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Teaching Outside the Box: How to Grab Your Students By Their Brains by LouAnne Johnson

LouAnne Johnson is the author of the bestselling book that inspired the movie Dangerous Minds.

I believe this book should be a must read for all beginning teachers....right up there with Harry Wong's stuff.  Below are things that I found interesting or that I might try to remember to use next year.  There is much more in the book!


Day One
-"Instead of starting with an activity that requires all your students to sit and listen to you, make a student activity the first item on your agenda.  Choose an activity that is simple but engaging."  (pg. 72)

-"I like to begin with a questionnaire called "Getting To Know You" that I distribute as students are taking their seats."  (pg. 74)   Exhibit 4.1. Questionnaire (pg. 75)

Grab Your Students By Their Brains
-"It's time to grab your students by their brains.  They expect you to go over your rules and perhaps discuss the consequences for a variety of misbehaviors.  You school administration may even require you to discuss your rules or the school's rules during the first day.  This is one time I would risk ignoring those instructions because students already know how to behave."  (pg. 76)

**"I do anything except what they expect me to do, which is talk about rules, regulations, course requirements, objectives, standard procedures, and zzzzzzzzz." (pg. 76)

Stop The Teacher -Vs - Student Attitude In Its Tracks

-"...I will expect you to think.  If anyone dies from overthinking, I will take full responsibility for your death."  (pg. 78)

-"I want you to enjoy reading and writing and discussing the books and stories and essays we're going to read this year.  I want you to learn to analyze other people's ideas, compare different ideas, and express your own ideas in an intelligent and articulate way.  The more command you have of your language skills, the more successful you will be in school, in your work, and in your personal life--especially your love life."  (pg. 78)

They giggle.  They think I'm joking, but I'm not.  I explain.

-"I'm serious.  Think about it.  We use words to get many of the things we want in life.  Of course, we use words to answer questions in school.  But you also use words to ask somebody for a date.  Or to explain to somebody why you don't want to take drugs or take off your clothes.  Or to convince your parents to let you shave your head or borrow their car.  And later on you'll use words to make your future mother-in-law like you--and if you don't think that's important, you're in for a big surprise." (pg. 78)

The Card Trick (pg. 79)

The First Test Is On Me (pg. 81)
-"Learning everybody's name sometimes takes the entire period if I have a large class."  (pg. 82)

Be Prepared For "Test The Teacher" (pg. 82)

Emergency Discipline Disaster Plan (pg. 84)

The Rest of Week One  (pg. 87)
-"I would like to suggest eight essential activities that may help you create a dynamic classroom environment and also help you develop a good rapport with your students:

1.  Introduce Your Students To Each Other

2.  Teach Your Procedure For Oral Responses  (pg. 91)

There are endless variations on the theme of student responses, but students have three basic options:

-Students must always raise their hands before speaking and cannot interrupt you or each other.

-Students may spontaneously respond to your questions or to each other's comments.

-Everybody, including you, must wait for a specific period of time...before responding.  During the thinking time, they jot down their ideas.

  -"Students are very receptive to this idea, especially if you allow them to take turns being the official timer." (pg. 92)

3.  Find Out What Your Students Already Know
-"Responses to reading are an excellent way to find out what you students know about your subject, in addition to giving you a good look at their logic and writing skills.  Find an interesting or controversial essay, editorial, movie review, or feature article in a newspaper or magazine, and make copies for your students." (pg. 93)

4.  Distribute Your Welcome Handout and Student Folders  (pg. 93)

-"If you have a well-behaved, cooperative groups, you might reward students' good behavior by giving them a practice "exam" on your rules.
  1.  If you return to class after being absent, you should
       a.  Interrupt the teacher repeatedly to ask if she missed you.
       b.  Show everybody your scabs or scars or medicine
       c.  Get your work from the makeup work folder.
       d.  Kiss your teacher and yell, "I missed you so much!"

  2.  If you arrive to class tardy, you should
       a.  Make lots of noise so everybody notices you.
       b.  Gasp and pretend that you just ran five miles to school.
       c.  Slap all your pals on the back as you pass by.
       d.  Take your seat quietly and get to work.

