Teaching Like a Virus: Making Meaningful Change Contagious

Viruses?! EEK! That doesn’t sound good! That is… Unless it’s a virus in education! WHAT?! Yes… a virus in education.

That’s what a small group of teachers from Boulder, Colorado are trying to spread throughout their school building, into schools throughout Colorado, throughout schools in America, and hopefully, in schools throughout the world! Each teacher took his or her time describing their personal teaching experiences and how they became “infected” with the “virus.”

First of all, how catchy! And look, even I remembered it. ūüôā Sweet!

Here are a few notes I wrote down about the virus.

1. Viruses always start small.

2. It takes close contact to catch and spread a virus.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Talk to people! And don’t forget about your social media connection!

3. The sources of Infection are…. (drum roll)… RELATIONSHIPS!

       Again, talk! Be friends! Listen to people and build trusting relationships! 

4. Having an empty chair is POWERFUL!!

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Wow, I never thought of this. One of these teachers mentioned that they have an empty chair in their office. They find that by having an empty chair in your office, you are inviting people (staff and students) to come and sit in it. TADA! Brilliant. Think about it, you walk into a classroom and there is a magical chair (cue hallelujah chorus). What do you do? You SIT! But you don’t just sit… you talk! What?! Yes, you talk.¬†Then the teacher talks. Then you talk. This is called a conversation, and it’s when¬†sincere relationships are formed.

So teachers, get an empty chair. DO IT! 

5. “Do” literature, don’t just teach it.

6. Instead of Answering right, Ask right!

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† We aren’t here to answer the questions of students. We are here to teach students how to answer their own questions. We need to ask the right questions. Thinking about our special methods class this semester, I realize so much thinking came when Dr. Ellington would ask us the right questions!

7. Create a salad club.

      This group of people set aside a time to meet and discuss issues in their classrooms. They do this over salad. Okay, salad aside,it is important to set aside a time to meet with coworkers and talk.

8. People are so focused on “academic” writing that we forget it’s supposed to be FUN!

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†Remember when writing was fun? Me neither. Let’s change that.


       Nobody ever became infected by getting immunity shots and drinking 20 packets of Emergen-C. Remember that.

10. The virus is sneaky.

11. Give them a voice!

        Do I even need to elaborate?

12. Say YES to your students!

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† About everything! How, where, why, what, and even WHEN they want to learn. One of these teachers even shared that they have some optional class time. Whoa…. Let’s think about that for awhile…

13. Infect parents!

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Parents are here to help.¬† They don’t have to be so scary! Don’t dread parent/teacher conferences, use it! One of these teachers even gives her students parents homework! Haha! Now mom and dad will understand us! Yes, yes they will.

14. Teachers + Administrators = Unity

         Use your administrators! You might have to infect them first, but they really are there to help, and they can be your most useful tool.

15. You support students by getting out of the way!

        So MOVE!



Forgive me for not remembering ANY of the titles of the sessions I attended at NCTE. Of course, I wouldn’t even think to title my notes. I knew that would bite me in the butt.

I attended a session on Saturday morning. I think it was called “Color-Coded.” There were three speakers, but the only one that really stuck out to me was the third speaker. She was young and bubbly and super pumped about her “color-coding” technique.

The first thing I have in my notes is a huge picture of the word “RED” with a huge dash through it. In this session, I learned that using a pen with red ink turns teachers into dictators. Studies have shown that when a teacher uses the color red when grading a paper, they have a tendency to mark the crap out of that poor students paper. An experiment comparing how much marking a teacher does with a red pen compared to how much marking one with a blue, black, or purple pen does. The same experiment was done with students. Ninth graders were asked to grade eighth graders papers. Half of the students were given red pens, while the other half were given purple pens. Sure enough, the students with red pens covered the poor, trembling eighth graders papers.

What is it about a red pen that makes us want to see our own marks and ink covering somebody else’s work? Does it make us feel powerful? Does it make us feel superior? Maybe it’s because we were all products of the factory where the only color of pen our teachers had in the cup on their desks… was red. Thinking back into my days at Leyton Public Schools, there is only one color I can think of when envisioning a graded paper… red. We have been trained to think that when we have a red pen in our hands we are supposed to correct correct correct, fix fix fix.


Okay, so now that we know a red pen is a no-no. I can share a little bit about this particular speakers color-coding method of paper writing.

I believe this particular teacher was a teacher of an elementary class. I’m not sure this method would work out as well with a secondary level¬†class. When writing a paper, each of her students is required to have five colors of highlighter in their hands.¬†Upon completion of each paragraph, students are instructed to high the thesis, topic sentences, evidence,¬†commentary, and conclusion¬†in different colors. This is how their papers “come to life.” This way they can clearly see if each paragraph has all the elements it needs to be a strong paragraph on its own and transition smoothly into the next paragraph. The speaker mentioned that this is how she “makes writing fun.” It changes the message for the student into “I need a blue” as opposed to¬†¬†“I need a conclusion.” It makes the writing process more fun and easy to deal with. It also breaks it down and makes the paper more appealing to the eye.

