Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Chick Fil A Classroom

A few weeks ago, my family and good friends of ours went to Chick-Fil A.  If you ever ate a meal there, you are used to the smiling faces who stop by your table to see if they can refill your drink (more like a restaurant than a fast food joint), and of course, the obligatory "My pleasure" whenever you say, "Thank you" for their service.

After eating our meal, our kids played in the indoor playground while we sat around and talked.  Since it was our anniversary the next day, I bought everyone a milkshake (yeah, I know, I live on the edge) and toasted my beautiful wife on our soon to be anniversary day.

A young lady Chick-Fil A employee came over and said, "Sorry to eavesdrop but I hope you guys have a wonderful anniversary tomorrow."

After thanking her for the kind words, I exclaimed, "I love this place."

One of my best friend's son got married this summer and my daughter was the flower girl.  At the rehearsal dinner that night, I sat near a young lady in college, a business major focusing on marketing.  Somehow her part-time job at Chick-Fil A came up so I began asking her questions.  Specifically, how does Chick-Fil A display a consistent high degree of courtesy to their customers, not just in one locale, but in any location you visit (I had mentioned it didn't matter what state we were in, NJ, PA, MD, WV, FL, or SC, my family had similar experiences in all Chick-Fil A-s).  Most fast food restaurants focus on quick food at a cheap price.  Chick-Fil-A food is good, but what makes it a place to "write home about" (or a least a blog) is the detail it places on customer service.

She said that Chick-Fil A puts a heavy emphasis on customer service.  Interviews are extensive for a fast food restaurant.  They want to make sure they have employees that place the customer needs first.  Candidates spend time in a classroom setting before ever stepping in behind the counter to deal with customers.  Quick, cheap, good food doesn't mean anything if the customer doesn't feel welcomed.

Based on my experience and my discussion, here is what I learned and how it relates to the classroom.

1) Customer First

In our classrooms, what is our emphasis?  If it isn't the good and care of our students, then it doesn't matter how well we present our material.  The latest technology doesn't mean anything if the student doesn't feel welcomed in your classroom.  A great unit goes to waste if the student believes you are more concerned with the content of your lessons than on them.

You don't teach content or technology.  You teach young people.

2) Know Who You Are

The famous ad campaign for Chick-Fil A is a cow holding the sign "Eat More Chickn".  And they do fast food chicken well.  There isn't much deviation.  If you see a new menu item, it isn't going to be a beef, fish, or pork product, its going to be chicken.  As a young teacher, I didnt know what I wanted to be and looked to be like teachers I admired. I tried to be the tough teacher, the fun teacher, the teacher-friend, the aloof teacher, the erudite teacher, and in the end, I didnt do any of them well.

I finally decided to just be me, and do me well.

3) Enhance the Experience

Chick-Fil A will deliver your food to your table instead of making you wait upfront and this allows you to spend more time with your family.  They come by to fill up your drink.  A manager makes their way around to see if all is well.  And of course the 7 foot cow could come around offering high fives at any time.  Very different than a trip to McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, etc.

How do we enhance the classroom experience for our students?  It doesn't have to be in ground breaking ways.  Some ideas.  Give high fives to your students as the enter or leave, give out a "student of the week", allow them to have the class stuffed animal on their desk if they are having a rough day.

The more a student wants to be in your class, 
the more they will be engaged in your class.

4) Listen to Your Customers

Chick-Fil A's tracks well any complaint or compliment to the location and time it occurred so they know what manager and employees were on duty at the time so they know how best to remediate or congratulate the team.  How well do we listen to our students?  Do we supply a mechanism in our classroom for your student to share their opinions (be it a formal survey or informal discussion).

Overcome the insecurity of hearing negatives about you. 
Practice what you preach.
Just as your corrections improves your students, 
their voice can improve you as well.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Be Bold Be Excellent

Dear Katie,

Who did you replace as a teacher?  A beloved teacher or one that did not have many fans.  In my career, I have had the opportunity to replace one of each.

In my first position, I replaced a teacher that did not have a lot of fans.  I discovered this from a friend who attended the school and whose brother was one of my first students.  My friend shared this nugget of truth,

"The students are going to love you for the first 4 months because you are not her, after that, they are going to base everything in the classroom on you." 

And he was right.  Everything I tried was golden.  Students enthusiastically became involved in every simulation or project I proposed.  Classroom management was easy (at least for what it could be for a first year teacher).

And then...the fall.