  3.  What materials should you bring to class every day?
       a.  Candy, gum, ipod, spiders, and assorted bags.
       b.  A pen or pencil, paper, and your textbook and computer.
       c.  You dog, a pair of smelly socks, and two sodas.
       d.  A coloring book, a comic, and a note to Santa

-"Groups that laugh together develop a quick rapport, and they tend to cooperate more quickly and efficiently."  (pg. 94)

5.  Delegate Some Authority

-"Instead of allowing people to walk in and interrupt our lessons, the door monitor greets anybody who knocks and accepts any notes, messages, or paperwork that doesn't require my immediate attention." (pg. 96)

-"The clean-up crew is responsible for making sure that no debris remains on the floor or desks when the dismissal bell rings...If I don't get at least four volunteers, I split the students into teams of four and rotate their assignments."

**6.  Demonstrate The Power Of Choice

-First, Have the students complete these two sentences:

"I have to [fill in the blank]" and "I can't [fill in the blank]" with the first thoughts that popped into our heads."  (pg. 96)

-Secondly, have the students cross out the word have from the first sentence and replace it with choose.

-Thirdly, cross out can't and replace it with don't want to.

-Fourthly, after discussion with students about volunteered sentences.
  -"There are five things that you have to do to stay alive:  eat, breathe, drink water, sleep, and go to the bathroom.  Everything else is optional."

-"Once your students understand and accept the truth of this lesson, they will have to admit that when they misbehave or fail in your class, it is because they choose to misbehave or fail."  (pg. 98)

7.  Help Your Students Understand Themselves

Exhibit 4.3.  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (pg. 101)

8.  Teach Your Students To Think About Thinking

Exhibit 4.4.  Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Domains:  English Applications  (pg. 103)

Exhibit 4.5.  Using Bloom's Taxonomy:  Your Own Life  (pg. 104)

Show Your Gratitude  (pg. 105)

3.  Drop a Behavior Card (pg. 124-125)
"Because so many students are visual or kinesthetic learners, they may not respond to verbal requests.  Or they may forget a few seconds after you have reminded them to be quiet or sit down.  Using colorful index cards that you can easily locate and retrieve in class, create some behavior cards.

For young students, write this message:
Stop and think.
You need to be more polite.
I will talk to you about this later.

For older students, write this message:
Your present behavior is not acceptable.
Please be more polite.
Return this card to me--in person--after class.

When you collect the cards, thank the students for choosing to behave and cooperate. 

  "How do you convince students that success is possible?  Some people suggest that you provide an exercise or activity that guarantees success for every student.  I disagree with that approach.  Usually such experiences are far too easy and therefore defeat their own purpose.  Instead of convincing students that they are capable of achieving, easy assignments and esteem-boosting activities send the message that  students aren't capable of handling truly difficult challenges.  In other words, you have them an easy assignment because you believe they are dumb.  So instead of creating an easy task, assign a truly difficult task and then help your students complete it.  When you introduce the task, explain that it is difficult and that you don't expect anybody to do it perfectly--including yourself.  Tell them you are going to tackle this project because you believe they are intelligent and that you know they can learn because you see evidence of many things they have already learned1:  they can read and dress themselves; they know their own addressed and phone numbers; they can play musical instruments and a hundred different games; they know the words to a lot of songs; they can fix meals; they know how to operate machines and kitchen gadgets and computers and [ipods]."

  "Many teachers have trouble getting students to talk to them.  In order to involve everybody in your class, I would suggest that you try beginning each class period by asking, "Who has a question?  You can ask me anything about anything.  If I don't know the answer, I will find out where you can locate this information.
  Students don't automatically respond to this approach.  It [may] take several days or weeks of asking this before somebody finally responds.  Once somebody responds, others will follow.  But you may have to do a lot of prompting to get that first response.  You might find that you ask your own questions and answer it loud, students may respond.  You might say, "I was thinking about reality TV shows last night.  And I wonder if those shows could really be called reality because the people know they are being filmed, so they probably don't act like they would if they weren't being filmed.
  Although this technique works very well for me, it wasn't originally my idea.  A few years ago, I attended an awards ceremony for a student who had won an essay contest.  He wrote about his teacher: "Our teacher used to come in every morning and say, 'What do you want to know?'"