The twitter account for these speakers or maybe just the last speaker (I’m not really sure because I take horrible notes), is @HHSCoyle

Kelly Gallagher is pretty cool :)

Once again, my notes are CRAZY! Let me just type up a couple things I jotted down.

1. Students need to see the finish line before they can begin.

2. Give a purpose for reading.

3. Identify the “betterness” of a draft.

4. Intentional fragments are okay!

5. Feedback has to be at the right time!

6. If it’s important, you have to create class time.

7. They have to write to a bigger audience than just the teacher.

8. Feedback too late is worthless.

9. Feedback is most rewarding when it comes from the student.

Okay, now that we’ve all gotten a quick overview of Kelly. Let’s dissect him. Not like that. But that’s quite the visual.

Why do we assume students can achieve perfection when they have never seen what it is they are trying to accomplish? For the fist time in my college career, I was in a class (Mrs. Moeller’s Differentiated Instruction class) where examples of A+ papers were given as a resource to every assignment. “FINALLY I know what I’m supposed to be doing!” I felt. I felt this way because I had a goal and a clear visual of the finish line. Kelly Gallagher had 30ish minutes to talk to us. In this small amount of time, he felt the need to translate how important it is to show students the finish line before they start the race. Students need to try to match an example of success. This is how we set high standards for them. If they have nothing to work towards, nothing to aim for, they will fall short almost every time.

Kelly also wanted to emphasize to us how extremely important feedback is. Did you know we have to give it in the right way and at the right time?! Who knew feedback was so complicated! Gallagher shared with us his opinion on the necessity of giving feedback at the right time. You don’t want to give it when the student is feeling high and mighty because he finally finished a paper on time. If the feedback is about possible improvement, what better way to tell that student that no matter how hard he or she tries, they will never be good enough and can always do better. Furthermore, if the feedback is too late, it is worthless. The student has already moved on from the assignment. It’s old news. No one cares about old news!

So then we come to intended fragments… WHAT?! You mean, using poor grammar on purpose is OKAY?! Since when? Since fragments started being the “betterness” of a story. Kelly gave us two examples of his writing, a first draft, and a second. He had us circle the “betterness” of the two. When it came down to it, it was almost unanimous that what we felt to be the most interesting part of his writing, was where there was intentional fragmenting. Apparently, as long as you understand the rules, you can break them.

I wonder what other rules we can break as long as we know we are breaking them… >:)

It’s funny. Just over Thanksgiving break I had a discussion with my aunt who is an English teacher. She started talking about how she substituted for a class and the assigned book had horrible grammar. She thought this was just preposterous. I couldn’t help but think back to Kelly’s words. “Intentional fragmenting is okay! It’s the betterness!” So, I had to share the good news with her. ūüôā

This entry was posted on December 3, 2013. 1 Comment

Sam’s “Pull the Trigger”

Okay, so my notes from NCTE are a disaster. Looking through them, I find myself wondering, “What the heck was I trying to remember?” a little too often. As I’m reading through my notes, I find myself thinking about the things I felt the need to tweet about the conference.¬†A highlight moment jumps out at me as I recall that THE Penny Kittle, favorited one of my tweets. This tweet read, “@pennykittle please tell Same that his first draft of “pull the trigger” gave me shivers and made me tear. His development is inspiring!

Then I saw the words… “Penny Kittle favorited your tweet.”

What?! MY tweet?! Saaawwweeeeet!

But what really got me, was that out of all the tweets she probably received, she favorited mine. Why? Then I realized that in Penny’s eyes, it’s not about how famous she is for her book “Write Beside Them” and it’s not about her being asked to speak at the NCTE conference or being a reference for educators nation and even worldwide…. it’s about Sam. Everything we do as educators, is for Sam. It’s why we put so much time and effort into our lessons. It’s why we are so motivated to get out there

The underdog.

The student who, to the world, is a below average writer.

Sam’s story “Pull the Trigger” makes you question whether or not there IS lower level writers. Did his story seem “Lower Level” to any of you? It sure didn’t to me, and I can honestly say that hearing Penny read Sam’s words, the words of a below average student, was the first time I felt like I truly wanted to be an English teacher.
All Sam needed, was somebody to give him the choice. The choice of how to write and the choice of what to write. His whole life, he had been considered a lower level writer. Why? Because nobody gave him control of his own learning. I want to give students the reigns. Their own reigns. To go where they want to go because they want to go there. Not because they are forced to.

