Monday, December 28, 2015

A Do-Over for the New Year.

We've all been there.  It's the end of the Christmas holidays and you're heading back to work, dreading the next few months with "that" class.  The class full of kids who challenge you every day, and not in a good way.  The class who, despite your best efforts, will not engage with your lessons. The class that can utterly destroy the best laid plans  - and do it at light speed. You can have a do-over with that class.  And January is the perfect time for it.

Here are some suggestions.  They won't all work for you.  None is a magic bullet.  But your thoughtful consideration of them can give you a combination of ways to start over.

My suggestion is to choose from these ideas the ones that 'ring' with you and prepare to implement them before school starts again.

1.  Implement class meetings.  I know you're overwhelmed with the pressure to "get through" your curriculum.  But just stop and think about how effective you are being right now, and the likelihood that things are going to improve between now and May if you don't make changes.

They won't get better.  They'll get worse.  So give up five minutes at the end of class once a week (or on those terrible days when the behavior in the classroom is intolerable to you), just to talk with kids. Let them know the good things you noticed.  Let them know the things that happened that bothered you.  And then be willing to listen to their critique.  Kids are not diplomatic, but they are genuine.  It's hard to take public critique of your teaching.  But if you can swallow your pride and really listen, without letting it get under your skin and lashing out, you'll learn things that will make you a better teacher.  With periodic class meetings you can communicate to students the things that bother you, and that they may not be aware they're doing.  And you can learn from them things that you can change to improve their attitudes and behaviors.

2.  Change the setup.  Civil engineers watch how people utilize spaces.  You should too. Think about the physical layout of your classroom, especially those places where traffic jams happen. Consider how you can improve the flow to get students to their seats more quickly and minimize the congestion.  Congested areas are often the source of behavior problems.  And anything that slows kids down as they enter the room means you can't start class on time. Moving furniture might be a solution, but perhaps finding a strategy to avoid having students delayed in that area of the room would be more effective.  For example, perhaps the routine is for students to pick up handouts from a counter near the door.  If kids pile up there, it delays a smooth entry to class and probably keeps you from starting class on time.  Maybe it would be better to have collated stacks of handouts ready to distribute after everyone is seated.  Think about the things that delay the start of your class and make a change for better efficiency and less congestion.

3.  Restructure the beginning of class.  In my job as an instructional coach with teachers who were really struggling, one thing was noticeable and nearly always present:  a lack of structured routine. The first ten minutes of class are critical. While you are taking care of "administrivia" like attendance every student should be in their seat and quietly working.  If they aren't working on something productive, they'll keep themselves entertained in less desirable ways, leaving you to repair the damage.  Don't let that happen.
The challenge, of course, is finding the warm-up activities.  I'll get you started with some that can be adapted for quite a few subject areas.  It's a set of questions that I originally developed to give to parents.  But I've had feedback from teachers telling me that they have used the questions successfully as writing prompts. Writing is important in every subject.  So here's a free start for your warm up activities:  Conversation Starters.  The picture below is a sample from the set.

4.  Restructure the end of class.  We all have pressure to "get through" or "cover" our assigned curriculum.  And we all have a tendency to feel more and more urgency to do that as the year progresses.  We rush through the last few minutes of class in order to "teach" everything we have planned for the day.  By doing that we might meet the goal of "covering" the material, but we're not effectively teaching it.

There's a memory effect called "primacy/recency".  Basically it boils down to the fact that students remember best what they heard first and remember second best what they hear last.  What they hear is not always what you said.  Hearing requires attention.  "Remember the quiz tomorrow!" shouted as students rush out the door will be neither attended to nor heard.

