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.