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Successful Students & Effective Teachers

September 4, 2011

Effective Teachers

I want to share an activity I tried on the second day of class. I was a bit hesitant walking into it, since I didn’t really know what to expect from my students yet, nor did I know anything about their past math experiences. Now that it’s 3 weeks later, I’m glad I did this and that it turned out alright – I highly recommend it as something to do in the first week.

The goal: In an effort to establish classroom expectations and have students take ownership of these expectations, I want them to think about what makes someone a successful student. What are their habits? Attitudes? How can you tell? What do they do? And will you do that too, for me, this semester?

The hook: Instead of having them reflect on themselves, which can be a daunting task at the beginning of the semester, I instead asked them to think of at least one habit of an effective teacher. If you are in a class and learning something, what is something that teacher is doing? A few students commented that they had never had an effective teacher before, so I asked them: what are some things you wish a teacher would do?

After some reflection and writing: Each person shared with their neighbor (this is the second day, so one aspect of every activity we do is getting to know the people around you) and added what they wrote to their sheet of paper. Then I randomly picked a few people and asked them to share what their neighbor said (this is my favorite counter-balance to randomly picking from the crowd: the high-pressure situation of being put on the spot is being defused by the fact that you technically aren’t responsible for the answer – your partner is). We created a list on the board, we talked about it, opened it up for additional requirements, then had them reflect on the prompt I also cared about: habits of a successful student. Rinse and repeat: share with your neighbor, combine together as a group, discuss. We then spent the rest of the period discussing expectations, seguing into my syllabus and classroom policies, and killing time until the bell rang. At the end of the period, I collected all of their individual responses.

Next steps: Have you heard of Wordle? If not, I highly recommend you check it out. You paste text into the website and it will create random word clouds – all the words combined together into an ordered (or unordered) mess. One neat thing is that the program uses the frequency of the words to determine their size – the more times a word shows up, the bigger it will be. Stephen Colbert just did a great segment using this concept. I took each of the responses my students gave, tried not to change the original wording as much as possible yet make it possible to group similar responses as the same phrase, then plugged it into Wordle, giving me an immediate representation of the qualities my students find most important for effective teachers and successful students. The effective teacher Wordle is at the top of this page. The successful student one is below:

I have since printed these out on several sheets of paper (if I had a large-format printer, I would’ve used that) and hung them in my classroom – the effective teacher one above my desk and the successful student one above the door. I pointed this out to my students as soon as I did this and made the point that I want to remember what my obligations are to them, and I want them to remember what their obligations are to me. I also reminded them that these are their responses, not mine – I intend to live up to their obligations, and I expect them to live up to them too.

One of my favorite effective teacher responses: “Stands up more than he sits down”. Sad fact: more than one student gave this response.

  1. Nice. I think that makes my unofficial “effective uses of Wordle” count up to 3. I like what the students came up with for teachers, although I find the one for successful students a bit depressing. There’s a message of “Show up, follow orders and get it done.” Not to say that’s not a big part of success in my own class, I just wish it wasn’t the biggest (I like to think that it’s not the biggest but I can definitely see how students could make that inference). I do find it hopeful though that “Be born really smart” or something similar didn’t show up.

    • Jason – I agree about the one for students. I think there are a lot of factors as to the lack of depth – it may be the first time they’ve been asked a truly reflective question, it was only the second day of school with a new teacher, etc. I think it might be worthwhile to ask the question again at the end of the semester/year, after they’ve had some experience in my classroom, and see if the answers change.

      Your comment reminded me of a detail I forgot to mention: in one of my classes, a student raised his hand and asked if it was possible to be a successful student without having any of the qualities we had discussed (pay attention, do work, willing to learn, on time, etc). We discussed it and came to the conclusion that if we quantify ‘successful student’ as ‘gets an A in the class’, then yes – it is possible to be a ‘successful student’ without having any of these qualities (I shared a few stories about experiences in college classes that verified this experience). We also discussed how ‘successful student’ is relative and dependent on the particular class you’re in – the habits of an A student in one class may only be enough to get a C in another class.

      Then I changed the heading of the prompt: instead of successful student, what are the habits of a successful learner? Are they different? If so, how? Is one better than the other? This led to a great discussion about the ways in which we learn and monitor our own learning, and whether it was better to just get an ‘A’ in the class or better to really learn something. Maybe when I do this again next year, I’ll have this be a third prompt and see if I get some deeper answers from my students.

  2. I am definitely stealing this idea, especially the part about printing out in a large format as a classroom poster.

    MY PALTRY CONTRIBUTION TO THE DISCUSSION: You can print out at FedEx/Kinko’s on their large-format printer (24″ wide by however long you want it) for pretty cheap (like, maybe $5-7 for a poster-sized poster, i.e., 24″ X 36″). They give you a discount if you show them your teacher ID.

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

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