The solution is to stop "covering" the curriculum.  Discipline yourself to leave ten minutes at the end of class for a summarization activity, such as an exit card, to hold students accountable for learning something every single day.  If you hold them accountable - even with the briefest of summarization activities - their behavior during class will gradually improve.  You don't have to spend a great deal of time correcting or grading those summarizing activities.  Just sort them into three piles:  Gets It, Kinda Gets It, and Doesn't Get It.  Use the piles to help you decide what might need reteaching, and what seems to have been mastered.  Give a minimal number of points for credit.  I used three points, two points, and one point respectively, because it's not enough to hurt a student who was absent, but in my class, if accumulated over the course of a semester, it was enough to impact a grade.  Because it was based on mastery of material, I felt comfortable using those points as part of a final grade, and by having points attached to it, students felt more inclined to complete the work - especially as they saw points accumulating.

5.  Require engagement.  Sounds easier said than done, right?  Wanting it and requiring it are two different things.  One great zero-prep method of requiring engagement was taught to me by a fabulous high school ESL teacher named Ali.

It is a strategy Ali called Ask Answer Add.   She didn't use the strategy every day.  Usually at the end of a class, but sometimes when she felt engagement waning during class,  Ali would require every student in the room to ASK a question, ANSWER a question, or ADD to an answer given by another student.  She just kept a roster and checked names during the activity.  She'd start with a question about something she'd just taught. She'd ask for someone to answer.  Then the other students could ADD to the answer, or ASK a follow-up question or a new question.  Students quickly learn that it's a lot easier to ask, answer, or add at the beginning of the activity than it is at the end.  Ali simply would not allow students the choice to disengage.  She wouldn't let them leave class until they'd all responded in some way. I'm sure it took some practice.  But students in her class learned to be ready to Ask, Answer, or Add whenever Ali decided it was time.

Another great way to require engagement takes a little more explanation.  Check out the resource pictured to the right.  They're called Response Cards.  Click on the link to see more about them.

The preview of the resource will give you the general idea of how it works.  You can save yourself some time by purchasing the set of cards, but if you don't want to do that, or want to make your own, please feel free to just look at the preview and get the general gist.

6.  Review.  You probably went over your class rules and expectations during the first week of school.  But it's important to do that again after every extended break.  Take part of the first day back to school to greet your students and to have a simple conversation with them.   Then review your expectations, introduce anything new that you've decided to implement, and enjoy your "new year" with your students!


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Winter Solstice

We're getting close to the winter solstice (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere) and I'd happily trade places with someone in Australia right now!  It's tooo dark and cold for me!  To keep our spirits up in the darkest days of winter, my family celebrates Solstice with some close friends with an annual feast in which the foods are close to what might have been available to the ancient northern Europeans during the midwinter festivals to bring back the sun.  My husband's Danish ancestry and my northern England ancestry give us a connection to those ancient peoples.

We cook either poultry or pork and serve it with barley, dark bread, and some kind of root vegetable which is served on plates (no trenchers) but without silverware (just our hands) and with only candles to light the house.  This has been going on every winter solstice for 30 years, except when family obligations have kept us apart.  One year, one of the couples brought mead to keep things authentic to northern Europe.  Can't say any of us developed a real appreciation for fermented honey, but it was fun to try it!

Most years, my school is on holiday break by Dec. 21st or 22nd.  But I always tried - no matter what unit I happened to be teaching - to bring in a little solstice fun before our break.  So here's a FREE solstice related Hidden Message Puzzle for you to download and share with your students. Just click on the link.

And if you happen to be teaching genetics right now, you might enjoy this holiday activity that uses gingerbread kids and parents to practice using genotypes, phenotypes, and Punnett Squares.
Gingerbread Genotypes And Punnett Square Practice

Have a happy solstice and do whatever you need to do to make sure the sun comes back, won't you?
Maybe host a solstice party of your own! :)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Making Christmas Memories

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.  I sure did!  I have a relatively small family, and all of them live near me.  My house is always where we celebrate Thanksgiving so I had the crew here for a very Traditional with a capital "T" Thanksgiving dinner. Tradition is big in my family.

This year, because I'm retired now, I thought I'd be all finished decorating my house for Christmas by now - and I'm not. But I'm getting ready to tackle that today.  I love getting the traditional (there I go again with tradition!) decorations out and arranged and seeing my house look so full of holiday spirit.