I started thinking about it and I soon realized that it’s not just the English department that needs help when it comes to writing. How many research papers have we all had to force on the blank sheets of a paper.
“Word vomit, word vomit, source, word vomit, citation, fancy words no one understanding, due to findings in source, bla, bla, main point, key phrase, bibliography, THANK GOD I’m DONE!”

Does that seem like it would produce good writing to any of you? It sure doesn’t to me, and we’ve all been there.

Change needs to be made throughout the entire school building. I think this movement in English departments nation wide can be taken to the Social Studies classroom! and the math room! (I don’t exactly know how, but I’m sure it’s possible, even for math :)) Let’s not focus on changing English, let’s change EDUCATION!

This entry was posted on December 3, 2013. 1 Comment

But Why?!???????

Answering the question “why” may be the key in triggering an unmotivated students effort. Mendler writes in his book Motivating Students Who Don’t Care that people respond more to requests when they are given a reason why they should do so. On page 19 of his book he describes the experiment done by social psychologist Ellen Langer in 1989 about a woman who asked a certain number of individuals if she could use the Xerox machine. When she gave a reason why she needed the machine she has a much higher response percentage than when she did not provide a reason.

It is often times quite challenging for students to understand why teachers ask them to do some of the assignment we do. In consistency with the experiment, it seems that more students will put forth effective effort if they are given a reason to complete the assignment. This reason will have to rewards them either intrinsically or extrinsically depending on the student. When a student fails to see a purpose for an assignment, they see that their time would be wasted by working on it. They see that by doing something else that they enjoy or that they can see and understand the reward of, they will be bettering themselves much more than if the do the assignment without a purpose.

It is our job to show students the¬†benefits of each and every assignment. They need to understand that everything we force them to do is truly for their own good. If we cannot see the usefulness in what we are assigning, or if¬†students don’t see that¬†an assignment is as important as we think it¬†is, we may need to take a step back and make sure that what we assign is really worth their time.

Let’s just be thankful that we aren’t math teachers. ūüôā¬†

Show Simple Courtesy

This past week, I traveled to Grand Island to watch my younger sister play volleyball in the state tournament. Unfortunately, her team lost in three sets (it wasn’t very pretty.) Even though the other team outplayed us, I can’t help but think that the reaction of our crowd did not only dampen the team’s excitement, but it actually brought them down. After our girls lost the first set, the crowd seemed to give up on them. They would no longer go out of their way to holler encouraging words to the players. Nobody would stand when the cheerleaders commanded it and they seemed all but interested in the game. This was disheartening to see. Remembering what it was like when I played volleyball and how it felt when the crowd would give up on us was painful. I could read it on their faces that they wanted encouragement. They would even look into the crowd at times in hopes of seeing a proud smile or fancy sign with their name and number on it…. They saw nothing. And they failed. Not only did they lose, but they played far below their potential. The crowd showed them that they had no faith in them, so they lost faith in themselves.

I can’t help but compare this to the classroom. Mendler tells his readers that we, as teachers, need to show simple courtesy. Giving feedback promptly, giving a compliment every time you give an improvement suggestion, smiling, and getting excited about student achievement are all ways we can show simple courtesy. Take a moment to think about times when somebody has said or done something to make you feel good about yourself. How much more confidence did you have after that? Did your work ethic improve? Even for a few minutes? If we make sure to show students simple courtesy by praising their efforts and strengths, they will see their own potential. This is our number one calling as a teacher. If we can show students that they are the source of their own success and that they have all the tools they need to achieve any goal they desire in their head and chest, we will be successful educators.

And it all starts with a little courtesy.

Grading Effort

Mendler suggests to us in his book Motivating Students Who Don’t Care that we give students more than one grade per assignment. He suggests giving a grade for the product and a grade for the effort.

I REALLY like this idea. In my opinion, this seems like a great way to differentiate instruction!!! For the student who struggles but tries, their grade can be greatly improved by the amount of effort they put forth. This will encourage them to always try the hardest because it really does pay off. For the student who breezes right on through school while pulling an easy 4.0, the effort grade could encourage them to push themselves even more. It also could bring down their easy A’s which could encourage the students that struggle more. It puts more value on the student and their individual effort than on the material.

After all, learning is about the STUDENTS  not the material!

It seems that so many teachers struggle to find the balance between rewarding effort and letting their students settle. They feel that if they start rewarding effort, those students may get left behind and their lack of understanding for a particular topic may be overlooked.

I see how this may be an issue. However, teachers know their students, at least they try to. They can tell when a student is really trying their hardest to grasp a complicated lesson. They can also tell when a student performs poorly that they do not understand the material the greatest. Just because the grade has been given doesn’t mean the learning has to stop!!!! We can still give feedback and even continue teaching that particular student individually after school or during a specified time. In, the mean time, we don’t have to fail the student because they don’t understand what we have taught.

After all, there is a good chance their lack of understanding comes from one of our failings as a teacher.