1.  Identify the problem.  Often several issues surround one central problem.  Pinpoint the primary problem.  For example, perhaps you fight all the time with one of your brothers or sisters, and your parents ground both of you.  The problem isn't being grounded; it's the constant fighting between you and your sibling.

Focus on one problem at a time.

2.  Brainstorm possible solutions.  Don't edit yourself or stop to criticize.  Just shout out solutions or write them down as fast as you can.  Be creative.  Often a silly idea will lead to a truly ingenious idea that you might never have considered if you hadn't come up with the silly idea first.  Take ten minutes to write down every solution that comes to mind.

3.  Select the three best solutions.  Consider the possible effects of each solution.  Choose the one that seems most likely to be successful and make a plan to enact it.

4.  Implement your plan.  Put your best solution into action, making adjustments as necessary.

5.  Evaluate the effectiveness of your solutions.  If your solution worked--good!  If not, make some changes to your chosen plan and try it again.  If changes aren't possible or just won't work, go back to your brainstorming list and choose a different solution.  Repeat steps four and five until you find a solution that works.  Even if you don't solve the problem completely, you can make it a much smaller problem.

Take home a copy of your roll sheet for each class.  As you design worksheets and quizzes, include your students' names.  They will be delighted when they find their names in a grammer worksheet or in a math problem.  Be sure to check off the names as you use them and use every student's name at least once to avoid hurt feelings.

**LET STUDENTS SHINE (pg. 177-178)
Many of your students have amazing talents that, unfortunately, they never have an opportunity to display during school....
Those student projects took one week out of the school year, but they paid off enormously in motivation, morale, and attendance.  Students who had never had a chance to be the star had their turn.  Individual projects became a standard in my curriculum.  I highly recommend adding them to yours, regardless of your subject.  I would offer these suggestions if you choose to use the project:

-Allow shy or introverted students to prepare a report or other nonverbal presentation, so they won't be forced to speak in front of a group.
-Don't require projects to be about your class's subject.  Encourage creativity.
-Give every students who completes a project full credit.  Instead of giving letter grades, ask three or four students to provide a peer critique.
-If students agree, invite parents or other teachers to observe.  And if you have a video camera, tape the performances.


If you use journals and your student's aren't writing very much, there is a reason.

Here's a list of do's and don'ts: (given by her highschool students)

1.  Read them.  If you aren't going to read them, don't ask us to write them.
2.  Make at least one comment on every page.
3.  Don't mark every spelling and grammar error.  You can circle some of them.
4.  Give good prompts.  Make them interesting for kids.
5.  Show us samples of good journals that other kids have written.
6.  Read some journal samples out loud, anonymously.
7.  Let us know when we write something especially good or original.
8.  Let us use our journals as rough drafts for essays and literary critiques.
9.  Make journal writing a regular activity, at least once a week.
10.  Let us write swear words sometimes if we are really mad.
11.  Give some choices that we can write about, not just one thing.


"After students wrote their answers, I took a quick survey and tallied their responses to question one on the board for each category: yes, no, and maybe.  Then we had a class discussion about the topic for 10 minutes.  Next, students formed groups of three to give people and discussed the questions for another 10 minutes.  After their small-group discussion, students returned to their desks and wrote down their thoughts about the discussions, particularly if they changed their minds.  I asked those who had changed their minds to write the reasons.  Finally, we took another quick vote to see if people had changed their view."


"A number of good Internet sites exist, but you might start with or or search for the scientific studies of Dr. Paul R. Whiting who published the journal article, "How Difficult Can Reading Be?" when he was on the faculty at the University of Sydney."  (pg. 196)



"One activity that I've used with good success is the book exchange.  I get a number of books...on a wide array of topics...Then I place a book on each student's desk before class begins.  Students read the books on their desks for five minutes, then give the book a rating...and jot down a few quick notes on an index card.  They exchange books and read at least five books.  If they like a particular book, they can keep the book.  Students who don't like any of the books continue to exchange books until they find something they like."


