An Easy Way to Clear Your Mind of Stress

October has dug her heels in, and with this (hopefully) chilly and transitional month, it’s possible that you’re a little stressed.

If there ever was a honeymoon in your class, it’s surely over at this point. Reading tests are over and you’re teaching actual content. Administrators are popping their heads in for a visit every now and then. Maybe your first report cards are due. Conferences are right around the corner.

Just thinking about it can exhaust you.

It’s almost like your head is a hotel aquarium of fish. Only they’re not the nice kind of fish. They’re the kind with teeth and swim around glaring at each other, ramming into the sides of the aquarium as hard as they possibly can for no reason.

So you try to empty the water, so to speak, through strategies like meditation, yoga, or wine. And yet, the tank fills up again and the fish are back. There are too many to count and even worrying about the fish creates more fish.

We can’t solve our angry fish problem just by thinking about it. Thus, we need a system.

What I’ve got for your today is something to have ready in your back pocket for when life gets overwhelming and you feel so squashed that you can’t even think about your own thoughts without shutting down. It’s something that can take 10 minutes and, unlike yoga and meditation, will put you on a direct path to chopping down the trees of the forest that is growing in your brain.

It’s called a brain dump. (If you don’t like that term, you might want to call it a mind spill. Or a head drip. You get the idea.)

Get yourself a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Label the first column “STUFF.” Yes, with capital letters. The capital letters are important for therapeutic reasons.

In the stuff column, you’re going to write down everything that is on your mind. Big, small, wide, dark, light, depressing… it doesn’t matter. You’re going to write it all.

Write down your biggest fears. Write down what’s bothering you about your room. Write down how you don’t know how to do your taxes and will have to call your mom again. Write down your anxiety over the broken floor tile and how a student might trip over it. Your column might look a little like this:

• Taxes frighten me and I’m 32 and it shouldn’t be this confusing
• That broken floor tile will most definitely hurt a child and get me fired
• I still don’t have a new lunchbox and have been carrying soup in my bare hands to work every day
• Long flight to Africa next month and I have flight anxiety
• Jamie’s mom forgets to give him medication and he goes nuts in my class
• My grandma is sick and I’m not sure how long she has

Everything you possibly can. When you can’t think of anything new for more than a full minute, you’re at the end of this phase.

Now, look at this list. Look at all of its pain and misery. Now, those fish are out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Your head’s lighter. Congratulations.

Label the second column NEXT. Again, all caps.

This is the column where you will write the very next action needed for each of the items that are worrying you in the STUFF column. The stuff column is not nearly as important as NEXT.

The next action needs to be something you can reasonably do in one sitting (whatever a sitting is for you). And it doesn’t need to solve the entire problem; it just needs to make a dent. It could be something as simple as googling something, or sending an email. The key here is something that requires no real critical thinking.

Now, your list might look more like this:

• Taxes frighten me and I’m 32 and it shouldn’t be this confusing –> Send email to cool accountant uncle asking what I should do
• That broken floor tile will most definitely hurt a child and get me fired –> send an email to facilities staff
• I still don’t have a new lunchbox and have been carrying soup in my bare hands to work every day –> research thermal soup containers on amazon
Long flight to Africa next month and I have flight anxiety
• Jamie’s mom forgets to give him medication and he goes nuts in my class –> take 5 mins to scribble down a rough plan for Jamie on his non-medicated days to review later with his social worker
• My grandma is sick and I’m not sure how long she has –> Call grandma to say hi

Notice that my next action for Jamie requires a little bit of thought – this is okay, as long I allow my “rough plan” to really be rough. In other words, I’ll actually spend 5 minutes, without judging it, because I know I’ll be looking over it with a colleague later on anyway (and you’ll be surprised at how good your 5 minute rough ideas end up being much of the ).

Also, notice that I crossed out the item about my flight anxiety. This is because I couldn’t think of a good next action for this worry. And if I can’t think of a good next action, it means I have absolutely no control. Assuming I don’t want to cancel the flight.

And if you have no control, you might as well cross this worry off your list. This physical action represents the oh-so-important ritual of “letting go” of what is beyond your control.

And for everything else, there’s the next action. A to-do list that you can actually do in an afternoon or less. There will be more next actions, of course.

But for now, you’ve made progress. Your mind is clear.

And that’s important.



Your Inbox is a Rat’s Nest. Here’s How You Can Fix it.

Last week, we talked about how difficult it is to email with people who work in education. I mentioned how frustrating it is to email with people who work in education because of how many emails get ignored, forgotten, or just straight up deleted.

