Genius Teacher Idea


Stress Relief in the Classroom: This Genius Activity Will Teach Students to Manage Stress!

Amy Lauren Smith


Editor's note: When teens are overwhelmed with stress, it can be hard for them to function--so it's essential that they learn about healthy stress busting techniques. To help with this, Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--shares a creative project she's been using in her classes for years.


I work at an international school in China, so my students come from all over the world. When I started here in 2009, I quickly realized that I would have to adapt my old curriculum from suburban California to suit the very different health concerns of my new students. This was a high pressure, high stakes environment. Rather than my usual lessons about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, my international students needed to learn about time management, stress, and the importance of getting a good night's sleep.


I worked over the course of that first year tweaking my projects and activities to align with their needs. And as I did, I decided to share what I was doing with other health teachers in the region who might be facing the same concerns. That's when I discovered that what I was dealing with wasn't unique after all. I began facilitating health education workshops at other international schools, and then eventually, back home in the states.


During these workshops, I always start out the with the same question. What are the biggest health concerns for the students in your community? And over the last few years, whether I'm at a prep school conference in Asia, a health convention in the U.S., or a conference with teachers from the very same district I started at back home, it's consistently stayed the same:




Not unlike the celebrities in this month's article, Secret Stress Busters of the Stars, today's teens are always "on." In our high-speed digital world, disconnected alone time is something we must now actively seek out, and we need to teach our students to do the same.


For this month's Teacher's Guide, I adapted a project that I've been doing with my kids for the last few years. Here's how you can bring this idea to your own classroom:


1. Teach kids about the physiological signs of stress and read Secret Stress Busters of the Stars as a class.

2. Using the worksheet below, have students brainstorm a list of their own coping skills, both healthy and unhealthy. Then, they'll answer a few reflection questions that will push them to analyze what methods truly work for them. (On our worksheet, we suggest working in groups so they can collaborate, but students can always work individually if you prefer.)



3. Each group creates a video (usually using their phones) that teaches four of their favorite healthy stress busters to their friends.


Over the years, this project has adapted from making a bookmark to a poster to a video blog. So regardless of the technology available at your school, you can adapt it to the resources you have on hand.


As I was writing this post, I asked my seventh graders about what they learned from their stress buster projects the year before. Here's what they told me:


  • "I liked it because it was a time where I could be funny and teach people."


  • "It was fun coming up with creative ways to deal with stress. I really liked watching everyone's videos because they were funny and I got to learn even more ways to deal with stress."


  • "It was nice to teach other students and to express myself in a unique way."


  • "I got to be creative and figure out ways to relieve stress. I still use my stress buster whenever I feel stressed out."


I was happy to hear that the project had stuck with them--and that they still go back to those coping skills when they begin to feel overwhelmed today. Regardless of the health concerns our current students are facing--alcohol, drugs, stress, bullying, unhealthy eating habits, technology misuse, or something we haven't even thought of yet--it all comes down to using healthy techniques to deal with the issue. After all, if we teach our young kids to recognize healthy coping skills, we won't have to spend so much time trying to protect them from the not-so-healthy methods they encounter later on.



Click on the image (above) to check out Secret Stress Busters of the Stars, for more techniques on teen stress relief!


More resources from Choices (and the Ideabook!on reducing and managing stress in the classroom: 


Public Health Lesson: What Do Soda and Cigarettes Have in Common?

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: In order to fully tackle our debate feature this month, it's important that students take a look at a similar public health issue from our past: cigarette warning labels. That's why Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--created our Surgeon General's Warning handout to help teens research and analyze warning labels from around the world, so they can apply that knowledge to our debate, Should Soda Have a Warning Label?


Do warning labels encourage healthy behaviors, or are they a waste of time? Our debate this month (click the image below to read it!) tackles this controversial idea. It's an interesting topic, and one I have thought about and discussed quite a bit with my students over the years.



FDA warning labels have a long and interesting past in the United States. For years, anti-tobacco groups have advocated for a stronger warning label, rather than the simple "Surgeon General's Warning" placed on the side of American cigarette packs.


Other countries have gone with different approaches, from putting graphic pictures of the side effects on the package to limiting branding by forcing companies to use only white packaging and black text.


