About Ryan Winn

Greetings from Memphis, TN! I teach middle school mathematics at Grizzlies Prep, a new all-boys charter school. This is my third year in the classroom here in Memphis. I am originally from Massachusetts (Go Pats!) but attended the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and studied Political Science. Connect with me on Twitter @RyanDWinn.

Teach For America Alum or Middle School Teacher?

(Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan)

(Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan)

I was having dinner recently with a few other teachers who are all TFA corps members or alumni, and we hit on an interesting topic: how do you identify yourself when people ask what you do?

For me, that question really hit home. When I accepted my offer to join Teach For America in Memphis almost three years ago, I was thrilled to join such a prestigious organization. The first few times I flew home to New England for Christmas and then again during the summer, I definitely wore a TFA t-shirt on the plane. I was subconsciously begging to be asked what I was doing with my life, and when the question inevitably came, it went something like this:

The 5 Types of Snow Days

(Photo credit: ecksunderscore)

(Photo credit: ecksunderscore)

Despite the calendar telling me that it is March and that next week is in fact spring break, I spent the majority of this past week out of school for what Memphis refers to as “snow days.” (I grew up in the Northeast, where one inch of ice doesn’t make for a snow day, let alone three of them.) All that time off got me thinking about the five types of snow days I have experienced as a teacher and the range of emotions they conjure:

1) The Wake and Watch: School is cancelled the morning of. I’ve already gone through a night of hoping, praying, and snow dancing, not to mention getting up at 5 a.m. to huddle with my laptop, waiting with bated breath for the name of my district to flit across my Twitter feed. By far the most common snow day, the Wake and Watch is wonderful but entails a lot of stress and prevents you from planning much of anything.

Inspiring Civic Duty in the Classroom


(Photo credit: Robert Neff)

I grew up watching way too much “West Wing,” and as a result, my theory of change was simple: find a candidate you can believe in – hopefully in a town meeting in New England –  work your butt off to get that candidate elected, work for him or her, and change the world. So that’s what I did in college. I worked on campaigns, advocated, donated, and, of course, voted every chance I got. My political idealism came under fire in my third year of college when, even after getting some great people elected, I saw little in the way of change. This lack of movement is what inspired me to go out and teach, to confront one of the issues undermining the promise of our nation directly rather than talking around it. However – as you may have guessed – I still vote every chance I get.

So on a recent blustering, rainy, and altogether miserable Thursday evening, I trudged out to the polls to cast my ballot in favor of ensuring that nearly 6,000 Memphis kids had access to pre-kindgergarten (and, obviously, to get my “I Voted” sticker for my collection on my corkboard). The benefits of pre-K are absolutely clear: it improves educational outcomes for all students, especially those coming from low-income backgrounds, and that Thursday’s effort was the second attempt in two years to ensure educational access to all of Memphis’ four-year-olds.

Bringing Grit Into Your Classroom

If you examine the recent work on what makes students successful, one word pops up over and over again: grit. The concept that the most successful students aren’t those with the highest IQs but instead are those who react positively and persist in the face of challenges isn’t a new one. It is, however, incredibly popular right now. Between Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk above and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the word “grit” has been thrown around a lot in the education conversation.

It makes sense: my students are going to face a number of challenges on the road to and through college. Equipping them with the ability to productively deal with those obstacles will give them a huge advantage. But before you run off and toss the word “grit” into your classroom vision, I have a few tips on helping to make grit (an admittedly vague concept at times) more tangible for you and your students.

By |November 11th, 2013|Your Best Self|1 Comment|

3 Prompts To Keep Your Students On Task After A Quiz


(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Quiz days are one of my favorite things about teaching. My students get a chance to show what they know, I get a fresh batch of data to track, and most importantly my students get to respond to one of my patented post-quiz writing prompts. These prompts are something I borrowed from a TFA video, however, mine always have a twist designed to increased student engagement and minimize distractions to the students who are still being assessed.

Especially with the specter of state testing looming large (or already upon us) it can be easy to forget how awesome and hilarious your students really are. Writing prompts are one way that I build in space for my students to bring more of themselves into my math classroom, and they help me to get to know my students more fully as people. The fact that they are a lot of fun to respond to doesn’t hurt either.

Prompt #1: Use the lines below to write to Mr. Winn. You can write about anything you’d like. Talk about what songs you’d like Mr. Winn to play during group work time, your family, how you feel about your effort this week, or anything else you would like.

Prompt #2: If you could have any superpower what would it be and why would you choose this power? What would your hero’s name be and what would your costume look like ? Draw a picture in the space below.

Prompt #3: If you had a time machine and could go back in time, who would you want to have dinner with and why? Remember this can be any person living or dead. What would you have to eat?

The prompts listed above are a few of my favorite ways to get to know my students better and engage them in a conversation outside of my content area. What have you done to build relationships with your students? Do you have a favorite prompt?

