Whatever it takes: 6 strategies for student success!

Recently I had the pleasure of taking part in a I&RS (Intervention and Referral Services) meeting for a struggling student. Basically a team of teachers, parents, administrators, guidance counselors, child study team members, and others convened to problem solve student deficiencies. Many ideas were shared and an action plan was developed. The passion in the room was truly remarkable, especially the professional manner in which our staff conducted themselves. Each member of the committee took the “whatever it takes” approach in order to put this child in a position to succeed. In fact, throughout the school year other technology based strategies were utilized for other students as well.

Below you will find a sampling of strategies that were recommended for various students throughout the school year in order for them to be in a position to succeed with the help of technology…..

  • Teachers can leverage the power of ClassDojo to track student performance and behavior. This great tool can be very beneficial for students and parents in terms of communication, transparency, and buy-in.
  • Encourage student to utilize their personal computer in the school setting for organization and curation purposes. Often students feel more comfortable using their own device as they make sense of their learning.
  • Utilized the Dragon Dictation App so that the student can highlight their oral abilities on paper and/or computer screen.
  • Increase mental agility at home while at the same time providing breaks with the Pomodoro Timer App.
  • Focus on increasing typing speed using a program called EduTyping. This program can be utilized at home and in school.
  • Provide student with alternative assessment opportunities to show what they know on a given topic. For example, use the Audioboo podcasting app for a project in language arts.

Leveraging the power of technology and available web applications to promote the success of students is critical in the year 2014. Identifying student strengths in order to overcome weaknesses is important if schools are to put students in a position to be successful. As I said before, the strategies above are just a sampling of what was recommended. It’s truly amazing to see passionate school stakeholders collaborate and problem solve together. There is no doubt that struggling students will do a complete turn around and begin enjoying school once again.

How to communicate more effectively with your students :)

Sometimes, students will resist because something is immoral or unethical. As a first year teacher, a student called me out for mocking a regional accent. I was defensive at first, but she was absolutely right.

But sometimes, students resist because that’s what they do.

In some cases (like class policies), as long as the policies are thoughtful, your best bet is to listen and then use some sort of formula like, “Unfortunately, a hall pass is not a choice. Please use it.”

In other cases, however, student resistance can undermine a learning goal: suddenly, you’re locked in a battle with a student about a concept that is not the point of a lesson.

Here are three classic examples of how to defuse student resistance. All three draw from a simple fable: a tree and a reed argue about their relative strength – but when the storm winds come, the stubborn, brittle tree is uprooted. The reed bends with the wind.

Pre-warning, affirming, joining – and redirecting:

The scenario: you are studying a story where a character exhibits behaviors, traits, or values the students will find objectionable, but it’s beyond the scope of that class to get distracted by those objections.

The solution: warn the students before they read that they will not like some of the things they see. Tell them that their objections are founded and justified. Join with them in agreeing that the behaviors are problematic.

Then, say, “However, we’re going to put those objections in the parking lot. We may get around to them. But we may not. Our goal is not going to be taking Character X to task for how he acts, which is pretty bad, we have to admit. But our goal in this particular class is to look at the circumstances that led him to those behaviors.”

If a student, mid-discussion objects to Character X’s behavior, reaffirm:

“Exactly, and that’s what I meant when I said that there were problematic things about that Character. I wish we had a whole class to dig into that, but I’m afraid it’s beyond the scope of this lesson. So, back we go to the historical circumstances.”

Set up the resistance as a straw-man and then “pretend” the best:

The scenario: a new policy in the school has raised student ire. You feel that students have complained enough about the unfairness of the new policy. You want them to reflect on the potential benefit of the new policy and not turn your allotted five minutes into more griping.

The solution: in your question or prompt, suggest exactly what the students are likely to have concluded, and then redirect:

“The new policy is either total hoo-hah, designed to put you into a prison for your minds, or perhaps it speaks to a conflict of two real values that we can probably agree are both important.  For the moment, let’s just pretend that the rule is not designed simply to take away your rights and make you miserable. What might have been the intent of the principle when she composed the new policy?”

