Best of the Best: Speed Debating in the ELA Classroom

If you want to see me plan a GREAT lesson, don’t come find me on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve deliberately set aside a chunk of time for some hardcore planning. I’ll be priming my brain with coffee, staring at my blank page of plans, and sitting so close to (but not actually opening) a stack of teacher books that they just might give me some plans via some weird form of osmosis…but I won’t be producing the creative, original ideas that every teacher craves.

Nope. Those bad boys have a mind of their own.

Instead, these ideas happen late at night, as I’m laying in bed, calculating the hours of sleep I’ll get (and consequently planning my next day’s nap), when I’m driving to the school in the morning, thinking of how “eh” my current plan sounds, halfway through the school day when I’ve already taught the lesson to half my classes and realize how lame it actually is, or sometimes even a whole unit later, when I get random inspiration and mentally file an amorphous idea in the “maybe next year” corner of my brain…the list goes on.

These spontaneous “ah-ha” moments have actually encouraged me to sometimes procrastinate  purposely wait until the last minute to really plan in an attempt to coax the creative genius out of its hiding spot. I’ll have one of those “eh” plans as a placeholder to alleviate the natural stress of truly not knowing what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks you’re going to do with over 100 children the next day. But then I’ll just sit back, relax, and play the waiting game. 

(Disclaimer: I am not necessarily advocating this method. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it weirdly works for me.)

Such was the case on Thursday night. I stayed after school to get organized and start planning for next week, even though I didn’t absolutely love my plans for the next day. I was actually gathering my things to leave for the night when I glanced up at my hot mess of desks, which had been mysteriously rearranged over Fall Break. (I had been too lazy to put them back in their original formation, and this week had been a free-for-all, with the kids sitting wherever they wanted). A few of the desks were in pairs, facing each other. Earlier during the day, I had remarked to the students in those face-off style desks that it looked like they were speed dating. It had been a simple joke that made them laugh and fake flirt for a few seconds, but now, the idea was rooting itself in my mind as a potential lesson plan.

Trying to capitalize on this still-abstract idea,  I quickly rearranged all of my desks in pairs facing each other. I had no concrete plan, but once my desks were rearranged, I had no choice but to sit down and actually map this madness out. I had taken the time to rearrange my entire room, so I couldn’t chicken out now. All I really had was “speed dating” and a new seating arrangement. 

Luckily, all it took was a pun (typical me) to set the idea in motion: speed debating. After all, we were learning about rhetorical appeals and devices and would soon be starting research for our formal debates.  I figured that my kids could “speed debate” with each other while using ethos, pathos, logos, and all of the rhetorical devices we had just reviewed. I whipped up over 20 different topics, some silly and some serious, and made them into little placards that could stand on each pair of desks. I created a student worksheet that required tracking of the appeals and devices, and then I worked out the logistics of the timing and rotations for the mini-debates. Then, I made a “Welcome to Speed Debating” sign that I could display on my projector as my students walked in. I even began to “decorate” each pair of desks with some cute Target Dollar spot tins I had around my classroom. Then, in standard If You Give a Mouse A Cookie fashion, I realized I needed to go to Target. (Stay tuned for If You Give a Teacher a Reason to go to Target in 2017). I needed approximately 3 more tins and something to put inside the tins, of course. I settled on candy for the tins. Although I’ve never done speed dating, I imagine there are refreshments, because food makes everything, including awkward dates, better, right? (Can someone quote me on this?) If nothing else, the candy would be some good old-fashioned bribery.  I was indeed a little worried about my quiet students who dislike talking to others, and my reluctant students, whose negative attitudes might not mesh with my interactive plan.

img_2090
This is what my classroom looked like before the “speed debating” began.

As it turned out, I didn’t even need to bribe my students. As soon as I began the timer for the first round of speed debates, I knew this random late-night lesson plan was “the one.” The lesson of my dreams. My little golden nugget. My new prized possession. It was the best of the best, the kind of lesson that makes you want to stand on a mountaintop and shout to your administrators, “COME OBSERVE ME, NOW!”