Both my husband and I still have the handmade Christmas stockings from our childhoods. They are definitely showing their age but are a tangible link to our memories and very valuable to us.  My children have Christmas stocking made by their grandmother, who isn't with us anymore.  I know how special those stockings are to them.  Christmas decorating for me is about creating things that are those tangible links to our memories. Things my kids will remember for the rest of their lives.


 I made this pine cone wreath for my hurricane vase candle with a wreath form from Michael's, some sphagnum moss, and cones from my yard. The hurricane vase and candle came from Pier One.

This Christmas banner was a "find" in an antique store!  I love that I'm reusing something that had been part of the love in someone else's home once upon a time.  And I love how it looks on my mantel, also an antique store discovery.  The mantel is from Britain and was dated by the antique store owner to probably late 1920s.

I don't love the part of Christmas decorating that involves boxes needing to be pulled out of the back of the storage room.  I think they migrate during the summer.  I always think I've put them where they'll be easier to get to next year. But when I go to get them, they're always behind the coolers and the suitcases and all of the other stuff we've used since last Christmas.

Another thing I don't like about Christmas is the waste.  The paper especially.  It  tortures me to buy a bunch of wrapping paper, wrap the gifts one day and then throw away the paper as soon as it's ripped off of the gifts the next day.  Of course we recycle paper in my house! But still.  It just seemed like such an awful waste.  So one year, I decided to do something about that, and to make Christmas at my house a little bit more environmentally friendly.

I bought a ton of Christmas fabric on sale.  Then I spent the week between Christmas and New Year's sewing gift bags.  I had no idea how to do it when I first got the idea, but I found a tutorial on YouTube and got to work.  I am not a person who sews for entertainment.  I sew for function only. I promise you, I'm not a really competent sewer.  If I can do these gift bags, ANYBODY who has the slightest idea how to use a sewing machine can do it.

Here's what a gift bag looks like laid flat:

And here's what it looks like with the drawstring (made from ribbon) pulled.

It was kind of tough to make them all and put them away for a year.  But the following year, I spent SO much less time wrapping gifts!  I just popped gifts into gift bags and put them under the tree. The best part though, was the reduction in the wrapping paper waste at my house that year and the ease of cleaning up after the Christmas morning gift exchange.  Easy and environmentally friendly!  Tough to beat that combination!

I continue to make a few new gift bags every year, hoping to arrive at a point where I have enough to be able to not buy wrapping paper at all.  I'm at the point where a big roll of gift wrap lasts me several years.  Last year, when I felt a little nostalgia at seeing the different gift bags sewn each year, it occurred to me that perhaps someday my own children will be using these same bags under their Christmas tree as part of their own Christmas traditions.  I like doing something that makes Christmas a little more environmentally friendly now, and perhaps someday will give my children something they'll cherish as a link to their childhood home and Christmases past.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Science Fair

Science Fair.  The words strike terror into the hearts of students, parents, and staff.  As if the holidays were not stress enough!

It used to be that science fair was pretty low key and just a chance for students to have fun while learning to do experiments of their choice, or show off their model of a scientific principal, or to display their rock collections.  That's surely not the way it is now.

Today, high school students can win thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money and research grants.  In the 2015 INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, a sixteen year old, a seventeen year old, and an eighteen year old each won $50,000!  

OK - no pressure there!  These days, science fair is not for wimps.  Districts expect that science teachers will make sure that students from their district have a chance of competing at state, regional, and international science fairs and bringing home the credit to their school and school district.

Students as young as fifth grade begin competing in state or regional science fairs.  Not many parents have the background in science to help their children with that kind of project.  And not many teachers have the time to help each individual child to plan and carry out a unique and scientifically valid project.

As the result of having been the district science fair coordinator for my school district, I learned first hand that without some help, a lot of kids just can't do it.  And it's pretty obvious which kids had massive amounts of help from a parent who just happens to be an engineer or biomedical researcher. We want kids who don't have that kind of parent help to have a fair shot at learning to do a good science experiment - and maybe even going on to win some scholarship money.