Affirm frustration, relieve the student of needing to argue further, and offer a new option:

The scenario: a student has missed a deadline and has a lousy grade as a result. She has come to argue with you about the grade. You want her to stop fixating on the grade and think constructively about the future.

The solution: meet the student where she is, and paint the picture about what’s coming down the road.

You: Look, tell me if I’m not getting you. You felt like you put in a ton of work on this step of the project and the deadline ruined your grade, right?

Student: Right.

You: And it’s a bummer because why should the deadline affect the grade for the product, right?

Student: Right.

You: So look, on the one hand, I don’t expect you to agree with the late-policy of this class. That’s not your job as a student. You being upset about it makes total sense. If I were you, I’d probably be upset, too. But my job is to have policies that are fair and consistent. That’s what I’m expected to do as a teacher, and the policy can’t change. And we may not see eye to eye on that, and we’re going to need to be okay with that. But more importantly, my job is to help you move past this setback and plan for how the next phase of the project is going to well, and make sure it’s a huge success.

High-Expectations for 2015: Bring It.

I was at a frozen yogurt bar the other day, empty cup in hand, and I happened to see the sign “Teacher Appreciation Day: Free Yogurts of Any Size with ID Card.” Score! A free yogurt meant that I had nothing to lose if I didn’t order the usual. The possibilities swarmed me. I now had the opportunity to choose something I might not have otherwise bought. Which way was I going to go? Fruity? Chocolaty? No. BOTH. This was my chance–my opportunity to build something great. Unfortunately, with a line building up behind me, I rushed. I overdid it on the toppings, my layering was all wrong, and it wasn’t tasty. My expectations of a totally delicious fro-yo were soured by my lack of planning, the feeling of being rushed, and a little greed to want it all.

As teachers, we all have visions of high expectations for our students, but are we taking the time to think about what ingredients we should choose without overloading our students and ourselves with a sub-par flavor of success? Do we feel rushed by the new standards to make these students great? How can we take small, uncomplicated steps to create high-achieving students that surpass our expectations?

The answer isn’t all that simple, as any teacher might tell you, but here are some sure places to start setting and supporting high expectations.

1. Greet all students at the door with a handshake

Start this day one. You won’t know their names, and there may be a small build-up in the hallway, but don’t worry. Stand tall, smile, and shake every one of your students’ hands. Show them that this is the business of learning, and you’re serious about it. Once you start to know their names, include them in your daily greeting. Tell them they played a great game Friday night, you were impressed with their test score, they have cute shoes on. This is a time to set the tone as professional and welcoming, that it’s a safe place to push their thinking.

2. Use their time wisely, and tell them that’s what you’re doing.

Be as efficient as possible. How do you pass out papers? Create a system. How do you get into groups? Drill them and practice so its under 10 seconds (totally possible, with practice and a competitive vibe). How quickly do they start working? Put a warm-up, drill, or do-now on the board ,so they can begin as soon as they sit down. With all of these things, be sure to tell them that you’re not interested in wasting their time; you’ve got information that’s really important for them, and you won’t compromise that.

3. Pre-Assess before blindly teaching curriculum.

Pre-assessments allow me to see what to review and where to build. This is such a simple step of which many teachers don’t take advantage, and we can easily make the mistake of re-teaching information that students already learned. For example, I need to trust that the teachers before me taught the students how to use commas correctly, so I can build off of that knowledge. I don’t need to waste class time re-teaching commas usage unless my pre-assessment tells me it needs reviewing. Even then, it probably wouldn’t need to be a class-wide endeavour. A challenging curriculum shows the students you think they’re capable of it. When you repeat information, those that learned it have the chance to zone out.

4. Call on whomever you want whenever you want.

You are in charge of the class, and you need to check for understanding. The students need to know that they can be called on at any time. Some teachers use popsicle sticks with names written on them, some teachers just call, but the important thing is the element of surprise. They need to feel a little pressured to pay attention at all times. This may seem awkward at first, but the students will eventually get used to it.