In 2011, inspired by the success other countries were having in smoking cessation, the FDA came out with a series of possible photos to add to their mandated warning labels. They released the 27 possible images for the American public to view and vote on. My students and I were excited about the new mandate and thought it was great that they wanted to get the public involved.


I printed up the 27 possible warning label pictures, which ranged from very graphic photos to subtler graphic designs. The kids decided which ones they thought would be the most effective--interestingly enough, there were many different favorites in the class.


After the deadline passed for public voting, my students were eager to hear the results. Which labels would end up on the cigarette packs?


To their palpable disappointment, none of them would.


These labels, like so many other anti-tobacco regulations proposed by the FDA, got held up in court. The powerful and seemingly unscrupulous lawyers from Big Tobacco had found a loophole and got the labels shot down.


My students, seventh graders at the time, were disappointed and confused. How could these lawyers and government officials not want what was best for the health of everyone else? It was an eye-opening moment for them, and it stirred up a sense of frustration leading to a drive for advocacy that I hadn't seen in middle school students before.


The rest of the semester, these students were driven by a passion to "stick it to the bad guy" that I don't think I'll be able to replicate again. However, I have come close by letting subsequent students dig up research on the fight between Big Tobacco and governments around the world.


That's why looking at tobacco labels is a natural extension to the soda warning label debate. Do these warning labels actually work? And if so, what keeps shutting them down?


In the course of this research, my students have found some things that have gotten them really fired up over the years. Here are a few quotes:


  • "Big tobacco actually tried to sue the country of Venezuela when they wanted to put warning labels on cigarettes?!"


  • "Wait... the Chinese government owns all of the country's cigarette brands? That might explain these tiny little warning labels."


  • "Oh dude, gross! Check out what they're doing in Thailand and the UK." (There are some pretty graphic images on the packaging!)


The fight between corporate interest and public health is a constant in our lives, whether it be with Big Tobacco or Big Soda. The sooner we teach our kids to look at this fight with a critical eye, the more likely they are to make choices that are best for their health, whether or not there's a label there to warn them.


To try this activity with your students, download this PDF:



More debates from Choices


Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Why You Should Try Text Mapping With Your Class

Tracy Potash

Editor's note: If they're like us, your teens are eager to dive right into a new magazine the second they get it. However, some research suggests that pre-reading activities can make a huge difference when it comes to student comprehension. Tracy Potash--one of our fantastic teacher advisers and a language arts intervention teacher from Pennington, New Jersey--shares how she used one such pre-reading activity to expand on the Choices story, "The League of Extraordinary Losers."


It might sound crazy, but pre-reading activities are perhaps even more important than the actual reading of an article or document. That's because they're all about considering what you bring to the text as a reader--from your personal experiences to your prior knowledge on the subject matter. Even if you're not a language arts teacher, I think you'll find that this technique can play a pivotal role in your students' understanding of class materials!

Text mapping is one of my favorite pre-reading strategies. The idea is to think of the article like a scroll, where everything can be seen in one visual scan going from left to right. That makes it easier for students focus on the visual topography, the author's thought process, organization of ideas, and the big picture. (For more on the text mapping strategy, try and this super helpful guide to text mapping.)

Key Skills:

  1. Integration of knowledge and ideas: interpretation of information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively and explain how the information contributes to the understanding of the text
  2. Comprehension and collaboration: engage effectively in a range of collaborative activities and discussions, building on others' ideas and expressing their own
  3. Vocabulary acquisition and use: determine or clarify the meaning of unknown words/phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting reference materials
  4. Language: use words and phrases to convey ideas precisely


  • The Choices article, "The League of Extraordinary Losers(or any other article you want to discuss!)
  • Copies of a text mapping color key (Mine is pictured below, and you can get more info about making one here.)
  • Colored markers/pencils/pens
  • Copies of a non-fiction text features guide (I purchased mine here.) 



The Steps:

Step 1: Students watched a short video on nonfiction text features.

Step 2: Students were given a scrolled photocopy of "The League of Extraordinary Losers," as well as a nonfiction guide and a text mapping color key.

Step 3: We discussed the importance of pre-reading, how the visual information (text features) helps to contribute to the meaning of the text, and the advantages of seeing the article in its entirety.

