No Easy Way to Learn Multiplication Facts

One might argue that nothing is easy to learn. The very essence of the word learn means you don’t have knowledge that you must acquire new knowledge and acquiring it comes by a lot of work. Still, there are an abundance of videos on Youtube that claim they are an “easy way” to learn your times tables. I’ve looked at a lot of them and none of them live up to that claim. Some of my fourth graders are dragging their feet about learning their times tables and I’m finding they fail because they expect it to be easy when it isn’t. I remember when I was in 3rd grade, my mom sat me down on the couch and began drilling me with flash cards. I was missing a lot back then and she would put the ones I missed in a pile separate from the rest. The ones I consistently knew she put away next to her. That was the “no duh” pile. I would work on the harder ones until I had them. I specifically recall she wouldn’t let me off the couch to play or do anything until I could answer them all correctly. I remember that particular night I was able to go through the whole pile correctly. More or less I’ve had them memorized ever since (from age 9 to 45). Kids today seem to not understand that a little bit of discomfort can shield you from discomfort the rest of your life. I think one of the problems with society these days is that the students of America think learning should be easy. Continue reading “No Easy Way to Learn Multiplication Facts”

Is Homework Always Helpful?

Sometimes when I was making homework packets, I was almost asleep it was such a part of my muscle memory routine as a teacher. About 5 years into it, I began to really challenge the idea of homework. Was it doing any good? Was it doing any harm?

homework.I have asked myself the question, “Is homework helpful?” many times since I started teaching in 1997. I have stood at the copy machine and reloaded reams of paper time and time again. Sometimes when I was making homework packets, I was almost asleep it was such a part of my muscle memory routine as a teacher. About 5 years into it, I began to really challenge the idea of homework. Was it doing any good? Was it doing any harm?

Homework is perceived by most parents as a worksheet or packet their child is to do in a straight-backed chair at the kitchen table. Rarely in low socio-economic settings is there home tutoring. Parents are usually disengaged from this event and rarely assist their children when they do it. My son’s homework has usually been “disconnected” from the lessons he had that day. Math is usually most closely aligned but even still he always has questions when he does his homework. He is lucky I am a teacher and even more that I am a caring, involved parent with time to help.

I hate to say it but most kids I teach aren’t guaranteed homework help. Moreover, teachers sometimes give homework in haste to appease parents. They don’t always select it as material they’ve already taught. What is the result? Kids work in homework packets and on worksheets they often do not understand and make mistakes over and over that never get corrected. With the demands of instructional minutes, well-meaning teachers often don’t get to correct the homework and kids never see what they did wrong, or right. There is an option of online tutoring but in families where paying the gas bill is a luxury, it’s not very realistic.

I assign 30 minutes silent reading as homework. This is help with spelling and reading comprehension. I also applaud and assign practicing times tables on index cards. I recognize that many parents will “demand” homework from the teacher because it has been a traditionally automatic thing expected of teachers. To some extent I share with parents my feeling on homework but if they still have a problem with a “no homework” policy, or a “low homework” policy as I have, I will have a sheet or two for their child that is material they already know how to do. If tutoring is available, then homework becomes much more helpful.

New material should never be given as homework for reasons I have already stated. The buzz word in education in the 60’s and 70’s was “practice makes perfect.” This is true in a certain light. We should also consider the student who does homework or any work incorrectly over and over. In that case, the phrase should not be “practice makes perfect” because incorrect is the converse of perfect. In that case the phrase should be adjusted to say: “Practice makes Permanent.” As we explore this concept in a new generation, I invite your comments on homework and homework tutoring.

