Building Habits

August 24, 2007 at 5:53 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, culture, drama, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, food, friends, High School, history, humor, kids, life, love, Middle School, movies, music, news, Parents, personal, photography, poetry, politics, principals, reading, religion, school, school administration, sports, teachers, technology, Thornebrooke, thoughts, travel, Uncategorized, video, women, writing)

It takes 27 days to form a habit. Remember when your mother used to ask you to make your bed every day? Then, after a while, you simply started making it on your own —without having to be reminded to do it. Making your bed every day had become a habit.

In my column, Laying the Groundwork, I discussed the importance of brainstorming expectations and procedures as part of laying the groundwork for building good habits. This time, I want to discuss in a little more detail the kinds of habits we want to build in our students — and how we can build them.

When thinking about the kinds of good habits you want students to develop, go back to that list of expectations and procedures you created. For me, for example, it’s important that students enter my classroom, check their mailboxes, and start working on their focus assignment before the first bell rings. It’s important that when I use the quiet signal, my students get quiet and focus on me. I expect my students to stay in a quiet straight line when I walk with them down the hall. It’s also important to me for students to be silent, with a clean area, before I dismiss them. Those types of habits, as well as others, also might be important to you. If you’re not really sure what you expect of your students, then take some time right now to brainstorm those actions and behaviors that you want to become habits for your students.

Okay, you have your list. You might be asking yourself, “Why is it important that I help build these habits?” The reason is to save yourself stress later on in the school year. Spring semester might seem like a long way away, but it will come around a lot faster than you think. Students who are not following good habits in the fall have a tendency to let spring fever get out of hand. Behavior can become more erratic then, and without good habits in place, students are more likely to get out of control. By setting the standards at the beginning of the year and turning good behaviors into good habits, you save yourself a lot of time and stress later.

But how can you build in students the good habits you expect? First, clearly explain your expectations to students. Next, make sure students practice the correct actions and behaviors daily. (It’s especially important to practice behaviors over and over again during the first couple of weeks of school.) Third, be consistent about requiring specific behaviors. If you see students not meeting your expectations, don’t be afraid to stop and take the time to practice the correct action or behavior right then and there.

For example, if I notice that many students are entering the classroom and “hanging out” without starting their work before the bell rings, I stop everything and practice my expectations. I have students file out of the classroom and re-enter correctly. If students are not following my quiet signal, we stop immediately and practice until they get it right. By doing that consistently, students begin to see that I will hold them accountable for their actions. After 27 days or more of doing the same actions over and over again, the behaviors become a habit for students. What you want to achieve is a classroom in which students know what to do and when to do it. That is a well-disciplined classroom.
You might find, of course, that as the year progresses, you need to stop and practice your expectations again. That is perfectly normal and can be thought of as “maintenance.”

Before you know it, however, your students will be entering the classroom and doing exactly what you expect of them — whether you are there to remind them or not. Good behavior has become — just like making your bed each day — a habit. In the end, that’s precisely what we strive to accomplish.
As you work toward that goal, remember the maxim “Good habits are hard to break” — and practice, practice, practice.


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Using Pop Culture in the Classroom and @ Home

February 16, 2007 at 5:56 pm (art, children, culture, Education, Parents, reading, school, technology, travel)

You’re the Top! Pop Culture Then and Now

ColiseumThis lesson, appropriate for most secondary classrooms, entails writing about present-day pop culture as well as learning about pop culture of the past by using Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top!” (1934) to touch on many issues relevant to a language arts classroom, especially the literary technique of cataloguing.

The lesson also provides opportunities for student research on particular time periods. Students can include pop culture items from those particular time periods (relevant to the literature they are studying, for example) in expressing the “tops” in pop culture.

From Theory to Practice
This lesson employs the teaching strategy of “text-tapping,” which Lynn Langer Meeks and Carol Jewkes Austin describe as “a combination of guided reading and writing strategies that use a text as a source for ideas and instruction.” The idea is to use one text in order to produce another, student-created text. In this way, students use their primary discourses (those acquired mostly subconsciously through daily interaction) in order to learn and demonstrate secondary discourses (those learned through formal schooling). In doing so, the students understand that their primary discourses are valued, and thus they will be more inclined to participate in secondary discourses. Common strategies of text-tapping include having students write newspaper articles based on literature, update Shakespeare’s language into modern language, and write alternative endings to literature.

Further Reading
Gee, J.P. “First Language Acquisition as a Guide for Theories of Learning and Pedagogy.” Linguistics and Education 6 (1994): 331-354.