My biggest mistake was that I took for granted this gift rather than using it to build structure, organization, and boundaries in my classroom.  From January on I struggled controlling my classroom.  Students began questioning what I was doing in my classroom.  My authority was challenged daily. Basically, I experienced everything a first year teacher typically does, just a bit delayed.  If you find yourself replacing the teacher who had few fans, don't skate the first few months thinking the season of adulation had anything to do with you.  Work as hard as any first year teacher in establishing routines and commanding respect, because with all seasons, it will come to an end.

In my second position, I replaced a beloved and highly honored teacher.  In fact, on a visitation the day before school, a parent said to me

"I'm sure you're a good teacher, but we would much rather have (old teacher's name) be our daughter's teacher.  No offense"

One advantage I had in the second situation is that I had seven years of teaching history under my belt.  The other advantage was that the old teacher was still in the district, and the reason he was a beloved teacher was because he was one of the nicest men I have ever met.  He would encourage me by providing feedback and advice on my classroom.

If you find yourself in this situation see if the previous teacher would like to stay in correspondence with you.  (If they choose not to, or find it an annoyance, drop it).  Ask teachers who worked with the old teacher what their strengths and weaknesses were.  Maintain some traditions of the old classroom.  Remember, there was a reason why that teacher was beloved and highly respected.  Don't think you can come in as a maverick and change everything. Many students who had older siblings that had the old teacher (and more importantly their parents) will appreciate the nod you are giving the former teacher and will establish a level of comfort for them.

However you ARE NOT that beloved teacher.  You need to make a mark of your own.  For me, it was developing a Presidential Election Game and Project for the 2000 U.S. Presidential election.  It even spurred a reporter from the local newspaper to contact me to discuss what we were doing in class.  At the end of the year, the parent from above apologized for what she said and even went as far as thanking me for a wonderful year.

Very similarly to the teacher with not a lot of fans, eventually you are going to step out of the shadows of the beloved teacher and be judged on your merits.
  So be BOLD and be EXCELLENT!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My House aka My Classroom

When I was very young, there was a show on ABC called the Curiosity Shop.  Three kids would enter this shop and puppets and a witch would introduce them to a wide variety of learning experiences.  And of course, who can ever forget Mr. Rogers, who welcomed us into his house everyday.  It was so intimate, that he allowed us to watch him change his shoes to sneakers.  One thing these show had in common, they wanted kids to feel comfortable in someone else's house.

I know there is a move to allow your students ownership of your classroom.  It's not YOUR space it is OUR space or even THEIR space.  I have read about how ditching your teacher's desk allows students to see that you are serious about that.  I take a different approach.

I flat out tell my kids the classroom is where I will spend most of my waking hours over the next 10 months.  The one island I have is the area behind my desk to the back wall.  I call it "My House".  No one can enter it without permission.  And it does have an alarm (me yelling "GET OUT OF MY HOUSE")

Here is why I do it like this:

1) Students would see it as disingenuous for me to say it is our/their classroom.  I teach 8 sections of history, students would recognize that with so many students coming in and out, it cannot truly be their classroom.

2) It helps teach boundaries and respect.  We all have personal space and property that we expect to be respected by others.

3) An adult designed a place for kids.  Just like Mr. Rogers and the Curiosity Shop, I had young people in mind when designing my room.  It is not filled with history posters, but sport, movie, plastic snowmen, etc.  Some of the items in my room have been given to me by former students to display.  And it is not that I do not seek suggestions of what to do in the classroom.  Just like a good architect, I need to hear the needs from the people who will be occupying the space, not just the landlord.

No matter how you go about it.
Students need to feel comfortable
In Your/Theirs/Our Classroom
For Engagement to Occur

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Playing the Back to School Night Game

I have always struggled with what to do during Back to School night.  Do parents want to know who I am, my curriculum, my classroom procedures, etc.  I teach middle school history, and only have the parents for about 10 minutes.  For this year, I created a Kahoot game for my parents to play:

Here is a link to a video so you know what Kahoot is:

And by the end of the night, on my 24th Back to School night, I have finally realized what I want parents to take away from that night:

I want them to experience a small bit of the excitement
that their child experiences in my classroom.

And a few nights ago the competition of the Kahoot game and the fun and laughter that occurred throughout the night did just that.

Kahoot Game

I used questions within the Kahoots game to introduce topics that I felt were important to discuss with the parents, especially the purpose of gamifying my classroom and although I want students to have fun in my class, my main goal is to raise their knowledge & understanding of history.

The first class hardly had a chance to play.  As the night went on, we made it through more and more questions.