Of course, what I neglected to mention, is that you, dear reader, also work in education. You, too, have an inbox. You, too, neglect emails on occasion. And you’ve no doubt annoyed people with a lack of a response or a dropped email here or there. We all have.

So, today, we’re going to examine why this happens and develop a system to do something about it. But before we do that, I should probably tell you that when I see otherwise effective people get totally sideswiped by their email inboxes, it frustrates me.

It frustrates me because I know in my heart that a few simple tweaks to your email habits can make you more effective at email. I know this because I was once one of those people with a rat’s nest of an inbox. And every single time my inbox loaded, I felt anxious. Every single email that asked a question to which I did not have answer just sat there gathering dust until eventually the person followed up or I just deleted the email.

But today is the day you fix all of that with a little trick. It’s a two-part question you’re going to ask yourself every time you get an email. Write it on a sticky and put it on your laptop until it becomes second nature. This is worth it. You can’t control the actions and habits of others, you can control your own actions and habits.

Here’s the question: What action is required of me to close this open loop? What is the next action I will need to take?

That’s it. Seems simple, right? But it’s not what our brains do when we encounter an email. We freeze up. What we need to do to relieve our anxiety is to take action on every email. But before you scream at me, realize that taking action is a lot simpler than you might think.

The next action for an email might be any (but not limited to) of the following:

  • Respond saying “I don’t know” and then archive it.
  • Forward it to your task management application and then archive it.
  • Make a note in your task management application and then archive it.
  • Enter an important event from the email in your calendar, and then archive it.
  • Label/Folder/Tag the email as “in process” and then archive it.
  • Label/Folder/Tag the email as “Waiting on” and then archive it.
  • Forward it to FollowUpThen to automate a reminder at a later date and then archive it.
  • Forward it to a party that might offer a better solution and then archive it.
  • Leave it in your inbox until later that day when you have a 10 minute window, then decide what to do with it, and then archive it.


A few things to note here. Notice that every single step ends with archiving the email. In other words, it’s removed from your inbox but still accessible if you need to search for it again. The next action you need to take has already happened. The ball is in motion on something, even if that something means you deferred an action from that email to a to-do list.  Also, you may need to archive your inbox first so that you start clean. Here’s how to do that in Gmail and in Outlook.

Think of your disgusting inbox like a big juicy orange. Every day, you’re going to squeeze everything that you can out of the orange. All of the event notifications into your calendar, required actions into your to-do list, un-actionable items in a Waiting On folder, etc etc etc. At the end of it, you should have a clean inbox, and all of your other systems should be full of orange juice.

And that’s pretty sweet, friends.

An Unusual Yet Effective Way to Stay on Top of Email (Part 1)

I’ll just come out and say it: emailing people in the world of education is frustrating.

It’s nothing personal. Busy people are tough to get a hold of, and educators are some of the busiest people I can think of.

Even more stressful than email itself is the way we tend to ponder strategy over medium to high level requests.

Should I make my email brief and to the point? Should I include details in case they don’t understand what I’m asking? Should I CC my supervisor? Should I CC their supervisor?

Field trip accommodations, lunch duty schedules, vacation approvals… requests big and small get ignored all the time, and on top of that there’s the waiting game, in which we ask ourselves even more questions.

Is it too soon to follow up? Am I being rude if I email them again and again to check in? Am I being annoying?

It can be overwhelming. It can hurt your chances at getting what you need for your students. And everyone knows that after a certain point, the email you sent about getting bagged lunches for a field trip can just get dropped completely.

Thus, we need a system.

But we can’t build a new system on top of our email system. That’s cumbersome. We can’t make a new auto-reminder in our phone to follow up every time we email a busy person or we’d never get anything else done.

So today, the tool I have for you is a service called FollowUpThen. Here’s how it works.

You need to email your principal to get bagged lunches for the upcoming field trip. For past trips, you’ve made sure to send the email way ahead of time, and you’ve even somehow remembered to follow up a week before the trip… and then on the morning of the trip, you realize that the email was never answered, your kids are going to starve, and, in lieu of actual food, they’re going to eat you instead.

This time, however, you know better. There’s an entire month until the trip. So you send the following email.

Subject: Bagged Lunches for 4/2 Trip

Greetings Principal,

I will be needing all of the bagged lunches for the upcoming field trip so that my students are satiated and therefore will not ruin my life. Will you help a friend in need?