Cost of Paper vs. Whiteboard Markers

I once thought of writing a book on this topic that would help districts save tens of thousands on paper costs.  I have some skeptics and that’s okay.  I had an excellent question in the comments in my post on “The Paperless Classroom”  which I address in this post. Beth asked how expensive whiteboard markers would be cheaper than paper usage.  I could think of no better way to answer this question than to do a budget breakdown for a school year with some fixed variables:

The variables:
24 kids in a class
10 month school year
600 lessons a year

Paper costs:
2 sheets for each lesson (This is a conservative number that we can assume is likely higher)= about $21.50/Month and $215.00/year

Dry erase costs:
24 markers can last 2 months min. = $15.29/Month and $152.90/year

Yearly savings:
$62.10 per classroom

The Impersonality of Text

We have our 6 senses involved when we have verbal dialog with parents. If we use a colloquial phrase or say something we regret, we are more likely to be understood and forgiven because of non-verbal cues. Unfortunately, we can’t have impromptu face to face conversations with our parents every day or all the time. It’s important to be aware of the limitation of text. When you write a letter to a parent or to the whole class it is always risky. So much can be misunderstood. It always helps to do something called a “love sandwich.” This is where you give a compliment and then state the purpose of the corrective letter and then close with another compliment. Ie; “I am so pleased with Johnny’s progress in reading, he is far ahead all the students on his team in AR points. I wanted to let you know he is lining up a little late however after the whistle blows. I’m sure this is just a hiccup and Johnny is performing excellently in his math and other subjects.” It’s hard to have a way with words on these things but keeping the love sandwich theme in mind goes a long way.

Parents also seem to appreciate specifics. For example: send a notehome that says “the whole class was noisy, please talk to your child” will not be received as wellas one that lists 5 tips on how to stay quiet during the teaching part of the lesson. Then the parent can review the list with their child. Teaching is not their profession and they may not be able tocome up with this totalk abouton the spot upon getting the note. The last tip I’ll give about letters home is brevity. Parents work in the day and some in the night and they may be tired and not ready to process a long letter. Notes home work the best and come back the quickest when they’re brief in scope and concept. It’s a commenly used aphorism in teaching when we say, “Rome wasn’t buiilt in a day.” This is very true witth students. You might say, “Rome wasn’t built with one note.” I hope these observations will help you have more success in your textual correspondence with the home.

Create Your Own Sport – A Small Groups Classroom Project

Getting kids to work in small groups is important to their future success as grownups. This can be done in a general ed or physical science classroom. Kids need to interact and problem solve sometimes apart from instruction and guided practice. This both assesses and develops high leveled thinking. Of course you need to be there are the “rudder” steering each small group ship toward the shore. I chose to do a small group project with my kids this week called “create your own sport.” It is mostly derived from Wikihow’s article you can find here. Below is an excerpt from that article that I recommend using for creating constructive exchange in the groups:

Decide what kind of sport you want. Is it racketplayed in water? On a field? Is it about accuracy or about speed? Is it an individual sport or a team sport? All these things are key when it comes to making your sport.
Pick a name for your sport. It shouldn’t be complicated like “Hombidilakinshire Romp,” but it shouldn’t be lame, either, like “Throwball.”
Make a design of the field it’ll be played in. If it doesn’t really matter where it’s played, then make sketches of the things that are needed, such as in soccer, all you need are two goals.
Come up with basic rules: how many players, objective, how to score/gain points, what the main methods/steps are etc. Be sure all the players have specific jobs, and that each one contributes to the game. Don’t make pointless rules, like ‘No throwing the ball at another player’s face.’ Make it more broad, such as ‘No physical violence,’ and include that under the title rule.
Draw the ball/racket/uniforms needed to play your sport. Sports involving balls must have a specific design for the ball. Some sports need specific uniforms. Some have a specific shape of a racket. Be creative in thinking these up!
Show the sport to someone else so they can proofread the rules and such, and give you advice to improve or help you with it.
Get your sport known: Introduce it to sporting arenas or gyms and find people who would be interested in playing.(If you attend a public school, e-mail other schools to see if they would be interested in including it in extra-curricular activities.)
Research. Try online teaching resources. You never know if there is a sport in another country just like the one you’re creating. Make sure its original! If you see something similar out there, add a few tweaks to your own sport to make it different. It can be similar, but don’t make it too much so.

Using these steps and questions as a backbone, I create a lesson suited to the needs and restrictions of my students. Do you have any comments regarding this lesson idea? If you’d like me to publish my detailed plans I made for my class just ask in the comments. For me, the above was more than enough to create my lesson. As with any lesson, it can be easily modified based on significant particular classroom and/or student needs. A teaching degree enables you to make fun decisions like this every teaching day.

