adler.danielh@gmail.com'

About Dan Adler

I'm a second-year TFAer, proud member of the Massachusetts Corps, chef, biker, Jets fan, avid pun-maker, and of course, the geekiest damn Science teacher you've ever met. For the day-to-day scoop on my life and times as a 6th grade science teacher, check out my Teach For Us blog at http://sortofscientific.teachforus.org.

Go To The Beach (For Your Students’ Sake)

Beach shoes

Call it professional development. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

 

 

Summer has very much arrived. Once the temperature climbed beyond 80 in Boston, a friend of mine e-mailed me and others asking if anyone was interested in driving to the beach on a Sunday morning.

 

My first thought was, “I have a five-page paper due Monday that I have not started. I haven’t written my lesson for Monday. I have a bag full of quizzes to grade.”

 

My second thought was, “It’s June. It’s in the 80s and sunny. I deserve the beach.”

 

And so, just after noon, I found myself at Crane Beach on the North Shore of Massachusetts. The water was cold even by New England standards, but fortunately a (sort of) random 12-year-old girl named Arielle began splashing me as I was wading in, so that sped up the acclimation process. I got through 40 pages of my book, threw a Frisbee, and went for a long walk with my friends.

 

It’s easy for teachers, and definitely us crazy perfectionists who seem over-represented within TFA, to think our work requires all of us. We could be grading. We could be calling parents. We could be revising lessons and writing new unit plans. We could be finding some edge that will help us get our kids to college. We could be single-handedly closing the achievement gap.

 

Yes, our work is critically important. But so are our lives beyond the classroom. Put simply, happy teachers are effective teachers, and you cannot be happy in a sustainable way without investing in the meaningful relationships and pursuits that keep you sane and grounded.

 

Beyond Planning: Don’t Overlook Management

Cover of "Stand and Deliver"

Do you think you’re the next Jaime Escalante? Not without a good management plan.

Remember that great turnaround moment in every teaching movie that’s ever been made? You know, the one where the teacher rallies the students around the joy of learning and beating the odds? And then the students go on to cure cancer, master multivariable calculus, and write the next Great American Novel?

Yeah … Not gonna happen. Sorry. A big part of teaching is being passionate about your subject matter and investing your students in an ambitious goal. However, none of that means anything unless you build a strong foundation of procedures, expectations and consequences. You must be able to manage a classroom.

Now you might be saying, “I know I don’t know anything about management. That’s why I’m going to Institute! And now you’ve reminded me about how terrified I am about managing the classroom. You’re a jerk.”

First, I’d tell you that it’s mean to call me names. Second, yes, you will learn about management at Institute. However, it will be easier than you think to overlook those skills. This is mostly because it will be much easier to get your head around how to lesson plan.

In fact, when I look back on the early part of Institute, all I can really remember is learning to lesson plan. The five-step-lesson plan. The idea of a “hook.” The why, what and how. You may not know what I’m talking about just yet, but trust me – you will.

Taking A Chance to Ease Tension With A Student

Dice

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relationships are the key to teaching. No matter how spot-on your set of incentives and consequences might be, if you can’t connect with your students – particularly those who struggle in school – you’re in for a bumpy ride. And sometimes, finding what a student cares about, what will make him or her become invested in you, your class and all you stand for, requires taking some risks.

Take, for example, a student of mine I’ll call “A.M.” She and I could not have begun our year together any better. She participated more than anyone else in my science class. She tracked the speaker, and gave “props” – wiggling your fingers at someone – to let classmates know they’d done good work. She stayed after school to tutor struggling students. She even stayed in for recess to grade my exit tickets.

And then, all too soon, the honeymoon ended. In October, I switched A.M. to sit next to a struggling student, in the hope that she could help tutor him. Instead, A.M. got silly. I had to give out some consequences. Those consequences led to a parent meeting. Within weeks of that great start, A.M. was literally ignoring me. She would walk past me in the hallway as if I were invisible, and then greet every teacher nearby as if they were her best friends. Pretty much every time we absolutely had to speak, A.M. said something so disrespectful to me that I had no choice but to send her to the office.