Step 4: I demonstrated how to map a text, and then students were partnered up and given their materials to begin the text mapping process. Students moved around the scrolled articles while discussing, circling, and highlighting all the features according to the key.



Step 5: Scrolls in hand, students reconvened on the carpet and we discussed features that posed some difficulty to identify. We also talked about how visual information presented in a scroll format helped to identify the author's thought process and her organization of the material.

Step 6: I introduced the idea of a visual summary. Students were given the opportunity to use all the text features that they just mapped and choose 10-20 vital words seen during the mapping activity to summarize the visual information. They came up with the following words and phrases:

  • Extraordinary
  • Losers
  • Beyonce, Michael Jordan, J.K. Rowling, Lady GaGa, Steven Spielberg
  • Famous fails
  • Opportunities
  • Grit
  • Perseverance
  • Accidental inventions
  • Failing up
  • Reflect
  • Goal
  • Act

Step 7: Lastly, we discussed ways to transfer this pre-reading strategy to other classes, as well as using this technique for studying non-fiction texts at home.




Text mapping does require a decent amount of preparation, but it is totally worth all the time and effort you put into it once you see how the sequence of events helps to solidify students' understanding of the topic. Activities that include movement, color, and high interest topics are almost always a hit with the students. And the best part is, this is all in the pre-reading stage! All those connections made and the article itself hasn't even been read yet. Now that's a fabulous technique to increase comprehension, differentiate according to learning styles, collaborate with peers, and encourage focus!


Photo credit: Amy Lauren Smith

How to Get Your Students to Stop Procrastinating

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: We're all guilty of procrastinating sometimes, but teens are especially prone to this bad habit. Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--has rounded up the resources you need to tackle this topic in class. 

My grades were due last week. We use a standards-based reporting system with no percentage grades, so it calls for a much more comprehensive narrative. For each of my 120 students, I must write at least a paragraph detailing their strengths, areas for growth, and next steps for learning. It gives students more to work with than the canned comments of the past, like "He was a pleasure to have in class!" and "Keep up the great work!"

But with more writing comes more margin for error, so our vice principal has us proofread the report cards for the students in our advisory group before they get sent home. Reading through the comments that my colleagues had written about my darling little seventh grade angels, one thing was abundantly clear. These kids were struggling with time management. Big time. The majority of them had comments from at least one teacher about putting things off until the last minute.

Now, this tendency for procrastination is nothing new for middle school students--or human beings in general--but it has certainly taken on a life of its own in the age of the internet. Procrastination can lead to stress, sleep deprivation, poor academic performance, and conflicts at home. It's important that we teach kids how to acknowledge and manage their procrastination habits now, before they're facing much bigger consequences.

Ready to take on procrastination in your class? These activities will help you make your point: 

1. WATCH: Tim Urban's TED Talk: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator

After reading through the report card comments, I approached my fellow seventh grade advisers with a plan. We gathered all of the kids together in one room and showed them this TED Talk.

Not only does Tim Urban do a fantastic job of explaining procrastination, he does so in a way that is relatable, digestible, and downright hilarious. The kids loved this talk, and now characters like the Panic Monster and the Instant Gratification Monkey have become regular parts of our seventh grade lexicon.

 2. READ: Choices Magazine: "Why Can't I Stop Procrastinating?"

In this quick read from Choices, there's a great flow chart that helps students identify what type of procrastinator they are. After, group them according to type and have them brainstorm a list of possible solutions that can help them deal with their specific style of procrastination.

Then, have each group share their ideas with the class and gather additional suggestions to add to the list. Once everyone has presented, they can create posters to hang up in the classroom to help keep everyone on track.

3. CREATE: The Infographic Project

This ready-to-go project was originally designed to help students analyze the influence of technology on personal health. They get to pick their topic, but without fail, the majority of them decide to focus on procrastination.

They'll find facts online about procrastination in the digital age, and identify some solutions for how to keep it in check. Then they use a free online program like Canva to create infographics that you can hang around the school to help the people who need it. (Like... say, everyone?)

Some of the projects are so good though, they never even make it out of the classroom.

"Why is my infographic up there next to your desk, Ms. Smith?"

"Well, believe it or not, Z, we teachers can procrastinate too."

Take Your Students on a Kindness Quest!

