50 Days to the Test – and how to prepare

20130203-085422.jpgThe countdown to the California Standards Test sits at 50 teaching days. At this point, there are strategic things I do for test prep. The day remains mostly as it has been all year but focal points and activities turn to lowering the affective filter and familiarizing the kids with the test platform.

The focal point of my teaching at this point is based on data. I review their tests to see what standard they have done well on. Obviously I don’t focus on those standards as much at this point. I list the challenging standards and those become my focal points for teaching in this final stretch. It’s that “Aim at something and you might miss but …”

Another important part of this last section of the year is to do daily test prep and weekly testing that looks and tests like the standards test. I’ve shared here many times about the “briar patch” test philosophy. In the Southern fable, the fox escaped through the briar patch because he knew his way around in there. He was familiar with it from birth. In the same way I aim to lower stress and anxiety for my students but recurrent exposure to the testing “theater” or scenario.

I know those may sound like common solutions but I think they are fundamental.

Look at it Differently, or Where I Managed to Put the Bookshelf

I want to thank Elysabeth for her comment yesterday on my post Look at Things Differently where I described my vanilla dilemma of where to put my classroom bookshelf. I placed it too far into my math wall and so I was thinking all was lost. After I slept on it and drew a schematic I had an “aha.” I put it in the middle! (embarrassingly simple conclusion I admit). Below is a before and after. The point I was making was made, with a visual. Mind you, this was a very simple matter but it made my point in the post about all matters of classroom decor: look at it differently.

I published this “idiot’s” conclusion (the idiot being me) because I feel it makes my point solid: if you take the time to look at your predicament “differently” you are likely to find a solution that is simple, possible and often right under your nose.

The Best Behavioral Strategy is a Dynamite Lesson Plan

Reflecting on the past and future of Dynamite Lesson Plan, a teaching blog.

My vision of the: “Dynamite Lesson Plan” aka great Behavior and Classroom Management. I started this blog in early 2007 and it’s evolved to something I am quite proud of today. I named the blog after something my master “teacher-school” teacher told me after observing me the first time. My class was out of control and it was borderline embarassing. I asked him for strategies to keep their behavior under control and he said:

“The best classroom behavior management is a dynamite lesson plan.”

It’s been years since he told me that and it is still the most true thing I’ve ever been told about teaching.

People are drawn to passion and form like a moth to a lightbulb. If you tell a kid he has to learn math he might buy in. If you tell a kid that every chair in the world will fall apart if people don’t learn math, you’ll have buy in.

A dynamite lesson plan is a direction. It simply inspires a plan. After that, the effective teacher must get creative and use a method. I use EDI as my lesson template but there are other good ones. This blog has become a place where I explore ways to create dynamite lesson plans. I appreciate the input I have in the comments and I hope to get more teachers and students involved in what I do here. My hope is it will inspire teachers and empower students to be great and score high.

Here’s to a dynamite future as we continue to discover the parts of a dynamite lesson plan.

Great Visual Aid for Introducing Fractions

Fractions can be a tricky concept to teach but this visual aid can help. There are so many ways to illustrate fractions. Once kids start to get it, fractions become second nature and most kids can get there rather quickly. Until they do “get it,” however, visuals are invaluable in your lessons. In this photo, kids can laugh as well as learn. You might ask them before showing them this, “Is 2 more than one?” etc. In this cartoon, 1 is more than 2,3,4 etc. They may not get the concept fully right away but it makes a nice starting point to begin learning how fractions work.
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Classroom Design – Less is More

Since classroom time is the most important time in the learning day, we as teachers definitely need to be thinking about how less is more in classroom organization decisions.

Walking in your classroom has to be, at the very minimum, possible. At best it should be easy. If you are tripping over desks to get to kids and/or unable to get from one side to the other, you aren’t doing it right. Organizing a classroom design to let you walk around unencumbered will yield results. Feng Shui and general aesthetic principles guide architects toward minimalism every day. Less in the room is more in that it yields creativity and relieves tension. Having open space in a class is becoming more and more challenging. With internet for classrooms taking up necessary computer space, we are hard-pressed to create that calming, freeing space we want. Still, the internet and other computer tools are doing much in education so we have to make a space for them.