Sixth graders are notoriously mercurial. I’ve given out consequences to students first period, then had them walk past my room and giddily wave, “Hi Mr. Adler!” before afternoon homeroom. However, A.M. is one of the smartest students I’ve ever taught, and she knew damn well how to hold a grudge. Our battles lasted for months. As recently as early March, following an incident in which I’d tried to confront her about muttering something under her breath as I walked by, A.M. had literally screamed at me in the school’s office.

I needed a way to fix the relationship, and I felt like I’d tried everything. I’d offered rewards. I’d tried asking her about what she was doing in other classes, projects I’d seen her working on. I’d gone out of my way to do her favors, like laminating an English project for her. I’d put her in the back and let her stop SLANTing, because she said the structure in my room was stressing her out. Nothing worked. We might have a day or two without explicit hostility, but something always provoked the next fight.

Back to Boston: One Corps Member’s Return to the Classroom

Boston Skyline

Boston Skyline (Photo credit: brentdanley)

Saturday I went to a bar mitzvah reception for one of my kids.  I spoke politely to parents for 15 minutes, then spent two full hours talking to my kids from last year. As I was trying to leave, the kids all went outside to play soccer, so I ended up sticking around for an extra half-hour. I’m not ashamed to admit I probably could have stayed longer had I not made other plans. It reminded me just how much I legitimately like my kids and care about their well-being.

It was a particularly important thing to remember given where I teach and what happened last week. I live and teach in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city immediately north of Boston and Cambridge. The bombing suspects grew up in Cambridge, less than three miles from where I live and just over a mile from my school. Watertown, where Friday’s manhunt took place, is just south of Somerville. Students of mine were in Boston last Monday for the marathon.

I only got to go to the bar mitzvah reception, and not the actual service, because I woke up Friday morning at my parents’ house in New York to discover I return to Boston as planned. My city was on lockdown as police searched for the missing suspect in the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

I spent Friday pretty much glued to CNN and NBC, wondering when I could return, and when the police would find suspect #2, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I went out to lunch with my mom, and spent most of the time refreshing the news on my cell phone. I checked Facebook every 15 minutes or so to see what my friends back in the city knew, and added my own updates from the news on TV. Finally, around 9 pm, I celebrated – along with the throngs lining the street in Watertown – when I saw that the suspect was in police custody.

As I drove back on Saturday morning, I noticed that all along I-90 in Massachusetts were signs that read, “We Are One Boston; Thank You For Your Support.” I’d never felt so tied to the Greater Boston community. I wanted to go back to my community, which had been so brave in the face of such anxiety and sadness.

Six (Slightly Conflicting) Tips for Returning From Winter Break Strong

Day 001/366 - January 1st

Day 001/366 – January 1st (Photo credit: Amanda M Hatfield)

Coming back from any vacation and starting work again is challenging, but returning to school after winter break is by far the toughest feat. You trade in your holiday gluttony, shiny new presents and plodding around your house in warm flannel pajamas for cold weather, short days, and the realization you’re still about 100 days from the end of the year. For a month, the radio has been telling you it’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” and you know damn well no one’s singing about January.

With normal jobs, you can glare angrily at your computer and be a hermit in your cubicle until you’re ready to act like a real human being again. No such luck in teaching. Not only do you have to muster enough enthusiasm to get yourself back in gear, but you’ve also got to get a room full of young people going, too. Your kids have been enjoying the same holiday bliss as you, and they’ve become pretty accustomed to not hearing you talk at them about independent clauses, the Alamo and the role of the endoplasmic reticulum.

With that, I give you my six (slightly conflicting) tips for returning from winter break strong. Why slightly conflicting? Well, coming back from winter break poses unique challenges, so you need to be prepared with a unique plan. Hey, if you wanted a straightforward gig, you would have become an accountant.

By |January 4th, 2013|Teaching Tips|1 Comment|

The Four Square: Kids Work Together, You Save Time

Picture This: It’s time to practice, and you’ve given your kids worksheets to do with partners. You rejoice at the sight of all (or at least most) of your kids on task, until you realize there is pretty much zero partner work going on. Strong students are doing worksheets by themselves. Weak students are also working by themselves, and they’re not doing so well. Those partnerships who are “working together” look more like stronger students answering questions and then passing their work to weaker students to copy.