I am not exaggerating when I say that EVERY SINGLE STUDENT was engaged. It was one of those days when all I had to do was circulate throughout the room and “watch the magic happen.” As I walked around listening in on the debates, this is what I saw: the “quiet” kids coming out of their shells, animatedly speaking to their partners in ways that I had never witnessed before,  the “reluctant” students smiling and laughing, a clear violation of their typical “too cool for school” motto, the “talkers,” gesticulating wildly as they passionately argued their topics, and everyone in between, more engaged than I ever thought possible. (Check out this video on my Instagram if you don’t believe me: The Magic Happening!)

TRICKED YA! MADE YA LEARN! I thought to myself while sporting the maniacal teacher grin that naturally comes with making kids have so much fun that they forget they’re actually learning. (This is what we LIVE for, am I right?!)

img_2097It was so fun, in fact, that I am now unsure of how I can ever top that lesson. Was that my peak as a teacher? The climax of the semester?  Is it all downhill from here? What happens next?  How will I return to normalcy after the thrill of speed debating? I feel like a kid on December 26th: You mean I have to wait a whole YEAR for the magic to happen again?

I’ll be over here grappling with the post-perfect-lesson blues, but if you want to experience the same kind of exhilarating lesson, you can check out my complete resource here: Speed Debating: Engaging Activity to Practice Debate, Ethos, Pathos, & Logos. (It’s actually on sale for 20% today and tomorrow!) While you’re at it, you may want to check out what I call my second-best lesson, too: Rhetorical Devices in Songs: Engaging & Kinesthetic “Question Trail” Activity (It fits perfectly with Speed Debating and will also get EVERYONE up and moving and having fun).

In the meantime, I’m going to search for an idea that will somehow top my best lesson ever, by creeping on other teachers’ brilliant ideas in the Best of the Best Blog Hop! The Best of the Best Lessons by English Teachers Blog Hop!

You should too, especially if you like free money: Click here for a chance to win one of 3 $25 Teachers Pay Teachers gift cards!

unnamed

 

The Best First Day Ever: How I switched up my routines for an unforgettable first day of school

Planning for the first day of school is like planning a huge party. Except you’re inviting complete strangers. Oh, and they’re teenagers. 120 of them. And they probably don’t even want to come to this party. They’re being forced to attend.

So as the “hostess with the mostess,” you have to be charming, cordial, and cool–the life of the party.

Your challenge is to somehow trick your guests into enjoying this grand event that they already think is incredibly lame. Your organization better be perfect, your decorations better be beautiful, your smile better be welcoming, and your first impression better be ABSOLUTELY IMPECCABLE. If you don’t show your guests that you know you know how to throw a real party, you’ll lose them.

But no pressure.

Okay, so maybe I’m a bit of a dramatic perfectionist, but the first day of school absolutely freaks me out. Planning for it is worse than preparing a perfectly packaged lesson for an evaluation that determines if I score a raise. I’m pretty sure I spent the last month of summer just agonizing over that first day. It’s not that I was dreading it; it’s that I was so freakishly excited about it that I just desperately wanted it to be perfect. Going into year 3, I was determined to personally prove the old “third time’s a charm” adage and set the tone for the best year yet.

To do this, I wanted to do something memorable, engaging, and unique on the first day back. I didn’t want to pass out a syllabus and review my expectations. Sure, it’s necessary, but it’s BO-RING. (I’d save that for the second day). I also didn’t feel like “showing them I mean business” by teaching a lesson and being that teacher who gives out homework  on the first day. (I do mean business, but it’s just not my style. If you’re that teacher, power to you. I’m sure this establishes high expectations, and that’s great.) And I just really didn’t feel like doing what I had done the previous two years, which was introduce myself with the old “Get to Know Miss G” PowerPoint and then play an icebreaker to get to know everyone. It was great for the kiddos to get to know me as a human being AND a teacher, which I believe is essential to a successful year.  But, a PowerPoint, really? Lame! I could do better than that.

As summer drew to a close and the first day crept into view, I began panicking. I still didn’t have a plan. Maybe I couldn’t do better. I could just settle on the PowerPoint–give it a little makeover and call it a day. My students wouldn’t know any better, and there was always next year to be the extraordinary teacher I wanted to be.