Read-Half-Take A Vote Policy
"If we don't finish reading something, we don't watch the movie version, if there is one.  We don't have a test.  We write our critiques, have a short discussion, and then go on to something else." (pg. 201)


"Show them that reading isn't a test; it's a skill, and we don't have to test our skill level each time we use a skill.  We simply use it.  Let them read some things just for the sake of reading them, so that they learn from their own experience that reading is not a chore but a means of gaining information, tickling our brains, or being entertained. " (pg. 202)


"First, explain that when we read, we create a mental picture of what we are reading.  As we add details, the picture becomes more clear or changes to adjust to new or different information.  If you lose the picture when you are reading, you are starting to lose comprehension.  Back up until you can see the picture again, and continue reading.  If you do this with a class, with a story or article, you can read a paragraph, ask students what they see, and discuss their different versions.  This will help students who still don't get it to understand what you are talking about." (pg. 202)


"One method I have used successfully is to copy some generic magazine article or selection from a textbook that is one or two pages long.  I distribute the copies of the page and ask students not to begin reading until my signal.  When I say, "Begin," everybody starts reading.  They read for one full minute until I say, "Stop".  They circle the last word they read.  Then I teach them how to count the words on a page without counting every single word.  Count the number of words in four individual lines, then add the numbers and divide by four to get the average number of words per line.  Then the students count how many lines they read, multiply that by the average, and get a word count for one minute.  They write that number down in the margin, and I collect the papers...At the end of the month, we read the same reading-rate selection again and see how many words we have read.  Students will nearly always improve if they have been making an effort in class."  (pg. 204)


"I think many song lyrics are poetic, and the best songs are very good poetry.  And I'm going to give you the opportunity to bring in your favorite song lyrics to share with the class....But there is one condition," I added.  "You will need to explain to the class why you admire your particular song choice as good poetry." (pg. 210-211)
"We aren't looking just for good beats...We're looking for really fine words in this project.  Which words in this song do you really admire as good poetry?  Can you show me some internal rhyme or a metaphor?  Maybe a simile.  Some alliteration?"  (pg. 211)

**"A five-senses poem may work better as an introduction to poetry for teachers who work with young children or older students who may not be good candidates for a lyrics project...Begin by asking your class, "What does love smell like?"  Some students will frown or become confused, but others will shout out answers.  Acknowledge all answers and thank the students who suggested them.
  Now write the word Love on the board, indicating that it is the title of the poem.  Below the title, you write each of the five senses:
Smells like
Looks like
Sounds like
Feels like
Tastes like

  Repeat this exercise with another word:  hate, school, friends are popular and students can think of responses very easily.
  Next, have students write two or three sense poems on their own, using words of their own choice.  Ask for volunteers to read their poems aloud, and let the most enthusiastic poets write their poems on the board.
  I like to build on this exercise by encouraging students to copy out their poems on sheets of plain white or pastel paper, adding illustrations, and then tack their poetic artwork to the walls around the room....If you use this as your introduction to poetry, you have just demonstrated imagery and sensory detail." (pg. 211).

After my first successful song lyric or poetry writing experiment, I design a poetry portfolio project for students to complete prior to sharing songs.  The portfolio is a two-week project the includes teacher demonstrations and short lectures, guided practice, and individual activities.  On the first day of the project I go over the definitions of poetic techniques with the class, giving examples of each technique so that students can take notes to refer to during their individual work.  Each day I introduce a different kind of poem (haiku, limerick, diamond poem, five-senses poem); after we read several samples, I ask the class to write a few examples with me and then complete some worksheets.  Then they are free to work on their portfolios.


Websites (pg. 309) is a great website for older students and teachers who are seeking thoroughly thought-provoking articles to spur class discussions, research, and essays.