Note- if you draw name sticks as a method, don’t put them in a discard pile. Put them back in with the rest. This avoids students being “off the hook” once they have answered, allowing them to get back to that doodle they started in health class.

5. Expect the right answer

Let’s say a student gives you an answer that’s perfectly wrong. My response used to be “Hm, Fiona, I see why you’re saying that, but you’re not quite there.” I didn’t want to hurt Fiona’s feelings. I have since learned, through using the above steps to create a safe place for my students to express their ideas, that wrong is wrong, and I don’t want to take the time to sugar-coat it. It’s not being mean; it’s saying “That’s incorrect. Can someone help Fiona?” Let someone help, and then have Fiona repeat the correct answer, so the last thing she remembers is being right (and hopefully the right answer!). This is faster than the other response and builds an atmosphere that it’s okay to be incorrect at first, but the student is eventually responsible for being right.

Take some time this summer to think about what steps you can take to make sure kids reach those high expectations you have for them. Then go reward yourself with a delicious frozen yogurt!

 

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.

Get the best out of your students with Literacy Task Lists!

Students working either independently or within a learning team have always been a large portion of my classroom environment. It frees me to work with small groups on skills or concepts that they may need a little more assistance in mastering. The majority of us call them ‘stations’ and have some type of management system to complete the stations. If managed efficiently, stations can be very valuable to the learning process.

During this past year, I changed from stations to a Literacy Tasks List. I felt I was limiting my students and myself with the structure of stations. In stations, students were moving from work area to work area every 10 or 15 minutes. I was always at a station in that procedure. Lastly, the idea of stations seemed very elementary. My students were one step away from middle school. Changes needed to be made.  I wanted to give my students a little more decision making ability, and I needed my groups to be flexible. I really didn’t need to work with ALL my students on something.

After a little research and planning, I created a Literacy Tasks List for students to use as a “To Do List”.  The tasks list included the weekly objectives, tasks that were required, and optional activities they could work on leisurely when they were done with all the required tasks. Each week or two, I would provide my students with a detailed overview of the tasks. Students would receive a copy of the Literacy Tasks List to check off the tasks as they completed them and use as a cover sheet for the required tasks.

With a few tweaks in the management, the Literacy Tasks List was the best change I made. My students loved the independence the list created for them. They had the ability to start on what they wanted. They also enjoyed being able to choose a partner or two, instead of being anchored to the students at their table.

With the tasks under way, I had the ability to call students to my table whenever I needed them. It could be just one or a small group of four. It enabled me to differentiate and really use the data I would receive from pretests to develop the use of the time I had. I found I could also take as much time as I needed with those groups.

My daily goal has always been to get the most and the best out of the time my students and I have in the hour we are together. If the management is in place, we have little to no distractions and we can get so much done. Changing to the Literacy Tasks List did just that. We were getting some really great discovery and growth. And that’s all a teacher can ask.

 

Adolescent Development in the Classroom

Adolescence is an exciting time, neurologically speaking. Young people go from only being able to think concretely to being able to think in the abstract. This happens around the age of 12. The adolescent brain also develops forward-thinking skills and this process is not complete until the mid-twenties.

Here are five ways to help support this development in your classroom:

1) Tell middle schoolers about how their brains are developing. They can get the idea that they are stupid (and will always be stupid), just because they cannot visualize the concepts you are describing. Let them know abstract thinking appears on its own schedule. At graduation, one of my students said how much of a difference it made to her and I had forgotten I had even told the class about it. I always make a point to do it now.

2) Give lots of puzzles and brain teasers. These are satisfying and give the brain a bit of a work out. Word play jokes and riddles can also work, even if they make your students groan. Anything that makes the brain think around corners and try different possibilities on for size.

3) Have them pose questions instead of quizzing them yourself. This could be in terms of a list of things they want to know or making their own quizzes to stump their classmates. Being able to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter is a major life skill.