Meeks, Lynn Langer and Carol Jewkes Austin. Literacy in the Secondary English Classroom: Strategies for Teaching the Way Kids Learn. Boston: Pearson, 2003.

Student Objectives
Students will

  • work independently or in groups to reflect on items in pop culture of the past to determine items’ place in pop culture.
  • brainstorm “tops” in pop culture of the present day.
  • use rhyme and rhythm to imitate Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top!”
  • discuss and critique items worthy of recognition in today’s pop culture.
Instructional Plan


  • Get an audio copy (or several versions) of “You’re the Top.” Recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Stacey Kent, and Barbara Streisand are recommended.
  • Make copies of the lyrics and chart, one for each student.
  • If you choose the online option for reflection, test the Online Self-Reflection Checklist on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Instruction and Activities

Session One

  1. Begin by setting the context.
    • Use this lesson plan after the class has become familiar with Walt Whitman’s work, which extensively uses the stylistic device of cataloguing (a list of people, things, events). Review what the class has learned about the cataloguing technique in writing and brainstorm a list of popular songs that include this technique. This lesson can also be used after the ReadWriteThink lessons Put That on the List: Collaboratively Writing a Catalog Poem and Put That on the List: Independently Writing a Catalog Poem.
    • Use this lesson with any other work in which one character expresses affection for another. For example, students can brainstorm expressions that Romeo uses to describe Juliet (“rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” “Juliet is the sun,” “bright angel”) and discuss the value of such compliments. Ask students to think of more modern compliments and ways of saying that someone is “the top.”
    • Use this lesson with any major text in which you want to teach more about the culture of the time. Students can put themselves in place of the characters and complete the lesson as though they are members of a specific time period.
  2. Introduce the song “You’re the Top” with a little background—It was written in 1934 by Cole Porter, who uses items from pop culture to express his feelings about another person.
  3. Preview the activity for students: They will listen to the song, look at a list of the pop culture items to see what they feel is still valid today, brainstorm replacements for other items, and create revised lyrics for the song.
  4. Hand out the lyrics, and listen to the song.
  5. Respond to any immediate comments that students have about the song.
  6. Hand out the Lyrics Analysis Chart.
  7. Ask students, working independently or in groups, to discuss the current cultural relevance of items and to brainstorm a list of items they’d like to include. You can encourage students to be as exact with rhythm and rhyme as Porter is, depending on your own purpose for using this lesson.
  8. While students work, if desired, play the song (or several versions) in the background so they can become more familiar with the tune, rhythm, and rhyme.
  9. If reference materials are available, encourage students to look up any details from the song that they need more information on before choosing a substitute.
  10. For the rest of the period, students can re-write the lyrics and prepare to perform their new version of the song at the end of the period.
  11. At the end of the period, students share their lyrics through reading or singing.
  12. For homework, ask students to complete the Self-Reflection Worksheet or Online Self-Reflection Checklist as a final self-assessment of their participation in the project.


  • For extended research projects, students can explore the significance of Porter’s references and better evaluate the relevance of the references today. The song provides plenty of resources for short research projects. Students can investigate a particular item mentioned in the song, explain what the item is, and state its significance for the time period when the song was composed. The finished work could be a class-annotated version of the song, created using HTML or simply using poster paper.

Web Resources

The Cole Porter Resource Site
Want more information about Cole Porter? It’s here.

“Cole Porter On Lingua Franca” by Andrew Ford
In this transcript for Australia’s Radio National program, Lingua Franca, composer Andrew Ford considers the rhythm and rhyme characteristic of Porter’s music.

Bloomsday for Dummies: A Skeleton Key to “You’re the Top.”
This article by Timothy Noah provides annotations for the many cultural references in the song.

Slate’s Chatterbox: “You’re the Top,” Today
This NPR segment features author Timothy Noah talking about his article (above). The site includes links to additional articles on Porter’s music.
Student Assessment/Reflections
Students may be informally assessed through completed lyrics and class discussion or group participation (see rubric). Have individual students complete the Self-Reflection Worksheet or use the online Self-Reflection Checklist. Review students’ comments, and provide support for accurate reflections on their participation in the activity.

Collect students’ Lyric Analysis Charts as evidence of their reflection on the relevance of pop culture items. Teachers might create “Grammy” awards for best lyrics, best performance, most precise rhymes, best adherence to rhythm, or other student-voted favorites. For extended projects, students can be assessed on essays that analyze the original lyrics’ relevance or the student-created lyrics’ relevance.

NCTE/IRA Standards

    1 – Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

    2 – Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

    3 – Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

    6 – Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

    11 – Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

    12 – Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

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