Thursday, December 16, 2010

Are You a Student of Human Nature?

If you are a teacher or are planning to become a teacher, then your answer to this question should be a resounding, "Yes!" Teaching is not just a matter of passing along information and knowledge from one generation to the next; it is also all about understanding and interacting with human beings. While caught up in the rush of lesson planning, grading papers, school paperwork, meetings, and staff development, it can be hard to remember that we are dealing with a group of human beings on a daily basis. Whether you teach young children, youths, adolescents, young adults, or adults, they are all still human beings at the core and will react and respond to you as a human being.

So what can you do to better understand and interact with the group of human beings you currently teach? Become a student of human nature. This means that you distance yourself from the actions and start asking, "Why?" Why is this student so angry when he or she comes into my class every day? What is causing this anger? Is it me? Is it school? Is it because of parents or friends? Is it something happening outside of school? Until you know the answers to these questions, your interactions will be based on half-truths and conjecture.

Why is this parent constantly in my face? Is it something I've done or not done with their child? Is it based on past interactions with teachers and false assumptions about me as a teacher? Is it based on past treatment from the school or other schools? Does it come from a true desire to be an advocate for the child or is it a control issue?

When we take the words and actions of students, parents, and colleagues personally, we react as though what is being said or done is a personal attack on us. When we distance ourselves, ask the questions, and engage in communication with that person, we have better understanding. With clearer understanding, it is easier for us to work towards a solution to whatever the issue may be.

Another part of this understanding comes from looking at both sides of the issue fairly. As human beings, we tend to want to look at only our side of a situation and not the perspective of the other side. This is human nature. Take some time to put yourself "in the shoes" of the other person and ask how you would feel and react in the same situation. This includes your students sitting in your class and the parents with whom you communicate. The more we can understand other people, the better we can interact in a positive manner.

As a student of human nature, watch the interactions between your students when you have a moment or two. Watch the interactions between your administrator and the staff. Watch the interactions between your colleagues. Especially take note of the interactions between yourself and others. Then take some time to think about those interactions. Why did she say that? Why did he react that way? What did you feel when someone made that comment to you? How did you react? Why? Do you see any patterns? How do those patterns evolve? How do they affect the current interaction and future interactions between these people? By gathering this information and using it, you can then determine what kind of interactions you want to have with other people whether they are students or adults and deliberately modify your own words and actions to bring that about. Without asking these kinds of questions and without being a student of human nature, your interactions will continue to be instinctive rather than deliberate.

Help your interactions be positive ones by gaining understanding of how people "work." The more you observe and reflect and look for understanding, the more it will come to you. The better you understand how people "work," the better you will be able to interact with your students, with parents, and with colleagues. Just remember, a student of human nature seeks first to understand and then to react.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homework Tips

Assigning homework in moderation can be useful to instill values of self-discipline and responsibility in older students. It can be effective to build a positive work ethic in our students. However, it must be done in moderation.

Teachers should remember that when homework is assigned, one student could easily spend hours on the same assignment that takes another student just 15 minutes to complete. Why do we need to assign 25 two-digit multiplication problems when 5 will show us whether or not students can apply the concept? If practice is what you seek, keep it in the classroom under close supervision. You do not want to deal with the frustration of working with a student who has practiced a skill incorrectly over and over without the benefit of correction and re-teaching. This happens frequently when homework is used to practice a skill. The student must then "unlearn" the incorrect application and "relearn" the correct method. This can put the student further behind in his or her academic progress.

Keep in mind the following factors which influence a child's ability to complete homework:

  • Some students live in a chaotic home environment with many children. The student may have adult responsibilities within the home.
  • Some students are without parental supervision for most of the time after school hours.
  • Students living in poverty may not have a place to complete homework nor the supplies needed.
  • Older students might work after school.
  • Students have busy family and extra-curricular lives including sports, church, community service activities, and family events which are just as important as their school life.

Procedures are important to help students and parents know what you expect in regards to homework assignments. Type a list of homework procedures and expectations to give to students and parents. One copy should go in the student's binder and the other should be posted on the refrigerator at home. It is also a good idea to post these procedures in your classroom blog, Web site, or online parent portal.

  • What homework stays the same each night or each week?
  • Do you expect parents to sign the academic calendar once a week?
  • When and where do you expect assignments to be turned in?
  • What is your policy for absences and late-work? How long do students have to turn in the assignment? How will their grade be affected?


  • Offer positive feedback for students who turn in their work on time.
  • Allow students two days for every one day absent to make up their work. Remember, they are now having to complete double the assignments, so cut them a little slack.
  • Take off points each day an assignment is late. I usually take off 5 points for each day. Be sure to clearly explain your policy for late work.
  • Remind students of missing assignments each day. Many will forget that they owe you the work. If your school has an online portal where assignments and grades are posted for student and parent viewing, remind everyone to check this valuable tool frequently.
  • Provide before or after-school time to make up missing work or to complete homework while you are available for supervision and help.
  • Set aside one place in the classroom where assignments are turned in to be graded. Keep this the same all year to cut down on confusion.
  • Have parents sign the Homework Procedures/ Policy form to be placed in the students' binders.
  • Do not take away recess as punishment for no homework. This is counter-productive and will cause further stress in the classroom.

Homework can be stressful for everyone. Students and parents may feel overwhelmed by projects and activities and you may feel frustrated that homework is not turned in regularly. It is important to find a balance somewhere in between. Take some time to reflect about the purpose of homework for your class. Why do you assign certain assignments to be completed at home? Communicate that purpose to students and parents to help them understand this is not simply busywork. Keep that purpose in mind whenever assigning homework. Will this homework help students reach learning goals more effectively than doing the work in class? These are just a few questions you should keep in mind when planning and assigning homework to make sure it is purpose-driven and effective for student learning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ease Stress by Being Prepared

As a new teacher your life is already stressful. You are entering a new job, setting up a new classroom, dealing with new procedures, completing a ton of paperwork, and having to relate to many new people over the course of a day. Unfortunately this stress will not end anytime soon. For the first several months you'll find yourself running from task to task trying to keep up with everything that is required from you. There will be more forms to complete, papers to grade, parents to contact, lessons to plan, and then of course you are teaching all day long as well.

One of the best ways you can lower the amount of stress you deal with on a daily basis is to be prepared. Some of this preparation requires organization. If you are having trouble getting yourself organized, you might want to read my earlier column on "Getting Organized in the Midst of Chaos" for a few strategies to help. Preparation is absolutely the key to being a successful teacher. The more thought and effort you put into your lessons and your job, the better you will be. You will also be less stressed out during the year.

The first thing you want to do is begin some routines. The first routine is lesson planning. Choose a day of the week and make a firm appointment to write lesson plans on that day. Take into account faculty meetings and other events that you have going on in your personal and work life when determining this day. For me Wednesday was the best day for planning. It gave me enough time to get materials copied and shore up any unknown details before turning them in to the Principal on Friday. By having lesson plans and materials completely finished before Friday you are giving yourself a little time over the weekend to relax. Don't allow friends or even colleagues to sway you from completing your planning day. Just remember that whatever you don't complete at school or during the week must be done at home on the weekend.

As soon as you plan your lessons, go ahead and gather all of the materials you will need for the week. If you have handouts, go ahead and make the copies. Get the books or magazine resources you need from the library and set up any Power Point presentations or video clips you plan to use. If you need to sign up for the computer lab or need help from another colleague, contact them immediately. Don't wait to the last minute. Put requests in writing and follow-up with an email.

Now you may be worried that you'll have a ton of papers all over your classroom. This is where organization comes into play again. I create folders for each class for each day of the week. For elementary teachers this is as easy as one manila folder per day. You might want to color code them and label them with a marker. Place all handouts and materials for the day in its special folder. Put your lesson plans on top of the materials inside the folder. Place larger materials in a special area in your room and be sure to mark it clearly.