4) Give opportunities for skepticism. If they are expected to find out information on the internet, they need to read it with a critical eye. Have activities where you deliberately give them links that are written by charlatans, and get them to work out if they trust the information they are reading and why.

5) Reward students for effort. Give them higher level thinking activities even if they are not quite ready for them. In a physical workout, in order to get stronger you must do something that  is slightly too hard. It’s the same with thinking. Far too hard and students become demotivated, far too easy and they switch off. Slightly too hard is the sweet spot.

This can mean that they cannot do it. That’s the inherent risk in choosing something slightly out of their reach. This is why you reward them for trying. Even if they can do it, reward them for effort so that if next time it is actually too hard, they will still give it their best shot.

 

6 Ways to Foster Positive Attributes in Our Youth!

It becomes increasingly easy for teachers to point out the traits in students that they wish were “different” or “do not want to see” as the year goes on.  Can we just as easily describe the traits or characteristics that we want to experience from our students?  Can we identify what positive attributes we try to foster in our students to help create a safe and supportive learning environment?  And what can we do to help elicit those characteristics from our students?  Lets take a look at our students from head to toe to see which characteristics will help create a positive school culture and how we, as educational professionals, can help create it!

What we can do as educators to help create an environment that helps support positive traits in our students:

  • Embed social/emotional learning into everything we teach.  Concepts such as self-advocating, standing up for others, being passionate, empathy vs. sympathy, cultural diversity/competency, awareness of self and others, sensitivity, intuition, etc. can be embedded and taught in all academic subject areas.  Don’t be afraid to put a lesson on hold for 5 minutes if there is a life lesson that can be learned form an experience in the classroom.  These moments are priceless and can’t always be created for learning.
  • Find ways to teach to ALL learners.  There are many modalities of teaching and it is critical to teach to the different aspects of the brain and to our different learners and abilities.  Consider music, art, dance, writing, speaking, problem-solving, debating,
  • Find strengths in all students and help foster them.  Every student has strengths and every student has weaknesses.  Some make it easier to see strengths than others.  Find a strength in every student you work with.  Make sure that you find ways to recognize or acknowledge this/these strengths.
  • Create an environment that is emotionally and physically safe for learning, wondering, questioning, disagreeing, etc.  Do not allow judgment, making fun, or ridiculing to be an acceptable part of your classroom environment.
  • Create an environment that is culturally competent.  Make it an expectation to respect people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, genders, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Be language neutral.  Don’t make assumptions about your students, those who live in their households, or what abilities they have.  Allow them to reveal themselves to you without judgment.

 

Teach ALL:
Think positive.  Be proactive.  Nurture partnerships.

Whole-Brain Teaching: How to meet ALL students’ needs!

Working with students who come from high-trauma and low-income families and communities adds a different stressor to students, a classroom and teachers. As educators, we can support families by letting them know about resources in their communities. This might include assistance programs, free services for families, and more from public resources like libraries. For students, we can work to make a classroom community where they feel safe to learn. This includes one where students can take space to calm down, get a snack to keep their energy up, talk out their issues, and learn in a quiet, respectful environment. These take time to build, and with each student, which can add an extra responsibility to a teachers’ workload. Without each of these supports, and a child feeling safe, the student cannot take in extra knowledge.

I had a student once come into class, late, and he just was not focusing. He was disrupting the class, being disrespectful to other students, and in general, not being a scholar according to our classroom and school norms. I held him in during recess, and I checked in with him and asked him why he was acting out. He said, “I didn’t sleep because the guys outside were fighting (gangs), then I had to get my sister ready (who is 5), take BART to the city, and take 2 busses to get to school. And I didn’t eat breakfast. So I don’t care about math.” He was 8 years old. And it all made sense.

A child’s brain is stimulated so much by nurture. This doesn’t only mean being held in a loving way by a parent. This means having quality interactions, both emotionally and physically, at home, in school, and in transition. This means knowing that your basic needs for survival are being managed, and that the child is not the sole-provider for those basic needs. Someone once related this to my hand. It’s like looking at your own hand, and making a fist. That fist is your whole brain working. Each finger is a different need that you need to have met before you are able to use your whole brain. If your thumb is out, your whole brain isn’t ready to work. That might be your need for nutrition and safety in being full and not hungry.

As educators, we can work to make sure those basic needs for safety and security are being met, by providing families with food bank information, safe housing options, and nonviolent communication workshops. But in all reality, we don’t have control over their home. We have control over our classroom home, of which we can provide the same basic needs that a student needs to learn, even if only for 6 hours of the day.

The power of words — and keeping it positive :)

Words are some of my favorite things in the world; I spent so much time with them that I had thought we were pretty good friends. I was surprised to find, during college, that I had overlooked a very important group of words – conjunctions. They had been constant companions in my speech and writing, yet I had not realized that they had personalities of their own that were coloring my demeanor and others’ perceptions of me.

I discovered this in my first education class, as my professor was telling us about the importance of choosing our words when we speak to students; in particular, about the powerful and potentially dangerous conjunction “but”. As she spoke and revealed the hidden effects of “but”, I mentally dubbed it the Stingy Conjunction. Whenever we connect two ideas with “but,” we end up overturning the first part in the same breath. Even if we truly meant what we said originally, the “but” steals it back from the person we’re talking to.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was angry.”

“You look fantastic today, but what’s up with your hair?”

“Johnny, I really appreciate the effort you put in today, but you were still talking out of turn.”

The stingy “but” is like a spotlight that focuses only on what follows it. In fact, the purpose of this conjunction is to create contrast and to exclude; and it has slipped undetected into our everyday vocabulary when we weren’t looking.

I learned that I need to choose when to use that “but” very carefully when speaking to students (to everyone in life, actually). When I commend a student, I will not take it back with a “but,” I promised myself that day. Thankfully, my professor offered a solution by re-introducing us to our familiar friend “and,” who I fondly call the Generous Conjunction. Not only does “and” allow everything I say to stand proudly, it also reminds me to continue being positive.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, and I will try not to get so angry in the future.”

“You look fantastic today, and I think you’d look even better if you tied up your hair.”

“I really appreciate the effort you put in today, and tomorrow we can work on listening to your tablemates.”

Life became a little kinder and more cooperative when I became best friends with the Generous Conjunction and distanced myself from the Stingy one. My students walked from our conversations with smiles on their faces instead of furrowed brows, proud of their progress and hopeful for more. I began to use my conjunctions more purposefully, and it impacted the way others and I felt. Just as it is commonly advised to use “I” language instead of “you” language, it’s also important for us to use generous conjunctions and not stingy ones. It turns out that not all conjunctions are created equal.

 

Story time: not just for kindergarteners!

Many middle school students will say that they don’t like to read, but all my students love the first ten to fifteen minutes of our Friday class: story time.

Students come into class, sit wherever they want, and listen to me read a selection from one of my favorite books. Here’s why:

  • It builds community. As people, we love a good story. It’s just part of who we are. But even more, we love to share a good story. It creates a common experience, a common feeling, a common thought. By relating to the characters and sharing that experience with each other, we share with one another who we are.
  • It shows students I love to read. It’s harder than you think to share a different book that you love every week. By reading a portion of a different book every week, I’m able to show students that I’m a reader; I practice what I preach. It’s my hope that this passion is contagious.
  • It demonstrates the power of reading with emotion. I believe that the way we say our words is even more important than the words we say. Hearing words read with emotion changes us. It makes us happy or sad, enthusiastic or apathetic. I want my students to recognize and learn to utilize this power.
  • It gets students excited about reading. After I finish the Friday readings, I put the book on the ledge of my whiteboard for students to check out. I’ll have students rush to my room after school to be the first to get it. Then they whiz through it and pass it on. Story time fosters a community of readers.

Give it a try. Ask students (of any age) to gather around your feet while you read to them. It’ll be one of the quietest times in your classroom the whole week.