On Teaching Without Paper, or Less Anyway

copierUsing effective teaching methods often requires all your wit and candor every day. When the copy machine takes more than you have, it kind of wrecks you. Since I started teaching in 1997, I have had a love/hate relationship with copiers and printers. It can be so cool when you have a crisp, stapled presentation ready for 30 kids stacked flush on your desk ready to deliver. It’s even better when the print actually enhances the learning transaction and the standard is internalized as a result.

More often than that though paper is a hassle.

Eight times out of ten when I get my stuff to the copy room, there is a jammed sign on it. Other times it is out of paper in which case I have to use my valuable prep time getting cut on the box and opening reams to load in the machine. Even more frustrating are the times when there is a line of 3 or more of my colleagues all holding their holy grails of lessons in their arms waiting impatiently for the one in front to gather her/his business out of the way. Let me assure you, youll wish you were in hell if YOU are the one who jams the machine with those lines watching over your shoulder. I know there is a longing out there among teachers for more paperless teaching materials.

I’ve often avoided the copier issues by printing the stuff at my computer. We have Brother laser printers and they often work well. It’s never mattered how many trees I massacred as long as the ink was dark and flowed freely, which up to now it always has.

Alas, printers like people, get old I’m afraid. They need routine operations and recently, two in needed to be taken to a nearby cliff (if we had one in the desert) and put out of their misery. I’m speaking of one-half printing. Sound familiar? Lines streaking? Drum light flashing Morse code?

At one point a couple years back, I had all these wonderful road-blocks to getting my lessons taught. You know what I decided? I decided instead of cursing the printing darkness, to light a candle. I declared power over paper.

It would no longer control me! Time for green school ideas.

I set down a what-if scenario for every paper event I can fathom. I decided that the wool had been pulled over my eyes long enough . . . paper and teaching . . . I saw clearly for the first time: I JUST DON’T NEED IT! I am going to learn how to save paper and still be a highly effective teacher. A teaching career can exist with less paper. I believe in that.

Van Gogh said art is done within limitation, not without. I indeed have to get creative at times in order to keep my one-day-at-a-time commitment. My students already have a mother lode of printed material in their texts and their consumable books. I see no reason why I can’t continue this until I retire. My mission is to find alternatives to paper.

Common Core and Collaborative Groups

Common Core has a component of collaborative learning and problem solving that makes it distinctly different from the previous state standards.

As I learn more about the Common Core I learn it is geared toward preparation for work. I really like this about the standards and I hope as it is implemented it maintains this priority. At my school, our teaching staff is just beginning to be trained and readied for this set of standards. One thing our trainer mentioned was that collaborative groups will be mainstay for this new system. This makes perfect sense to me because in every job challenge there is a group that must be worked “with” as opposed to against. I also like teaching through collaborative groups because it fosters higher level thinking like invention and creation.

It was said that while the California standards used to have a lot of specific standards, the Common Core will have less but they will include several standards in one. An old school exam might have 40 questions whereas a Common Core will have only 10 but it will require drawing upon many different standards in the answers. While working in class during guided practice with the teacher, kids will be required to solve problems that touch on and use a variety of standards. Perhaps this will help our human race get along better and be more productive? I feel there is more than just hope here. Thumbs up for Common Core and collaborative groups.

What Students Need from a Teacher

More Classroom and Walls (7)Education has been in a state of flux for about 20 years. The latest trend is online teaching but there have been a lot of changes already in the last 20 years. Some will say President Bush tried to develop it with “No Child Left Behind” and I think most educated and informed people knew that would have only mixed results. By “left behind” it simply meant no one would fall below the C or passing on a uniform assessment. Many now may wonder, “What do students really need in a teacher?” Below I offer some suggestions.

