If you've been around for a bit, you know I'm pretty old school in a lot of ways. When it comes to deciding which instructional strategies to use, my thinking goes like this:
If multiple strategies do what I want them to do, then the simplest, quickest strategy is the best one.
This is why I use index cards, combined with think-pair-share (another old school strategy — like yours truly, it originated in the 80s), to facilitate 80-90% of the speaking and listening that happens in my room (the other 20% would be the pop-up method for discussion or debate).
(To read more about how I use these index cards and think-pair-share, check out this article: “Every Kid Speaks, Every Day“. For a more up-to-date treatment, see this one. To learn about the art of teaching kids how to speak, see anything by Erik Palmer [my favorite is Well Spoken]; I write about his PVLEGS strategy here.)
How I used to have kids create the index cards
So typically, I'd have kids come in on the first day, grab a seat and an index card, and then write their name on one side of the card, nice and large. On the other side, I'd have them write adjectives or phrases that describe who they are.
In my head this made sense — I was getting to know them, and with the activity I was telling them that I care about who they are.
And I do, indeed, care about who they are; I spend a whole chapter in Never Finished exploring the importance of building genuine relationships with our students.
But there was a problem with this activity: I'd often have my fourteen-year-old students writing things like “Loud” or “Lazy” to describe themselves. Things like this killed me — especially that latter adjective — because I was giving them an assignment that was inadvertently encouraging them to identify with bad habits. Loudness isn't inherently bad, but the way my kids mean it is usually implying a lack of self-control or a lack of consideration for others.
And then laziness — whoo, that's just straight up Bad Habit Central. I don't want that as a part of the identity of anyone I love. I build my class on the idea that we do hard things, that doing hard things is a part of who we are. And yet here I was, accidentally encouraging kids to begin their year identifying with things I hoped to help them weed out from the gardens of their hearts.
How I had my kids create index cards yesterday
So yesterday was the first day of a new semester. For my freshmen kids, this is a big deal because a lot of them end up failing at something during their first semester of high school. They may literally fail classes, but more commonly they fail to reach the GPA they were hoping for, or they fail to be the kind of friends or sons or daughters they wanted to be. I don't aim to make them feel bad about this; failure is a regular part of the lives of highly successful people; successful people use failure as a form of schooling. So I started yesterday's lessons like this, with a big smile on my face:
Family and team, I am excited for you today because today is a new start. As of right now, the things you failed at last semester can only help you to answer two questions: What did I learn? and What can I do better for next time? That's it. Any kind of thoughts like “I'm dumb” or “School's not for me” — those won't help; if you let your failures tell you those things, you are doing failure wrong. Literally picture yourself plucking those kinds of ideas from your heart right now and chucking them into the sun.
Here's what we're going to do: brand new semester, brand new index cards. On one side, I want you to write your name, nice and large. On the other side, I want you to describe the person you want to be someday. I'm not looking for that person's job description; I'm looking for the way that person's friends and family members will talk about her when she's not around. What kind of impact do you want to have while you've got air in your lungs? What kind of person do you want to be remembered as? That's what I want you to write on the other side of that index card.
You never know how things are going in a kid's head by just looking at her, but do you ever get those moments when you're pretty sure they're delighted? When you may just have breathed a little life into a dark corner of their hearts that was telling them they don't have what it takes?
What kids wrote
“I want to be…
a dependable friend; a kid my parents can be proud of, not the one people thinks is dumb
a hard worker
I don't want my life to be a waste.
I want someone who my parents can be proud of and that they'll want to show off
I don't want to just be known as the quiet one
I want to be known as someone who dominated life
I want my mom to be able to see I can make it without her
I barely went through my stack with those examples above. Do you see how much more I learn about the kids (and how much they may just learn about themselves) through that one simple adjustment to the index card activity?
Don't get me wrong — this activity is the first step on a 1,000 mile journey to life domination. Many are the classrooms that begin with a bang, and many are they who also go out with a whimper. But this is a much better start thanks to the tiny tweak.
Here's why I share this
- Lightning won't strike if you don't show up. This was one of those rare moments when you decide on the fly — like, literally, as you're talking — to tweak an activity, and the tweak works. It doesn't happen often in my classroom, but I would say that it happens with greater frequency the longer you stick to this job. We have to keep teachers teaching longer so this happens in more classrooms more often. This isn't a magical thing, but it's the stuff magic is made of. For a couple of kids, this might have been magic.
- Our ideas are better when they're rubbing up on each other. Knowing the fine community of educators that gathers at this blog, you will take something from this post and make it way better. Do that. And then share in the comments.
- Celebrate. Small. Wins. I'm not talking about throwing a party; I'm talking about a momentary pause where you're like, “Sweet.” Too many teachers think it's the administrator's job to motivate us or the nation's job to respect our work and stoke our passion. No. That's our job. And one of the key ways to keep yourself motivated is to focus on the things that are going well; be grateful for them; build on them. And then lace your work boots back up because you've got big problems to wrestle with in your work, and there's a lot at stake.
Do me a favor — celebrate a small win this week. Recognize that hard work in this job does pay off when we choose to focus on what we do control. And the next time you look in the mirror, realize that you have an awesome calling; every single day holds the potential for a new discovery.