Last spring, after seeing the 7,000th model volcano of my career, a homemade 3-D printer, and a fully functioning electricity-generating bicycle desk for teachers, I decided to write a Science Fair Guide for students entering their first competitive science fair, (and for the parents who want to help them plan a good project and have an encouraging experience in science).

The guide focuses on creating a scientifically valid experiment because the important thing is for young kids to understand that it's not about winning as much as it's about finding out something you didn't already know, and contributing to our knowledge of the world around us. Or, as Enrico Fermi said it best:

      "If the result confirms the hypothesis, you've made a discovery.
      If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, you've made a discovery."

That's what we science teachers want for students to understand.  It's about finding out things we didn't know, even if - or especially if - it didn't go the way we expected it to.

With this year's science fair season upon us, I've made a set of Editable Science Fair Planning Calendars for anyone who needs them.  They're free.  I hope they'll reduce the planning stress a little bit and make it easier to keep everything moving smoothly.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wicked Plants, Wicked Bugs, Earthworms, and Flowers

Not many teachers get to work for years and years with a team of other teachers who are really compatible with each other.  I was very fortunate to have that kind of team. Two of the three of us started our first year of teaching on the same day in the same school. The other teacher was more experienced.  We got to work together as a team for twenty years!  And we had such fun! Things were a lot different back then.  We had a lot of freedom with curriculum.  The three of us - teaching social studies, science, and English, did some interdisciplinary units that honestly were the highlights of my teaching career.   I always loved reading books but from my experiences with a great teaching team I learned to love teaching books.

When I had a chance to work with Amy Stewart - a real honest to goodness New York Times best-selling author - to create teaching resources for her books, it was a dream come true!  It was frosting on the cake that I loved the books and could barely make it through two pages without thinking of three ways to teach something related to what I'd just read.

I've happily spent the past five months writing free teaching resources for Amy Stewart's best-selling books. I hope you'll download them from her website and enjoy teaching with a fabulous book:

Wicked Plants

Wicked Bugs

The Earth Moved

and Flower Confidential.  

I just sent off the Flower Confidential resources to Amy this evening - so the cover is still under wraps.  

If you ever have wished for non-fiction reading that was accessible for secondary students, and short enough to be practical for classroom use, take a look at (and download) the free teaching resources at


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Football Flash Freebie

I'm honored to have been selected this week for a coveted spot in Erin Cobb's (Lovin' Lit) Football Sunday giveaway! Here's where you can see the info: I'm Lovin' Lit.

Each week during the football season, Erin runs a "flash freebie" to celebrate a win by her adored New Orleans Saints.  She selects resources from the Teachers Pay Teachers website that are normally priced products. For one hour after a New Orleans Saints victory, the selected product becomes FREE.  So keep your eyes on the Saints game and  Erin's blog today for a chance to win my Make Inferences in Science - The Elements

It's super easy to implement because it's ready to print and comes with the answer keys.  It includes four short articles:  The Radium Girls, The Bombing of Hamburg, Start Appreciating Your Pencil (graphite), and The Hindenburg.

Each short article is accompanied by 4-5 inference questions.  Your students can finish the assignment during your bell work time.  It's a great way to address ELA reading standards (which many of us science teachers are required to do) without sacrificing instructional time from your regularly planned lesson.

It's kind of hard sometimes to find articles that are on a reading level that works for secondary students and also match the topic you are currently teaching.  And then you have to write your own questions for it.  This resource takes care of all that work for you.  You just print the article you want, with its questions, and you have a bell-work assignment that addresses both science and reading.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Formal Teaching Observations Part 2

Last time I posted about formal teaching observations I mentioned the importance of time limits and signals.  I'd like to go into a little bit more detail about time limits.  Let me start with a story.