You probably think this narrative is about to climax with an empowering moment: After drought of creativity, discouraged teacher restores faith in herself by giving birth to genius idea!

Although I wish it was, it’s not. This is not fiction. This is reality. It’s 2016 and I am a teacher. I STEAL IDEAS! Take them hostage, if you will. I torture these ideas and make them MINE. I use them and abuse them. By the end, they are not as they once were.

 

IMG_9600
Me, hunting for teaching ideas.

 

So I set out to hunt and gather some ideas from brilliant, seasoned educators who had more first days under their belts. Naturally, I searched on Google and Teachers Pay Teachers.  I crept through my teacher Instagram and scrolled through Pinterest. I got sucked into searching for the perfect idea from behind a screen when little did I know, my inspiration was waiting for me within the bound pages of an actual paper book:  Larry Weinstein’s Writing at the Threshold.

In this little gem of a resource, Weinstein describes how students “size you up” and process their first impressions of you and your class on the very first day.  From the second they walk in the door, students are processing details–their observations–and forming hypotheses about what your class will be like. Weinstein suggests asking the students to discuss and explain these hypotheses before passing out the syllabus. “Exploit the situation,” he writes (5).

So exploit the situation I did. Well, actually I decided to exploit myself. In the past, I had lamely told my students all about myself so they could get to know me. What a rookie mistake! What good author just straight up TELLS the readers everything? I needed to channel my inner Fitzgerald. (After all, I was throwing a party.) I could go all mysterious Gatsby on them. My student would have to read ME like a book. I wouldn’t tell ‘em a single thing! HA!

This was perfect, because I had just gone on a wild decorating spree, and as I looked around my classroom, I saw bits and pieces of my weird personality in every nook and cranny. They could “investigate” all of the “evidence” around the room in an attempt to get to know their “suspect” (me)! After all, the students would be practicing the very kind of critical thinking we do in English class. They would be analyzing evidence, coming to logical conclusions based on this evidence, and then expressing their interpretations through writing and discussion.

Part of me was anxious that it might flop. Would my juniors think it was lame? Would they take it too literally? Would they refuse to get out of their seats and investigate my room? Would they just stereotype and form incorrect first impressions? Would they sit there mute, looking at me like I was an alien, when I asked them to share their thoughts?

Sure, it could flop. Anything could! But in my experience, that “flop feeling” foreshadows one of two extremes: I was either going to fail magnificently or just absolutely knock it out of the park.

Fortunately for me, it was the latter, but not without some great plot twists. About 5 minutes into the activity, I haphazardly shouted, “Y’all can go through all my cabinets and drawers!” without really thinking about it. The kids were hesitant at first, but I encouraged them to “creep on my stuff” as thoroughly as possible.

Once the cabinets and drawers were fair game, things escalated quickly as I forgot all of the weird items I had stuffed up in there…

-Crusty wigs (from when the football players donned cheerleading uniforms for the most ridiculous pep session stunt ever)

  • Fake handcuffs (for acting out “The Crucible,” of course)
  • A creepy doll (also for “The Crucible;” it’s the infamous poppet)
  • Toilet paper (from a pep session game)
  • Fake eyeballs (another pep session leftover)
  • Dozens of blankets (awaiting delivery to Riley Hospital)

Oh, and I might mention that I have some odd trap door underneath my desk. I’ve never opened it, but it’s rumored to be dark, creepy, and full of spiders. (Occasionally, I’ll put my ear to the floor and say, “Hey, are ya thirsty down there?” to convince the kids that it’s where I keep the students who plagiarize.)

I also apparently had receipts for duct tape in my cabinets. My students meticulously item-analyzed all of these like true investigators. Most receipts detailed school supplies and books, but the duct tape was a “red flag,” according to my kiddos. So naturally they assumed that I was a serial killer who used duct tape and blankets on my victims before throwing them into the weird crawl space under my desk.

But despite the fact that the leading theory implicated me in murders, this activity made for the best first day I’ve ever had. My students were critically thinking and collaborating. They were active and engaged. They were smiling and laughing. I had successfully tricked them into a little bit of lowkey learning on the party that is the first day of school!