Tracy Potash

Editor's note: We could all use a little warmth and kindness right now. Tracy Potash, a language arts intervention teacher from Pennington, New Jersey, shares her lesson plan to teach her middle school students about the importance of paying it forward.


With social media harassment on the rise in middle school, and the aftermath of an angry election season looming over everyone, I recently realized what my class really needed was some kindness. Inspired by World Kindness Day (which takes place in November, but can be celebrated at any time!), I put together the following Kindness Quest.


Key skills: Vocabulary acquisition and usage; identifying key ideas and author's purpose; collaboration; integration of knowledge and ideas; research to build and present knowledge


Time: 1-2 weeks


The Steps:


Step 1: We revisited the Choices article "Mission Positive" from the October 2015 issue. If you didn't catch it the first time, this piece encourages students to get creative while knocking out cruelty. The task: to rack up as many points as possible by expressing thanks, showing compassion, giving back, acting selflessly and spreading good vibes. It was a perfect addition to our lesson.

Step 2: My students were intrigued to learn even more about kindness, so they researched how kindness can affect the brain. After delving into the topic, they were psyched up and wanted to create a momentum of goodness.


Step 3: We spent a week participating in Kindness Quest activities, such as:


  • Students wrote uplifting messages on the bathroom mirrors with erasable markers.
  • They wrote messages with sidewalk chalk near all the entrances to our school.
  • In the mornings, they greeted administrators, teachers, and students who were entering the building with cheers and high fives.
  • They designed Kindness Cards, which were handed out throughout the week to classmates who they saw being caring to others.


Step 4: While the Kindness Quest was ongoing, I sought to keep the students reflecting by having them complete a vocabulary word map on kindness.  (See format example below.)


Step 5: Students researched an article about performing acts of kindness and its effect on the brain. After, they summarized the article with a partner by answering the 5Ws & 1H (who, what, where, when, why, how), using the key ideas from the article to complete a written short summary (format example below).


Example: The Short Summary


Read the article, identify the key ideas by answering the 5Ws (who, what, where, when, why) and 1 H (how) in 5 words or less. Then write a summary of the article by including all the information below.


Author's Purpose (include title of the article, author, publication and publication date):












Written Summary - include any direct quotes from the article:  


Step 6: After the week of activities, my students debriefed about how it went and discussed plans for future events. Below is a list based on their reflection of the lesson and ideas for looking ahead:

  • Kindness recognition increased kind acts in the school
  • The school appeared to be uplifted and positivity permeated the halls.
  • Continue the momentum throughout the year
  • Plan weekly positive, uplifting announcements in the morning to start off the day.
  • Design a "Random Acts of Kindness" bulletin board and post pictures of acts of kindness so everyone can be a part of it.
  • Branch out the Kindness Quest to beyond the school walls.
  • Promote the positivity on social media.


So it appeared that kindness was contagious, planting seeds of goodness that sprouted throughout our school and beyond left an impact on all of us that we will never forget. The serotonin was definitely flowing. Mission Positive was a success!


More Choices Resources for Teaching Kindness and Improving School Climate:

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

How to Teach Teens About the Importance of Failure

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: It's hard to accept, but failure might actually be good for you. Choices teacher-advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--explains how she helped her students understand this important lesson.


Failure and grit are buzzwords in education right now, and for good reason. While kids are terrified of failing, it's truly the only way they'll grow. Getting middle school students to accept this fact is especially challenging though, as they'd often rather not try at all than risk looking like they tried too hard.


My school has a pretty robust advisory program, which means that in addition to teaching health, I have a homebase of twelve students who I see three times a week for social and emotional learning. Seventh grade in particular is a year when pressure can really start to mount, so I'm always looking for ways to address failure with them. Luckily, this month's issue of Choices features The League of Extraordinary Losers, a piece about failure that highlights some of the world's most creative and successful people and the failures they experienced on their way to the top. When I shared it with my fellow seventh grade advisors, we agreed it would be a great jumping off point for discussion with our groups.


It's important when doing this type of activity with younger teens to stress that failure isn't just about academics and sports. Social "fails" are also a key part of the adolescent experience, but it can often take years to get over the sting of embarrassment and rejection that can come along with them. That's why it was great for the students to read about people they admired embracing their failures, as it helped them open up about theirs without fear of being judged.