I worked in a "full inclusion" school district.  That means that all students, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, attended most of their classes with their same-age peers.  The regular educator was responsible for differentiating the work for all students.  They might receive assistance or suggestions from special education teachers but the classes were not co-taught. The regular educator was the only adult in the room most days and the classes included students on the entire range from gifted to severely disabled.  Full inclusion has its challenges for sure.  But you do learn to differentiate!

One year I had a student named Eric, who was on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. He really struggled with anxiety when teachers would give him a large chunk of work to do like 10 questions on the same page.  And it was also hard for him to stop working on one thing and transition to another.

A large part of his anxiety was related to timing.  It upset him to see a lot of questions or problems all at once. It seemed overwhelming to him and he had trouble with determining how much time to spend on any one question. And then he was annoyed when a teacher would tell him to stop working and transition to something else, especially if he had just one more thing to do and was being told to stop working on it.

In an effort to ease his anxiety I did a couple of things.  I started giving him smaller chunks of work. Instead of giving him ten questions on one sheet of paper, I'd give him one question on an index card and I would tell him how much time he had to finish it. Then, I'd collect that card and give him the next card, and so on.  It worked well for both of us.  He never saw the work he didn't get done so he wasn't upset about it, and he didn't resist working when it was one thing at a time. He often would say "I can do that" when I gave him one card.  And then he'd say it again when I'd give him the next one.  It was like he was reassuring himself. And he got a lot more work done too!

Another thing I did was to give him a heads-up when his time for any task was coming to an end, so that he was never taken by surprise by a request to stop working.  But he did NOT like it when I came to his desk to give him that warning.  He felt singled out.

So I started announcing to the whole class "In two minutes, I'm going to ask you to start cleaning up." That gave Eric the warning he needed, but without singling him out.  I was pretty surprised when that advance warning worked just as well for the rest of my students as it did for Eric.  They all did a better job of transitioning to another activity when I had given them the two minute warning before asking them to stop what they were doing.

So that's how I learned first hand about the value of time limits at the beginning and the end of a task. When you're being observed, you really want transitions to be smooth because then you don't lose much instructional time, which is something the administrator is attending to. Believe me, they're counting how many minutes it takes you and the kids to transition to the next activity. Of course I'm sure you would like to be more efficient with time whether or not there's an administrator observing you.  One thing there's NEVER too much of in teaching, is time!

One weird little additional tip:  Don't use time chunks like five minutes, or ten minutes etc.  Time chunks like those seem flexible not rigid.  They don't cause students to pace themselves.  It sounds strange but it's true.  If instead, you say "You have until 9:07" kids will do a better job of watching the clock and pacing themselves.  But stick to it.  At 9:07 it's time to stop.  It takes some practice but students will learn that you mean it when you say 9:07.

And do give them a heads up when work time is coming to an end.  Don't spring it on them.  Tell them "You have three more minutes to work" (another irregular time block) and then when you do tell them to stop, they'll be more likely to have finished their task and be ready to move on.  It used to drive me crazy when I'd have seven groups of students ready to move on and one group still rushing to finish and clean up. That problem pretty much went away when I started using time limits more effectively.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Best Place In The World

I just got back from a trip to southern Utah - and to my favorite place in the world - Arches National Park.  Most people see the park in spring or summer but I love it in the fall.  The light and colors make it difficult to take a bad photo.

Thought you might enjoy seeing some pics.  Over in the sidebar to the right >>>>>
you can click on the Featured Freebie to get these pictures (and 11 more) to use in your classroom.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mole Day Sale! Oct 23rd

Some of my science buddies from Teachers Pay Teachers are getting together to have a Happy Mole Day (Oct 23rd) sale!  All my science teaching resources (and theirs) will be on sale at up to 20% off.

Check out the blog of my friend Mrs. Lau (Science and Math with Mrs. Lau) for more information and links to the the stores that will be participating in the sale: Mole Day Sale 

Here are a couple of my resources that will be on sale. (And I have 98 other resources that you might want to check out too!)

My Chemical Symbols Color by Number activity lets students practice chemical symbols by coloring the puzzle to match the chemical symbol in each section.


