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.

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”

Music in the Classroom – In Some Strong Hearts

Now, with these blinding budget cuts in California and across the nation, we need to dig deep to unveil what our true values are.

musicThe title is true for my school anyway. Amid the rigorous academics demands on school children these days, it is refreshing to see teachers keeping music in the classroom. Most people from my generation got some music instruction, or at least music appreciation, in elementary school.  I will never forget Mr. Davis pulling us out of class once a week and teaching us to pluck the guitar saying “Santa Ana freeway” in time. I’ve been carrying that torch, in my small way, ever since I started teaching, keeping music in the schools.

With kids it’s best to start with the basics and work their way out: the parts, the strings, the chords, then teaching with songs, and later riffs and solos. It’s great to know that some administrators, teachers, and districts believe that music in the classroom should remain “still standing” even in these times of recession.

¿Que? When Language Barriers Get Funny

Scott had developed a shocking trend of “mooning” people on the playground. It was first brought to my attention by the noon-duty aides and then later by other students. Each time I gave him a detention and he missed his recess . . . but the mooning continued so I wrote a note home.

worldlanguagesThis post is a break in discussing classroom lesson plans, one of my classic jokes in language teaching. Scott was a wild 4th grader. He was the first out the door at recess and the last one in. He was also extremely funny to a first year teacher. While other teachers had given up on the hispanic lightning bolt, I was ready for the challenge. It was the stuff that esl lessons online are made of only computers weren’t much then.

Scott had developed a shocking trend of “mooning” people on the playground. It was first brought to my attention by the noon-duty aides and then later by other students. Each time I gave him a detention and he missed his recess . . . but the mooning continued so I wrote a note home. Normally, this would amount to humor but to a teacher it means some creative discipline.

Being a new teacher, I was not as savvy as I am now after almost 10 years. It didn’t occur to me that his parents might not be able to read a note in English. Scott accepted the note and I told him the customary warning that if he did not bring it back the next day signed, he would have no recess and there would be a call home.

When he brought the note back, I assumed the issue was resolved . . . but then recess came. Yup, he did it again. This time I had to schedule a parent conference. I spoke timid Spanish then but I did speak with his mother over the phone and she verbosely apologized in her native tongue. We made an appointment to meet about it and I made sure I had a bilingual aide on site available to clearly translate the meeting. What followed might be considered the best of interactive esl lessons, for me anyway.

In the meeting Scott sat next to his mother and I began to explain how ashamed I was to be Scott’s teacher when he did this at recess. The mother listened to the translator and then replied in Spanish to the effect of: “I know, we hate it when we do it at home and at the store, but everybody slips sometimes you know?”

After hearing the exact translation I was astonished. I said with the clearest Spanish I knew: “le permiten removar sus pantalones en publico a veces?” If you don’t speak Spanish, I said “You allow him to take off his pants in public?” If you do speak Spanish, you can see I need some tutoring. Then she said:

“QUE?”

The woman flushed immediately and looked at her son with a furor I rarely see in moms. She babbled something quick and angry at her son, slapped him on the head and then said in broken English:

“He told us you were mad at heem ’cause he deen’t tuck hees shirt een.”

And after that, Scott behaved and I went back to focusing on writing lesson plans.

Guided Practice

Guided practice is showing and releasing the students to do the task or standard at hand. It is probably the most important step of a dynamite lesson plan.

Guided practice is showing and releasing the students to do the task or standard at hand. It is probably the most important step of math lessons especially but of any subject you can teach.  You model the way a problem comes to a solution.  In some ways, it’s the easiest part of the lesson because you are doing the learning objective.  If you are teaching about fractions, you would show the way to do the learning objective only later to release them (independent practice) to do it on their own. Incidentally, there are an increasing number of sites for teachers that can help you with guided practice.   An important part of this step is “checking for understanding” (CFU).  I use playing cards and number off kids.  Then I randomly call on them. Using “random non volunteers” in your CFU is crucial to seeing if they get it.  Your goal is to have them master the learning objective with 80% proficiency prior to closure.  After closure comes “independent practice.” Here are some guided practice lessons.

This brings up an interesting topic on homework.  Homework is not guided practice because no one is guiding the student. In my experience, worksheets are bad homework because the students often do them wrong repeatedly and then they learn it wrong.  It has been said “practice make perfect.” That is not true.  It is true instead to say “practice makes permanent.” Students should only do homework that they have 100% mastered.  This should be determined by the teacher based on assessment during the lesson. Apart from that, silent reading for comprehension is an excellent form of independent practice.  Teachers must remember the difference between guided and independent practice and when each is the appropriate step in the lesson. Educational websites should always promote guided practice as a foundation.

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”

Backward Map Review – A Great Way to do Test Prep

If you want your kids to feel comfortable with all the material, you need to get them familiar with it now. Using the past test to go over and review with the kids is like gold.

With about 20 days left to the California Standards Test (CST), it is challenging how to spend your teaching tie. Of course, the free mind of a teacher can analyze similar tests and divine what to reteach. This is only a little useful. The best way to do test prep is to analyze the data of your assessments and then “backward map” reteaching the questions that 50% or less missed. This is when an item analysis report comes in handy.

I have my data and it’s magneted up on my white board. Every day for the past week and now into the next days before the standards test I have been teaching test prep and reteaching the concepts where it appears only less than 50% understood. When direct lessons are happening it feels like the best way to teach. Of course you can’s always teach this way. You need to apply yourself to solid, direct instruction and doing backward mapping will help your teaching be more relevant and of more value on the CST. If you want your kids to feel comfortable with all the material, you need to get them familiar with it now. Using the past test to go over and review with the kids is like gold. (It works!)

The Challenge of Making Your Not-so-Favorites Your Favorites

20130401-170518.jpgThere are 30 some odd kids in your class as a teacher. It is so easy to gravitate and focus on the needs of your favorites. They are as such because they fit in to your paradigm. Disclaimer: No teacher should have “favorites” but I am using the term to simply make a point we always need to keep an open mind to all our students. For the purposes of this article, by “favorite” I simply mean ones that are easier to understand and reach. That is m goal with every student. Thank you for understanding my disclaimer. Favorites are natural to your style of teaching and personality. You “get” them and so they often are easier to reach and teach. These are not the students that challenge you to be great. I challenge you to pay more attention to the difficult ones, those who are more difficult to understand. When you reach them, it’s a huge win for you and they.

We shun things we aren’t familiar with. A kid may seem annoying on purpose when her/him is only operating under their home paradigm. Not only can you offer them academic help but they can teach you more about how students perceive and survive in the world. Ring any bells? Please comment.

It is one of my top values for my blog here to host comments. I promise to give you my posts until my dying day but I covet YOUR comments more. Teachers, parents, administrators, edubloggers, and anyone interested. PLEASE leave me a comment. I promise to reply.

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?

Parent Conferences Tip – Listen to Parents About Their Child

Here are a few ways to encourage parents to talk about their child. Once they start talking, be sure and take note and/or just listen.


Every year about Thanksgiving time, the parent conference occurs. I’ve been scheduling and hosting them for 14 years. These can be fluid and helpful to both parent and teacher but without this tip, they can be useless. You can offer positive parenting tips You may think you know the student very well because you have seen them every day in class since August.

Face the reality however that the parent knows them much better than you. In most cases, they were there with the child at birth. If you have kids of your own, you know the significance of the parent/child relationship. Even if you don’t have kids you can recall your relationship with your own parents. Should a teacher assume to know as much about one of their 25-35 students? I say no. It can be tempting to want to give educational tips for parents but remember a balance. Continue reading “Parent Conferences Tip – Listen to Parents About Their Child”