The Great Debate: Homework

Most parents will tell you that homework time is the most dreaded part of each day, and I think many students would agree. Although, there always seems to be one or two families who request more homework for their child. So how much homework is the right amount? The answer is not simple, and differs depending on what age range you are working with, but there is some pretty compelling research out there showing that homework may be a lot less necessary than we once thought.

The whole idea of ten minutes of work per grade level, meaning ten minutes of homework in kindergarten and fifty minutes in fifth grade, is such an arbitrary construct, it amazes me that schools still follow this model. I’ve also heard teachers claim that homework is necessary so that students can learn the study habits they will need for the higher grade levels and college. I kind of get this, but only if the homework is very purposeful and relevant. Giving kids an hour of tedious busy work will only make them hate school, and they probably won’t learn much. Lastly, the argument that skills taught in the classroom need to be reinforced outside of school always seems to come up when defending homework. Again, this makes some sense, but only if assignments are specifically targeted to a student’s specific needs.

So what is the best approach to homework? Well, it depends. Research states that homework does not have much of an impact on academic achievement until middle, or even high school, so teachers at these levels should be assigning something, but elementary teachers really don’t need to. The type of homework being assigned is critical. If you do not have the time to assign meaningful and relevant work, it’s better to not assign anything at all. Homework that is personalized based on a student’s specific needs, or interests can be a useful tool, but otherwise, I’d just say no to homework.

3 ways to increase teacher collaboration with technology!

Teachers are not known for having a lot of free time, and finding time to collaborate with colleagues can be even more challenging than finding time to plan alone! So how can teachers collaborate effectively with limited time? Here are a few tips:

1. Set measurable, actionable goals

It is very easy to get caught up in business or housekeeping in collaboration meetings, but when you come together to collaborate about curriculum, it’s a good idea to start with some goals. What would you like to see your students improve in? What unit would you like to plan? Your goals should be measurable, so if you decide your students need to improve in a certain area, you should start with how you are going to assess where they are, and where they are going. Be as specific as possible, don’t just say you want your students to improve their writing, pick a specific trait to focus on, and assess only that trait.

2. Start small

By choosing a specific area to focus on, you are not biting off more than you can chew. It may seem like a waste of time to spend all of your collaboration meetings talking about one thing, but by doing this for one trait, you will refine and improve your practice overall. Just look at this Japanese model of lesson study, they spend months, sometimes years refining the same lesson, and it pays off.

3. Use collaboration tools like Mindmeister and Google Docs

When you can’t meet in person, use asynchronous collaboration tools. I love MindMeister, but Google Docs works really well too. You can add thoughts and ideas as they arise, even if you don’t have time to meet.

So why should teachers collaborate when time is so limited? It may end up saving you time down the road. Why reinvent the wheel all the time, when someone has probably been where you are before? At the very least, you will have double the brain power to work on an issue, and at best it will improve student learning in your class, and improve your practice.


Growth Mindset — not just for students :)

If you give a man a fish….or in my case, if you attach a file to an email for a colleague, they will never learn to be self sufficient with technology! I have quite a few friendly neighbors who still call me frantically when their printer won’t work, only to have me rush over and plug it in. This is funny the first few times and makes me feel useful, but does it really help anyone? It is hard not to shake my head when this kind of thing happens (which is quite often), but it doesn’t help the problem.

We’ve heard about the digital divide amongst our students, but what about the digital divide between younger and more veteran teachers? And does it matter? I believe it does. A teacher’s attitude toward technology can have a huge impact on student learning, so I made it my mission to be a technology ambassador at my school, and if you’re even remotely tech savvy (if you’re reading this, you are) you should, too.

Here’s Why: Growth Mindset

Hopefully you’ve heard about all of the research by Carol Dweck out of Stanford about Growth Mindset. I so often hear teachers say, “I’m not techie” or “I can’t figure out computers.” What they may not realize, is that they are demonstrating their fixed mindset to their students. An easy change would be for them to say, “I’m still learning how to use computers” or “I haven’t learned how to do this yet, I need help.” But for some reason, this is often a black and white issue for certain people, and they feel they are either good with computers or not. A common trait amongst these naysayers I’ve observed, is the fear of failure. Those of us who are comfortable using technology with our students aren’t afraid of technical difficulties, or appearing not to know something. For some teachers, this is extremely uncomfortable.

Here’s How: Change Attitudes, Encourage Risk Taking

The first thing I did at my school was hold an all inclusive, tech 101 workshop for tech-phobic teachers. Without judgement, I walked them through the basics, from how to turn on the machine, to how to attach a file to an email. Without rolling my eyes, I let them go at their own pace, and ask questions they’ve always been too embarrassed to ask, (like, what is the cloud? And what’s an MP3?). The next step is to ask your colleagues what they would like help with. You’re not going to gain any followers by trying to teach them to code in their first workshop. They may just want to learn how to troubleshoot their classroom technology, so that’s where you should start. After that, you can slowly introduce tools that you think are useful, such Google Drive or ClassDojo, but don’t start with these. Make sure you allow a lot of time for exploration, everyone should have a device in front of them while you demonstrate and you shouldn’t move on until they’ve caught up. Sound familiar? Yes, this is just good teaching! Adult learners differ from kids in many ways, but when it comes to trying something new, we all bring different experiences to the table. We all need time and room to fail.

Closing the feedback loop

Have you ever sat down to write a report card, or tried to have a parent teacher conference, feeling very confident that you know how a student is doing, only to realize you don’t really have a way to show it? ClassDojo has made keeping track of behaviors very simple, but documenting learning is not an easy thing to do.

The best tool that I have found for documenting student work is Evernote (although I am sure there are others). The reason I like this tool is because it makes it really easy to document everything that happens in the classroom, including learning moments that aren’t always apparent in a final piece of work. I used this application with my fifth grade class this past year, and it was pretty life changing.

There is a bit of a learning curve, as with any new product you try, but it is worth the time it will take you to integrate this tool into your workflow. I recommend making a file, or a “note” for each student, including each project they are working on. As I started teaching my students a unit on persuasive writing, I made each student a “note” and captured all of our conferences in that note. Every time I met with a student I would take a picture of their work and write down the gist of our discussion. This ended up being invaluable in so many ways.

To sum up why Evernote helped me so much, I’ve narrowed it down to four major benefits:

1. When I would meet with each student, I would have a very clear idea about what they were working on, and I didn’t have to try figure out what they were doing at each meeting.

2. Grading was super easy because I had given so much feedback along the way, I was able to summarize all of the things we had already discussed.

3. Parents loved seeing concrete evidence of their child’s learning process (and they couldn’t do the work for their child at home!).

4. Documenting student work in this way emphasizes the importance of learning as a process, not a product, and it helps make the abstract very tangible.

Give it a try 🙂

Keeping track of your online resources: well worth your time!

It may seem obvious to most that keeping track of resources you’ve found online is helpful, but it took me a long time to realize that this was something I must do in order to prevent myself from reinventing the wheel every year. Sure, I have a file cabinet stuffed to the brim with handouts and things I’ve used over the years, and I sometimes I use it when I’m looking for a specific activity, but I usually hit the internet if I’m looking for something new to try.

There are endless ways you can organize yourself to keep track of things, but this is the system that works for me.

Step 1. Generate ideas

You will likely hit up the same sites for ideas on a regular basis. Bookmark them, or create a google doc with a list of your favorite sites. Pinterest is great for this. I frequent,  PBS Learning, and Scholastic quite often so I have them all bookmarked. I use Pinterest more for collecting ideas I want to check out later (although it can turn into a huge time suck if you get caught up in all the cutesy stuff!)

Step 2. Save your resource or lesson for later

This can be as simple as punching holes in a print out and sticking it in a binder, or filing it away. But what if your lesson includes digital media? You should have a consistent method and system for keeping track of these resources that you have used and liked. You can also use Pinterest for this, if you have a specific board for each area of study, but I use it as more of an idea generation tool. For organizing resources, you can use a site like EduClipper, Evernote, or even a basic Google Doc. I have a Google Site where I keep links organized by subject, and it has worked quite well for me. Take the time to save what you like, you’ll thank yourself later. If someone gives you an idea, write it down, add it to your site as soon as possible. You will be so relieved that you already have a great video saved for teaching a particular standard, so you don’t have to scour the internet every year. Teachers spend so much time searching and vetting resources, it is worth the extra few minutes it takes to save something you may have spent hours finding. You may not always teach the same grade level, but there are events such as holidays that come up each year, regardless of your grade level. You won’t regret saving your materials even if you do switch grades.

Step 3. Be reflective

Every so often, go through your list of resources and delete the ones that have become irrelevant, or didn’t work out so well. You don’t want your list to end up like an over-stuffed file cabinet full of junk. Keep it fresh, and think about whether you will really use something again.

This app or that app? So many choices!

I’ve always been kind of a tech junkie. My M.O. used to be, “Try all the things!” This was fun at first, but quickly became a time suck. It was also stressful for my students, and not a great use of their time. I’m not saying it’s not okay to try new things, but for your students’ sake (and your own) try them purposefully, one at a time.

Where to start?

You may see lots of shiny new apps you want to try, or hear about something someone is using that sounds cool, but before you jump on it take stock of your needs. By thinking about what your areas of need are, you can eliminate any apps that are not going to fill a gap for you. If you don’t have an app in mind, but you have a need, I highly recommend checking out Richard Byrne’s Free Tech for Teachers (which is where I found out about ClassDojo). If you have an EdTech need, it is highly likely you will find and idea here. It’s also a good idea to follow ISTE, Common Sense, and CUE.

How to decide?

When you find something you think looks great, ask yourself these questions before implementing it in your class:

1. Is it going to help my students learn?

2. Is it going to help make my job easier in some way?

3. Is it easy to learn?

If you can answer “yes” to at least one of these, it’s worth a try. If it doesn’t work, you can always eliminate it, but trying things one at a time allows you to really evaluate their effectiveness. Some of my favorites are:

This is a short list, but these are my go-to apps on a daily basis. Try to keep it simple, only use what works for you and your students, and resist the urge to “try all the things!”

Grit? Risk taking? What behaviors should you encourage in your classroom?

If you use ClassDojo with your students, you’ve probably noticed that most of the behaviors you want to encourage or discourage are already embedded in the program, but did you know you can add your own? How do you decide which behaviors to add? It helps to think about what kind of classroom culture you want to foster. I felt really strongly about encouraging risk-taking in my class, so I added “taking a risk” to the positive behavior options. If you decide to do something like this, make sure you have a discussion with your students about what each of these behaviors looks like and why they are important.

It’s easy to say you want students to exhibit grit and perseverance, but what exactly do those look like? The first criteria for adding a behavior to ClassDojo is measurability. When I decided to add “risk taking” to my list, we had several discussions about what this would look like with my class. The general consensus was that students should receive a point for risk taking if they stuck their neck out, and stepped out of their comfort zone for the sake of learning. This means if someone was called on and was unsure of what to say, if they said something in an attempt to participate rather than exercising their right to pass, they earned a point. This approach opened up a larger dialogue about the importance of taking a risk and not being afraid to fail. It became a part of our classroom culture and we talked about it every day. These are the types of things you should add to your behaviors list to help develop these traits in your students.

You may be tempted to add every desirable human quality imaginable, but I recommend starting slow. Keep it simple. Add one at a time and use it consistently. If you notice you are never using a particular behavior, remove it. The great thing about this feature is that you can adapt it to each individual class. Last year I had a particularly disruptive class, so I put interrupting on my negative point list. In general, I like to use positive encouragement whenever possible, but in moderation, correctional type of feedback is also very useful.



Improve your classroom management system with ClassDojo

When and if you decide to use ClassDojo with your students, it’s a good idea to think about how you will use it first. Do you have a projector that you can display ClassDojo on? If so, how often will you display it? Some teachers have it up all day, while others choose to display it at specific times, like first thing in the morning. Whatever you decide, I recommend following these steps:

1. Create buy-in

Let students design their own avatar. They’ll be much more enthusiastic if they can personalize their character. Get them involved in the process of creating a classroom culture, let them help choose which behaviors will go on ClassDojo, and what they need to do to earn points. Let the students have a voice in when they think people should lose points as well. Ultimately, you will make the call when it comes to awarding points, but giving kids ownership of the development process will increase buy-in. You can also check in with your group ever so often to discuss what is working and what is not.

2. Be consistent

Whatever you decide to do, stick with it. If you say you are going to give a prize to students when they reach a certain goal, follow through! On the other hand, if you say you are going to take away points when something happens, do it. Make sure your plan is feasible. If you promise to give points for certain behaviors, set up your space so that you can easily give points at any given time. If you have to find a computer and log in every time you want to give a point, you are unlikely to follow through. I recommend using the mobile app for this reason.

3. Make it a part of the culture

ClassDojo is a tool that works best when used in tandem with other classroom management programs. I used ClassDojo with my classroom economy last year. My fifth graders loved it. When they earned a certain amount of ClassDojo points they were able to “cash out” and get a cash bonus in their class bank account. We had an auction every month, giving students had a tangible reward for their behavior that was reinforced with ClassDojo. There are endless ways you can adapt this tool to fit your classroom management needs.

New Teacher Survival (series) #4: Working with challenging students

Let’s face it, kids are human, and some of them are more easygoing than others. We’ve all had that one kid in our class who knew exactly how to push our buttons and seemed to make it his or her mission to ruin our day. Sound familiar? If not, you are lucky! I have at least one student every year who pushes all the boundaries and tests my seemingly endless patience.

There is definitely a spectrum of bad behaviors and I’ve seen them all. From subtle eye-rolling and forgetting to raise one’s hand, to literal assault and blood-shed. I could write multiple volumes about what works and what doesn’t, but for now I’m going to focus on the low-level, everyday annoyances that can disrupt learning and derail your class on a daily basis.

Just like you have tiers of intervention for academics, think of behavior management as having multiple tiers as well. Tier 1 would be your run-of-the-mill, whole class point system. This is the level that generally keeps things moving along and relies mostly on peer pressure to be successful. Tier 2 is an additional level of behavior support, think star charts for individual students, or weekly communication to parents.

If you feel like you need more behavior support for a particular student, ask yourself a few questions first:

1. Does the disruptive behavior happen at a particular time, or during certain types of activities?

If you can identify what is causing the behavior to happen, you are halfway to solving the problem. If you can determine that a student is bored, struggling, or having a hard time at home, you can try and adjust your teaching or help them in another way. Preventing the behavior from happening is better than constantly doling out consequences.

2. Does the student respond to positive reinforcement?

If so, try to capitalize on this. Give praise every time they do something right, even if it feels excessive. Make sure your positive comments are more frequent than the negative. Using a classroom management tool like ClassDojo is great for this, because you can actually see the breakdown of positive to negative feedback for each student.

3. Is their family supportive of your efforts?

If so, try to communicate with them frequently. The most powerful tool you have to improve student behavior is a good working relationship with their family.

4. Still not improving?

Don’t reinvent the wheel! My first year, I had four different students on four different behavior plans which was almost impossible to maintain. If you need to implement a behavior plan, use your existing structure, and focus on 2-3 behaviors at most. For example, if you use ClassDojo, or another point system, come up with a contract that states how many points for a specific behavior a student must receive each day or week to earn a prize. The prize doesn’t have to be fancy, it should be something that is easy for you to provide on a weekly basis. It also helps immensely if there is a reward at home as well. Your student should help design their behavior plan. Students are much more likely to buy in if they’ve had a voice in its creation.

Like I said before, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to behavior issues, but this is a good place to start!


This is Part 4 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here

New Teacher Survival (series) #3: Classroom management 101

As I prepared for my first year of teaching, I was so excited for the school year to begin. I wrote each of my students a postcard welcoming them to my class. I bought each student a pencil box and used my fancy new label maker to put their name on it. I felt so ready my first day, I had everything scripted, every moment planned. And then my students arrived. Within the first five minutes of my opening circle, one of my third graders had tied his shoes together, another student had locked himself in the bathroom, and two girls were crying. I only had 20 students in my class, but I had completely lost control. Unfortunately, this day set the tone for the year, and I never quite recovered. But I sure learned a lot! Here are my top tips for managing your class:

1. Have a procedure for everything

Before the school year begins, you should have an idea about how you want things to be done in your room. Write everything down, from sharpening pencils, to using the restroom. Within the first few days of school, teach these procedures explicitly, and practice them repeatedly. You can even make it a game! Challenge the class to beat their time lining up quietly, give praise or rewards when they succeed. Make them do it again when they don’t. This can seem tedious and time consuming, but it will make your class run much smoother.

2. Be proactive not reactive

Figure out what your classroom management system will be before the students arrive (like many teachers, I use ClassDojo). Make sure it is something that is easy to stick with. If you have a point system, make sure you know what will happen if your students receive a certain amount of points. Don’t make the prize too difficult to obtain, or students will lose interest. You also need to decide what consequences will occur when a student breaks a rule, or misses an assignment. Try to connect with every student, if a student is particularly difficult, go out of your way to catch them doing things right and praise, praise, praise!

3. Take it off stage

At those inevitable moments when someone misbehaves in front of the whole class, it can be hard not to react immediately. Especially because you don’t want your other students to think that kind of behavior is ok. The best thing you can do in the moment is acknowledge the behavior in a calm voice, and tell the student that you will be discussing the incident at a later time. As soon as you have a chance, take the student aside and discuss a consequence away from your other students. Sometimes this 1:1 conversation is consequence enough.

4. Be consistent, follow through

Give praise, follow through on consequences, then follow through, and follow through some more. No matter what you decide to use as a classroom management system, you have to be very consistent. Students will quickly pick up on your failure to follow through and may feel that you are being unfair, or may take advantage. A student teacher once asked me what to do when a student was constantly interrupting her. In my class, interrupting the teacher results in the loss of a ClassDojo point. I asked her if she took a point from him the first time he did it, and she said “no.” Of course he continued to interrupt, there was no consequence! She did say she felt bad taking points away from kids, so it is really important to consider what you feel comfortable with when designing your classroom management system. My feeling is that as long as you give a lot of positive feedback, negative feedback should have the desired effect of correcting the behavior, without damaging your relationship with your students. You can also think about it from the other students’ perspective. By taking away a point from someone who breaks a rule, you are being fair to the students who do not break rules, and protecting their learning.

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 4 here