And my Chemistry Vocabulary Playing Cards help students to identify molecules, compounds, atoms and elements and match pictures to names, symbols, formulas, and definitions.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Formal Teaching Observations Part 1

I know teachers who say they're not the slightest bit intimidated by unannounced formal evaluation visits. There's a little part of me that wonders if that's true. Who feels just fine about having someone show up unannounced to watch them work for 45 minutes?  I know it's supposed to be helpful. But it feels more like stalking when somebody shows up without warning, watches you silently and intently for nearly an hour without taking their eyes off you except to take notes on what you say and do, and then leaves without saying a word to you or letting you see what they wrote. There's absolutely nothing natural or comfortable about that.

The first round of observations in my district always starts in October. That's supposed to give teachers time to get to know students and get students used to the teacher and the structure of the class.  Unfortunately the time period from October through December is often packed with end of term exams, first parent conferences and grading piling up on teachers. And with holidays thrown in, administrators can get pretty pressured to get in the observations they need to do. The combination of those factors creates some unfortunate timing. I know a teacher whose principal came in to do an unannounced observation of her on Halloween in a middle school. News Flash: Middle school students are not on their best behavior when they're dressed like zombies.

I don't know how it's possible to be comfortable and teach naturally while someone is clearly taking data on everything you're doing, and is also taking data on what your students are doing, as if every move they make is somehow under your control.  In my job I was sometimes the second person sitting in the back of the room with the administrator during those observations. It was kind of like a checks and balances thing for people whose jobs were on the line and for whom the observation carried even more weight than usual. In a way, I was observing the observer. So maybe I can give you some tips about what your administrator will be looking for and what you need to do during an observation. Hopefully that will help you to not be so anxious.

Every evaluation system I'm familiar with includes whether or not the teacher explicitly states and periodically revisits the objectives for the lesson. It's not likely that your administrator will be in your class from the time class starts until it ends.  That's extremely frustrating when what you do at the beginning and end of class is part of the evaluation, but it's just the way it goes. And it makes it especially important that there be visible evidence that you went over the objectives with students before the administrator got there.

From my work with struggling teachers I can tell you that it's surprising how many teachers just start teaching when class begins and never tell students what they'll be doing, why they're doing it, or how they'll be expected to demonstrate what they've learned.  So there's no reason for students to get engaged in the first place. That is going to have a negative effect on student behavior and on the evaluation of your teaching. Get in the habit of writing your objectives on the board and starting class by going over them with students. It's fairly obvious when that is being done for the first time during a formal observation. It needs to be - and look like - a practiced routine, not like some dog and pony show that you're putting on for the administrator's benefit.

While you're teaching the lesson, point at the objective you wrote on the board and make a reference to it. Perhaps say something like this:  "At the beginning of class, we talked about today's objectives. We've been working on #1, and now we're ready to transition to #2, where you'll be working in small groups. You have one minute to get ready to move. I'll know you're ready when you have ____."

Saying something like that draws your students' (and administrator's) attention back to the objectives for the day and helps students make the connection between what they have just finished doing and what they'll be doing next. That statement also incorporates two other really important student engagement strategies:  Time Limits and Signals. More about those in my next post.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Worst Attention Prompt Ever - Classroom Management Tip #2

Let me tell you a story about a terrible attention prompt.   I was at a state level meeting of all the new teacher induction coordinators from every district in the state. Most of the fifty people in the room were very veteran educators of middle age or older.  The presenter that day happened to be an elementary teacher.  She stood at the front of the room full of older teachers and said "One, two, three. Eyes on me."  Sigh. Seriously?  For a room full of older adults?   Perhaps two of the people in the room responded half-heartedly "One, two.  Eyes on you."   The rest of us were quiet and giving her our attention - but mostly because we were astonished and speechless over her poor choice of attention prompts. The moral of that story is:  Use attention prompts but choose them wisely for your audience and for yourself.

