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.

Time to mix it up: cross-collaborate with shared classes!

As a science teacher, I am always trying to find ways to cross-collaborate with other teachers  to make my curriculum more meaningful. During my physiology unit I tend to pair up with the P.E. teacher for a project. During physics I team up with the math teacher. Cross-collaboration allows students to see connections between subjects, making content richer and more relevant to their lives. However, it can be difficult to assess cross-collaborative projects when you don’t necessarily see how students are making use of their time in the other classes. The solution? ClassDojo Shared Classes!

Sharing classes on ClassDojo is very simple. On your home screen you will see each of your classes. In the top corner of each class you will want to click on a small triangle, which will open up a drop-down menu. Click “Share!” You’ve got it from there. Shared Classes allows multiple teachers to have access to one class, both contributing points to students and messaging with parents. You might implement shared classes year-round or if you are more hesitant, a cross-collaboration project is a great way to try it out for a shorter period of time.

When starting a project I like to make sure all points have been cleared, then I share the class with collaborating teacher. Customize feedback points depending on the type of project. I tend to give students points every day for “productivity” and “teamwork”, which are a certain percentage of their final project grade. Once the project comes to an end, points given in-class can be used as part of students’ final assessment. Sharing classes holds students accountable for their behavior and work ethic in all classes involved. Cross-collaborative projects are the perfect opportunity to take Shared Classes for a spin, and hopefully will lead to better teaching and learning!

Happy sharing! 🙂

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.

 

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.

 

On the Right Track: A student engagement strategy!

A classroom where every student is hanging on your every word? Absolutely. Focused and learning every second? Without question. Even during whole group instruction? One hundred percent! Interested in what this level of student engagement looks and sounds like? Read on.

Students must be actively engaged for authentic learning to take place, and in a classroom where students track the teacher and each other, the level of student engagement is exceptionally high. What does tracking entail? Let’s explore.

Have you ever seen a primary student read using his or her finger to point at each word as it is read? We teach them to do that at a very young age – it’s called tracking. Tracking the teacher and one another in the classroom is much the same, except fingers are not pointed, eyes are following. Tracking others with our eyes and even our bodies shows focus, engagement, and respect for the speaker.

How do we track? When someone else is speaking, look at that person. Follow him or her with your eyes and your body. If he or she is walking across the room while speaking to you, turn your body to continue tracking him or her. Even lean in toward the speaker to show that you are paying attention and completely engaged.

Who should be tracked? Everyone in your classroom who speaks. Most importantly, students should be tracking the teacher. Any student, faculty member, or visitor in the classroom should also be tracked by teachers and students.

Who should be tracking? Everyone! Each person in your classroom should be tracking others when they speak. Teachers are most importantly the tracking role model! Students will take their cues from your tracking behavior, teachers, so track well if you expect your students to track others. Multi-tasking teachers, this means you! It is ok to multi-task and track at the same time, just make sure whatever you are doing with your hands can be done without looking if someone else is talking.

When should we track? All of the time! Students should be tracking the teacher from the first moment his or her mouth is opened. Students also need to be tracking each other when someone is speaking, whether it is their collaborative pair partner, a group member, or another student across the room during whole group instruction.

Why should we track? Tracking shows that we are aware of and focused on what is happening in the room. It demonstrates that we are listening and attentive to the speaker, and that we have respect for him or her. We track because it is an effective classroom technique that promotes and increases student engagement. We track because this level of focus and engagement inspires academic excellence.

Reward students for tracking appropriately. Give them candy, stickers, positive or reward points in your behavior management system. Rewarding students as a class encourages them to lead and prompt others in tracking, thus building community within your classroom environment.

Tracking is an excellent way for educators to increase student engagement and create a climate and culture that optimizes learning for all. Your students can be effortlessly engaged in instruction at all times when participating in this novel strategy. This ultimately leads to students who not only love coming to school and to your class, but also who are more successful, and perform better on multiple forms of assessments. What more could you ask for from a strategy that requires such little effort?

The Power of Second Chances

I, like most teachers, have really high expectations for my students. I also work with middle schoolers, and I know the first half of this sentence has a large portion of you thinking to yourself that I’m a brave soul. But I love them, and I know that they’re capable of great things. In fact, I believe that middle schoolers are the most underestimated people in our population. But I’ve only come to realize that as I’ve learned to give my students the power of second chances.

I really see this power come into play on large essays and projects. Students spend a lot of time pouring their hearts and minds into them, and I do my best to give them input along the way. Tools like Google Apps for Education are making this easier every day. But there are also many times when I’m unable to see their progress every day.

Because of their hard work, their projects turn out great. I enjoy looking at them, and they often prompt me to see a small sliver of the world in a new light. However, when I sit down to give them a summative assessment, I also find a few things I haven’t given comments on along the way. I see a few small things my students could tweak to take their project to the next level (or two or three), and these make up the final grade and comments I leave my students.

But I’d like to argue that it shouldn’t stop there. I’ve begun allowing my students to take that summative feedback and apply it once more to their project, just to see what might happen. Yeah, they can earn a few points back, but more than anything, I want them to see what just a little bit more time and just a little bit more feedback can do their work.

And they do. I’m sitting here smiling as I think of all the projects that really finalized in the stage after they’d received their grade. These are the ones that truly rocked my world. These are the ones that I’ll remember no matter how old I get. These are the ones I share when I present at conferences. But more importantly, these are the ones of which students are most proud. These are the ones that email to their grandparents or post on Facebook. These are the ones that make their faces light up. And that pride in their work, that makes it all worth it.

 

 

Connecting to Teens: Develop Your Teacher Persona :)

Teenagers are among the most interesting people on Earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession.

  • They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
  • They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
  • They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
  • Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.

How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging – for teaching – but not being sucked into the chaos and instability?

Create a persona.

Practice it.

Rely on it.

Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.

  • A persona is not “being fake.”
  • A persona is not “inauthentic.”
  • A persona is not a “mask.”

On the other hand, a persona is:

  • Your best self.
  • A professional identity that can defer your own needs – and focus on children’s needs.
  • Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.

Is this possible?

It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.

If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.

On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.

Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.

Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.

Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.

Your persona is your voicebox. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”

When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.

Persona Dos and Don’ts:

Do:

  • Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!
  • Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
  • Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.

Don’t:

  • Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
  • Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
  • Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.

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.