Take Aways:

Only give a minute to enter the game.

Make sure the game pin number is always visible so they can enter in mid game.
The game isn't the most important thing
Giving your student's parents a taste of the excitement of your class is. 

Tell parents without cellphones to play along as if they watching Jeopardy on TV.

Phrase the questions as segue into what you want to talk about.

For example, the question

"My wife grew up in West Virginia, what was her favorite baseball team?
Reds, Pirates, Yankees, None, she hates baseball

Answer: None, She Hates Baseball

Parents laughed at the trick question (and some of them agreed with my wife).  I then discussed my baseball themed classroom and why I have chosen to attack the problem of student motivation through it.  In the end, I tied the original question back to their child by stating,

"If your son or daughter hates baseball & you think they will struggle with me, remember, my wife has been with me for 18 happy years, and she hates baseball, I'm sure your child will be able to handle one."

When time ran out in the first class in mid game, a parent wanted me to still display the current leaderboard so everyone knew she had one.  From that point I always would announce the current leader when it was displayed on the screen as a game show host would do to build up the level of competition in the room.  In one class, the parents were having fun "trash talking" with one another of how they were going to win.  

Playing Kahoot was an excellent choice to play during Back to School Night.
Now parents have a frame of reference when their child says, 
"We played Kahoot"
And they will know their kid had a fun day of learning in history.

Other lessons from the night.

Digital Baseball Card

I tried to have my students create a "Digital Baseball Card" on a Google Slide, filled with information they find important about themselves, that I was going to show their parents as they walked into the room on the projector screen.  I miscalculated the amount of experience students had coming into my class on different computer applications and skills. What should have been wrapped up in a day or two, went longer for others (along with taking pictures of the students, their team logo, etc).  These mistakes along with all else that was happening (teaching, coaching, preparing for Back to School night, being a husband & father) one day was not enough time to put the slides into one slide presentation for each class.

Take Aways:

You do not have to try every new idea you have at once.  
Be willing to sacrifice a new idea if you cannot do it well.

The Baseball Card and Ticket Info

I handed out over 100 baseball cards that included information to my website and new class Twitter & Facebook page.  I also had parents fill out a "ticket" with their email.

Follow Up With an Email Home in the Next Two Weeks 
Thanking them for Coming Out
Reminding them of Class Twitter/Facebook Accounts 
Share the Great Things their Children Are Experiencing in Your Classroom

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Back to School Night Game

Dear Katie,

Before the age of social media, the best forum to give your students' parents a taste of your classroom was doing it through Back to School Night.  For a few years, I created a VH-1 Pop Up Video themed PowerPoint presentation complete with the popping bubble sound.  The presentation I am creating this year is incorporating aspects of my baseball theme, gamified classroom to the parents.

As parents walk into the room, they will receive a "baseball card that will give them information about the classroom, including my email, website, and positive quotes from former students about the World History Athletic Club (the name for my baseball themed classroom) and a "ticket" where they can share any important information about their child.

As they walk into the classroom, projected on the screen will be a carousel of their children's "digital baseball cards" that they created the first days of school to allow me to know them better.  On the card, other than their picture, will be facts they love to share with others and their thoughts on they believe is the best way to engage them educationally.

Typically, teachers have about 8 minutes to share information.  Some parents want to know more about the person in front of the classroom, some want to know what their child be will be learning, others the amount of homework and big projects that will be completed at home, and then there are those parents who just want to know the processes of your classroom.  In order to hit all of this within the time frame minutes, the bulk of the information will be given through videos that can be accessed through the class website.

A hurdle is to convince parents that "academic" doesn't mean straight rows & lecture, but that games can be an effective way to encourage engagement.  In order to demonstrate this, we will run one of the games we play in my class. I have created a Kahoots game (highly recommend, find out more at for my parents to play.  The beginning questions are in the format that resembles a push poll, where the question is asked in a way to present information to the person being asked and is more important than the respondent's answer.   One of my questions is, "In this class, students sit in...".  The answer is TEAMS and some time after the question will be taken to discuss the role the teams play in the class (more than just to have them for the games).  The last few questions will come from the actual topics their child will be learning in class that year.

It takes some planning, but I remember the old adage, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression", so make your Back to School Night presentation a strong one.  But don't waste all your work for that night by not backing it up with continued excellence throughout the year.  I am sure you will not.

Best Wishes to In Your First Back to School Night!