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Making The Most Of Your Time After Testing

Mr. Winn's students. (Photo: Ryan Winn)

Mr. Winn’s students. (Photo: Ryan Winn)

My first year in the classroom I was totally spent by the time my students took the TCAP in late April, sitting down at my laptop to begin planning for the last month of school I kept glancing over at my Netflix account thinking how easy it would be create a student packet and watch movies like Waiting for Superman, Stand and Deliver, and Lean on Me.  For me the issue was a combination of total exhaustion and the uncertainty of what I was supposed to do after the test we had been driving towards had passed.  Despite the guidance I got from TFA, school felt over and the temptation was mounting to run out the clock.

In the end a passing comment made by my MTLD really changed my outlook on the last few weeks of school.  She simply said, what would you teach if there was no one “force feeding you a curriculum map.”  Instead of diving back into the textbook I just thought about what I would want to do.  That brief conversation made me realize how valuable this time truly is.  Instead of being something I was dreading I went a little overboard and set up a pen pal exchange between my students and a group of Chinese students who were learning English.  The opportunity to explore the content we had covered leading up to our TCAP was far more engaging when framed as a means of getting a better idea of how our friends in China lived.

I think the key to keeping yourself engaged after the vaunted state test has been taken is to present your students with something that interests you.  For me that meant showing my students that the world was so much bigger than they knew, and reminding them that they were a part of a global community.  This truly helped to expand their understanding, challenge some of the stereotypes my students held, and to invite them to be ambassadors for both their nation and the city of Memphis.  While I am extremely proud to report that a Memphis Grizzlies Growl Towel hangs in Ms. Choy’s classroom in the Yunnan Province, I was more pleased with how much I learned about my students as they opened up to their pen pals.

After you wrap up your state testing open up your instruction to your passions and share them with your students, you might be surprised about what you learn about the students who have been in your classes all year long that you didn’t know before.

What are your plans after state testing concludes?  What passions are you thinking about translating into an end of the year project?

How Do Your Students See You?

How Do Your Students See You_

One of the first things I realized when I started teaching was just how many different things teachers have to do every day just to make sure students are where they are supposed to be.  Throw in lesson planning, reaching out to parents, and all of a sudden it is really easy to lose track of the people you get out of bed everyday for — your students!

To get a slight glimpse into how they viewed me I asked my students draw a picture of me after a quiz a couple months ago.  To make things a little more interesting I made them a promise.  I will post ALL of the illustrations on Facebook tonight.  Whichever picture has the most comments and likes by the time school starts tomorrow will be my new profile picture for the next two weeks.

Saying that this assignment was a hit is a bit of an understatement.  I got tons of hilarious pictures (which are posted below) but more importantly the cred I got from showing my students the screenshot of my Facebook page, with the name blacked out of course, was unbelievable.  More than telling our students how much we believe in them we need to show that we will make good on ALL of our promises.  Whether it is the promise of college–readiness or simply being willing to embarrass yourself on the internet for them.

Which picture if your favorite?  How do you build credibility and trust with your students?

Four Books To Refuel Your Fire


Reading (Photo credit: bryankennedy)

Teaching is hard.  (A truer sentence has never been uttered.)  As a teacher I am expected to surf rising tides of paperwork, manage student behavior with a single glance, shoot knowledge out of my fingertips, reflect on data, and support a bevy of after-school activities.  All while planning effectively, developing myself as an educator, and not to mention having a personal life.  It is very easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day and lose sight of what brought you into the classroom in the first place.  So if you are running low on inspiration and are in desperate need of some fuel for your fire look no further, I have a few recommendations for you.

  1. The Tipping Point by Malcom Galdwell: Although he is more renowned for Outliers, The Tipping Point influenced more of my behavior management and school culture than any other work.  Gladwell masterfully weaves a series of seemingly unrelated tales together to create one of the most compelling cases for how change happens.  Particularly relevant to teaching is his retelling of the turnaround of the New York City subway system.  I actually ended up writing a presentation on it for a faculty meeting where we were considering changes to our hallway discipline policy.  Definitely a quick read but something that will stimulate you in ways that no amount of fraction to decimal conversions ever will.
  2. Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov: This book needs no introduction and has no equal in terms of it’s ability to improve your execution in the classroom.  My biggest complaint last year during professional development was always a lack of strategies that I could deploy in my classroom tomorrow.  Teach Like a Champion is made up of 39 things you can do this week to improve your craft and your students’ achievement.  As an added bonus it comes with a DVD showing each of the techniques in practice in an urban education setting.  This is a must read for everyone in the classroom regardless of how long you have been teaching.
  3. Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein: Less focused on teaching than on general decision making Nudge is a fast paced, smart read that really made me think about how I could help guide the multitude of choices my students were making in my classroom each day.  The fact that most of the stories are funny and insightful is just a bonus.
  4. The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner: I debated whether or not this book would make the list because the sobering case Wagner makes forced me to realize that I was not setting my students up to be successful in the economy they will encounter after college.  This book is the Rosetta Stone for teaching the qualitative skills our kids will need in the rapidly changing, technology-centric workplace.  At it’s core this books is a battle cry for teachers to change how they teach, to turn critical (or higher order) thinking into something more than a convenient buzzword, and to center standardized testing around the skills that students need rather than trivia. 

These books helped me to recharge and develop a routine for engaging with something other than middle school math.  What do you do to recharge?  Any other books you would recommend adding to the list?

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