1. Students need a listener. In a room of 20-30 students, it is hard to know the individual idiosyncrasies of your students right away. I have half-jokingly and half-seriously said for years that teachers should spend the first three weeks reviewing the classroom rules. Of course, other things should go on like pair share and group share. Most of all, the teacher should try to elicit responses to questions in effort toward getting to know students and listening to their needs. Continue reading “What Students Need from a Teacher”

Reflections on the Reflective Teacher

Taking time to reflect is beneficial to all human beings. My daughters seem to remind me it’s time to color or otherwise stop what I’m doing at the most inopportune times. I find, however, that those times yield some of my best ideas. Along those lines, it is crucial, in my opinion, to be a reflective teacher. Time off work, out of the classroom is an excellent time to practice being a reflective teacher. Like Winnie the Pooh says: “Did you ever stop to think and then forget to start again?” I think he meant because it can be so wonderful to “stop” that you neglect starting as you were. We need to stop as human beings, especially by our teacher definition. We are entrusted with children and teaching them academics. This is of course one of the highest callings of a society.

Quotes and stories can be excellent sources of teaching inspiration. I like to remind myself of the story of 2 lumberjacks trying to chop more wood in a competition. The first was a busybody with a great work ethic. He chopped until it hurt and then kept right on going limping to his bunk at night. The second was seen taking regular breaks and meditating. At the end of the competition, oddly enough the resting lumberjack had cut down far more trees. When number one asked him how he achieved such an accomplishment he replied: “I stopped regularly to sharpen my axe.”

If we don’t stop we can become fatigued and worse … burned out. Here are some ways I try to be a reflective teacher. Let’s define that here as a teacher who is willing to “stop:”

  • Meditate. While you should have a daily time to stop and meditate to stay healthy, set aside a short time to meditate on your class. Picture it empty, then any way you imagine it. Try this a few times and see the sort of ideas manifest themselves.
  • Make a list. Motivation theory shows that with pen and paper, it helps to start writing ideas down. You might start with the prompt of: “What could be better in my classroom?” Make up other questions and remember the reflective teacher is truly “stopped,” unstressed by the demands of every day work things. Only when you get outside of the routine can you see things differently and fix them.
  • Examine your daily schedule. Look for the times where the day goes smoothly. Can you think of a way to make the who day go more like that? Try the vice versa as well: Where are the long parts of the day that drag on. Chances are, they do the same for your students. Can you help that in any way?
  • Acknowledge the importance of stopping and being a reflective teacher.

In the past few years, I have come to know the healing powers of meditation and relaxation in my personal life. The same practice brings better lessons and better classroom management. Americans as a whole are so caught up with working and doing. I hope you agree that “stopping” and meditating as a reflective teacher will make you more effective.

Classroom Expectations – Take Your Time, do it Right

Most teachers I talk to agree the beginning of the year is the time to establish authority, rules, and expectations. What they don’t all agree on is how to do it.

Classroom management and expectations are a teacher’s best friend or worst enemy. 

It depends on how well a teacher conveys them to the kids. Research I’ve read shows that the beginning of the year is the best time to declare your classroom rules and expectations.  If you fail to get the point across at that time, you have exponentially less control in the classroom until year’s end. You might say it is the most crucial learning objective you’ll have.  Most teachers I talk to agree the beginning of the year is the time to establish authority, rules, and expectations.  What they don’t all agree on however is how to do it

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I knew one teacher who believed in passing out a handout with the rules and not going over them.  I knew another who would would take the entire first week of the school year modeling, explaining, and getting the kids to act out every scenario imaginable.  He actually used puppets and the kids would “ad-lib” scenarios with him such as: “Hey, imagine the puppet is a kid outside and he says: ‘Your momma is ugly.'” The kids would horse around and make the puppets fight.  Then, that teacher would take the teaching opportunity to talk about how silly it is to fight over words. What he’s really doing is setting the stage for child discipline. I feel the second teacher had a much better approach. Believe it or not, puppets are excellent classroom management tools.

I don’t focus solely on behavior management the whole first week, but I use most of it to set the curriculum aside and teach rules and expectations.  I had kids the first week holding up crossed fingers and I had no idea why.  I found out their teacher last year used that as a signal to go to the restroom.  This is an example of why teachers should take time establishing new “grooves” of activity in the classroom.  There is something called the “affective filter” that hinders kids from feeling comfortable learning and taking risks in the classroom.  When the rules are unclear, an anxiety permeates the room.  This anxiety can keep kids from learning to their potential and cause all sorts of mayhem.

I don’t recommend an entire week of nothing but rules and expectations but I think at least half a week with time for followup is a must. You can look into the classroom management books on this one.