Teachers are given a mix of school furniture each year and usually the items are minimal. However, one should consider how much extra clutter a room needs. Getting rid of the unneeded furniture in place of items that add to the learning environment can be an excellent decision. At the same time, moving something like a bookshelf can open worlds of wonder to a classroom. It is amazing how much I have seen change by changing the wall my bookshelf was on. This will of course vary teacher to teacher according to preference.

As we look to the future and consider the virtual classroom, the physical room environment should continue to be at the forefront. As hybrids continue to emerge, we may see that the classroom is not less important but more because kids are in it less. Since classroom time is the most important time in the learning day, we as teachers definitely need to be thinking about how less is more in classroom organization decisions.

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”

3 Classroom Behavior Management Techniques that Deliver

Most kids want to engage, many have been taught there is nothing to engage with. You need to be the teacher who re-awakens that natural wonder. It’s kind of like a dare: are you up for it? I triple dog dare you ;) Okay, now that the obvious elephant in the roomhas been identified, let’s get to those three techniques

How were your classroom behavior management strategies last year? Be honest. If you are like me, the results are mixed. They were good because you kept the stuff that worked for years and applied it and got rid of the stuff that didn’t. Unfortunately they were also bad because situations you didn’t think about arose and created problems in your classroom management. Well, right here, right now is the time we should be examining all that in preparation for a new year. There are many things I have learned through the years that work for classroom management. I believe that effective classroom management techniques must start with a dynamite lesson plan.

So, before we even talk about behavior, we have to spend time in a straight-backed chair (or the equivalent thereof) completely focused on crafting the best lessons we can. The lessons should explicitly teach and solicit responses from all the kids. If we aren’t doing this, that is our glaring error we will never overcome.

If we have done this, then our kids should behave rather well. Most kids want to engage, many have been taught there is nothing to engage with. You need to be the teacher who re-awakens that natural wonder. It’s kind of like a dare: are you up for it? I triple dog dare you ;) Okay, now that the obvious elephant in the room has been identified, let’s get to those three techniques:

  1. Effective classroom rules – These are usually a “given” but I want to revisit them.  These rules can get you out of many binds.  The lack thereof can also get the entire class is a mess that’s hard to escape.  The word on these is simple: Make concise, relevant rules that number no more than 7.  I have had discussions with teachers about how they want more rules.  This defeats the purpose of rules in my opinion.  If the rules on the wall become impossible to follow, or retain for that matter, they will be ignored.  In my class, I never go above 5 rules.  My only guideline in creating these is that every possible scenario can be linked  to one of them.
  2. Classroom management intervention – You should have a system in place that protects the “good kids” who are obeying and trying to learn.  Before they happen, you should have a system that quickly diffuses the “rule breaker” and returns the focus on instruction.  There are many ways to do this and I am sure you know them.  Many times I forget this tip and there is a lot of raucous before Christmas.  The truth is, it doesn’t have to be this way with some pre-planned intervention.
  3. Assertive discipline classroom management – This is Lee Canter’s method and I subscribe to it 100%.  Apart from my feelings about the lesson plan coming first, he has some amazing ideas that started in the 70’s in an authoritative style and have developed into a more democratic style.  The word I like best is “assertive.”  An assertive teacher addresses situations and works through them to her/his advantage.

Okay, so there you have it.  Those are my 3 tips for you.  We all hope we will get a perfect class every year and it’s no wonder we’re frazzled by Halloween!  You can declare power over your year and when you do you will see that we have been entrusted with one of the most valuable jobs on Earth: teaching kids.

Value of a Pacing Guide

One of the more difficult parts of teaching is pacing ones lessons. You can have the tried and true teaching methods but without a pacing plan of some sort, your assessments will be scattered. One must look at the end goal and then map out the sections of the year in such a way that will enable planning and delivery to meet those ends. If you are lucky (as I am) your district has a pacing guide they offer you to use and plan your lessons around. Unfortunately however, the work doesn’t stop there. You need (get) to plan and deliver the actual lessons the pacing guide dictates.