Secondary teachers will want to organize differently. I would suggest either a plastic crate or a filing drawer. Have one hanging file folder for each day. Then, inside the hanging file folder place one manila folder for each class you teach. You might color code the folders according to class period so that they don't get mixed up. Again, place all copies & other materials in this folder and put your lesson plans in the front. What you'll find is that you are no longer running around trying to find the handouts or materials for each lesson. Everything is all together in one location. Additionally, if you have an emergency or an unscheduled meeting comes up, everything a substitute or relief teacher will need is in each clearly marked folder, including the lesson plans. You won't need to worry about gathering everything and getting it organized before leaving the classroom. You won't need to stress over writing out plans for a substitute while you are deathly ill.

The last routine you want to develop is setting up your classroom, Power Point, or overhead before you leave for the day. If you are teaching elementary school, go ahead and set up your white board (or blackboard) with your focus assignment, agenda, objectives, homework, and any other information students need. Do this as soon as your students leave the room at the end of the day. Get out the folder for the next day and place it on your desk, podium, or overhead so that you are ready to begin. Review your plans and double-check that you have all of your materials in the folder. Now do whatever else needs to be done after school. By making this a daily routine you are ensuring that your classroom is ready to go no matter what. If you get sick, have a flat tire, or have an early meeting that goes on too long, the students will be able to enter the classroom and get started without you. The substitute or relief teacher will have all they need right at their fingertips and you will not have to stress out over not being there.

Secondary teachers will want to set up their "board" information either in Power Point or on a transparency. Type out the information listed above either in a Word Document or as a Power Point presentation for each class. You'll need one transparency or Power Point per prep you teach. Get the first period one ready as soon as the students walk out the door and have it on the overhead or computer. Be sure to leave instructions in bold to turn on the overhead or computer (just in case you cannot be in the classroom). Have your daily folder ready on your desk, podium, or overhead along with whatever materials are needed for the first class.

By having all of this ready to go before you leave the classroom each day you are ensuring that your classroom can continue to run smoothly whether you are there or not. It relieves stress on your part because you will not have to worry about writing up last minute plans while you are sick or worry about your students having their assignments ready to begin if you are late for any reason. Get in the habit of preparing your classroom for the next day as soon as your students leave. This makes certain that it will get done before you are distracted by all of your other duties.

The first year of teaching is very stressful. However, by putting in place some very simple habits, you can reduce some of that stress. Being prepared is not only helpful for you, but for your students and any guest or relief teachers that may be working in your classroom. It shows your principal that you are a professional and that you are efficient in getting your job done. It shows parents that you are on top of your job so that they can feel secure in knowing their child is in your class. Best of all, by taking a little time throughout the week to prepare, it gives you some time for yourself.

Reprinted from Emma McDonald's column at Education World.

Managing the Parent Teacher Relationship

There is one thing every teacher dreads more than changes in district policy, new standardized tests, and additional responsibilities required by the state – the angry parent. Nothing can ruin a day faster than being called to the principal's office to face a disgruntled, frustrated, or demanding parent. Managing the parent-teacher relationship can be a challenge for everyone. What can we, as teachers, do to develop a relationship with parents and minimize the angry encounters throughout the school year? The key is being proactive by informing and interacting with parents in a positive manner.


Keeping parents informed from the beginning of school is your first move towards managing the parent-teacher relationship. Most of the confrontations between parents and teachers result from a lack of communication from school to home. Gone are the days when parents sent their children off to school and trusted completely that the school and teachers would take care of everything. Today's parents want to know what their children are doing in the classroom and how it is being done. We live in an information age and that is exactly what our parents expect from us – information.

You can start by providing the basic facts to parents about your classroom expectations for student behavior and work product. Parents of elementary students will also want to know their child's daily schedule. Send home information about your classroom management and discipline strategies so there are no misunderstandings about what is expected and the consequences for making poor choices. Teachers should also send home the grading policy. If you or your school has a website, consider posting the more important details of your classroom policies here and refer parents to view it as needed.

It is also important to keep parents informed throughout the school year as well. A bi-monthly or monthly newsletter is a great way to let students and parents know about upcoming events, units, and due dates. You can also use the newsletter to explain commonly used acronyms, skills taught, or learning strategies used in the classroom. Again, this kind of information soothes those over-anxious parents who want to know what is happening with their child during school hours. The newsletter is also a great way to celebrate birthdays and offer a thank-you to volunteers and chaperones. If you and your parents have access to email, consider emailing your newsletter and other information. This will make sure the parent receives the information.

Lastly, make sure you send home notices when students are missing two assignments or have received two low grades. By sending home this information after the second instance, you are providing the parent and child more time to turn in missing assignments or to improve grades. Waiting until the last minute puts a strain on you, the student, and the parent. Just like with our health, early detection is the key to resolving a problem before it becomes a major issue. When receiving bad news in a progress report or near the end of the grading period, parent frustration will, more than likely, be aimed at you. However, when notified early, parents will put the heat on their child to improve grades and get assignments turned in. Otherwise, they cannot reprimand their children and support you in your efforts.


Unlike informing, which is a one-way type of communication, interacting requires two people. Because there are two (or more) people involved, interactions are influenced by many factors. Some of these include cultural backgrounds, level of education, emotions, and personal agendas. As the teacher you approach all interactions with parents from one point of view. The parent will be coming to you with a completely different point of view. The levels at which these factors meet and are in harmony often determine the success of the interaction. So then, how can you create more positive interactions with parents?

First, initiate contact with the parent. Don't wait to be called. Take some time during the first several weeks of school to briefly call and talk with each parent. For secondary teachers this may seem overwhelming, but it can be handled by calling ten parents a night. You may even prioritize and call the parents of those students who exhibit signs of behavior and/or academic issues first. This will ensure that your first phone call is a positive one. Spread the rest of the phone calls out over the first month or two.

Begin your call by introducing yourself and offering a positive comment about the student. Next, ask the parents if there is any information they would like to share with regards to their child. This information could be very helpful to you in managing the behavior or encouraging the student to higher performance levels in your class. Remember, the parents know their children far better than you do at this point. If you are already noticing a potential problem, gently mention it and ask for suggestions from the parent in handling the situation. Next, encourage parents to ask you any questions they have at this point in the year. Near the end of the conversation, let the parent know the best times to contact you and offer your school number or email.

This type of phone call near the beginning of the school year will go a long way towards developing a positive relationship between you and the parent, especially if the child is one who will be a constant challenge in the classroom. Now the parent knows who you are and has experienced your interest in their child. They will be more likely to call or email you calmly with a concern rather than storming up to the school in a rage.

Second, be aware of cultural differences when interacting with parents. Should you address the father first or the mother when conferencing with both? Is it acceptable to call a parent by first name or will they consider it insulting? These little details can sometimes make the difference between parents who are willing to work with you and those who are not. Also, be aware of how your cultural background influences the way you interact with others. You may be more casual in your conversations which could be interpreted by other cultures as uncaring or flippant. Having a basic understanding of the different cultures within your school will help you better prepare for parent interactions.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Getting Organized in the Midst of Chaos

Here you are with school in full swing, students, parents and colleagues coming at you from all sides, and you feel that you are in total chaos. Oh yes, some of it is planned, but what with every new piece of paperwork, documentation, and request thrown your way, you have no idea what to do with it all. Do you find yourself staring at all those piles of papers on your desk wondering what to do with them all? It isn't easy getting organized, especially when there is so very little time. Below are a few tips that I hope you will find helpful. They are not designed to be a quick fix, but rather to help you take baby steps in getting yourself a bit more organized than maybe you are right now.

"Baby steps" is a concept I learned from someone called the Fly Lady. She is an organization guru and has quite a following. She recommends two things that I in turn will recommend to you. The first is using a timer. When you are faced with an enormous pile of mail, memos, and forms with only 30 or 45 minutes of conference time, use a timer. Once you have checked your box and returned to your classroom (for those of you not kicked out during that class period), set your timer for 10 minutes. I like setting it for 10 minutes because it doesn't take up too much of my time. Try to get whatever you can organized during that 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, stop. You won't have gotten everything accomplished during that time, but you will have made a start. If you spend 10 minutes a day working like this, before long you'll be on top of that paperwork and have organized files.

The second piece of advice is to work forwards before working back. Once you've set that timer for 10 minutes, start with whatever mail, memos, and forms you found in your box today. Get those either filed, thrown-away, or completed and ready to return. If you have any time left, start working at the top of that pile on your desk. This way the paperwork does not continue to pile up on you. You can respond in a timely manner and stay current with your mail, communications, and other necessary forms.

Every piece of paper on your desk should have a home whether it is the trash can, a 3-ring binder, a file folder, a tray, or to be returned to someone else. I don't know if you are the kind of person that likes to hang on to magazines or not. I am. I just love catalogs and all those lovely things I might buy one day. What I started doing to keep the catalogs from piling up is to pull out the pages and the order form from each catalog that interests me. I punch holes in them and place them in a binder. I like the binder because I can then tab each particular catalog rather than stuffing them all in one folder. When I have the time (and money) to order, then I can go to that binder and find what I need. However, if you do not have a home for this kind of mail, it can very easily pile up on you and become overwhelming.

For those of you without the flexibility of having your classroom or office space available during your planning period, make a commitment to stay after school for at least thirty minutes. Set your timer for 10 minutes at a time and go from there. Even when faced with papers that need to be graded, you can use the 10 minute strategy to start working your way through those piles. Also, remember that not everything must be graded with the same intensity. Sometimes a simple check or minus will work.

Again, if you keep working at it 10 minutes at a time, before you know it that pile will start shrinking to nothing. Everything will have a home where you can easily find it. Also, once those paperwork piles are gone, take what is left of the 10 minutes and start making specific homes for the other areas in your classroom. Make no mistake; this is a process and not a quick fix. Sure, you can spend 6 or 7 hours one day after school going through it all, but that kind of behavior quickly leads to burn-out. You are so tired of going through paperwork that you let it pile up again and before you know it you have another evening of doing nothing but sorting through papers. Just take it one step at a time, 10 minutes a day, and watch those paperwork piles fade away!

Written by Emma McDonald, reprinted from her column on Education World.

To view the original, go to

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tips for Getting Parents Involved

  • Encourage parents to read with their children each night
  • Request/require parent signatures on homework assignments
  • Send home a fun parent/child assignment for them to do together
  • Offer ideas for ways parents can reinforce concepts or skills at home or while doing daily tasks
  • Ask for help in specific areas and at specific times such as reading with one child, stuffing Thursday folders, or putting up a bulletin board
  • When you need help, send home a notice, email, or announcement in your newsletter
  • Call parents when you have a specific need
  • Use your parent volunteers
  • Ask parents to send a list of their hobbies and talents. You may find a great guest speaker or demonstrator for a unit (ex: making tortillas during a unit on early Texas Mission life)
  • When parents volunteer, send regular thank you notes
  • When making the first phone call home, list activities, events, and tasks you need help to complete. Ask the parent if he/she could help with any one of the tasks listed. Make sure to write it down and note the phone number for follow-up.
  • Send home a pledge for parents to complete and sign committing to at least one activity, event, etc. to do with the school or class during the year.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sparking the Minds of Students

Getting students excited about their learning is absolutely the best way to have fun every day as a teacher. When your students are fired up about being in your class they bring with them their unbridled enthusiasm and energy. That energy and enthusiasm is then pumped into to you and it begins a positive cycle between you and your students and learning. So what are some ways you can spark the minds of your students and get them excited about learning?

First of all, you need to feel passionate about what you are teaching. If you find your subject matter boring and unworthy of your attention, then you won't be able to inspire your students to be excited about it. If you've lost the passion for what you teach, you need to take some time to reconnect with the reason why you started teaching. Remind yourself of the spark that first entered you and filled you with excitement about your subject area. I've always loved writing. It is something I've been doing since the 2nd grade. I can remember going over to a friend's house and writing story after story while she drew the pictures to go along with them. Teaching writing was not necessarily my first choice, but when I finally decided that was what I wanted to do I became thoroughly excited about inspiring my students to let loose the muse and communicate their thoughts on paper. What was your experience?

If you find yourself teaching something not your first choice, what can you do to become passionate about it? One way is to watch movies, read books, and find interesting facts about that subject area or topic. Actively search for something that will spark your interest and passion so that you can pass it along to students. I, for one, am not an avid mathematician. It is not my forte at all. However, I found myself suddenly having to teach math and needing my students excited about it. I do love puzzles and I connected solving math equations to solving puzzles. Suddenly math seemed like an endless set of mysteries to be solved rather than just skill and drill. When the topic or subject area is not your favorite, it is up to you to find a way to make it intriguing for both yourself and your students.

Secondly, find a way to make the students active in their learning. Passive learning, including listening to lectures and doggedly copying down notes or reading silently and answering worksheet questions is boring. Do we need some of that type of learning? Yes. Do we need that type of learning all the time? No. Look at your lessons and ask yourself, what can I do to get my students actively involved? Break them into groups and assign each one a section of the chapter. Have them become experts on that information and present it to the rest of the class as a skit, on a poster, through a poem or story, or possibly in a Power Point presentation. Create scavenger hunts for students to locate information or have them create their own scavenger hunts and swap papers. Get students moving around the classroom. Create mysteries that require math or science to solve the problem. Give students sleuthing tools so they feel like detectives as they solve these mysteries.

Pose questions that challenge students to think through the answers or research information to solve the puzzle. This can be done in any subject area. Allow students to cut, color, draw, and create products as part of the learning process. Many elementary teachers use these types of learning tools, but unfortunately many middle school and high school teachers seem to feel that it is beneath them and their students to do more than lecture, read, and complete pre-printed handouts. This is so sad because our middle and high school students love to be read to, color, cut, and create. They simply need to do so at a higher level than our elementary students. They have more experiences and bigger ideas to add to the creative process, and as such can come up with fantastic products that enhance both their excitement and learning. For instance, creating collages from modern day pictures in magazines to represent/explain a historical event or historical figure requires students to synthesize information.

Being passionate about your subject area communicates fascination and energy to students. They soak up that energy and return it back to you double-fold. Getting students actively involved in their learning gives them the opportunity to put themselves into the equation. Both of these strategies will work together to spark the minds of your students. This in turn lights the fire of enthusiasm and excitement about teaching and learning in you, which then lights the fire of learning in your students. What an awesome cycle to create in our classrooms and what a lasting legacy we leave when this happens!

Reprinted with permission from Emma McDonald's column, New Teacher Advisor, on Education World.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Choices We Make

As teachers and parents we are concerned that our students and children are making good choices in their lives and for their future. Unfortunately so many children and teens don't recognize that they make hundreds of decisions each day which affect themselves and those around them. You may hear a child say something like, "My teacher gave me a low grade on that test," or "My mom made me stay in my room all afternoon." This shows exactly the perspective of the child who doesn't recognize that the choices he or she made dictated the consequences being faced. As the adult we understand that the choice of not studying for a test can lead to the consequence of a low grade and the choice of disobeying a parent can result in restrictions. Our children don't make these direct connections. In fact, the part of the brain that identifies consequences for actions and uses that information to plan ahead does not fully mature until the age of 25. However, we can help this part of the brain grow and develop strength by taking time to teach our children and teens to recognize the decisions or choices they make each and every day.

One way we can do this is by pointing out the choices facing the child or teen and describing the consequences (both positive and negative) for each choice. For example, when a test is scheduled for Friday we may tell the child/teen, "If you choose to study every day this week for at least fifteen minutes, you won't have to study as long or as hard on Thursday AND the information will be so familiar to you by Friday that the test should be easy. However, if you choose to wait until Thursday, you'll have to spend more time studying that night and you may not remember it all on Friday for the test. The choice is yours." Then allow the child to make the choice. As a parent and a teacher this is never easy. However, by stepping back you are accomplishing two things. First, you are empowering the child/teen which helps them develop into a mature adult. Second, you are allowing the child/teen to learn from the choices made. It is very important that you then use the results (either positive or negative) to illustrate how the choice made determined the consequences. For example, "You chose to wait until Thursday to start studying. As a result you didn't perform as well on the test. This caused you to earn a lower grade. That grade is a result of your choice."

    Testing situations are not the only choices children make. They also make choices with regards to behavior and attitudes. When you see a student or your child making a choice that will lead to a negative consequence, take the time to point this out. "You are choosing to _______ (be specific in describing the action or attitude). This choice will lead to _______ (be specific in describing the consequences)." Then offer a different choice that will lead to a more positive result. For example, "You are choosing to ignore my instructions. If you continue to choose to ignore my instructions, you will not be able to complete the assignment correctly and you will make a low grade. However, you can choose to follow my instructions and you will have a much better chance of making a higher grade." Another example might be, "You are choosing to disobey me when I asked you to clean your room. If you continue to disobey me by not cleaning your room, I will be forced to take away all electronics (TV, computer, video games) for a week. The other option is to choose to obey me and clean your room as I have asked. The sooner you complete this task, the sooner you will be able to watch your favorite show on TV."

Another way we can help children understand the importance of the choices they make each day is to point out both positive and negative results of choices made by ourselves and others. Every moment is a teachable moment. When at the market, watching TV or a movie, or listening to the news, take time to talk to your child about the things you see and hear. What choices did people make? What were the results or consequences of those choices? Ask the child whether he or she thinks the choice was worth the consequence. Is that something they would want to happen to them? What kind of choice would they have made in that same situation? Then share the choice you would have made if it had been you. This type of discussion models good thinking and decision-making skills. Additionally, talking about these kinds of situations with children and teens offers them a chance to learn from the behavior, attitudes, and choices of others without walking down the same perilous path. Also, don't just focus on the negative. Take some time to point out good choices that are being made and the positive results of those as well.

Taking time to identify the different choices facing a child during the day, whether at home or at school, offers a valuable teaching tool to parents and teachers. It provides an opportunity to show how each decision we make is followed by a consequence of some sort, either positive or negative. It opens up discussion about how choices can lead us down different paths in life. It also helps develop the part of the brain that uses forethought, thinking through a situation before acting on it. This is a vital skill that will help your child and your students lead a successful life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Laying the Groundwork

The first day of school is absolutely one of the most important days of the year. It is the day when you set the tone for your classroom. We all want to have a smoothly running classroom, but it is difficult when you don't know where to start. You may be feeling that you are groping around half blindfolded with only bits and pieces of information rather than the whole. What you need is a vision of what you want your classroom to look like as a positive learning environment. Then take that vision and use the first day of school to lay the groundwork towards making the vision become a reality. How?

First, before school starts, take some time to sit down and brainstorm all of your expectations. This includes how you want students to behave towards you and each other, how you want the day-to-day activities and transitions to be performed, and how you want your classroom to feel. Within each of these categories, think about different scenarios from your own days as a student and plan out how you would deal with each one. Some questions you might ask yourself include how will students enter the classroom, leave the classroom, turn in homework, work in team situations, work as individuals? Picture in your head what you would like to see happening and then write it down as a statement.

When you've mapped out this information, create a poster of basic classroom expectations for everyone to follow. Your poster won't include every single expectation you have, but the ones that guide student behavior. You'll also want to create some procedures posters for various activities during the day such as entering and leaving the classroom. Write them in a very basic step-by-step method with no more than five steps in each. Post these where all students can easily read them. Once you have a clear idea of how you expect students to behave and what you expect them to do from the moment they enter the classroom until the moment they leave the classroom, then you are prepared to explain these expectations to your students.

Now we lay the groundwork. When planning out your first day of school, be sure to alternate between fun ice-breaker and get-to-know activities, which build a positive classroom community, and discussing your expectations and procedures. You need a mixture of both through the first several days as students can only absorb so much information at once. By alternating fun activities with the practical and serious you give students time to internalize the information. When transitioning from a fun activity into another lesson of expectations or procedures, be sure to review previous information before moving on to the new. For example, you might ask students to show you the quiet signal and explain what it means before moving forward to discuss your classroom procedures.

When discussing your classroom expectations and procedures with students, be sure to speak slowly, get eye contact with each student one-on-one, and pause significantly after each expectation. This reinforces the impression that the information is important and also gives students time to listen, understand, and internalize what you are saying. You also want to practice procedures, such as the quiet signal, entering the classroom, and leaving the classroom, with your students. Continue to practice these throughout the next two weeks. By practicing your procedures and expectations with students during the first day and weeks of school, you are laying the groundwork for your vision and building good habits that will last all year long.

Reprinted with permission from Emma McDonald "New Teacher Advisor" column on Education World.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Making the Most of Your Summer

Ah, it is almost summertime. Time to kick back, relax, and enjoy your time off, and yes, you should take some time off to relax! After all, you've made it through a school year and survived. Although some of you may have chosen to teach summer school or have a summer job, you still need to take at least a week or two off for a break. Otherwise, you'll be worn out and exhausted before the new school year begins. So, how can you enjoy your summer and also be ready for the new school year? Below are a few tips and ideas to help you get started.

  1. Take a much needed break. Take the first week after you get out of school to simply relax and recuperate after a long school year of teaching. Go do something fun, vegge out on the couch, go see a movie or two, hang with your friends, and lie in the sun. If you had a particularly stressful school year, you might think about taking two weeks to recuperate.
  2. Catch up on your reading. After the first week or two of reading adventure novels, romance novels, or magazines, you might change up your reading material and catch up on some professional books. You know the ones, they looked informative and interesting but you just didn't have the time to sit and read them? If you don't have any collecting dust on your shelves, go to and see what's out there. Think about a particular issue that challenged you throughout the school year or a concept/strategy you'd like to implement in your classroom. There are many fantastic books out there on classroom management, differentiated learning, brain-based classrooms, motivating students, positive discipline strategies and more. In my website, I have a list of authors that you might consider reading. They are organized by topic so that you can easily find an author on a specific subject.
  3. Attend a summer conference. Education conferences are more than just learning opportunities, they are fun! You get to travel to a new city, experience the food and culture of that city, and learn some neat teaching strategies as well. If you go with some friends from school, you can also enjoy good company as well. I know that I always come back from an education conference fired up to try many different ideas. The best part about going to a summer conference is that you have the time when you get home to think through how you'll implement those ideas in your classroom.
  4. Attend a professional workshop. You may not have the time or the funds to go away for a summer education conference, so try attending a professional workshop on a topic of interest to you. Again, it is nice to attend a workshop in the summer because you have the time to actually think through the information and figure out how you plan to implement it in your classroom. Usually when we have a staff development during the school year, we are already so busy with everything else, there is little time to actually implement any new ideas.
  5. Review your curriculum and lesson ideas. Some of you are lucky enough to have a district that writes your curriculum and gives you daily lesson plan ideas. Others are not so lucky. Either way, take some time to look at the overall plan of what you teach during the year. Are there any areas that where you can be more creative? Do you see any boring places from last year that you can spice up with a different kind of activity? The summer is the best time to think about your lesson ideas because you have so much time. Once school starts, it will be a mad dash and a daily challenge to get everything done that needs to be done. Take the time while you have it to really think through what you want to do next year in your lessons.
  6. Reflect, Collect, and Plan. Take some time to reflect on what went well and what didn't during this past school year. Collect your thoughts and collect different ideas and strategies for dealing with those issues that were challenges. Then take some time to plan out what you will do next year when you get a fresh start. Brainstorm ideas and put them on paper. Daydream about what you will say and how you will say it. Daydreaming is easy to do when you are floating in a pool or lying out in the sun! **This is also a perfect time to create a classroom vision (see Inspiring Teachers Weekly Teaching Tip Newsletter archives for June 11, 2010).

Lastly, don't try to do it all at once. Mix in some fun along with these strategies for professional improvement. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" after all! Do a little work and then have a little fun. Having the summer to learn and play is one of the few perks we get as teachers. It is a time to refresh and rejuvenate ourselves. And although you may not believe it now, by the time August rolls around again you'll be ready to get back into your classroom and excited about starting a new school year. Until then, pack your bags and make the most of your summer!

Original column found on Education-world by Emma McDonald. Reprinted with permission.

**Statement added for this blog post.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Slow Down!

Do you feel like I do that we are rushing through each day and rushing through our lives? There are days where I just want to stop, take a deep breath, and rest a moment before returning to the hectic pace. But the question I'm asking myself and those of you reading this blog is – why aren't we slowing down and taking deep breaths every day and all through the day?

When we are rushed I believe we often make poor decisions, not necessarily bad, just not the best possible decisions. It's like when you're rushing down the street on your way to an important meeting that starts in five minutes. You are so focused on getting to the meeting that you may not notice you are cutting in front of cars, almost knocking down pedestrians, and making hairpin turns onto the street or into the parking lot. I think this happens to us in the school as well. We are so focused on getting to the next big milestone in the curriculum, in the testing, and in the school year that we react instinctually rather than thoughtfully.

Think about that for a minute. When we are rushed we react instinctually rather than thoughtfully. What does this mean for our interactions with students? Do we quickly hand out consequences rather than slowing down to find out exactly what happened? Do we label and lump students into an unofficial "group" based on first impressions? Do we offer vague praise or an absent-minded pat-on-the-back when offering feedback? Do we ignore individual student concerns and issues in our rush to address the needs of the whole class?

I believe very strongly that our interactions with students help each one to develop a sense of identity and self-worth. The time we take and the relationships we make send important messages and have lasting impressions on our students. What message are we portraying when we rush through our curriculum? What message are we portraying when we rush through our assessment? What message are we portraying when we rush through our interactions with students and parents?

I think these questions are something as teachers we all need to think about. Then we need to take a deep breath and slow down.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Teaching: What it Means to be a Professional

The other day in the grocery store I overheard two moms talking about their local school. As usual, being an educator, my ears perked up, and I guiltily admit that I started to eavesdrop on their conversation. One of the mothers was explaining to the other how she could never get in touch with her child's teacher to discuss concerns because the school was always closed so early. The other mom agreed and they earnestly began a diatribe against teachers. Steadily my ears got hotter and hotter and I threatened to step into the conversation when one of the mothers threw out, "Those people have the easiest job. They get there at eight and leave at three, take summers and all holidays off and get paid for it! No wonder education is going downhill."

At that point I had two levels of thought going on in my head. On the first level I was furious with these mothers who had not the slightest clue of what is really involved in quality teaching. However, at the same time, I had to remind myself that I did not personally know the teachers under discussion by these two. I can only speak for my own self and my level of dedication and professionalism. The two moms ended their conversation and headed off in two different directions. I, however, stood rooted to the spot as emotions and thoughts roiled around in my brain.

This conversation against teachers started a chain reaction of reflection for me in regards to teaching as a profession. Obviously these two mothers were of the opinion that teaching is merely a job and a part-time one at that. What gave them this impression? Also, why do so many in the community at large have these same feelings about teaching? Oh, anyone who hears I'm a teacher will say to me, "Teachers have the toughest job. I admire you for what you do." But everyday conversations, media reports, and even certain legislations, tend to belie that comment. Why is it that teaching is considered more of a job (or glorified babysitters) than a profession? As educators we consider ourselves to be professionals, yet others in the community rarely give us the same designation. Why is that?

Although historically there are many reasons for the current attitude towards teachers, I believe that it is in no small part related to our own behaviors and attitudes about teaching. How then, can we demonstrate that we are professionals? I believe that being a professional educator requires:

  • A professional appearance and demeanor
  • A sense of dedication
  • Continued training
  • Collaboration with others


What do you think?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Personal Best

Recently someone asked me a question about the quality of student work. "How can I get students to take their time and not just slap something down when I have them do creative activities?" My thoughts jumped immediately to the life-skill of doing your personal best. This is one of those skills I feel has been neglected in our rush to get through the curriculum. We have so much to teach and so many concepts that must be covered before the end of the school year that we end up rushing our students through their work. We tell them to do a good job and then we say, "Hurry up. Don't lag behind." There is a very fine line to be balanced between allowing students enough time to do a good job on their work and giving too much time that ends up wasted by students through dawdling and procrastination.

One way we can walk this fine line is by teaching, training, and expecting personal best from students. For many of them this is a life-skill that is not emphasized enough both at home and in the classroom. We tell students that we expect them to do a good job, but what does that mean? Also, is doing a good job the same for every student? It shouldn't be. Every student has differing ability levels, creativity, and ideas which mean that you will get a different level of work out of each. This is why I like to focus on the concept of personal best.

At the beginning of each year I go through a little spiel about my expectations and what I want to see from my students. I always take some time to talk about the life-skill of personal best. I read one of my favorite poems by Charles Osgood entitled "Pretty Good." If you are interested you can view the poem at The gist of the poem is that there was a pretty good student in a pretty good school that doesn't make him work too hard. They'll take work that is pretty good. After a while everyone finds out that pretty good is really pretty bad. I use this poem to emphasize how important it is that we each do our personal best. I have to do my personal best as the teacher and I expect my students to do their personal best in all that they do.

What exactly is personal best? Well, it is going to be different for each student. If I feel that a student has given me a product that is not their personal best, I will ask him or her, "Do you believe this is your personal best?" Most of the time the student knows the truth of it and will either nod a yes or shake his or her head no. At that point I return the work to them and expect it to be done again. If it is a creative assignment, I will require students show me their product before turning it in. We talk about whether the final product represents the student's personal best. I'll probe and ask students what they think their personal best product should look like. This helps the student to see where he or she needs to improve the project or work completed. At first students are irritated with me and simply want to turn it in and get it over with. However, I stand my ground and continue the conversation and probing questions. After doing this process several times, I will start getting products that reflect each student's personal best from the start.

This same standard goes for me. If I don't do my own personal best in my teaching, how can I expect my students to put their personal best into their work? A large part of teaching is modeling. If we expect a behavior or attitude from our students, we need to consistently exhibit that same behavior and attitude ourselves. Our students know when we don't follow our own admonitions and expectations. I've even had students come up to me after a day where I "winged it" and say, "Mrs., that wasn't really your personal best today, was it?" Boy, that really gets to me. I'm rebuked and know that my students can tell when I haven't done my personal best in teaching. I feel honor bound to put my very best into the lessons and activities I plan so that students can see what personal best truly means.

If you feel you are getting substandard work from your students, take some time to talk to them about personal best. Get them to discuss what personal best looks like and feels like. Show your students some examples of work you've gotten in the past that showed personal best. Explain to them how you put your personal best into lessons and activities. Let them know that from now on you will not accept work that does not represent a student's personal best effort. They will have to work on it over and over until it is truly their personal best. At the same time, be sure you communicate the fact that each person has a different personal best. You are not looking for every project to be exactly the same. What you are looking for are students who strive to do their best, at whatever level that may be. Show consistency in expecting personal best from students and in doing your own personal best. Before long your students will catch on that it is better for them to take their time and do their best the first time around than to redo an assignment over and over. In thinking about our own classrooms, schools, and communities, we really don't want to be like the people in Charles Osgood's poem. Instead, let's strive for personal best rather than pretty good.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Become a Task Master


Time. It's something we have in limited supply. There are only 24 hours in a day, eight of which should be spent in sleep. The remaining hours must then be divided into work, personal time, and recreation/relaxation time. As a new teacher you'll find yourself overwhelmed with the number of activities and tasks that will fill your time. There are lessons to plan, papers to be graded, classes to teach, paperwork to fill out, meetings to attend, parents to call, colleagues to conference with, students to redirect, and more. At times it may even feel as though you are drowning. Then when you get home, for many of you, there will be laundry to do, meals to fix, shopping & cleaning to do, and families to care for. How can you manage all of these aspects of your life? That's where time management comes in. It is all too easy to let your tasks control you and your time. Instead, strive to be the master of your own time. Below are a few ideas to help you be a "Task Master":

Know your tasks. Our "To Do" list takes up much of our time and so often things get added to this list at odd moments. You may be walking down the hallway when the special education teacher stops you and says, "Oh, good, I caught you. Can you please fill out this referral packet on _____? I need it tomorrow morning." A little later you may realize, "We need more toilet paper at home." Then you walk into your classroom and get ready to teach the next lesson. It's no wonder that our "To Do" list can pile up on us with many items forgotten and left undone.

One way to keep track of all these items is to keep a small journal or a legal sized pad with you at all times. This is something I find helps keep me on top of all the different tasks I face – both personal and professional. Make two, three, or four columns on the page (depending on how many parts of your life require specific tasks). My list is divided into three columns of Work, House, and Family. In each column I then list the tasks I need to complete. If you keep this pad with you at all times, it is easy to jot down an unexpected task that comes your way. Put a star next to it to show higher priority, and a deadline date if one is given. I also mark down a day & time for specific items on my list. For example: Parent Meeting – Tues @ 3pm (office). That way if I don't have my calendar with me, I know what appointments are coming up. Keep the list for a week at a time. At the end of the week transfer any items not completed to the next sheet of paper on the pad.

Keep a calendar. This tool will be a lifeline when you begin ARD meetings, parent conferences, staff development meetings and all of the other appointments that will fill your time besides teaching. Outlook has a great calendar tool that will notify participants via email of appointments and changes to those appointments. You can even print out your calendar a week at a time and keep your "To Do" list as part of your calendar. Outlook also has a "Task Panel" where you can list all of your tasks to complete that week. As soon as you set up a parent conference/phone call, staff meeting, field trip, etc., mark it on your calendar. When you get memos from your administrator noting due dates, meetings, etc., mark it on your calendar. When another staff member requests your attendance at a meeting, mark it on your calendar. Then keep your calendar handy. Do not commit to any meetings until you have checked your calendar.

Allot specific amounts of time for tasks. If you get into the habit of using a calendar, you can then set appointments to complete certain daily tasks. For example, you might set an appointment each Wednesday afternoon to plan lessons for the following week. Go ahead and mark these on your calendar before school starts (don't forget to take into account weekly faculty meetings). Now when making appointments you won't accidentally over-plan your time and not have enough to grade papers and plan lessons. Also be sure to put in personal appointments on the same calendar. Keeping two calendars is simply too confusing with all of the tasks and appointments you'll have throughout the year.

Don't forget to allot time for those tasks that are important for your health and well-being. This includes time for exercise, personal reflection, and relaxation. Believe me, you'll find yourself so overwhelmed by work that these important activities will be left by the wayside. You need to take time for yourself each day and each week so that you don't burn out, which can happen easily in this profession.

Managing your time is all about allotting segments to accomplish the various tasks and appointments required by your job and personal life. Using a "To Do" list and a calendar are two ways you can keep track of all that is going on without getting overwhelmed. Don't forget to reward yourself when you've accomplished your major tasks and goals. Stop and eat a piece of chocolate or go out and watch that new movie. You see, when you are in control of your tasks, you can do these little things for yourself that make life more enjoyable. In essence, you become a "Task Master."


Column by Emma McDonald reprinted with permission from The New Teacher Advisor column on Education World found at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tips for Using Journaling in Your Classroom

Journaling is not an activity just for English teachers. The journal is one of the best ways to assess student learning after a lesson as well as a great way to provide one-on-one feedback for each student. It is important, however, for you to know exactly how you plan to use the journal in your classroom. What is the purpose of the journal and how does it help you meet curriculum goals?

Journals can have a variety of purposes:

1) To unload thoughts and feelings before starting class. Writing often helps people work through issues they are facing.

2) To focus thought on a particular topic. Get students in the right "mind-set" by having them journal on the topic or concept you are currently studying.

3) To review prior learning. Help students to make the connections between prior learning and new learning by reviewing the concept or topic taught the previous day through a journal witing activit.

4) To encourage creative writing. Offer students a fun or wacky thought, sentence, or word and have them journal thoughts and ideas from that starting point. Another great idea, especially for young students and ESL or ELL students is to use pictures and have students respond to the pictures. Calendar pictures make great journal starters.

No matter what purpose you set out for your journal, it is important that you provide structure for this type of learning experience. Simply telling students to write in their journal isn't enough. In the beginning students will often spend the entire journaling time flustered and looking around aimlessly. Give your students a topic of some sort to help them get started. If you are looking for free flowing thoughts, then give them a word or picture to start from and allow them to continue from that point. Always make it clear, when asking for open-ended journaling, that students are free to write about whatever they want, but that you are providing a starting point for anyone having trouble.

If you are using the journal to focus student thought or to review prior learning, it is important to use your objectives or key elements/strands to help you develop a journal prompt. Be sure that your topic is meeting your curriculum needs and is not just another busy work assignment without meaning.

Math teachers can encourage students to explain various equations or math concepts through words rather than always using symbols. You might even think about prompts that ask students to apply previous learning to a real world situation such as purchasing groceries or clothing, or designing a structure of some sort.

Just remember two important aspects of journaling - 1) Purpose, and 2) Structure - and you'll find the journal to be a meaningful way to integrate writing into your class!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Frustration with Research Projects

Are you conducting a research project in your class? Do you find yourself getting more and more frustrated with student research abilities and the end product? This is not surprising. Many content area teachers get frustrated when doing a research project in class. Here are a few reasons why students may be having trouble:

1. The students have not been taught (or have forgotten) how to take notes from different kinds of sources.
2. The students have not been taught (or have forgotten) how to properly cite a source.
3. The students only have experience finding direct answers to direct questions.
4. The students only know how to regurgitate information located in the text.

So what you find yourself with is a group of students who, for the most part, don't write down citation information from their sources, copy word for word the information read in the source, answer research questions only if they require location of facts from a source, and are unable to develop their own unique synthesis of the information learned about the topic.

What can you do to help your students navigate through this process and ease some of your frustration?

1. Don't assume students know how to research - even if you are teaching secondary students.

If you are working with elementary or middle school students, take the time to walk through the entire process from start to finish. Model each stage of the research project and practice as a class before asking students to do their own. Take it one step at a time and create specific due dates for each stage of the project.

If you are working with high school students make sure to go over your expectations in detail. Provide a checklist showing each stage and the requirements for each. You still want to have specific due dates for each stage of the process to keep track of student progress.

Providing students with specific guidelines and walking them through the process is not cheating - it's teaching. When students only complete one or two research projects in a year they do not get sufficient practice to build good habits and retain knowledge of the process from year to year. As with everything, when you don't practice frequently you forget.

2. Teach or remind students how to take notes before beginning the research project. Practice as a class how to take notes using a book, periodical, and website at the very minimum. This is a good time to teach or review citation rules as well. Basic note-taking skills include identifying the main idea of the paragraph, page, or passage and writing down supporting details under the main idea. I always stipulate to students that they may only write down three words maximum for each line of notes taken. This forces them to clearly identify the main idea and supporting details from the reading. It also reduces the amount of plagiarism that occurs from copying information word for word during the note-taking stage.

Also, it is a good idea to review how to locate the main idea (both stated and inferred) and supporting details in class - especially if you don't normally teach this in your subject area classes. Don't assume the English/Reading teacher has recently taught or reviewed this skill or even that students remember the lessons.

3. Practice answering questions from print sources where the answer is not expressly stated. In other words, practice inferring answers from text. Students have plenty of practice answering Knowledge and Comprehension level questions where the answer can be easily located within the text. However, they do not have a lot of practice answering questions where they must infer the answer or reason it out from the reading because it is not specifically addressed.

For example, you may ask students to discuss mankind's affect on nature in a particular region. The source you read may describe depleted resources and changes in the ecosystem without specifically stating that this is a result of human interference in nature. After reading the text, "think aloud" with students to model how you would think through the meaning and inferences within this passage. Do this kind of activity as frequently as possible with textbook readings throughout the school year. These modeling practices teach students how to actively think about their reading and identify information that is not explicitly stated but rather implied.

4. Practice making opinion statements about a topic and providing support from a source. This is another activity that can be practiced throughout the school year and not just during a research project. When students read a passage or section in the content area textbook, ask them to form an opinion. Then have students support that opinion from the text. You should first model this to the whole class then have students work in groups to practice, then in pairs, and finally each student should be able to make his or her own opinion statement from a single or even multiple sources.

This is also an activity that should be taught and practiced in ALL grade levels. Kindergarten students are just as capable of forming an opinion and supporting it as a high school senior. Their opinions and support may be less complex, but you are beginning to build the dendrites in the brain for this important skill.

Students are less likely to regurgitate facts in a research project when they have been taught and have frequently practiced how to make opinion statements. The most important aspect of this skill is that students are able to locate support for their opinion from the text. Frequent practice will help students hone this skill and will provide more entertaining and enlightening reports for you.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Teaching Adventure in India

About a month ago I was contacted by The Achievers Programme based in Chandigarh, India to come and give a series of 2 day workshops across the country. Of course I was interested and we began a dialogue about how this might occur. After much planning, many shots and a few hassles later I was on my way. The flight over is about 15 hours, which is simply too long to be in a confined space. However, with my few travel comforts (ipod, computer, travel pillow, and travel blanket) I was able to make it without too much issue. We landed late in the evening and spent at least an hour going through customs. I ended up the last one through the line and found my luggage waiting for me beside the carousel. After a bit of struggling I managed my two bags (full of clothes and workshop supplies) through the airport and outside where a driver was waiting for me.

The first sight outside was of a crowd of people all waving cards and jumping up and down to get attention from the travelers leaving the airport. It was very chaotic and I almost went with the wrong person except that my driver heard me say my name and repeated it over and over until I found him. We wove our way through the throng of people, cars, and animals and walked over rocks and dirt to get to the car. The first thing I discovered in India is that no one uses the lanes, everyone honks, and if you don't like waiting in traffic, you just weave your car around until you make your own way – no matter whether there are people walking along or not. If there had been sidewalks, I have no doubt the drivers would be maneuvering up onto the sidewalks to get around the other cars. No one seemed angry or upset, they all just moved in and out as they were able.

The next thing I discovered in India is that you never know what is going to happen or when. The key to everything here is "Go with the Flow." I was booked on a train to Surat to visit my first school. The train was five hours late and took 17 hours to finally arrive. Luckily I was in a 1A Sleeper car and had very nice travelling companions. There is no such thing as absolute privacy or a private car unless you purchase four tickets. I ended up in a compartment with two older gentlemen. Both were very helpful in communicating to the porter my need for a somewhat spice-free dinner and breakfast. It didn't happen, but they did try. J

Two teachers met me in Surat and took me to my hotel. I was supposed to have arrived that morning and have the entire day to rest and sightsee. However, that didn't happen. J "Go with the Flow." I began my first workshop the following morning after a nice visit with the principal. She and her staff were both warm and welcoming to me and were very enthusiastic about the workshop. My first school was DPS Tapi – Delhi Public School, the Tapi branch. There are many Delhi Public schools across the country and although the name reads as "Public School" it is actually a group of private schools. There I found the teachers to be energetic and full of knowledge about effective teaching practices. I was not sure what I would encounter, but found that children are children and teachers are teachers no matter where you are. The teachers of DPS Tapi have so many wonderful ideas and strategies they are using with their students. They also were very interested in learning new strategies and not at all adverse to getting "reminders" of good strategies they were already familiar with. The attitudes of these teachers were so incredibly positive that I felt completely energized and excited about my teaching when I left them. Many of the ideas I presented for Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum were familiar to them, but they all very much enjoyed the idea of using poetry and pattern books to write about topics learned in the classroom. The Classrooms that Spark workshop went over very well with the teachers. They were unfamiliar with much of the brain research I presented and thoroughly enjoyed the games and other movement activities we did during the day. At the end they all crowded around me asking questions and telling stories about their children and classrooms. I felt so at home and so at one with the teachers of DPS Tapi that I could have stayed there quite happily. J Unfortunately I had to rush to board my train to Ambala on my way to Chandigarh.

This time the train left on time, but was slowed down by the immense amount of fog happening here right now. We were on the train for 29 hours. I don't think I ever imagined that I would be on a train for that amount of time. I was in the compartment with a family of three and we had a very nice time getting to know one another. They brought their laptop as well and we spent many hours watching Indian movies. I didn't understand any of the words, but the action and music more than made up for it! J

Chandigarh is a lovely city and is a planned city, which seems to be a huge deal here. It is also the cleanest city in India followed closely by Surat. From Chandigarh I took a taxi into the mountains to Dherdun and presented my workshops to an all-girls boarding school. The girls were on vacation and the teachers preparing for a new term. Again, I had a wonderful experience with the teachers. Everyone was so informed of current research and eager to learn more. Several of the teachers came to me afterwards and exclaimed that they truly enjoyed my workshop. That made me feel so good knowing that the information I was offering was helpful to them. As a presenter I know that I cannot make everyone happy all of the time, but these teachers have such great attitudes and are so open to new ideas. One teacher had to leave to work with a few girls who stayed over the break and when she returned she happily reported that she already implemented a few of the ideas learned that morning.

So far I have seen that the teachers of India work just as hard as we do in America to give their students engaging activities for learning. They are just as concerned about student behavior and see similar issues in terms of "over-entertained" children in the classroom. Many of their questions and concerns mirror exactly the questions and concerns we face in America as well. They worry they are doing the best for the children, they fret over parent interactions, and they struggle with behavior issues.

The travels have been quite eye-opening and very much an adventure, but working with the teachers has made me feel as if I were home. I can honestly say that I have been blessed by my interactions with each and every teacher I've met here. And if I have been of at least a little help to them in reassurance and in sharing ideas, then this adventure has been more than worth it and I very gladly will return again when asked.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Bang for Your Buck: Movement and Learning

When shopping you probably look for the best possible deal getting the most you can for every dollar you spend. Learning should be like that too. For every moment we spend on a topic, concept, or skill we want our students to get as much knowledge out of it as possible. More importantly we want them to retain that information and be able to recall it and use it in the future. For some teachers this means cramming as many facts and figures into each child's head as possible in a forty-five or fifty minute class period. Lecture and skill-and-drill rule the day. However, current brain research tells us that our students are less likely to remember these facts and figures through lecture and skill-and-drill exercises. The Learning Pyramid, developed by the National Training Laboratories, shows that over time students only retain 5% of what they've learned through lecture. This is followed closely by 10% of an audio-visual presentation, 20% of what they read and 30% of a demonstration. These are all passive learning strategies.

What current brain research tells us is that students need to be active to get their brains working and growing. Scientists have discovered that our brains continue to grow even past childhood. For every new stimulation, situation, and challenge we face, brand new neurons grow. The more we use those new neurons, the more they flourish and expand to create synapses with other neurons. For the longest time scientists believed that this new growth only happened in the cortex, the thinking part of our brain, and that only new mental stimulation would increase that growth. However, scientists like Peter Strick, a professor of Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburg, have traced pathways from the cerebellum to parts of the brain that are involved with memory, attention, language, emotion, and decision making. Whoa, what does that mean exactly? Well, the cerebellum has been thought to only deal with physical movement and not much else. The cortex, on the other hand, has been labeled as the thinking brain because it houses memory, language, attention, decision making, and other mental skills. What Dr. Strick discovered was a series of connections (neural pathways) between the "movement" brain and the "thinking" brain. What can you conclude from that bit of knowledge?

Interestingly enough, the cerebellum is only one tenth of the overall brain in size and yet it contains over half of all the brain's neurons and more than 40 million nerve fibers. That sounds to me like a lot of activity happening in the movement part of our brain. Additionally, the vestibular nuclei (has connections to the brainstem) within the cerebellum is an information-gathering and feedback source for movement. The cerebellum takes these movement messages and combines them with visual and auditory messages before sending the whole package to the cortex (the thinking brain). When movement and thinking are both in play, these "packages" of messages are then relayed back and forth between the cerebellum and cortex. Movement stimulates growth in both the moving brain and in the thinking brain. These links show us that movement is an important part of learning.

Not only does movement increase academic performance, but it also factors into long-term memory. The more multi-sensory interactions, the more synapses are created. Watching a video of how to make adobe bricks only engages the eyes and the ears through audio and visual inputs. However, getting students outside mixing sand, dirt, straw, and other materials by hand to make adobe bricks themselves offers a multitude of sensory inputs through the feel, smell (and for those more adventurous souls – taste) as well as a lively discussion with others about the process. Emotions are also brought into the process through the enjoyment of the activity and the interactions with friends. When we understand how memory is housed in our brain, we have a greater insight into why these interactions with our environment are so important for learning.

"Memory is not an entity, planted in one spot – but planted throughout the brain, an interplay of sensory perception and emotion." Susan Jones, author of Grow a Brain, tells us that memory is separated and stored in segments. One memory is a composite of the different senses as interpreted by the brain. For example, the memory of a slice of pizza is a composite of the smell of the cheese, the spicy taste of the pepperoni, the tangy taste of the sauce, the flat texture of the bottom crust, the crunchy texture of the side crust, the angle the pizza is cut, the pure enjoyment of eating it, and more. This one memory is taken apart into pieces, stored, and then reassembled when recalled. When one segment is recalled, brain is able to retrieve the entire memory or even a series of different memories. Therefore, the more parts of the brain that are involved – sights, sounds, feelings, textures – the easier it is for the brain to retrieve the memory. Think about the last time a particular smell brought forward a specific memory or even a general feeling of well-being, anger, or fear. (As a side note - our emotions are also a very important part of memory and learning, but I'll hit that subject in another blog.) When we help students make multi-sensory connections through movement and activity, we are helping them to plant long-term memories.

You might be thinking, those touchy-feeling activities may be well and good for elementary students, but my secondary students have major tests to pass! You're right. Your students do have tests to pass. And just think how much easier it would be for them to think of a single activity and be able to retrieve all the stored data connected to that activity through direct instruction and class discussion. This is made even easier when the activity was enjoyable, bringing positive emotions into the memory retrieval. Even pantomiming an activity with their hands (such as building bricks) can then help retrieve both the memory of the activity and the data (or learning) connected to it. To top it all off, physical movement releases acetylcholine, a brain-chemical involved in communication between neurons. According to Susan Jones this brain-chemical "aids in the planning and retrieval of long-term memory." As she says, "Movement helps cement memory!"


"Movement and Learning: The cerebellar connection and the link between physical education and learning."

"Grow a Brain!" by Susan Jones.

The Learning Pyramid.

I also highly recommend reading "Have You Heard of Brain Gym?" by Cecilia K. Freeman, M.Ed.

While her article focuses on the use of Brain Gym with special needs children, I found many ways to use these exercises for myself to increase focus, organization, and communication. I can see the benefits of learning small exercises that can be done in the classroom to help when students seem unable to focus or need a bit of physical stimulation to "wake-up" the brain.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Getting a Fresh Start

January, being the first month of the New Year, is a time of setting resolutions and goals. It is also a time for a fresh start. Everyone has just had a lovely, and hopefully refreshing, two week vacation in which most try very hard to forget everything that happened during the previous semester. If you feel that you had a rough start to the school year, this is the perfect time to implement those much needed changes. Even if you feel that your classroom has been doing very well, January is the perfect time to refresh everyone's memory of how your classroom works.

This first month in the year is unique because it offers us the opportunity to make large-scale changes without upsetting the delicate balance of our classroom. It allows us to make improvements in our classroom management and teaching style without causing student distress. Generally, during the rest of the school year, if you are constantly changing your attitude, style, expectations, and procedures, students never know what to expect of you. They stop trusting in how you behave with them and respect is lost. Little changes are always welcome and keep the classroom from becoming stifling, but constantly changing the "structure" causes confusion and leads to chaos. Below are a few tips to help you take advantage of this "fresh start."

Treat the first day and week back as though it were the first day of school. Take some time to go back over your expectations of student behavior and the procedures you want students to follow. If you did not do that great of a job setting expectations and procedures at the start of the year, this is the perfect time to implement new ones. Your students are in a frame of mind that lends itself to change. Later on in the semester, they will not be so open and willing to receive new expectations and procedures and will fight you every step of the way. So take some time now to implement those changes you have in mind.

Begin your training program again. Train students in your quiet signal and in the other various procedures of your classroom, including entering the classroom, leaving the classroom, turning in homework, working in labs, etc. If students do not follow your expectations during that first week or two after the break, stop what you are doing and have students follow the expectation or procedure correctly. This is vital to refreshing student memories of how you expect your class to behave. If you do not take the time to refresh their memory, you may find that your students steadily increase their misbehavior throughout the spring semester.

Take a look at your attitude towards students the previous semester. Did it encourage student learning and positive behaviors? If it did, then continue that positive and uplifting attitude. If it did not, then reflect on how your attitude has affected both student behavior and student learning. What can you do differently in this new semester? Again, this is the perfect time to make those much needed changes. You still have time to earn student respect. While you may have challenging students, remember that YOUR attitude determines the overall attitude of your class. When you face your class with a positive attitude, they will ultimately reflect that positive attitude back to you. The same goes for a negative attitude.

Remember, revamp your expectations and procedures to improve, or review your expectations and procedures to maintain the balance. Start a training program to get students used to what is expected of them on a daily basis, or continue your training program to maintain positive student behaviors. Put in place a positive attitude that will encourage positive student behavior and learning, or continue the positive attitude you've shown all year to maintain positive student behavior and learning. Take advantage of this one time in the middle of the school year when you can make those large-scale changes with a positive benefit and get a <b><i>fresh start</b></i>!


Article by Emma McDonald. Reprinted with permission from Education World. Original article can be found at