Last week I noticed on Thursday that my kids were still not quite sure how I check for understanding.  My method is different from many teachers as you may know if you’ve read my pieces on that.  To summarize it, I say the question, wait, and then call on a random non-volunteer.  This breaks with the traditional method of checking for understanding by forward questioning. I decided I would review and practice it until the kids were “awake” and answering when their number was called.  They eventually did get it and we are ready to start the year strong. When things like this work, I share them here as teacher tips.

Have you thought about your style of class management? Is there a way you could convey it more clearly at the beginning of the year?

Concept Development

Concept Development is an excellent way to open the learner’s mind to the learning objective.

IAB_CL1_PX01449In teaching, it helps to put things into stages or steps. As we move closer to the meat of the lesson, concept development brings us to what we call “The Big Picture.” Here, we examine with the students what exactly this lesson is all about and why it will be beneficial to learn it (also an aspect of another step we’ll cover later called importance.)

Bring in realia, newspaper clippings, objects, music, etc. This is a great place to really make the learning objective come alive. It’s where you literally “develop the concept” for them. For example, if you are teaching similies, you would make examples and show them and make a “non-example” as well. Continue reading “Concept Development”

Special File for Student Notes and Creations

Explains a “sunshine folder.” In this, you put special “gifts” from the kids and then when you are feeling down or just want a reminder that you “don’t suck” as a teacher, you can just pull the folder out and browse through it.

Often teachers share with me that they get trinkets and drawings from their students. I know I get my fair share. All too often we sweep them aside to the edges of our teaching desks and end up throwing them away. A mentor of mine several years back told me about something I know have and call a “sunshine folder.” In this, you put special “gifts” from the kids and then when you are feeling down or just want a reminder that you “don’t suck” as a teacher, you can just pull the folder out and browse through it.

I am not sure exactly why, but it seems that all children love to draw. I have been given so many pictures through the years it could probably fill a landfill. Most of them are gone forever because I didn’t hang on to them. After my mentor’s suggestion, I started keeping all the photos and small stapled envelopes my kids give me and it is getting quite encouraging already. I never know what to do with these gifts and the students always give them to me at inopportune times. Having the sunshine folder helps me keep their sentiments until a time when I can properly enjoy them and it shows the students I care enough to file it and read it at a later time I’ve noticed in recent years the students have used more “realism” in portraying my bald head. The last on I got gave me wings like George Constanza on Seinfeld. I guess looking at the ongoing realism of these pictures from my students is a little bit like accepting that I am aging. All the more reason to keep these special items in a dedicated place.

In the recent past I had a not-so-great day of teaching. I was quite deflated. Everything seemed to have a “catch” attached to it and nothing was working, not even my printer. So, I sat down and pulled out my sunshine folder. As I read through so many messages of “You’re the best … You rock … You’re the best teacher ever …” I found myself feeling better and reminded once again of why I do this wonderful though often difficult job of teaching.

Small Growth is Still Growth

Many of my students just got their reports cards and they included large growth in grades. A few on the other hand, had to see what they have been seeing for years up to now: flat growth or decline in scores. There is only one way to take this: they need to improve. I don’t tell parents of my kids that their children have to be the highest in the class. I just want them to improve. If there was a 2 in one area last trimester, we are looking for a 3 and so on.

The challenge to the high kids is to maintain their high grades. Having said that, the children with lower grades have nowhere to go but up. Small, incremental growth is still growth. When I ran in high school we called it “running your own race” and making a “personal best.”

Trophies in the Classroom

I recognize students in the classroom year after year with 7 trophies I only needed to buy once.

Student recognition
I recognize students in the classroom year after year with 7 trophies I only needed to buy once.

Recognition is powerful in motivating students. The question is “How should we do it?” There are many ways teachers and employers do this every day. Plaques and awards are among them. Some ways present less of a challenge than others. Material rewards can be costly to replace and simple verbal rewards can seem canned. I thought I’d found a happy medium when I discovered one teacher in Santa Ana Unified who had been using a recycled trophy to recognize students. I saw a unique idea and wanted to try it with multiple trophies. Continue reading “Trophies in the Classroom”