Uncle Kevin

Monday, August 31, 2015

Riding a Bike (Dear Katie Y1#1)

Dear Katie,

This spring, your young cousin learned how to ride a bicycle.  The first few days there were a lot of falls, a few scrapes, and a lot of tears.  There were times she wanted to give up.  And then, one day filled with some more mistakes, she just kept going and going and going.  Later on in the summer, she was making sharp turns as if she has been riding for years.  I am sure as we put her bike away for the winter and bring it back out next spring, she may have to relearn a bit, and may fall once or twice, but as we know, in a few years, that won't even happen.  She will pick up that bike and it will be as if there was no winter.  As they say, you never forget how to ride a bicycle.

On and off for two and a half years,  I have been given you advice in your quest to BE a teacher.  And now you have come to the end of the quest, and the beginning of the journey of BEING a teacher.  What should you expect on Day 1?

You will have butterflies and will be unable to sleep the night before.

Sorry, but this will be true for your first day of school for years to come.  It is not just a first year teacher thing.  It's because you are excited and scared at the same time.  I always thought of it like riding a bicycle.  The first year is like the first day.  A lot of falls, a lot of scrapes, but it doesn't stop you, you keep getting on and trying.  The next day you have less falls, and then there is that day after a fall or two , you keep riding.  They say that most teachers will leave the profession in the first two years because they find the job to be more than they had imagined.  And it will be more than you imagine.  Like riding a bike, if you give up quickly, you will never experience the joy that is found in conquering the skill of riding a bike.

And in teaching, there will be mountains you will need to climb.  The difficult child, the difficult parent, the student who is trying so hard but it just doesn't seem to be sticking, etc.  And just like a bicycle climbing a mountain, you will put the bike in a low gear and feel like you are spinning your wheels, but going nowhere.  Eventually you will get to the top, the difficult child or parent will say, "Thank-you", that struggling student will "get it", and you will have the exhilaration of going down that mountain as a reward for a job well done.

But it starts by being willing to get a few scrapes and bruises.

Consider them badges of honor.

Welcome to the Teacher's Room!

Uncle Kevin

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Building Anticipation Before 1st Day of School

The first day of school is coming up fast, and even though I have one more month left, I am already "preparing the soil" by building anticipation for my classroom in my students' minds.  Before they ever step into my classroom, I want them thinking, "What the Johnnies is going to happen in there?"  It doesn't even have to be setting their minds on the subject you teach.  As teachers, we want to create a sense of wonder in our students.

Having your students wonder about your class outside of it
Serves to draw them into it when they are in it.

Even without intentionality, anticipation is already built into the minds of your students for your class by your reputation.  Just like we were as kids, our students are asking their older brothers and sisters, and their older friends about you and your classroom.  Are your strict or lax?  Sweet or Tough?  What impressions are you leaving in the minds of your former students? Is it a weight that you will be bringing into your classroom on the first day.  For some, that sack has students diving into it as if it is Santa's toy bag at Christmas because what they heard about your classroom has them ready to dive in.  However, for others, students may perceive it as an immovable barrier for them, one only on teacher can move out of the way for the student to immerse themselves into the wonders of what you are teaching.

What are some other ways we can build anticipation?  There are always social media accounts that you can promote through your school to keep students and parents abreast of all the awesome ideas you are seeking to implement in the classroom that year.  If you have ever drove down I-95 to Florida I am sure you remember the signs telling you how many miles to South of the Border (not the US/Mexican border, but the NC/SC border where a huge tourist trap goes by that name).  The same is done by Wall Drugs out west.  They build anticipation even if you don't stop into their establishment. Think about tweeting out on your classroom Twitter account "30 days until..." and each day add something different that your students will be experiencing that year in your classroom.

I have done two things over the past few years.  I've noticed that people are checking out my class webpage over the summer.  So I have created a video that is posted on my main page that typically shows me enjoying my summer and imploring them to continue enjoying their summer.  It doesn't discuss my classroom at all, but does give a glimpse into my personality, who I am, and typically, shows off my beautiful daughters (and I hope subconsciously says I am a Dad first, teacher second).  My hope is that my students see in that video, "I think his class is going to be fun".

Here is a link to the video...

When my students walk down the hallway toward my classroom they are greeted on the walls with signs that are similar to ones you see posted in the city promoting some musical event that are plastered to the wooden barriers that block constructions sites.  The signs say "WHAC(k) is Back" (WHAC(k) stands for World History Athletic Club, it is what I call my gamified classroom).  I want them walking into class saying "What is WHAC(k)?".  

I want them thinking about my classroom before they ever enter my classroom.

How else can we draw them into what we have to say?