Teacher Blogs

By Michael Chellman, Middle School

March 2017

What's the most important word in the Bullis Middle School? Connection.

The root of every successful student is emotional engagement with the coursework. That occurs when the teacher connects with the student. In this high-tech age, such an approach might sound soft, but strong relationships have timeless value. Here are six ways I we strive to build them.

  1. Kindness. In a scene from the Sean Connery film, Finding Forrester, Jamal is a black teen and literary prodigy attending a mostly-white private school. Mr. Crawford is a white English teacher and failed author. He is arrogant and belittles weak students. Jamal submits extraordinary essays in Mr. Crawford's class and defends bullied students. Mr. Crawford expels Jamal from class. Mr. Crawford's behavior suggests an enduring truth: Who we are is how we teach. In our Middle School, we challenge in a compassionate way, seeing each child as an individual. Why? "Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness" (Lau Tzu).
  2. Respect. Our Middle Schoolers know we value them. If we treat them as immature, they will act immature. Discipline? Of course. But we also respect their right to be singular. Watch my colleagues each day: There's no place they'd rather be than working with their students—fully present, sincerely attentive. Holding students to high standards is our way of respecting their potential.
  3. Patience. Middle School teaching often requires deep breathing. Our students are sometimes frustrating. We strive to hone patience. Likewise, students must learn patience—the ally of perseverance. Adversity refines both of those qualities. Young people may want their problems solved immediately, but solutions can take time. Helping students take small steps forward requires mutual forbearance. "Patience is a powerful warrior" (Tolstoy).
  4. Humor. "It's always funny until someone gets hurt," said a comedian. "Then it's just hilarious." Bullis teachers disagree. Humor relieves tension and promotes engagement in a challenging course. But we abjure humor that is merely poorly cloaked unkindness. While laughter is no surrogate for thoughtful, innovative lessons, one word our Middle Schoolers often use to describe themselves is "happy." Learning and fun can be great partners.
  5. Truth. We lead students out of error into truth in a forthright, yet compassionate way. If a student fails an essay, for example, she is beating herself up already; she doesn't need more fault-finding from us. Instead, we help her become more aware of how she prepared for the essay. When we guide students away from self-judgment, the truth of what worked—and what didn't—reveals itself in a non-threatening way that the student accepts.
  6. Hope and Direction. We can spot students who are discouraged, tired, or adrift. Often, being noticed is enough to refresh a student's efforts. Even a brief observation as he leaves class can be meaningful ("Thanks for sharing your opinion today.") Most of all, we in the Bullis Middle School must be great leaders. It's our responsibility to shine a light on students' path ahead. As Helen Keller said, "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."

By Michael Chellman, Middle School

January 2017

"How can my students learn more?"— the question teachers have asked themselves throughout the ages.

There are traditionally two paths: factors outside the student and factors inside the student's mind.

What is the outer path? Students know it well: Advice from teachers, parents, and study guides.

What is the inner path? Students have no idea. Socrates said the key to wisdom is to "know thyself." Most students are strangers to themselves when it comes to how they learn from the inside out.

Most students have been trained to focus on performance—grades—to the exclusion of other concerns. But there is more to school than meets the gradebook.

When struggling students come to me I ask: "What do you want in this course?" A common answer is "to get a good grade"—the outer game. But there's a better game to play: Be in school to fulfill your potential.

The message to students could be: "Instead of focusing on getting an A, ask yourself, 'If I have abilities in this class, how can I get the most learning out of those abilities?' The grade will take care of itself. You think your obstacles are time, homework, and other factors outside of yourself. In reality, your biggest obstacles are inside you."

When one of my 8th graders came to me "struggling" with an 85 average, she exclaimed, "But Mr. Chellman, you don't understand. I'll be miserable if I don't get an A." She was essentially saying, "I am my performance." Her obsession with grades impeded her performance.

One task of the inner game is to help students like this 8th grader distinguish between who she is and the grades she earns, so her true self can shine through unimpeded by external factors.