Be sure that the attention prompt you choose is something you are comfortable using.  I hate that raised hand prompt.  I hate it in professional development meetings and I hate it in a classroom. So I didn't use it.  I wouldn't have been able to be consistent with it, and I knew that.  Instead, I used "May I have your attention please?"  said in a normal tone of voice.  Once.  Then I just stood there and stared at students who were talking until they gave me their attention.  If that didn't work, I would say their name.  See Classroom Management Tip #1.  

A colleague of mine, a high school physics teacher, hung a wind chime from the ceiling in her room. She uses it only when she needs to redirect student attention from whatever they are working on, to give her their attention for something important.  It works like a charm.

A drama teacher I know had a "spot on stage" (a specific place in her large drama room where she stood only when she needed students to attend to her).  It was as effective as if the lights had gone out and a spotlight had been trained on her.  When she moved to that spot students noticed, stopped what they were doing and paid attention.  The key for both of those teachers was that the prompt was used sparingly, consistently, and that they didn't hesitate to call out students who didn't pay attention to it - from day one of the school year.   

Whatever you decide to use - music, a wind chime, a polite request - just be consistent with it.  Use it only when you really want everyone's attention immediately.  And don't EVER start talking until you have every single student's attention.  

If music is your thing, check out Josh Woodward's songs that you can download for free without violating copyright.

I have no affiliation with Josh.  I just like his music and I think it's awesome that he shares his talents so freely.    

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Survival Kit In A Sandwich Bag

I'm taking a little break here from talking about teaching.  It's June. Who wants to think about school right now?

I'm thinking about summer and all the fun I had with my own kids when they were little.  We live in a great area for people who love the outdoors.  When the kids were little, hardly a week passed between camping trips.  We tried to be gone more than we were home during the summer months. I still can't go outside without noticing something and thinking "That would be such a cool thing for a lesson about..."  Hmmm.  Can't turn off that teacher brain.  And I'm not sure I ever want to.

Today, thinking about camping, I thought about a little boy who was lost in the mountains just east of me.  He was at a lake with his dad, and just went back to camp for "a minute" because he got his clothes wet and wanted to change.  I think he was about 10 years old and their camp was a very short walk away.  That was several years ago.  He's never been found.  Nor has any trace of him.  I think about his parents every summer. One minute your kid is by your side having fun at a mountain lake.  The next minute he's vanished into thin air.  I can't imagine that nightmare.  But I've been on the "lost" end of it, very briefly.  I was an adult, and it was terrifying to me.  I was 'lost' and alone for less than an hour before being found.  But I learned a lifelong lesson in that time.  I realized how unprepared I was.  I never go camping or hiking anymore without carrying on my person what I would need to stay safe for a night - or two.

Here are simple FREE instructions for making your own Survival Kit In A Sandwich Bag.  It's made with easily available inexpensive materials and - most importantly - a kid can use it without help.

Survival Kit In A Sandwich Bag

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Secrets to Classroom Management #1.2

Back to names again.  Seriously, the topic needs two posts.  Names really are the #1 secret to classroom management.

In my last post I mentioned that it would be a good idea to take your class roster and go find a veteran teacher in the grade previous to the one you're teaching, to help you learn to pronounce your new students' names. Or maybe take your roster into the faculty room on your first day at work and use it to break the ice and start a conversation with your new colleagues. Asking for help is a pretty good way to get people to start talking to you.

There are a couple of reasons why you should ask a veteran for help.  First, the veteran knows the kid.  If the student's legal name is not the name they go by, the veteran will tell you what to call the kid.  Believe me, some kids start every school year dreading that first calling of attendance, because they really don't want everybody to hear that horrible humiliating name.  The veteran teacher will give you the gift of calling that kid the nickname he or she wants to be called, and the student will appreciate you for knowing that name.  And obviously the veteran teacher can also tell you how to pronounce the difficult or unusual names.