Thank you,
Mr. Teacher

Notice what I did there? I put a weird, special email address in the BCC address. This email address communicates with FollowUpThen. Very quietly, in a BCCish sort of way, it says:

“Hey. I’m done playing the remember to follow up game. Send this email back to me in a week because I’m pretty sure I won’t have a response by then. When I see it pop up in my inbox, I’ll know to send a follow up.” And then a week later, the email returns to your inbox. The reminder is built right into the BCC box. There’s almost nothing more brilliant I can think of to solve this problem.

The service is free, but you can’t send more than 50 follow up email per month. (And if you have more than 50 follow ups per month, you may need to re-examine your work environment.)

The premium service does have a cool benefit though – if the person responds before your reminder pops up, the reminder is cancelled. This was enough reason for me to put down the $5/month for the premium service, but it may not be worth that much to everyone else. There are some other benefits as well, but this is definitely the most worthwhile feature.

And, even if you only use this service for the highest of high priorities… it makes a difference.

Rock on, email warriors.




A System for Creativity in Lesson Planning: The MI Deck (and how I use it)

They say that teaching is an art. As such, teachers should allow their practice to be influenced by the habits, cultures, and attitudes of the best artists.

Brian Eno, Chuck Jones, and Howard Gardner Share a Meal

Two of the best artists I can think of are Chuck Jones and Brian Eno.

Jones did all the Looney Tunes work. Not only did he understand his craft with remarkable depth, but he also believed that discipline is the act of setting constraints on yourself. His embodiment of this sort of discipline resulted in characters like Marvin the Martian (what about a character with eyes but no face?) and Bugs Bunny (or a character who only fights when provoked?).

Eno is the inventor of ambient music, and he has a way of looking at art that breaks boundaries almost immediately. He approaches a creative problem with a completely different set of assumptions than his colleagues or sometimes abandons his assumptions entirely. Even though he’s an artistic visionary, he conducts his day-to-day work more like a scientist. Eno’s a big believer in systems. In fact, some of his musical pieces were created using a computer algorithm. Eno would set the parameters and the piece would develop on its own through a process called “generative music.” He invented many tools with which to scientifically generate creative work.

A Different Kind of Lesson Planning Tool

One such tool Eno used is the “Oblique Strategies,” a deck of cards for when he was stuck or needed some fresh perspective in a recording session.

“Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame,” one card reads. “Work at a different speed,” reads another one. The text is non-specific. It doesn’t point you in any one direction, but it jiggles your brain and forces you to create a new constraint, thereby allowing you to view the work from a previously hidden vantage point.

Learning experiences? They’re pieces of art, too. I’ve seen enough beauties over the past two or so years to fill an entire gallery. Experiences that began as constraints like:

“What if I told half the room a secret?”

“How about if I instructed using only my hands?”

“What if I allowed students to pass notes?”

“Is the classroom the best place for learning?”

“Why is this topic important to our community?”

“What if students wielded the thing that fascinates them?”

I started collecting these provocations. I scribbled them onto the backs of pamphlets at PDs, emailed myself from grad class, and updated a text file anytime I saw a teacher create a rich learning experience for their students. I imagined what constraint the artist/teacher may have made for themselves when they planned the experience, and then added it to the list. Inspired by Eno’s Oblique Strategies, I dreamed of making my own deck of cards for teachers, one that would help cultivate deep learning experiences.

During winter and spring breaks, I designed the deck and created a website where anyone can come and “pull” a virtual card to feed their inspiration. I called it the MI Deck. The first thing you see when you load up the site is text from one of the cards. Below the text is a letter, which represents one of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Click the shuffle button as many times as you want to read more cards. It’s a bit like a fortune cookie for teachers planning lessons, and it connects to the work of Eno, Jones, and Gardner.

How I Use the Deck

Objective: Students will write an informative essay to compare the economy and mood of today with that of the 1940’s (RI 5.2, RI 5.9).

MI Card:

businesscard_template_usHow I Used It: I played the song Blue Skies by Irving Berlin on my guitar and sang it while students read the lyrics. We had already built background knowledge about the Great Depression, so we talked about why a songwriter would juxtapose this happy song against such a difficult time in US history. It was a great lead-in to the work and activated students’ musical, verbal, and interpersonal minds.

Objective: Students will describe how setting contributes to the mood of the first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time (RL 4.3).

MI Cards:


businesscard_template_usHow I Used Them: The first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time is dense and has a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary for 4th graders, so to engage them and help English Language Learners understand the mood/feeling of the text, I brought in a record player with a vinyl record that plays a 20 minute hailstorm, similar to the one that the characters experience in the story. I began with the record player on the floor and the record on top, and using only my hands, I instructed students how to set up the record player and how to start playing the record. As soon as the rainstorm sounds began, I started reading. The whole thing felt very special and magical, bigger than your usual read aloud.

