Preventing Profanity with Peace and Love

July 17, 2010

In Attention-Deficit: The Other Kind, I wrote:

    …the more you wear a pet peeve on your sleeve, the more kids will trigger it. Such was the case for me with profanity, which completely bugged the sh_ _ out of me as a new teacher. And sure enough, the more I admonished students for swearing, the more they did it. It was only when I came up with a more proactive, less confrontational approach that I was able to get cussing under control.

So how did I get cussing under control? Well, it started with a reality check re: my initial response to profanity, which was purely punitive—i.e., any time a kid cussed, I took disciplinary action. Yet no matter how many calls I made to parents or referrals I sent to the dean (my single-day record was 37!), profanity prevailed. And the more I punished students for cussing, the more adversarial my relationship with them became. Finally, exasperated by how much time I was spending policing profanity and how ineffective it was, I sought a better approach.

I started by recognizing the difference between students saying, “that m.f.  is cool” and “you’re a m.f.” Both were unacceptable, but the former was usually unhostile. It was also often unconscious—i.e., expressions like, “sh_ _, man…” and “fu _ _ in’ cool” were so much a part of students’ vernacular that they didn’t even know they were cussing, and even when they did, they didn’t consider it inappropriate. (No wonder my relationship with them became so adversarial.) And since nearly all cussing in my classroom was of this incidental (vs. intentional) nature, I decided to treat most profanity as a teachable offense rather than a punishable one. In short, I needed to raise students’ self-awareness of their cussing and, in turn, their ability to self-regulate it. And the way I did this was through a simple rule: 

Any time you’re about to use fu_ _ or sh_ _ , replace it with peace or love or a derivative thereof. 

Pretty crazy, huh? Agreed, but also effective—much more so than even I expected. In fact, the very day I introduced this “rule,” students ran with it. And not just any students, but some of the biggest offenders, who really got into calling classmates “mother lovers” or telling me I was “full of peace.” Better yet, when students slipped up, their classmates—not I— let them know it: “you mean ‘peace’ or ‘love.'” And even better, the offenders themselves soon began to acknowledge their slip-ups mid-sentence: “oops, my bad.” Hello self-awareness and self-regulation! And good-bye adversarial relationship.

Are there other ways to prevent profanity in the classroom? Of course. I’ve worked with schools whose zero-tolerance policy has been effective because all staff enforced it and the administration followed through on it. But in some schools, a high incidence of more serious infractions can result in a lack of consistency and urgency with respect to lesser offenses such as profanity. Sound familiar? If so, maybe it’s time for a more peaceful and loving approach.


Twitter Announcement

July 10, 2010

FYI you can now follow me on Twitter. Professional stuff only–notifications of blog posts, articles, resources, etc.

Increase Time On Task Through Tighter Transitions

July 9, 2010

Thank you to reader Mary for the following question in response to my last post:

Can you share more what/how you reflect on classroom management?

And now my reply:

To me an overarching classroom management objective is maximizing on-task time—for students and teachers. I’ve shared in prior posts some strategies that serve this purpose, so check those out if you haven’t already (just click on the “Classroom Management” category). But one key area I haven’t addressed much in prior posts is transitions. Early in my career I lost lots of time ending one activity and starting (or trying to start) another. The problem was that kids were zoning out or acting out between activities because I was giving them opportunities to do so.

Eventually I realized that I needed to have something constructive for students to do at ALL times. Whereas, for example, I once collected the daily class opener before getting students started on something else, I later put off collecting it until I had replaced it on the overhead with another activity. And thanks to that and other similar efforts to tighten my transitions, I experienced a dramatic, immediate increase in teaching/learning time.

One other point in response to Mary’s question: there’s often overlap between effective classroom management and effective instruction. Take a look at my earlier posts The Overhead Projector: Don’t Overlook It and Assessing Through Asking for examples of what I’m talking about.

More on Summertime R and R

July 8, 2010

In today’s Teacher Magazine article, Summer Project: Tweaking Those Flawed Lessons, middle school teacher Marsha Ratzel makes the same case for teachers reflecting on and revising their practice over the summer that I made in my recent post, The Other R and R. But whereas I focused mostly on classroom management, Marsha focuses on instruction by sharing her process for improving lessons from year to year. An enjoyable, practical article–check it out!

Taking More Time to Write Less

July 4, 2010

Years ago I was subbing for a third grade class where the teacher left an assignment for students to write what they remembered about a story they had read. And I’ll never forget one boy’s response: “What I remember about the story is that it was boring.” Sharp kid, I thought, and was tempted to accept his “essay” right then. But I instead insisted he write more, suggesting he explain why he found the story to be boring. 

