Hidden Gems of ClassDojo — The SUPER-Dojo!

This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting some of the hidden gems of ClassDojo that you may not have heard of.

Sometimes the brilliant behaviour that your students exhibit deserves something more than the 1-point-ping from ClassDojo. Sometimes the student is so good, you end up pressing that reward button several times. Sometimes you want to make a behaviour just a little bit more special and sometimes a 1 point reward just isn’t enough.

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Everyone wins when we are kind to substitutes! :)

I substituted for a year after I graduated from my teaching program, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. I was working in a district with 28 schools (my home district has 6) sprawled throughout eight cities. Everything was unpredictable. Most of the time, I had no idea where the school was, unless I had been there enough times to remember the side gate into the parking lot where I was not allowed to park. Sometimes, I got called to sub for the morning, then requested for an afternoon job at a school an hour away that started 45 minutes after the morning class ended, leaving me negative 15 minutes for lunch.

A sub’s life is frantic, so I implore teachers out there to be kind to subs, which basically means: Please leave instructions. Please. Subs want to be helpful (and sane). Having been in many classrooms where the kids had to teach me how to teach them, or I had to come up with my own lessons based on what the kids told me they were learning – here is, from a sub’s experience, how a teacher can get the most out of a substitute’s day’s work while keeping the sub sane:

1. Simplify. If there is something important or complex you were planning to teach on that day and you need to be out, don’t have us teach it, because the sub will not know what you want, and the kids will not get what you want out of it. There’s always the chance that you may get a fantastic master teacher who has taught this very lesson for 30 years (it could happen), but most likely not. Unless it’s absolutely necessary that the big lesson happens on that day, save it for when you can share it with the kids.

2. Bullet point. It’s much, much easier for a sub to read the lesson plan while teaching when it’s formatted vertically, versus giant paragraphs resembling a dissertation. We can easily check off what we’ve done and spot the next step.

3. Host. Have a conversation with the students the day before about expectations, being welcoming to a new person, and also appoint a few students who have shown responsibility during the week to be the sub’s helpers. This is also a good opportunity for students to try to earn this privilege, and it minimizes kids influencing each other to take advantage of the sub because there will always point people.

4. Routines. Tell the sub what the class’s routines and customs are, such as clapping 3 times to get their attention, or that everyone’s books need to be open to the right page before starting. This reduces chaos and gives the sub more authority in front of the kids.

5. Feedback. Leave a note at the end of the instructions asking the sub to write a few sentences of feedback about the day. I always did when I subbed anyway, pointing out the kids who showed exceptional effort and respect, and anything special that happened in the day. This way, you also get the sub’s name and can request him or her again if you feel it was a successful day. Good subs who know your class are hard to come by!

“Act like you own the place!” Tips for presenters :)

A few weeks ago someone came up to me and told me how he just accepted his first speaking gig. He was a bit overwhelmed by it all, and knowing I do a lot of presenting, asked me for a few tips. I gave him a few and have since been thinking about things I’ve learned in my first couple years of presenting at conferences.

1. Invest in a remote and a quality dongle. The only thing more frustrating than being in a conference session with someone who doesn’t have proper equipment, is being the presenter without the proper equipment. Most rooms come set up with a VGA cable, but most non-Windows computers will need a dongle adapter. Don’t pinch pennies here and buy the cheapest one. I speak from experience when I say it’s embarrassing when they stop working in the middle of a session. I also recommend a presenter remote so that you’re not bound to your computer. They’re relatively inexpensive and add a lot of fluidity to your presentation.

2. Act like you own the place! One of the many lessons my dad has taught me is to “act like you own the place, and no one will say anything.” When I present I have to believe in my ability and my authority. When I believe in it, everyone else does too. Because, as Taylor Mali reminds us, “it’s not enough to question authority; you must speak with it too.”

3. Use less words and more pictures. Resources like Haiku Deck make it easy for people to create beautiful presentations. Although it’s important to speak compelling things, it’s ineffective to put these long, beautiful sentences on a slide deck. Stick to photos that illustrate the power of what you’re speaking.

4. Manage your time wisely. Plan out how much time you’ll spend on each point. When you’re just starting out, practice your presentation. It’s always frustrating for conference attendees (who have paid for the conference) to attend sessions that are way over or under the allotted time or are filled with unnecessary information.