After reading the article, we had the students reflect on a time when they've experienced failure, and what good came out of it. They were given the following prompts, and then if they felt comfortable, they shared as much or as little as they wanted to with the class.


My Big Fail


1. What was your initial goal?


2. What was the 'fail'?


3. How did you take it at the time?


4. What good came out of the experience instead?


5. What was the big take-away? What did you learn from the experience that you would like to share with others?


Once the kids started sharing and realizing how much they had in common, they began opening up more. Some of them were able to laugh at themselves and it brought up one of life's great lessons: the things that feel like a mortifying disaster at the time often end up being a funny story later on. (They especially enjoyed my tale of trying to perform a rap for my seventh grade election speech. Needless to say, someone else was voted vice president that year!)


Touching base after the lesson with my fellow advisors, we all felt that the activity had led to great conversations with their students, and they too had shared examples from their own middle school years. It was a great lesson for the kids about failure, resilience and grit, and a bonding experience for us all as well.  


Want to try this lesson in your classroom? Here are the tools you need:

1. Download the Choices FAILURE REFLECTION WORKSHEET to try the REFLECTION ACTIVITY. It'll get your students thinking critically on how to apply the fail up method to a past setback. 


2. Forget about resumes of accomplishments--our fascinating Failure Resumes Slideshow highlights even more famous figures and the roadblocks they've encountered throughout their careers. 


Photo source: Amy Lauren Smith

What Teens Can Teach You About Screen Time

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Feeling glued to your smartphone? Choices teacher-advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th to 8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--collected some surprisingly poignant advice from her class.

Last month, I had the pleasure of going to the Hong Kong headquarters of one of my favorite athletic wear brands. The office director (an old friend of mine) had asked me to facilitate a "lunch and learn" workshop on balanced technology use. 

This is a company that's well known for its culture of wellness. When I walked in, half of the team was just finishing up a yoga class, and inspirational sayings covered the walls. I was in health teacher heaven. 

These are people who really know how to strike a balance. But sure enough, even in this land of mantras and mindfulness, when I asked who felt they might need help cutting back their screen time, all of their hands shot up in the air. 

Granted, this was Hong Kong (which has the highest percentage of smartphone users in Asia), but it was an international team. The people in that room represented a wide variety of cultures and age groups. There were locals, expats, and those just passing through on business trips. It just goes to show that we're all struggling to strike a balance, and it's something we need to talk about more.

The day before, I had asked my students for their help. Having just finished their own unit on technology balance, what advice would they like to give adults about managing their screen time? The kids wrote their words of wisdom on four big pieces of chart paper, which I brought with me to the adult workshop. I hung them on the walls, put out markers, and asked the team to do what teachers like to call a "gallery walk"--take a look at what's on the papers, and circle or star anything that resonates with them.

The advice from the kids was thoughtful, touching, and a little bit eye-opening:

  • Talk to people face to face.
  • Finish your work before coming home.
  • No phones during the weekend unless you really have to.
  • Be mindful of your surroundings.
  • Look up.
  • Listen.
  • Close all your apps and be with your family instead.

As we took in the words of these 13-year-olds, one thing became abundantly clear. They weren't just writing this advice for random strangers. It was for the adults in their lives--parents, teachers, the people in their community--who were often neglecting the real world for what was happening on their screens.

All of us gained something from the activity, and I plan to do it the next time we have parent/teacher conferences. Today's teenagers are often chided for their screen time, but they aren't the only ones who need to step back and take a break. (In fact, a new report found that parents of teens spend as much time on their devices as their children do.)

Not wanting to return to class empty-handed, I asked my new friends for some advice to take back to my students in return.

Their overwhelming response? Go outside and play.

For a more in-depth look at how screen time is impacting family life, check out The Common Sense Census: Plugged in Parents of Teens and Tweens.


What I Learned From My Childhood Bully

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Bullying is a serious issue, and Choices teacher-advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th to 8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--understands this from a personal perspective. Her advice will help you understand what students may be going through and what certain bullying-prevention steps can be effective.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a former classmate. Having recently started a 12-step program, he had written to offer me amends. I was surprised by the gesture--not only because I hadn't seen him in over 25 years, but because in the process of reaching out to all those he had harmed in his life, he felt the need to include me on that list.