No regrets, since I do think it was important for the student to write more in that case. Often, though, teachers stress quantity of writing at the expense of quality—not our intent, of course, but that’s how it plays out with many students. I recall from my own schooling how my peers and I would stretch out our words to meet a minimum length requirement. Literally stretch them out when an assignment called for a minimum number of pages—no computers back then, so we would just write bigger. Unfortunately, some teachers were onto us, and instead required a minimum number of words, leaving us no choice but to write more.  

Writing more, however, does not necessarily mean writing better, and often means writing worse. I’m reminded of a quote by Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” (There’s an earlier version of this attributed to Blaise Pascal: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.”) The point being that it’s a lot easier to ramble when you write than to be concise. Yet good writing involves making your point in the fewest words possible—painstaking as it may be, which I know first-hand as a recovering rambler.

And so, as important as it is for kids to write often (see the Carnegie report, Writing to Read, I referred to in my last post, The Reading-Writing Connection), it’s also important for them to write less. As for resources to help students tighten their writing, here are two that have made a huge difference for me on the road to rambling recovery:

  1. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well 
  2. William Strunk’s and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, which you can read online for free at, and can buy for $10 or less from various sources including Amazon

The Reading-Writing Connection

June 29, 2010

Sooner or later, in education and/or employment settings, students’ writing abilities will be put to the test. And from what I’ve seen the past several years, a lot of them are going to fail. One reason for this: many schools are putting little or no emphasis on writing these days—an inevitable response to having tons of pressure on them to improve students’ math and reading skills, but little or no pressure to improve students’ writing skills.

In reality, though, this response not only shortchanges students with respect to writing, but also with respect to reading. This according to Writing to Reada recent Carnegie Corporation report published by the Alliance for Excellent Education, which finds that writing is an often-overlooked tool for improving reading skills. And my recent experience bears this out—i.e., students whose schools have stressed writing in their curriculum have achieved greater reading gains than those of their peers at schools where writing has been, well, written off.  

The Carnegie report also presents three writing instructional practices that enhance students’ reading: 

  1. Have students write about the texts they read
  2. Teach students the writing skills and processes that go into creating text
  3. Increase how much students write

Check out the report, especially if you’ve been de-emphasizing writing lately. Who knows? It may even inspire you to do some writing of your own this summer—as in re-writing your writing curriculum.

The Other R and R

June 23, 2010

A mentor of mine says mistakes are the best thing that can happen to you—as long as you learn from them. And as a teacher, you’re always going to make mistakes. Learning from them, however, is a different story. In fact, teaching can be so isolating and so consuming that you don’t always know when you’ve made a mistake, let alone the cause of it.

What’s more, even when teachers do know what went wrong and what they need to do differently, there’s a tendency to live with mistakes until the timing seems right for correcting them. As an instructional coach and new teacher induction facilitator, I often hear teachers say they “can’t wait till next year” so they can make various changes in their classrooms. 

Well, guess what? Next year has begun. Sure you need—and deserve!—rest and relaxation this summer. But it’s also important—and your students deserve!—for you to engage in other R and R this summer: reflection and revision. 

Start by prioritizing.  For most newer teachers, this means classroom management. Run through the policies and procedures you had in place this year. What worked and why? What didn’t work and why? What problems arose because you had no policy or procedure? Be sure to address these and other questions as objectively as possible—my article, Classroom Turnaround Plan, includes a process for doing this. 

As for specific solutions, read/revisit my prior “Classroom Management” posts—especially check out Disorganization-Proofing Your Classroom if you’re organizationally challenged. And if you’re looking for behavior management support, Attention-Deficit: The Other Kind features several strategies that have made a huge difference for me and teachers I’ve supported.

There are, of course, many other great classroom management resources, with The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong being among the most comprehensive. The Wongs also write a monthly column at—lots of practical (and free!) ideas, and this month’s article includes summaries of (and links to) all previous articles.  

As for you veteran teachers whose classrooms already run like clockwork, consider focusing this summer on content. Improving how you teach just one skill or concept can go a long way toward improving learning in your classroom overall. One summer, for example, I committed to researching and developing a system for teaching students a basic yet elusive math skill (adding and subtracting integers), and from that year forward was a much more effective Algebra teacher as a result.  

Whatever aspect of teaching you target for improvement, the important thing is that you return in the fall a  better teacher. In short, to not take time over the summer to reflect on last year and revise for next year is to resign yourself to repeating mistakes from year to year. And my advice from personal experience: do it now while this past year is still fresh. Plus, the sooner you get your reflecting and revising  out of the way, the sooner you’ll be able to rest and relax.

Best wishes for a summer of R and R… and R and R!!