But the veteran will tell you more.  Maybe you've always heard that you should avoid asking or listening to what other teachers think about students.  Most of us heard that in college.  We heard how much it affects us to believe that a student is difficult or brilliant or anything else.  The assumption is that we are too stupid to avoid believing everything we hear.  But we're not stupid.  We know enough to make up our own minds about kids.  And what you can hear from a veteran may be critical to your success (or failure) with that child. How can it be a bad thing to know that a child's parents went through an ugly divorce two years ago and now he's living with his grandmother? Might that explain some of his behaviors? How could it be a bad thing to know that a student has a lisp and hates being called on in class? How could it be a good thing to ask her in front of all her peers, how to pronounce her name, if her name is Sareecia?  That kind of thing can be avoided. Talk to those veteran teachers. They'll tell you stuff you need to know about the name, and about the human being who carries that name.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Secrets to Classroom Management - #1.1

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II,ii,1-2) by William Shakespeare.

I didn't title this post "What's In A Name?" because my father, a professor of languages, would have rolled over in his grave had I resorted to such a cliched use of a quote from Shakespeare.  But it's a good question.  What's in a name?  The best classroom management tool ever.

Memorizing your students' names quickly is respectful.  And using their names to redirect their off-task behavior ( e.g. "Joan, sit down please") is much more effective than giving directions to 'everyone' (e.g. "Everyone sit down.  Everyone sit down please.  Please have a seat. JOAN!  Sit down!")  You should have just started with "Joan, sit down please"

I don't care how bad you are with names, because you are going to have to remember 3,000 of them or more, in a 30 year career.  And twenty years from now, when that former student of yours runs into you at the grocery store you'll be expected to answer the question "Remember me?"

The real reason to remember names of course, is that our names are music to our ears, and they can't be said aloud without us hearing them.  If someone says your name, you're all ears.  And if someone remembers your name quickly, you like it.  There is nothing quite so effective as using a student's name, no matter the occasion.  And there is nothing worse than not remembering it because that sends a message too:  You are not special and you don't matter to me.

So here's a tip:  Get last year's yearbook, and start memorizing names to go with faces. That way, when a student who is six inches taller than you are, with a swagger that would make Idris Elba look like a wimp, walks in the door on the first day of class, you can say, "Good morning, Robert." It's hard to over-estimate the effect of that simple statement.  You just told Robert that you know him better than he knows you. And you have told him that you care enough to have learned his name before school starts.  And you've told him that you know things....that he didn't expect you to know. He might decide to give you a day or two of his best behavior.

If, on the other hand, you say, "Good morning, See-Oh-Bahn", because you practiced sounding out "Siobhan" from the class roster you got the day before - you're toast.  Because it's pronounced "Sha VAWN". And Siobhan (did you really just read SeeOhBahn?) is not likely to forgive you, or to feel good when the rest of the class laughs at your massacring of her name, which everybody (except the hopelessly clueless teacher) knows how to pronounce.  I know this, because I was one of those kids who knew the teacher would mispronounce my name.  It wasn't an easy name and I knew that.  It is mispronounced more often than pronounced correctly.  I now go by my middle name.  A teacher who could pronounce my first name had my instant gratitude.  That's a good thing for a teacher to start off with.

So, if you have no yearbook, but do have a roster, take a few minutes to go find a couple of veteran teachers in the grade before yours and get them to tell you how to say the students' names correctly. I'll write a different post about why it should be a veteran teacher you talk to.

Knowing kids names and saying them correctly on the first day, can make or break your introduction of yourself to your new students, and potentially give you a respectful foundation on which to build your relationships.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Roots and Wings

After 35 years as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, I'm stretching my wings.  It's time to fly.  My career has been a very satisfying one.  It has made me who I am in many ways, and has been a huge part of my identity.  I have grown deep roots in the profession.  But it is time to grow wings.

I hope to continue to make a difference by speaking my mind for those who can't risk doing that, by giving back what I can to the teachers who are going "once more unto the breach", and most of all by giving support to the teachers who will step into their own classroom for the first time at the beginning of the new school year. Kudos to them -  especially. And if you are one of them, and are stepping into your first middle school science classroom, there's a place in my heart reserved just for you; and there's something HERE that I hope will be helpful to you.