It's not that I didn't remember being bullied. As a teenager who struggled with obesity, I was the constant target of many of the kids at my school. It was just that I didn't remember him as being the worst of them.

That's why I found this exchange especially meaningful--not just personally, but also as someone who teaches and writes about bullying. It serves as further evidence that the effects of bullying can stay with the bully, as well as the bullied, long after the initial damage is done.

I know how the experience impacted me--when I moved away to college, I began taking care of myself and became a health teacher. I was determined to help kids as they struggled to find the right path. But I hadn't thought much about how the experience had impacted any of the other kids involved.

Hearing from the one of my old bullies all these years later, I'm reminded of the importance of what we do, and of the need for early prevention. Here are some efficient strategies for handling bullying at your school.

1. Discipline that shifts from zero-tolerance to positive behavior change

In his email, my classmate pointed out what I already knew--he was acting out because he had some pretty big issues of his own. He was a teenager, and he needed help. An ineffective zero-tolerance policy would have removed him from the situation without offering him the chance to discover what had lead him there in the first place.

Check out the bullying prevention resources from Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports.

2. Initiatives that are started by students, rather than teachers and staff

It doesn't need to be an official program. The lasting memory I had of my classmate wasn't of a time that he bullied me; it was of the time when he finally stopped. He decided one day that he'd been too hard on me, and let me know me he would tell his friends to back off too. From that moment I felt safer, like I had an ally, and that's what I remembered the most.

Read about these teens who bounced back to help fight bullying.

3. Health classes that put the focus on healthy coping skills

It took me years to understand how much of an impact my emotions had on my weight, and the stress of constant bullying wasn't driving me to make better choices either. My classmate had struggles of his own, but rather than food, he turned to bullying and--as is often the case with those who are bullies--eventually alcohol and drugs. If we teach kids healthy ways to deal with stress, maybe we can prevent them from causing harm to themselves and others as they try to figure it out on their own.

Try this unit plan designed to help kids recognize their healthy coping skills.

Courtesy of Andrew Simmons/San Rafael High School

First Tuesdays Students Speak: An Inspiring Self-Advocacy Activity for Any Classroom

Editor's Note: Andrew Simmons is an English teacher at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, and—along with his colleagues—the founder of a brand new civic engagement project called First Tuesdays Students Speak. In this guest post, we've asked him to share his inspiration for this sustained, positive, and constructive letter-writing campaign—along with instructions, so that you can adapt this fantastic ongoing advocacy activity for your own grade level and subject area.  


Sometimes, students plan your lessons for you. After the November 8 election, many students in my classes at San Rafael High School expressed disappointment, fear, and anger. I teach in Marin County. Most students are liberal. A majority is Latino. Students organized a walkout and participated in community protests. Several teachers in my department saw their discontent as an opportunity to encourage civic engagement. Writing is for the articulation of ideas, the telling of stories, the arguing of positions. We decided that, in an attempt to channel their feelings and thoughts into sustained, constructive responses, the students should write a letter to the president-elect. 


We also decided that one letter would not be sufficient. Students prefer events over processes, and we wanted them, if truly inspired, to cultivate the patience and persistence effective activism requires. We thought that, with students gradually taking ownership, First Tuesday Students Speak would provide a regular opportunity for this process. Every month, we're having students, in letters, communicate hopes, concerns, and ideas to elected and appointed government officials, regardless of the expressed political beliefs. The assignment will vary to reflect current events and relevant units. Every first Tuesday of every month, we're trying (again, with students—in this case, the experts—leading the way) to document the process and products of this work on social media. 


At this point, participation is limited to a few schools and a handful of classrooms. We hope it grows. The assignment is highly adaptable and open-ended. A health teacher could have students focus on health care access. A science class could address global warming. Letters could be addressed to representatives, agency heads, and appointed officials as well as the president. We look forward to seeing this project grow and evolve, and we'd like other teachers to get involved too.


What Is It?


We hereby name tomorrow—December 6th, 2016—as a national day of Student Voice, to kick off our ongoing First Tuesday Students Speak initiative. We hope that teachers, schools, and community organizations across the nation will seek ways to encourage students to articulate and express their concerns about the future. In letters, on social media, in mainstreammedia, we hope to provide students with a forum for expressing constructive messages to the government and to our president-elect.