For me, the best situation has been to have all my materials in a central place. Then, as I read the pacing guide each morning, I can “pull” from my materials and use them under the overhead to teach through the day’s standards. I have written much here in the past about paperless teaching and how I don ‘t like the copy machine. I am usually able to get away without using it. As long as the kin-esthetic learners have paper and a white board (if available) you can get through the week with minimal copier usage. Having a trustworthy pacing guide allows you to focus on materials and other helpful things. Once you have it you can more robustly seek out lesson ideas.

What the kids need more than just “a worksheet” is a teacher who models the concept. If you are delivering lesson plans from the pacing guide each day, you are doing what you should. If you choose to use copiers after that, it’s up to you. Most the time I find myself making copies only because it is the “traditional” thing to do and not because it is crucial to learning. At the same time, I have seen first hand the power of daily calculated usage of the pacing guide. If you don’t have one already, I would say all teachers need one … unless you are a computer.

Goal Based Teaching and Focus

My heart goes out to the teachers that have been (or will be) issued pink slips. Even if you know they will hire you back, it is still hard. You can still be successful and make a difference though if you don’t lose your focus.

Of course every teacher wants to be successful every day. Some days this is more possible than others. I say, it’s always possible if you set goals for yourself. The hardest times for me as a professional are when the rules change. In times of financial cutbacks, this is likely to be occurring across the country. In times of adversity, we can still be successful through what I call goal based teaching.

Whether you are teaching a math lessons or esl lessons, you have strategies and programs you can use to teach. This isn’t a post about showing you mine. You can find the best strategy I know of, EDI elsewhere on this blog. I have written numerous posts on how it works and how to use it. This post is, rather, about setting achievable goals and then gauging progress once the teaching day is done. In your quest, check out websites for teachers.

In the early morning minutes before the kids come in, take the time to write down what you want to achieve today. It might look something like:

80% mastery of Reading Standard 2.1 that will be measured through whiteboard answers.
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Listen to kids more today. This will be measured by my journaling what one kid from each period told me.

You get the idea. It is possible to teach and be successful in these uncertain and often just plain “weird” times. My heart goes out to the teachers that have been (or will be) issued pink slips. Even if you know they will hire you back, it is still hard. You can still be successful and make a difference though if you don’t lose your focus. It happened to me my 5th year teaching. Then they called it “reduction in force.” They told me I would likely be hired back but I had to teach 3 more months with no guarantees. With a fledgling family of 3 at the time, I was nervous and it was hard to stay focus. Goal based teaching helped me define my own success.

I don’t see success as something you achieve. Rather, it is the daily, hourly triumphs where you take chances and then measure your own success. No one can tell you otherwise when you know you’ve met your own goals. What are your thoughts on taking control with “Goal Based Teaching.”

Have You Modeled the Correct Behavior?

kids in a lineThis past week I experienced a relapse in my kids’ behavior. They were doing great for a few days then all of a sudden, BAM! They were out of the line, slapping each other, running, not putting their hands behind their backs, talking … shouting. I got bad comments from 3 grownups on campus and when I got the third I knew we were going to have to practice until they were blue in the face (figure of speech). Sometimes teachers forget to model the behavior they want to see in their students. I think this was one such occasion. I marched them to my door from the blacktop and out again about 10 times. Each time I repeated the things I wanted to see and each time, up until the last time, someone in line did not conform to the expectation.

The rest of the story is that they really line up well now. By showing them what I wanted and having them practice it over and over, the line problem was solved. I wish every challenge of student behavior would be solved this easily. Unfortunately, all teaching is a work in progress. Notwithstanding, when you feel like you are beating your head against a wall with your class and they just aren’t doing the expected behavior. It is wise to ask yourself, “Have you modeled the correct behavior?” I think 9 times out of 10, they will rise to your expectation if you get out there with them and SHOW them.