5. Don’t rely on the internet. I have yet to be to a tech conference where the internet works perfectly all the time. Be prepared to give your presentation without internet. Download your presentation and any necessary videos. Present like it’s 1995.

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.

 

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.

Flipping Out: Have you tried flipping your classroom?

For the past few weeks, Mr. Burnaugh’s students have been experimenting with simulated parallel and A/C circuits, chatting with him and each other, answering poll questions, and uploading graphic organizers on their LMS (Learning Management System)—all online and before they even enter the classroom. When they meet with him IRL (In Real Life), they have an opportunity to really dive into Ohm’s law and the algebraic recipe for calculating current. In their labs, they use a resistor, a battery pack, an ammeter, and a voltmeter to explore how this equation applies to real life.  They have the opportunity to ask Mr. Burnaugh questions, receive 1:1 and small group help, and connect with peers. When they go home, they can review what they learned in class by accessing teacher notes, re-watching a recorded lecture, downloading a helpful video on TeacherTube or Khan Academy, and completing practice equations. Following classroom learning sessions, they return to the LMS and review, practice, and process what they did in class. A drone delivers college acceptance letters and scholarship offers.

Okay, maybe there’s no drone, but flipped instruction is not science fiction—schools all across the country and world are making this model work for students.

What can flipped instruction do for me?

One of the most heavily touted benefits of the flipped classroom is the efficient use of in-class time. Students view pre-recorded lectures that are either given by the teachers or another expert in the field through Ted talks or Khan Academy for example, or any number of educational podcasts. This cuts out 15-20 minutes of class time otherwise designated to direct instruction/lecture. After listening to online talks, students complete a simple assessment exercise. Using assessment results, teachers can craft the next day’s lesson or project to target all levels of competency. (This last piece is key. Khan Academy cannot to do all the teaching. Effective instruction is presented in multiple formats and from a variety of angles. “See, Hear, Do” still applies.)

Another benefit of the flipped model is the ability to differentiate.  Students who require more time to process and practice can move through pre-lessons at a pace that suits them; they can review and access additional resources for extra help. They can receive assistance from peers both online and in person. Depending on how the teacher sets up live chat sessions, they may even get more one-on-one time with instructors. Students who want to move at a faster clip can complete several pre-learning modules in one session, access and complete extra credit assignments on the LMS, and delve deeper into topics of interest in “Parking Lot”-style chat rooms. Students could even create their own pre-recorded lectures or screencasts to post to the LMS for other students to learn from. (Here is a good example of a screencast from a 4th grade student.)

One last benefit that’s worth mentioning is allowing students to transcend their own biases. Not all teachers are good at delivering dynamic, interesting lectures. Even if you are, not everyone will enjoy or connect with your dry wit, interesting trivia, and wealth of knowledge on a given topic. These are the risks teachers take on a daily basis when they stand up in front of a class. But if we know that Ken Robinson or Neil deGrasse Tyson say it best, then by all means, please let them deliver.

What are the drawbacks?

One of the most obvious drawbacks to flipped instruction is lack of access.  In low-income schools and communities, it’s still a harsh reality that many students don’t have regular and reliable internet access. Smart phones can help level the playing field, but some LMS systems aren’t compatible with all smart phones. Students may be able to view lecture modules, but often encounter obstacles when it comes to interacting with assessment tools.

Another pitfall is the issue of time. Since one-room schoolhouses, teachers have never had enough time to plan lessons, grade papers, attend meetings, and stay ahead of the curb on research; flipped lessons require an extensive and intensive block of time to develop and curate in an attractive and organized manner. In addition, flipped instructors have to manage after-school hours. The ideal is for students to have instant feedback, but as always, educators have to figure out how much of their personal time they are willing to give up.

One final item to consider when weighing in on flipped instruction is the issue of homework, or pre-learning in this case. Interactive videos and podcasts are meant to be more engaging and interesting—certainly more interesting than a worksheet; however, just because homework is delivered to student computers or iPads, doesn’t mean that they will do it. As is the case with any meaningful homework assignment, if students don’t take responsibility for completion, they will come into class the next day with little to contribute and far less understanding than their peers.  Nothing new here.

As technology becomes more accessible and widely utilized, we’ll most likely make the full fledged shift to a blended model of technology-based pre- and post-learning outside of the classroom, coupled with hands-on PBL inside of it.  Now is the time to experiment, play, and try this out. And don’t forget to let your students help you!