Objective: Students will describe how the perspective in “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” is different than the one in the original story (RL 4.6, RL 4.2).

MI Card:

businesscard_template_usHow I Used It: This was their first experience thinking about perspective, so we started by looking at optical illusions. The one that surprised them the most was the dress illusion. When they realized half the class saw the dress as white/gold and the other half saw it as blue/black, the idea of perspective began to sink in. We discussed how the same event can look completely different to different people and how this idea is at the core of social studies. This stimulated visual and linguistic intelligences.

Objective: Students will identify the components of a “Hero’s Quest” according to Foster and, in groups, will develop examples of each component (RL 4.1, 4.9, 4.8).

MI Card:

businesscard_template_usHow I Used It: Each table team was assigned one of the elements of the hero’s quest (quester, challenges, stated reason for going, etc). They came up with one example of their given component independent of other groups and I wrote down each group’s response on the board, creating a weird mad-lib mega quest (filled with things like “Superman has to go to the bank to get a slurpee, but he encounters an ice breathing dragon”). Then, we acted out the scenes and used objects in the room as props. My favorite was someone using a blue piece of construction paper as the ice-breathing dragon. This activity stimulated students’ kinesthetic and verbal intelligences.

Without these provocations, my planning process would have probably resulted in less engaging learning experiences. That’s because rich learning experiences are a result of creativity, which is the process of linking two seemingly unrelated ideas. The MI Deck provides teachers with seeds to generate their ideas, thereby enabling the creative process in lesson planning.

Got an idea for a card? Email or tweet at me!

A Process for Making Effective Rules & Expectations

It happens every single year.

You sit down, by yourself or perhaps with your co-teacher, and you begin to talk about the rules of the classroom.

Inevitably, the discussion seems to hover around these questions:

* Do we have too many rules?
* Do we have too few rules?
* Should we call them “expectations?”
* Will students writing the rules help them “buy-in?”
* What rules did we use last year? Were they effective?
* Does the order of the rules matter?
* Are they too repetitive?
* Are they framed in a positive manner?

And the discussion goes round and round until both parties become exhausted and end up agreeing on a set of rules that are “good enough.”

But the truth is, the way in which you select rules matters quite a bit. Brainstorming rules out of thin air, or based on what you’ve seen or done before won’t be as effective. Thus, we need a system.

Today, I’ve got a system for you that will guide you in the creation of effective rules and expectations. I’ve adapted this system from Dr. Richard Curwin’s small but mighty book Affirmative Classroom Management, which you should definitely pick up if you want a deeper dive into the ins and outs of rule making, classroom management, and everything in between.

(And if you’re a teacher who believes in writing rules with students, you can guide your class with this exact same process.)

Step 1: Make a list of Values

I once visited a school where the school wide rules were posted in the front office. They were, in this order: be safe, be kind, learn as much as you can.

Alas, these aren’t rules, according to Curwin. They’re actually the pre-cursor to rules: they’re values. And it’s important to get them right on your way to developing the most effective rules for your classroom.

Put aside the idea of rules, limits, and consequences for a second. On a whiteboard, or a piece of paper, write down your values in the context of the classroom.

Generally, values can be summed up in one word. Things like safety. Kindness. Growth. Values explain the why of the eventual rules, according to Curwin.

This list of values will become your guiding light as you form your rules and expectations.

Step 2: Make a list of potential rules.

On a separate sheet, write down your values in large text. Under each value, start to develop potential rules based on the value above it. For instance, if the value is Safety, you might write down:

* Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself.
* Ask for permission before leaving your seat.

Or, if your value is kindness, you might write:

* Use kind, specific and helpful words with classmates.
* Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Do this until you’ve exhausted your ideas. It’s okay to have rules that are similar; even some that are outlandish or nit-picky (hold scissors by the blade, for instance, or only drink water in the classroom).

Step 3: Categorize your rules into two categories: rules and expectations.

Curwin says that there’s a difference between rules and expectations. He says that rules have set consequences that are enforced every time they’re broken, and expectations are enforced on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, an expectation might be for students to bring their reading log signed by a parent every day. If a child doesn’t bring the log, the consequence might be different depending a variety of factors. Perhaps the child’s parents work at night and they’re in the care of an older sibling, or perhaps they bring it every day normally but forgot. In one case, the consequence might be checking in the child about alternate ways to get the log signed (or a different way of being accountable for their reading). Or perhaps it’s completing the reading during a class period. It’s an expectation, and not a rule, in cases the like these.

Step 4: Finalize the wording of the rules.

At this point, you’ll have a core set of rules. They will have been honed from your (or your class’) values, and the expectations (those rules that won’t be enforced in the same way every single time) will be filtered out. Now, you need to focus on the wording.

According to Curwin, you shouldn’t try to limit the amount of rules you have. It’s about what your class needs in order to be successful. That may mean you have three rules, but it may mean you have seven. The goal is to have a list that reflects your values and are rules you’re willing to enforce every single time they’re broken.

And that’s the other crucial piece – rules must be enforceable, and the language that is used in their creation matters in this regard. For instance, Curwin suggests avoiding the temptation to frame all rules in a positive way. In Affirmative Classroom Management, he gives the example of a teacher who made the rule “Only use put-ups” as a way to re-frame a rule that was originally written as “No put downs.” The difference is that the latter is enforceable and the former is not.

Did this system work for you? Let me know! And if it was super helpful to you, would you send it out to a few people and maybe convince them to join the mailing list? Growing this list will help spread these ideas far and wide. Thanks for your support, as always.



How I Built a Daily Reflection Habit Using Simple Email

It’s still technically summer, but it’s almost fall and many teachers are returning to school for professional development. No matter what your PD is about, there’s one thing that you’ll hear over and over again. It’s advice that isn’t just confined to the practice of teaching, in fact, it’s advice that you’ll hear in the medical field as well, or any field in which mastery requires a lot of metacognition (that is, thinking about your own thinking). The advice is…

Be a reflective practitioner.

So why would you as a teacher, want to be a reflective practitioner?

  • Being reflective means that you’re curious about your student’s habits, and your reaction to your students. You will be a better teacher if you’re thinking about how you’re thinking.
  • Being reflective means that you have a growth mindset. You’re more interested in how far you’ve come rather than how you stack to your colleagues. This makes you less competitive with others and sets you up to become better than you were yesterday.
  • Being reflective allows you to notice patterns in your anxiety. The things you were worried about yesterday, or a year ago, are not the things you’re worried about today. That really helps in intense moments.

Starting and Stopping and Starting and Stopping…

The problem is that it’s hard to find the time to be reflective. We may start a notebook, or a digital journal, but we let it fall by the wayside. Occasionally, during breaks or weekends, we may find time to write down our thoughts… but if we’re not reflecting consistently and systematically, we won’t get all of the benefits of a reflective mindset.

A Solution

So today, I’ve got a tool for you that will allow you to better understand the relationship between your past and present self so that you plan more effectively for the future. The best part is, if you already live inside your email inbox, you can easily build this habit. The tool is called The Little Memory and it works like this…

Every day, at a time you specify, The Little Memory will email you asking how your day was. You click reply and type a response. It can be as short or as long as you want. You can go into great detail about your day or you can type one word, it doesn’t matter. Then you send the email. The message goes back to The Little Memory and gets stored in your account. It’s completely private – there’s no news feed or friend list. You don’t even have to log in other than when you set up your account, though you may want to if you ever want to flip back through your entries.

Reflect Forward, Reflect Backward

Here’s the coolest part. At the end of every email that you get from The Little Memory, you’ll find a memory from the past. And even cooler than that, you get to decide where that memory comes from. You can set it up so that you see what you wrote a week ago, a year ago, 2 years ago, or just a random memory from your archive. Seeing what you wrote a week ago is a great place to start, especially if you don’t have a year’s worth of material yet. This way, you’re constantly getting to see what your week-ago self was thinking, and compare it to your current thoughts… all without leaving your inbox.

There’s also an iPhone app that will send you a daily notification, if that works better for you. Another thing I love about the iPhone app is that once you build up enough entries, you can swipe back through a day ago, a week ago, and years ago really easily. You can login anytime to see where you were and what you were thinking in various points of your life.

By the way, I don’t work for TLM or get any sort of benefit from promoting it. I’ve just used it for over 5 years and have seen major benefits. Many of my teacher friends are converts too.

Oh yeah, and it’s free. If you want to, you can pay $25 for a year of Pro service. You get some analytics (like a line graph of your most frequently used words), but it’s not necessary. The free account does the job just fine.

I hope you’ll sign up so that you can manage your thoughts more efficiently this school year.

If this was helpful to you, please forward it to a few teachers that could use some ideas. Till next time!