The inner game reveals profound insights: Students get in the way of their own learning. Further, students don't need more outer advice; they need to apply more of the wisdom that already exists inside them. They need to learn from their own experiences.

Just like athletes need coaches, students need teachers who can train them to discover their own wealth of inner resources; to support their efforts to build learning skills; and to inspire them to overcome doubt.

Without a better understanding of the mental side of learning and some compassion for the vulnerabilities and aspirations of our students, all the study guides and teacher tips in the world won't help.

Building a bridge between the inner and outer paths can help our students thrive far beyond the classroom. Achievers in an array of professions describe it as "being in the zone" or "flow." Success in the inner game is often the deciding factor between outer game success and failure.

"Student growth psychology" is what I call the education equivalent of sports psychology. It's time to shine a light on the dim inner path as it applies to the classroom.

By Michael Chellman, Middle School

October 2016

The Wall Street Journal said he "revolutionized the teaching of foreign languages." The New York Times said his "theatrical, immersive approach" made him the "preeminent pioneer" of language instruction for students around the world.

"He" was Dartmouth Professor John Rassias, who died last year. I was one of his students.

Rassias was an unabashed performer. (Uh-oh, red flag...doesn't that mean a "teacher-centered" classroom?) I'll let Professor Rassias answer for himself:

"My method is a dramatic interpretation of language, infused with an avalanche of energy and an excessive stretch of the imagination, all presented to the students with a warm embrace and an invitation to join the action.

"The more students participate in the class, the longer they will retain the knowledge. They are emotionally involved. When they do something with all of their senses—when they come alive—they are deeply engaged.

"Interaction is playful, nurturing, rewarding. Class is free of fear. Inhibitions vanish.

"If you conform to a mode that says don't show much life in order to preserve a sense of dignity, no one is going to be energetic. I'm trying to release teachers from that.

"It's a simple concept: You perform in order to instruct. If you divorce the two, you're dead."

In short, Rassias actually had the ultimate "student-centered" classroom. Fun and drama are about making connections between the teacher, the student, and the content. It's performance with a purpose. As author and former Brandeis professor Jyl Lynn Felman says, "Emotions are a pedagogical tool. Without feelings, there is no passion; without passion, there is no appetite to learn."

So yes, whether it's Dartmouth College or the Bullis Middle School, a class can be fun...and substantive. In my class that means using music and stories to bring history alive. Fun also means lots of respectful but spirited argument on both historical and contemporary issues. We do that through debates and my own "verbal essays" similar to the lively "roundtables" on Sunday morning talk shows. Fun also means seasoning lessons with abundant doses of humor–laughter and learning make ideal partners.

My philosophy mirrors that of Harvard's Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: "I believe in the 'playfulness' of learning—turning ideas on their sides, considering them, laughing about them. Learning is at its best when it's serious and playful at the same time. There is an art to the interplay of discipline and humor."

By Michael Chellman, Middle School

September 2016

First day of class–students' attention is locked in. I need to highlight one key theme that will echo throughout the year. Silently, I put up a sign on one side of the room: "I Always DO My Work." Then I say:

"If this sign applies to you, please stand in front of it."

In their minds, a sigh of relief–easy question! All students move confidently to the sign. I look at them impassively for a few moments. Then state:

"That's disappointing to see."

Their smiles disappear, replaced by shock and confusion. This teacher doesn't want us to do our work? I let them ponder this implausibility. Then I put up a second sign, on the opposite wall: "I Always LEARN My Work." After they have time to consider the distinction, I say:

"Would anyone like to move to the other sign? If you are not sure, stand in the middle of the room."

Many students now have an "Aha!" expression as they see the light. Most move to the "I Always LEARN My Work" side. A few stand in the middle of the room; they are the most courageous–willing to admit uncertainty. I survey the room and announce:

"Now let's talk about the difference between DOING and LEARNING."

The first lively conversation of the school year ensues. In fact, it's a demonstration and discussion that students tell me they long remember. Activity is not equivalent to achievement...and we will revisit this first discussion frequently during the year.

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