How Can You Get Involved?


You can download the instructions (in both English and Spanish) by clicking on these images, or use the instructions typed below. 



Step 1: Write a Letter


This month, we're prompting students to write letters to president-elect Trump and mail them directly to Trump's organizational headquarters in New York: 


President-Elect Donald Trump

Trump Organization

725 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY 10022


One of the things we have observed at our own school is that part of feeling like you have expressed yourself fully comes from organizing your own thinking—doing this helps you to think through your feelings logically and it gives you a greater sense of authority.


When you write a letter, make sure you do these things:

  • State what you are concerned about and why it concerns you.
  • Identify what you want to see happen—what do you need from your president and your government?
  • Predict and identify a counter argument—either to dismiss it or to provide an alternative solution which is better.
  • Identify positive actions you will take in the future.
  • In addition to content, tone is important if you want to be listened to, if you want to be heard. Be assertive, direct, and honest—but also maintain a tone of respect and dignity.



Step Two: Document the process and the final product.


  • Take photographs of students writing and reading letters. Post these on social media with #FirstTuesdayStudentsSpeak and @TuesdayStudents.
  • Take videos of students reading important selections from their letters and post to social media with #FirstTuesdayStudentsSpeak and @TuesdayStudents.
  • Hold an event where students read letters aloud. Take videos and post them. Again, please post on the community page as well as on your own personal, class, and organization pages.
  • Make sure letters are mailed as close to December 6th as possible.




What You Need to Know About Tracking Homework

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: How much homework are your students really getting? Choices Teacher-Advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth- through eighth-grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--explains all the different factors you need to consider while tracking your students' homework load.

My middle school has a homework policy. For seventh graders, it's no more than 20 minutes per subject per night. The kids have four classes a day, so even if every one of their subjects assigned the maximum homework amount, that only adds up to 80 minutes per night.

Yet when I talk to their parents, I hear about hours upon hours of homework every night. They say their kids are staying up until 11 p.m. or midnight to get it all done. My colleagues care deeply about the health and well-being of our students, so it's hard for me to believe they'd break the homework policy and collectively pile on hours of work.

After reading this month's Choices debate, Is Homework Out of Control?, I set out to have my students track their workload for a week to see how they stacked up. It didn't exactly go as planned. Our school is 1-to-1, which means the kids have their own laptop from grade six up--and in the digital age, tracking time spent on homework is easier said than done.

The first batch of tracking worksheets I sent home came back a weekend later, and if you were to judge the results without further discussion, you'd think my students were studying for their medical school entrance exams. Apparently, 12-year-olds were doing homework from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. or later, with just a short break for dinner and perhaps a snack or two. So, six hours a night, as opposed to the six hours a week most American teenagers are getting? Something definitely wasn't adding up.

Just to make sure I wasn't mistaken, I checked with the other teachers on the seventh-grade team. As I suspected, they hadn't been piling any additional work on the kids. In fact, with our rotating schedule, the kids only have two core classes and two specials per day, so it's more likely they'll have closer to 40 minutes of homework per night, as opposed to the school policy maximum.

When I told my students this fact--and that their trackers were in no way accurate--they defended themselves by arguing that they were multitasking. I had to explain to them that multitasking means actually doing more than one task at once. Given that they were "multitasking" for six hours a night, they were obviously getting sidetracked along the way.

So we went back to the drawing board, and I created a new tracker that had a bit more detail.

Homework assigned:
Time started:
Time finished:
Breaks taken:
Total time on homework:
Procrastination station (where did I get distracted?):

As with any tracker assigned in health class, I can't guarantee the accuracy of the results, but the act of reflecting was an effective exercise for the kids. They were able to take a critical look at how they were spending their time, realizing that they were causing themselves unneeded stress and sleep deprivation.

Of course, I'm in no way saying teens shouldn't be able to chat with their friends while they work. Collaboration is a key 21st century skill, and some of my best memories of growing up are of doing my homework with friends. I'm just hoping my students will see how much free time they could have, and go meet up with their friends in person instead. I think they're just hoping that I don't tell their parents the truth!

Find out how much homework your students are doing each night with this HOMEWORK TRACKER worksheet: