wish I could honestly report how many mistakes I made trying to speak Spanish, but I’m sure I didn’t even notice most of them. Confusing ser y estar, using preterite when I should have used imperfect, mixing up por y para — that was just the beginning. When we checked homework assignments, I discovered dozens of written errors, too. But somehow it was all OK. We just kept at it, kept practicing, kept getting better. I never felt dumb, embarrassed or slow. The profesora would smile, gently correct me, and keep going.

#2 – We had fun. I remember high school Spanish being fun, too, which is probably why I worked so hard at it. One day last week, we shared stories about our childhood best friends. (Mi amiga mejor era Annamarie.) Another day, we talked about learning to drive. We discussed favorite foods, favorite games, where we liked to go on vacation, what we did for fun on the weekends. It was often hard to come up with vocabulary words, but the stories were funny, and I got to know my classmates — four suizos (Swiss people) and one Brit — and my profesora very well in a short time.

#3 – We had no stress. This was partly thanks to Samara Beach, which is located in one of the world’s “blue zones” — places where people live extremely long and healthy lives. In that area, everyone talks about the “pura vida,” which basically means living the good life. You eat fresh fruit and fish, enjoy the animals (monkeys, sloths and exotic birds), breathe fresh air, spend time with your family and don’t get worked up about tests or GPAs or college admissions or anything, except maybe the Costa Rica v. Mexico futbol game on Friday night. But it was also due to the structure of the class. We ended with a test on Friday, but it was so little emphasized that I didn’t even know it was coming!

#4 – La profesora took her time. Although she explained our learning objectives every day and tried to keep to the schedule, she was always willing to spend extra time on an idea or concept we found difficult. When it was clear we weren’t getting preterite v. imperfect, she came up with a new game for us to play — we had to compose stories using an assortment of vocabulary cards. I never felt like we had to push on to the next thing.

I know I won’t be able to perfectly replicate even these four aspects of the perfect learning experience, but my goal for the rest of this semester is to help my students slow down, de-stress, relax about mistakes and enjoy what we’re doing.

Learning should be challenging, but it doesn’t have to feel like a rat race. Everybody should have the chance to learn, at least once, in an environment like Samara Beach.

Why err on the side of a noisy classroom


I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about my classroom management style. I know if many of my colleagues walked in during class — especially at the beginning — they would be appalled. It doesn’t look like I’m running a tight ship.

They would probably wonder: Why aren’t those kids in their seats when the bell rings? Why doesn’t she crack down on side conversations? Doesn’t that constant chatter bother her?

Here’s the secret: It does bother me, just not as much as it bothers other teachers.

And silence bothers me more.

Of course I want my students to listen and be respectful and make the most of our class time, but I think the costs of cracking down on normal social behavior are just too high, so I don’t do it. Instead, I tolerate some talking because I think in the end, most students learn more and enjoy learning more in this relaxed environment. I know I do.

Continue reading “Why err on the side of a noisy classroom”

Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated

tradeTeachers spend a lot of time trying to break down difficult concepts and make them easier for our students to digest, but what about when the truth is just complicated?

How can we combat the crisis of oversimplification in this country and get our kids to muddle around in complexity?

This weekend, I taught my last session of “Preparing to Teaching High School Economics” with a group of 10 Minnesota teachers who are new to econ this year. I decided to start the day by talking about trade, which basically feels like a four-letter word these days. (I wouldn’t blame them for skipping it altogether, though it would be a shame.)

I drew a simple supply and demand graph for them, showing the U.S. sugar market without any trade, then we opened the market and saw how lower world prices would affect both U.S. consumers (happy!!) and U.S. producers (very angry).

One by one, we worked through all of the implications. Who does trade help? Who is hurt? Why do the producers lobby their legislators, while consumers do not? How would a 20% tariff on Mexican imports affect American households?

Or what if you’re a low-cost country, like China, and trade means more exports rather than imports? How does that impact Chinese workers, who produce a lot of stuff (like toys, T-shirts and electronics parts) that they can’t afford to buy?

At the end of our discussion, one of the teachers asked: “So can we just leave it like that? Point out the good and the bad and not answer it for them?”

Continue reading “Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated”

‘Flush with funds’ sounds nice

My school district spends about $13,000/student each year. President Trump’s children went to private schools that cost $30,000-$50,000. Baron’s elementary school in New York charges $47,000 per student this year.

So I wonder what our president means when he says our public schools are “flush with funds”?

I wonder what it would be like to work someplace that was, actually, flush with funds.

Compared to schools in Arizona, which get about $7,000 per student, we are relatively flush here in Minnesota. My classes might be jammed with 35 kids each, but at least I have updated textbooks and pretty reliable technology (Smartboard, Wi-fi network, Chromebooks) — and although I have to buy some of my own supplies, I don’t have to pay for my own ink or copies.

Also, teachers are paid a liveable wage, if not enough to entice the top college grads. On average, Minnesota public school teachers get about $60,000 a year, which is close to median for a college-educated American. (Yeah, I know we get summers off, but most of us work about 60 hours a week in the school year, so it still comes out to about $25/hour pre-tax.)

Still, if our school district had three times as much money per student? (Maybe we could have federal vouchers that size?)

For one thing, we could cut those class sizes down to 15 kids. It’s not that I can’t teach 35 kids at a time — my students excel each year on the AP Micro, AP Macro and AP Psych tests — but it definitely limits how much writing and public speaking practice our kids get. 

We could also offer our kids a lot more support. Our high school does what it can to help struggling students, like scheduling a free hour once a week where they can meet with teachers, but mostly we rely on them to “get it.” Imagine having the time to individually tutor struggling students on a regular basis?

We could hire people to deal with more of the non-teaching duties, too, like making calls and fixing technology when it (inevitably) breaks down. I dream of having an assistant who could handle paperwork!

I’d also love to have funds to be able to buy new programs when I learn about them — like MobLab interactive simulation games for economics. Not an option on our budget.

Compared to a lot of public schools out there, we’re doing pretty well on $13,000/student. Both of my kids went to my public school, and they were quite well prepared for college.

But $47,000 per student — a sum our legislators would never agree to — sounds pretty amazing. Now that would be a school system flush with funds.

Ready? Yeah, right

First day of second semester, and I arrived at school feeling so ready.

First semester finals graded ✔

Moodle course site updated ✔

Chromebooks assigned ✔

Textbooks ready to check out ✔

Seating charts carefully designed and printed ✔

Lesson plans ready ✔

What could possibly go wrong?

If you’re a teacher, you know the answer. Anything can happen. I was at school at 6:30 a.m. for  7:25 class, and it took until 7:15 to get my computer working. It was cold or tired or something — I don’t know. The wheel kept spinning, programs were unresponsive, and I was working on Plan B — the low-tech version — until the computer decided to fire up just in time.

Then I read an email from a student who wasn’t sure how his first-semester grade added up, so I went in to double check the math and realized I had done made a mistake in the weighting scheme. I tried to fix it and messed up my whole first-semester grade book. That launched a parade of students who of course immediately checked their grades on their phones and wanted to know: What happened??

Note to self: Do not read email just before class.

Of course there were new adds to each class, so I had to figure out where to put them — we’re pretty much at capacity with 36 kids. The attendance system wouldn’t let me take attendance for first hour (still no idea why). And my new glasses, first ever “progressive lenses” (yes, bifocals) made everyone look just a little bit blurry and gave me a slight headache.

My perfectly smooth, well-planned morning turned out to be a constant barrage of questions, changes, modifications and quick fixes. Nothing went seriously wrong, nobody got hurt, but still it was draining. It took me another hour at home just to make sure the gradebook, attendance, seating charts and logins are all right now.

I hope I didn’t forget to tell them anything today. I hope they’ll be forgiving. I hope tomorrow goes better.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is why your teachers always look a bit haggard at the beginning of a new term.