Thursday, November 13, 2014

The 12th Friday: Roots and Wings

There are two things we must give children:  the first one is roots; the other, wings.”

Author Unknown

The tangible gifts we give our children are nice, but the intangible gifts of “roots” and “wings” are among the most important of all, gifts that loving parents give their children and loving teachers give their students. At first glance, this metaphor seems to connote opposite ends of the spectrum: keep someone grounded while setting them free?  Yet, we cannot accomplish the latter without first ensuring the former. In the classroom setting, the above quote can be applied on several levels to what we, as educators, endeavor to do in working with our students. One way that the roots-wings symbolism works is to picture the gift of roots as teaching our students behaviors that will increase their chances of success as we also give them wings—the freedom to make choices about their learning and their future. The more we can teach and promote positive behaviors now, the more likely we are grounding them in core values that will allow them to take flight later as they grow into productive and independent citizens.

Teaching classroom procedures takes a great deal of time. Whether we are talking about a first grade class or an AP English class, our students need explicit instruction in terms of classroom procedural expectations. The good news? I have found that teachers who devote a great deal of time to approaching this somewhat mind-numbing task proactively, recoup this time as the year progresses, when they are no longer forced to behave reactively to students who are still not following classroom procedures and routines. In my younger years, I recall seeing an oil filter commercial on television hundreds of times. In this commercial the “mechanic” recommends changing one’s oil filter regularly as a way to prevent more costly engine repairs down the line. The commercial always closed with this “mechanic” glaring at me and stating somewhat ominously, “You can pay me now—or pay me later.”  Teaching procedures has something in common with this philosophy on automobile maintenance: we can pay attention to teaching our students these procedures at the outset or we can pay even more attention to it later.

In every school at which I have worked, I noticed that students actually enjoy an orderly classroom. Students perform better—both academically and behaviorally—when they know what is expected of them, not only in terms of the content they must master, but also the way in which they will behave, interact, and perform routine actions while in the class. Teachers who effectively teach and consistently enforce clear classroom procedures also prevent problems on those days when they are absent, as students are already well versed in what they are to do and how they do it. Wong and Wong (1998) suggest a three-step process for teaching classroom procedures to students:

1. Explain classroom procedures clearly.
2. Rehearse classroom procedures until they become routines.
3. Reinforce a correct procedure and re-teach an incorrect one.

Another expert in this area is Rick Smith, whose book, ConsciousClassroom Management:  Unlocking theSecrets of Great Teaching (2004), is one I refer to often. Rick describes procedures as our “railroad tracks” with the curriculum/content being the “train.”  Once we clearly lay down the railroad tracks (procedures), the train (content) will run much more smoothly and in the right direction. In any classroom, there are a staggering number of procedures that must be taught. To list but a few, we must establish and teach procedures for the…

  • Beginning of class
Students entering the classroom
Make up work
Beginning the lesson
Turning in/reviewing homework

  • During class
Gaining student attention
Passing out papers
Headings on papers
Turning in work
How students ask for help
Class discussions-raising hands
Group work
Student movement in the room
Taking tests and quizzes
Using the bathroom/water fountain/pencil sharpener

  • Ending class
Assigning homework
Dismissing class
Putting materials away
Cleaning the room

Although we should and do spend more time at the outset of the year teaching procedures, Smith points out that we must reinforce procedural lessons throughout the school year and recommends teaching at least two procedures every class period, regardless of what the lesson is. Smith tells a story about his pre-teaching experience when he observed several teachers in action. He soon realized that when some teachers asked students to “turn to page 27” all students immediately and quietly did so. When other teachers asked the very same thing, some students turned to page 27, some asked what page they were to turn to, some asked if they could go get their book, some opened the wrong book, and some complained or talked loudly while rummaging through a book bag. At first, Smith could not discern what made the difference and came to realize that effective classroom management is essentially invisible. He later classified his theory of invisible classroom management (2004) into three categories: (a) foundation; (b) prevention; and (c) intervention. Teaching procedures fall into the “prevention” category and still makes a great deal of sense to me as time well spent.

Taking time to lay these procedural railroad tracks is how we give “roots” to our students. Having grounded them in this way, they can more readily grasp the academic content, growing the “wings” that will take them to new heights each day. Giving the gifts of roots and wings to our kids each day is yet another example of how we Teach with Passion each day!

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the twelfth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when zeroes are entered into a student’s academic record for missing evidence or as a punishment for transgressions. When combined with other evidence, the resulting grade does not accurately reflect student achievement. 

There are several fixes to this, including the use of “I” as a final grade for “Incomplete.” We should communicate with students and their parents if student work habits are not acceptable, but this should be communicated on “Habits of Success” standards, not academic standards. For the latter, we must find alternatives to averaging grades of zero in with other grades to determine an overall grade.


  1. Jeff,

    I appreciate the wisdom you share each week, because it gives us reason to pause and reflect on the simple things - that make a big difference. Something as "basic" as routines can do so much - for a teacher who is looking to maximize quality classroom minutes, as well as for the student, who thrives in a learning environment that is "structured" in a way that supports learning. You remind us here that investing time to set (and continually monitor, evaluate, and if need be, adjust) our routines will give our students what they need to be productive and successful learners. Not only that, it will add quality to the teacher experience for educators who carve out the time to make this a priority.

    Great post, as always, Jeff!

    - Dennis

    1. Dennis,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment! Like you, I am often exhorting teachers t focus on new and innovative instructional practices; however, the better we are at mastering the "basics," the more likely it is we can innovate. Thanks again,


  2. Jeff,

    The analogy that you shared about the "tracks" and the "train" is spot on. Thank you for sharing the basics and tipping all educators off to great reads that can help them improve their craft.

    What I appreciate about your posts is the fact that they are relevant for ALL level of educators. First year teachers and veterans can see the same message and grow from them.

    Thanks for sharing,


    1. Ben,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Thanks also for picking up on the tracks/train analogy which I still think is so apt to the topic at hand.