Beware the November Dip

The November Dip is an annual occurrence in the northern hemisphere school year where teachers start to lose motivation before the big holiday at the new year. November is physically hard for most people in the north. You go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. The daylight hours, such as they are, are brief and shrouded with clouds.

For teachers, the high enthusiasm of year planning in early September has started to run dry. The new year seems like an age away, even as the shops play holiday songs on repeat. The students are tired, the teachers are tired. It’s a tough month. But if you know what’s coming you can prepare:

  1. Get your lesson plans in order before November. If you make a medium-to-long term plan until the end of term, you can fall back on it when your energy starts to flag.
  2. Invest in box sets or streaming subscriptions for yourself. You are going to need entertainment when the evenings draw in.
  3. Have a day off. Once a week, do nothing for school. If you’re feeling adventurous, unplug completely from technology to give your head some space.
  4. Teach your students self-reliance and independence when you have the energy at the start of the year so that they can take over some of the legwork later! One of my greatest teaching moments was when a child walked towards me, then turned left, picked up a dictionary, said “OH!” and sat back down again. It seems like nothing but I had done a lot of scaffolding for that moment to occur.
  5. Be prepared to give your students a break too! Have lessons in November that are relaxing for learners. For example, students like to make their own e-books, videos or design their dream ‘x’. These lessons are relaxing because students can set their own pace and work on things they find most interesting.
  6. Consider having some instructional videos that students can watch outside of class/during class if they need you to explain something again. This saves your voice and has the bonus of a pause/rewind button for students who are probably finding it just as hard to keep focused in November.

(First published on the ClassDojo Thought Partner blog)

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Last Lesson of the Day Survival Guide

If you have a class on the last lesson of a day, especially towards the end of the week, your plans need to be extra flexible.

At that time of the day, students are tired and are often ‘coming down’ from the sugar rush of lunch. I found out at teacher training, if I had potatoes at lunch I had zero desire to do card sorts.

Of course you do not want to ruin your relationship with this class, especially if you only see them twice a week or so. Have as little in the lesson where they have to listen to you as possible. The time to work on their attention span is practically any other period in the week! If you must lecture them, for them to be able to access your lesson plan and you only see them at the end of a school day, consider filming that part of your teaching beforehand so they can watch it for homework the night before.

There are two possible ways you can go with your group: you can do something active and high energy or you can do something a bit more passive and comforting.

Active and high energy lessons usually (but not always) require students to be out of their seats. They could role play or mime concepts. They can do big puzzles in groups. They can move around the classroom to vote with their feet during a debate. If you want them to stay seated much of the lesson, you can ask them to prepare to teach their peers on a topic, then have them ‘exchange lessons’ at the end.

Sometimes, and you will be able to tell from their body language, they need a break from all that and need something more quiet to do.

These are the times you can give them book work activities. They can do exercises, they can convert text into diagrams (or vice versa), they can read the textbook to each other and paraphrase the paragraph. You can also give them other quiet activities, like making infographics for display, making charts or graphs; or writing. Be prepared to circle the classroom the entire lesson, to keep up their motivation. Have a couple of activities that take a couple of minutes to break up the lesson into chunks.

At the end, have some sort of a game that reinforces your lesson objectives. Bingo works well if you haven’t got many resources, as do group quizzes. You can also make games online for students to play if they have tablets or laptops. This is to make sure the lesson doesn’t fizzle out with everyone just staring at the clock.

Baby-steps with OneNote

At the start of the year, I dabbled with a few tools to see if I could improve what goes on in the classroom (and outside of it).

The keepers from this experiment were:-

  • Nearpod
  • Planboard

and

  • OneNote

I will blog about the first two another time.

OneNote is one of those ‘where have you been all my life’ sort of applications. A year ago (or so), when I first tinkered with it, it was just a word processor with tabs for different sections and pages. This year, loads of new functions have popped up.

Now I can set up notebooks for my colleagues so we can collaborate on tasks. I used it for a professional development session earlier last month and it was really great for keeping everything together.

But! More powerfully, you can also use it with students. There are three main areas you can set up:

  1. the content area, somewhere you can leave handouts and rubrics
  2. the collaboration area, somewhere that students can work together on assignments
  3. the student notebook area, somewhere that students can work on their assignments where only the teacher can see.

At the moment, it is very much a baby-steps sort of deal. I have set up a few classes and have made some sections. I am most excited about the prospect not having to print out a bunch of tests and find lined paper from somewhere: I can upload the test and the students can copy it to their notebook and work on it there.

If I can go paper-free with this application, it will be worth the effort I am putting in now. I am so sick of having to go to the photocopier room and then having to do something with the spares that inevitably hang around after the task is over.

There have been some snags and these aren’t in my control.

Firstly, the person assigned to putting students onto Office 365 just didn’t do it. I don’t know what went wrong and it’s really not the point. When the student arrived in August, they could not access Office365 at all. Some heroic other members of staff have been pushing to get everyone on and now they are ready. But a couple of months in means that the provisional routines we had to invent as teachers to get us through the SNAFU are now The Routines of our classes. That’s just how it works. I will have to do a big push to get everyone on the same page and I need to be tactical about when that should be.

Secondly, the school has changed from being 1:1 with tablets to being BYOD (bring your own device). A lot of students cannot afford devices and it’s not like we can force them. We can just strongly recommend they get one. We have a few school laptops but only just got a system for booking them. Bottom line: if more than a couple of students do not have devices, then Plan B becomes Plan A very quickly.

Thirdly, our wifi has been really patchy. There are boring reasons for that but it does mean that you have to go back to chalk and talk if no one in your classroom can access the internet.

Those are the challenges. They are irritating and some of them do not have workarounds but I think the bright side is that they are time limited.

My plan is:-

  • upload content for the next unit on to the notebooks I have set up
  • plan some interactive pages for each week of the new units
  • plan the collaborative tasks in more detail
  • model using the notebooks with classes
  • setting homework on notebooks, so they are more comfortable using it

Contingency Plans:-

  • If students don’t log on so much: keep modelling on the whiteboard
  • If technology lets us down: have some Plan B’s ready
  • If students do not bring devices: make sure I have booked the spare laptops on days where students need to collaborate

I will know if it is worth continuing if:-

  • I need to print out almost nothing for these groups
  • Students submit all or most of their assignments through the notebook
  • Incidents of “I cannot do my project because X isn’t here!!!” drop to zero
  • Students engage (and interact) with the feedback on their assignments

I am excited to find out if:-

  • There are tasks that I can devise that could not be done without OneNote, so it is more than just a replacement for a 3-hole binder.
  • Whether spoken feedback and other audio embeds make a difference to learning

Scaffolding with Open-ended Projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

That process of learning how to manage time and own behaviour is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice on the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the Big Date. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.

(Published first on ClassDojo’s Thought Partners blog)