Sound familiar? This is what I saw during much of my first year of teaching, and my mission this year was to promote actual collaboration between my kids. When your kids work together, they build meaningful social skills, they do more higher-order thinking, stronger students get to reinforce their knowledge and skills by explaining and tutoring, and you get to circulate because your weaker students ask partners (and not you) for help.

However, there is a much more pragmatic reason for you to set your kids up to collaborate – it saves you a HUGE amount of planning time. It’s November, which means unless you are mainlining caffeine every hour, you are a tired teacher. You’ve likely been working since late August without a real break, and while Thanksgiving wwas nice, winter break definitely ain’t here yet.

You need to give yourself a break, and the easiest way to do that is to lighten your planning load. You want to aim for a little prep that goes a long way. And you probably want to avoid the queasy feeling that comes with videos and filler lessons.

Here’s the magical two-birds-one-stone moment: There are many activities that set students up to work together in meaningful ways, promoting content review and higher-order thinking, AND they take incredibly little time to prep! The general term for these activities are cooperative learning strategies or structures, and they are my new best friend in the classroom. Your kids do meaningful and rigorous academic work, and you get an easier night of planning.

Below is a description of my favorite cooperative learning structure – the Four Square. It is my go-to cooperative learning activity because it both promotes meaningful conversations between kids and can take literally one minute to plan. If you like what you read below, let us know,  there are plenty of other cooperative learning activities worth sharing!

By |November 28th, 2012|Teaching Tips|2 Comments|

When Doing the Right Thing Feels Wrong, Be Strong

eh. (365.335)

(Photo credit: splityarn)

Sometimes, as a teacher, doing the right thing can feel pretty miserable. And even when every part of your brain knows you’re doing the right thing, your heart still stings.

Last year, I was NOT a good classroom manager. My classroom wasn’t (usually) a train wreck, but it wasn’t a bastion of order and efficiency either. I relied so much on relationships that I couldn’t give a damn consequence to save my life. I pled, I ignored, and I had a lot of 30-minute conversations with kids that didn’t change a heck of a lot.

This summer, I devoted the majority of my thinking about school to management. I thought about procedures, I thought about structure, I thought about rewards and consequences. I wanted my kids knowing exactly what I expected of them at all times, so they could focus their mental energy less on testing boundaries and more on learning science.

That planning has paid off; for the most part, my classroom runs smoothly and efficiently. Just as importantly, my kids don’t even seem to resent the structure. I’d say that of the 98 students I teach science, all but one or two have bought what I’m selling. And yet when just one student isn’t with me, it can obliterate any happiness I get from the other 97.

By |October 24th, 2012|Corps Stories|50 Comments|

Three Steps to Put Your Personality to Work in the Classroom

Clown Pictures - Sad Clown

Your classroom doesn’t have to be corny, but it’s totally cool if it is. (Photo credit: Dj Crazy Gabe)

I am the corniest person you will ever meet. I walk around unapologetically singing, or even (badly) beatboxing. I make puns like it’s my job. (Ever heard of the student who refused to sharpen his pencil? He said it was pointless!)

And yet last year – my first year of teaching – I suppressed nearly all of my personality. Kids walked in, got ready, and (occasionally) did their work.  My class was often on-task, but it was also often joyless, and rarely any fun.

This summer, I committed to making my classroom better match my personality, and in the process, a more joyful place for everyone involved.  Now, a teacher wandering through my dreaded 100-minute Friday afternoon double period comments on just how much fun kids are having. They’re not the only ones. Even when I’m tired – which isn’t infrequently – I often leave class smiling. And oh by the way, more joy equals more learning. My kids know they’re going to have fun in my room, and getting through a lesson with efficient purpose is a great way to get to the electrocuted pickle experiment faster.

Maybe being the human pun isn’t your thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the more your unique personality lives in your classroom, the happier and more driven both you and your kids will be. Here are three steps I took toward my personality-driven classroom makeover:

By |October 10th, 2012|Teaching Tips|3 Comments|