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12 Tips for Handling Hard-to-Teach Classes

Jacqui Murray

You know the type. One student thinks it's his job to entertain everyone. Another hates school. Another enthusiastically shouts out questions no matter how often you “suggest” he follow the class' agreed-upon rules for joining the conversation.

This is a hard-to-teach class, one that constantly makes you
 reconsider your academic career. Your admin has
 good suggestions -- give them big goals, authentic
 guidelines and adjustable deadlines. Make their classwork 
student-directed and self-paced. Your principal
 wants you turn them around. You're willing, but how do you do it?

Here are 12 ideas for handling a Hard-to-Teach Class:

1. Teach programming -- but the fun way. Try Scratch, Alice, robotics, Minecraft (visit Minecraftedu for ideas), West Point Bridge Design (big scholarships are available for those who enter and win the competition while they learn engineering and analysis). These websites are novel, include the games students love, and teach the big themes of problem solving, data analysis, how to reason abstractly and quantitatively: Practices important to common core standards as well as student ability to meet the demands of life.

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2. Flip the classroom. Provide resources to students on the topic (say, Scratch or robotics) via a screencast or a Google Hangout as homework and then do a project using the skill during class time. Students will do the homework so they're prepared for the fun project being done in class.

3. Monitor student involvement and understanding with backchannel devices like Today's Meet, Socrative or Twitter. These three are free (there are fee-based options I won't mention), easy to set up, and intuitive to use. Display feedback on the Smartscreen so you and students can track learning.

4. Use domain-specific language as you teach. Don't shy away from terminology like '”backchannel,” “embed” and “widget.” Let students feel the rush of understanding terms others don't, the pride in being part of the club that can use and make sense of tech terminology.

5. Use every tech tool you can for every activity possible. Show students how tech is part of your daily activities, and engrain it into your teaching. Use a digital online clock to track time. Take pictures with your iPhone. Scan art projects with an iPad app. Have students come up with more ways to use digital tools.

6. Expect students to be risk takers. Don’t rush in to solve problems. Let them know you respect their cerebral skills and have complete faith they will find a solution. Don't treat them like children.

7. If a student doesn't like one of the projects, let him come up with his own -- as long as it satisfies the exercise goals. For example, if you suggest the students write a story showing character development and they'd rather create a comic, let them convince you they can accomplish your expectations their own way. Be flexible but focused.

8. In fact, any chance you have, differentiate instruction for students. Be flexible, open-minded, and adventurous. One of tech's biggest pluses is that it differentiates well for learning styles. Use it.

9. Collaborate with other teachers on cross-curricular planners that involve technology. Always accept the challenge to take tech into education. After all, aren't you the one saying how great tech is? Prove it.

10. Consider a BYOD approach in your classes so students can use the devices they have easy access to and are comfortable with (if your school IT folks and infrastructure can support this approach). This way, students work at their own schedule, their own pace, without constraints set by a school day.

11. Assess knowledge, but remember: Assessment isn’t static—nor is it “bad.” Be creative. Remember why you do this: 1) to see if students understand the lesson, 2) to see if what was taught can be transferred to life, 3) to help students prepare for college and/or career.

12. Gamify your class by teaching with simulations. Use online (free) simulations like Mission US, iCivics, and History Mystery. Let students work in groups with specific goals to accomplish, but let them figure out their own path.

What do you do with that incorrigible, Hard-to-Teach class? Add your ideas to comments.


Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogger, a columnist for, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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