I also learned a lot about myself. Apparently, I am…

  • “A shopping alcoholic” (she meant “shopaholic;” HAHA)
  • “Expensive” (based upon the receipts)
  • “From Kentucky” (I truly cannot explain this one…)
  • “From Kansas” (or this one…)
  • “Very organized” (Homegirl needs to see my house and then get back to me on this one.)
  • ”Cold-hearted” (this was a metaphorical interpretation of the many blankets)

Despite a few wild cards and the murder theory, the inferences were spot on. Many of the responses described me as happy, positive, creative, geeky, and weird. They noted by Starbucks addiction (“drinks too much coffee”),  my #MERICA patriotism (“would probably die for her country”), my ridiculous stacks of newspapers (“Hoarder? No offense”), and “Been there, pun that” bulletin board (“may or may not have a good sense of humor…”). They also realized that I “work hard,” “work too much,” and “love school.” Guilty as charged, children!

After reading through all of their responses, I realized that I am an open book. But that’s okay, because I don’t want to be that mysterious or tough teacher who doesn’t smile until Christmas. I just want to be me.*

 

FullSizeRender (2)
*Apparently “me” comes with the cost of being a murder suspect. Weeks later, my kiddos are STILL begging me to open that weird trap door.

 

 

On “this whole teaching thing”

Once upon a lesson, I was teaching my little heart out. It was one of those “don’t kill my vibe” lessons when I was on a roll and just couldn’t stop. My students appeared to be listening with rapt attention, so either they were actually learning or just fixated on the crazy look in my eyes that naturally happens when I’m teaching the literary structure of The Great Gatsby (#YouDecide). As Beyonce would say, I was feeling myself up in E104, and I mean that in the most pedagogical way possible.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot of things, actually. But on this day it was the sly, gradual hand raise with an accompanying smirk, which usually means the dreaded “irrelevant question” that derails the class by eliciting awkward silence, laughter, or general shenanigans.

Even when I suspect a question is irrelevant, I often can’t resist giving the kid the floor. What if it IS relevant? What if I squash a learning opportunity? What if I shoot a question down and the kid never asks one again? These questions would linger in my weird teacher mind forever.

So I gave the kiddo a chance, but not without prefacing my response with a dose of healthy sass: “Is this a relevant question?”

He paused–usually not a good sign. Cue my signature “C’mon, bro, if you have to think about it, it’s probably not a good idea” look.

Finally, the student said “Kinda?” with a look of slight confusion on his face. Well, what the heck. My vibe was already on pause. I could take it. And who knows? Maybe this would be one of those old-fashioned light bulb moments. A teacher can dream, right?

Even though I was wishing for a light bulb, I braced myself for pure ridiculousness.(When you teach high school, you have to be a realist.) So I was surprised when the question was actually neither. In fact, it was almost as if a random, irrelevant question and the most intriguing, intelligent inquiry had a baby…

“So, when are you going to stop being so enthusiastic? Like when will you not love this whole teaching thing so much?” he innocently asked.

(Context: This was coming from a very sweet kiddo. He was not rude–not trying to disrespect me, mock my enthusiasm, ruin my lesson, or anything of the sort. He was honestly curious, as if he thought all teachers eventually slowed down, burnt out, and eventually powered off when the gig got too rough. Wait–did I just describe retirement? I’ll get back to you on that in about 40+ years…)

I was tempted to launch into an impassioned, “NEVER! I’LL NEVER STOP!” rant as I often do when my kiddos tell me to “chill.” But I knew this was not the time to “act a fool” like I normally do. This was serious. This kid had dropped a bomb. CODE RED: Initiate response!

25 sets of eyes stared back at me as I mentally paused my actual lesson plan and prepared to unleash the big dogs: the life lessons.

But how do you respond to a question like that? The question was playful to him, but it couldn’t have been more serious to me and my fellow teachers in the trenches. To understand the threatening truth behind his innocent question, one just has to look at the alarming teacher turnover rates and the current teacher shortage plaguing our nation. Teachers do burn out and stop loving this whole teaching thing sometimes. I couldn’t ignore this unfortunate fact implied in my student’s question. I knew I had to address it.