Clarifying Questions

Of all the lesson planning strategies one of the best is to use clarifying questions.  These help the teacher see if what has been taught has truly been conveyed and received.  Teaching, of course, is a human communication system.  Therefore, the effective use of clarifying questions in marriages, friendships, and the workplace are also a good practice when teaching.  You might say it simply this way:

What works for big people works for smaller ones.

Here’s an example.  If I tell my students I would like them to discuss solutions to the bathroom problem we are having where kids are trashing it, I should ask a clarifying question before I get them working in pairs on ideas.  I could say:

Ok. Let me ask a random, non-volunteer to tell me what it is I just asked you to do … (Then call a number or pick a popsicle stick etc.)

In this case, the clarifying question is a “Check for Understanding” (CFU) question by the teacher to the students to verify they understand.  Continue reading “Clarifying Questions”

How Fast Do You Learn a New Skill?

imageHow long does it take you to learn a new skill? I recently got a little folding my iphone and when I started using it, despite my excitement, I made horrendous mistakes and it wasn’t a bit comfortable. I kept at it, typing on it a few days and now, it’s very natural and I see what a great device it is! Note that it took a lot of time for me to see that. Now imagine your students. All the skills they are required to learn in a year can feel overwhelming, especially if they don’t have the pre-requisite foundation. Remember that it will take time and repetition for them to get the feel for new skills, just like it takes adults time to learn their new gadgets and skills. Why would you expect it to be any different? Continue reading “How Fast Do You Learn a New Skill?”

Power of a Recital

I teach guitar to a group of about 40 kids nearly every weekday. It is a great feeling sharing the art of guitar. My students are all different but most all doubt their ability to excel at the beginning. Tonight’s recital proved to them they were finally guitarists. They played two songs: Jingle Bells and This Land is Your Land. Perhaps there is someway to do a “recital” with my academic groups in the day. The energy is powerful and get get encouragement from their family, friends, and peers. If this stuff could be bottled, one could easily become a billionaire.

Kids always want family approval. If a child gets praise from playing guitar, they will undoubtedly continue in the discipline. If she/he is ignored or even put down for the pursuit, that child will probably drop out or fail to put forth a decent effort. Playing guitar for me was an identity. I became “the kid who played guitar.” It wasn’t enough to be the GATE kid, or the kid who spelled well. I found my true identity in the instrument. Now the kids I teach hardly know what their identities will be. Their feeble fingers reach and strain to form new chords. As they practice, often through pain, I see them gain strength. They get understanding of how chords inter-relate. They learn how to tune an instrument. These are life skills but so much more the stuff of identity that nowadays so many of our students seem to be lacking.

A groan grasps the peanut near the offending anthology.

Random Non-Volunteer Success Today

I used the cards today as usual but something different happened. I think a few kids actually finally “got it” that they have a good chance of being called on. I noticed the who class was more alert when I said, “Here’s the question now have an answer ready because I’m calling names from my random cards pile.” After a few blank stares, the whole class appeared to be on the edge of their seat when I’d ask a question. When 3 or 4 had no clue about the answer, I used pair share as a strategy. This takes the affect filter down quite a few notches. It also produced the correct answer several times.

At the end of the day, I played some of our favorite classroom songs: This Land is Your Land, The Rainbow Connection, The Candy Man, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad to name a few. I think it’s great when the kids can relax with me in some songs. It helps me as their teacher gain trust with them so they can take more risks answering things in class. Plus, music is relaxing and by the end of a long day of learning, their heads are tight and tired. Nothing like a song for that.

Teaching Responsibility and Patience with Marbles

100_4838In our middle to lower class majority, one rarely sees someone buy a large item like a car with cash. Kids don’t have a concept of what it means to “make payments.” Furthermore, most don’t remember what layaway is and all have a hard time deferring gratification and saving for a large ticket item. One way to teach these things is through marbles in jars. Each jar can be labeled the item or reward they get when it’s filled. If it’s an expensive one for me, I make it a large jar. When the kids do something well and receive a reward, the class can vote or one person who earned the marbles can decide what reward to save for. By making payments to that jar, they invest in that reward. Continue reading “Teaching Responsibility and Patience with Marbles”