So I began how I always do when I am about to drop an impromptu life lesson: “Let me tell you something children.” This is a phrase that makes me feel old and wise, as if I am FDR about to begin a fireside chat. And trust me, you need to do things to make yourself feel older and wiser when you are 24 but look more like the age of your students

And so the rest of my monologue went a little something like this…

I absolutely LOVE this whole teaching thing. I want to stay between E104’s 4 windowless, cell phone service-less walls forever. I get to wake up every morning and head to a place that I love, where I get to do what I love, while surrounded by people who I love. (These people love me back…most days…I’m looking at you, students!) I’m only 24, but  I’ve already found my “happy place” and my purpose in life. I was quite literally BORN to teach. I often find myself smiling and thinking “Is this real life?” when I remember that I get paid to do this every single day. I get to make a fool of myself, teach cool things, and trick kiddos into learning. My favorite catch phrase is “HAHA! TRICKED YA! MADE YA LEARN!” Basically, I get paid to be so absolutely ridiculous that I somehow orchestrate learning. I like to think that I am a professional weirdo. (I may have to get business cards emblazoned with this title, now that I think of it.)

I’m equally obsessed with what I teach. Sure, I may be “over-the-top,” “too cheesy,” or “too enthusiastic,” but I embrace my nerdiness. I warn my students on the very first day of school that I am THAT crazy English teacher lady. I have the perfect lineup of classes: American literature, journalism, and newspaper. I get to teach the way in which American literature reflects history and culture, the way freedom of the press facilitates a true democracy, and the way words can change the world. But I am not just teaching a curriculum or a set of standards. I am empowering my students by helping them find a voice through writing. I am helping my students build empathy through the literature we read and discuss. I am improving my students’ ability to critically think and problem-solve, skills that last a lifetime and encompass all careers. I am preparing students to be productive, contributing members of society. I am imparting invaluable life lessons and spreading kindness. I have the power to change over 100,000 lives, if I teach/interact with approximately 300 kiddos each year for a 40-year span. When you think about how many lives my students will then change when they leave my classroom and enter the crazy “real world,” the impact is exponential. This whole teaching thing can really make the world a better place. I am a firm believer in one person’s ability to influence the world. Maybe that sounds a bit whimsical, but that’s just me. If nothing else, I am making that many people smile throughout the course of my lifetime. That’s good enough for me.

There is nothing else I would rather do.  I always joke about how I’ll teach until the day I keel over and die, but I seriously cannot fathom doing anything else. I realize this may sound naive to some. I am only 2 years in, so I certainly don’t have the perspective of a seasoned, experienced teacher who has witnessed the ever-changing reform measures, loss of control in the classroom, onslaught of standardized testing, and increasing demands without compensation. Sure, some of my energy and positivity toward the profession can be attributed to my youth and lack of experience. But most of it stems from the fact that I am a die-hard, try-hard teacher who loves what she does. I couldn’t survive the stress of this profession if I wasn’t 100% in love with it. Teaching has got to be a nightmare for anyone who doesn’t absolutely love it. Even I have days when the bell rings and I flop my head down on my desk in defeat, sighing and thinking, “I know why teachers quit.” The stress alone could drive a teacher to leave the profession, but the lack of respect and appreciation from society is just the icing on the cake. It’s easy to see how a great teacher could gradually lose enthusiasm and not love this whole teaching thing so much, as my student acknowledged in his innocent question.

I can empathize with these burnt out teachers. I can even empathize with teachers who leave the profession altogether. But I refuse to become one of them. Still, I do not blame or judge these teachers. I’ve felt their frustration–maybe just a fraction of it, but the struggle is the same. This frustration is exactly what I will fight as I grow older and log more years in the classroom. If I am not actively combating teacher burnout, it could easily sneak up on me. (I’m currently composing a personal burnout prevention plan, so stay tuned.) Occasionally, I worry I may be fighting the inevitable, but then I think of teachers who have beat the burnout…the ones who are still smiling every single day, even though they’ve been in one of the most stressful, tumultuous professions for thirty-plus years. I know these teachers–I sat in their classrooms and now I see them down the halls. These teachers are society’s real superheroes, and I can only hope I am one of them someday.

 

Stay gold,
Miss G