Reach for the Stars

Photo courtesy of NASA

Oh my goodness, I just watched the most awesome beginning of the year video! made a video about his song “Reach for the Stars”.  He worked with NASA to beam his song to Mars.  In working with them, he brought in an orchestra and children to record the song.  He also talks quite a bit about the need to work together, study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and be creative.

Curiosity Rover ‏@MarsCuriosity  Humans sent me to Mars. Today I sent some of their creativity back to Earth.

I’m now planning to show this to my students on our first day of school.  Reach for the Stars lyrics


This is the perfect lead in for so many discussions:

Goal setting – the United States set a goal in the 1960’s to put a man on the moon and has continued setting and reaching those goals

Teamwork – rocket scientists have to work with others in order to get their rockets into space, had to work with NASA to get his song beamed up to Mars

The importance of education – imagine if these people hadn’t bothered to learn.  What would we be living without?  (computers, cell phones, gps devices, satellite TV…)

I can’t wait to show this to my class and use it to launch our learning for the year.  How are you starting your year?

Helping Your Class Stay on Task

Here are the Xs on the board, ready for the class

One of the biggest concerns every year for teachers is classroom management.  When you stop to think about it, we are grossly outnumbered by the students.  My fear right before school starts is always, “what if they don’t do what I ask them to do?”  Even though I’ve been teaching 25 years, it’s still something that comes into my mind at this time of year (admit it, you worry about it, too!)

To the rescue is a points system that is simple, quick and effective.  My teammate years ago introduced me to it and I’ve used it ever since.  Without the points, I’m not sure my class would be as easily focused as it has been.  A system, in order to work well, has to be simple, and not take a lot of time.  This system does just that.

First, you start each day with marks on the board for your class.  I use Xs, because it’s quick and easy, but students occasionally like to change them to smiley faces or some other little drawing.  We start each day with 10 Xs for each class.  Throughout the day, as the class is doing something they shouldn’t, you erase an X.  It’s amazing how quickly the class quiets down when they see you headed for the points!

At the end of the day, the points go into a bank and when the total reaches a set amount, the class wins a prize.  When I work with a team, the entire team’s points add up, when I’m self contained, it’s just the single class’s points that are considered.  We try to base the number of points needed on time.  For instance, this year, my class will be earning points for just one class, not a team, so they need to earn 350 points (the amount they could reach in 7 weeks if they didn’t lose any).  If we’re working as a team, we use 1000 points, since classes can earn a total of 40 points a day, each.

The amount of points is just enough to make it a big deal, but still feels attainable to the students.  They love it when they’re getting close – the amount of spontaneous addition going on at that time would make any math teacher proud.  J  By setting the points to be reached about every 6-7 weeks, you don’t lose much class time when the reward happens.

What kind of prizes might be offered?  I’m glad you asked!  We use several standards: pizza party (we have them make their own), movie and popcorn (the teachers love this one, since it’s easy), ice cream social, going to the park, karaoke party, board games.  The choices go into numbered envelopes.  When the class/team reaches their points, one of the students rolls a die and the number on the die is the number envelope that is opened.  The students understand that we will then set the day for the reward, since we need time to prepare.

These envelopes would be loaded with the appropriate reward.

One thing that helps in the management of this is what is put into the envelopes.  Each time they reach their points, we decide, in advance, what the reward will be.  We then put that item in each envelope.  This is a closely guarded secret, so don’t tell anyone!  By doing this, we keep the suspense for the kids, but allow ourselves the ability to plan ahead.  Since middle school students love mystery and suspense, this meets that need.

We’ve used this system for about 15 years.  It has worked with all but the most difficult students (there is always one in a class, isn’t there?).  If you have a student who delights in making the class lose points, simply don’t take points away when that student acts out.  The class understands and it takes away his/her power.

We always explain to the students that because they worked so hard and stayed on task all this time, we’re able to take a little time out for our reward.  In these days of trying to fit 10 pounds of curriculum into a 9 pound box, stopping for a celebration can seem frivolous.  However, it’s those little things that keep all of us on track.


Connecting with Other Educators

One of the best websites I’ve found for teachers is  It’s similar to facebook, but it’s focused on education.  I learned about it from another teacher last year and I’m so glad!  It has given me access to so many ideas, resources and advice.

Besides being able to connect with other teachers, it also allows you to set up classes for your students.  Once they join the group, they can do assignments, take quizzes, post questions and more.  My students absolutely love to use edmodo.  Because I have students without internet access outside of school, I usually limit any required assignments to class time.  However, those students who do have internet access often log into edmodo at other times.  They have posted questions for the group to answer, sent me messages and suggested websites to other students.

As the teacher, you are in charge of the group and can remove students, posts, etc with a click or two.  In addition, you receive an email each time one of your students posts to the site.  This allows me to keep track of what the students are up to, easily.

Parents can also join.  This allows parents to see when assignments are due, and receive notes from the teacher.  If you have a website you’d like them to check out, you can post it right on edmodo and all they have to do is click on it.

Grading assignments on edmodo is also easy.  You can add comments, grade an assignment and the student can then see how they are doing.  It’s nice to be able to easily grade assignments and quizzes for students right on the computer.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the site this summer is the ability to get ideas and advice from other teachers.  Users can upload worksheets, videos and more, sharing with colleagues all over the world.  In addition, there is a library feature which allows you to easily save the things you want to use in the future.  I have found great resources this way.

When I run into a problem that I don’t have an answer to (which is pretty often!), I post a question on the site.  Other teachers respond and give me great advice.  Once, I couldn’t figure out how best to help some students with when to break a story into paragraphs.  I posted the question on edmodo and immediately got not only advice, but premade worksheets to use!  It was awesome!

Over the years, I’ve marveled at the ability of the internet to make our jobs easier.  This website does just that.  It’s a great place to go to avoid reinventing the wheel.  Generally, there is a teacher out there who has already done exactly what you’re struggling with.

Check it out – you won’t be sorry!

Are Parents Clients in a School?

Ever gotten one of these?

How do you handle the parents in your school?  Are they partners in the education of their children?  Are they frustrating interruptions in your day?  Are they helpful volunteers who make your job easier?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we view parents.  This summer, my daughter began ushering for a theater during Broadway shows.  As an usher, her job is to help the patrons enjoy their experience.  Anything that can be done (reasonably)  to enhance that experience is part of her job description.  My husband works as a stage manager in the same theater.  He works with the Broadway shows that come through town to use the theater.  He also is responsible for making sure the client is happy with their experience.

I think we need to start viewing parents (and students) as our clients or patrons.  While we can’t always please them, we need to work to make their experience an enjoyable one.  The more you enjoy an experience, the more likely you are to return.  Think about times you’ve had excellent customer service.  It leaves you happier and more willing to continue patronizing that business.

This summer, my daughter ordered an item online from a popular designer.  When it arrived, the inside of the cardboard box was lined with purple, and the item was wrapped in tissue paper.  In addition, there was a small card with a brief note thanking her for ordering.  She was thrilled.  As I listened to her extol the virtues of this company, I thought about what small things make us happy.  She would have been happy with her order, without the extras.  Those little extras simply raised her enjoyment of the experience.

While we don’t need to line cardboard boxes with purple (although anything we can do to decorate our buildings would help), we should think about little things we can do to enhance the experience.  A short note to parents letting them know their child did something positive that day, a quick phone call, even a smile in the hall can go a long way toward helping parents and students view the school positively.

Too often, I think teachers see parents as a problem, instead of a valued client.  Rather than being irritated with a parent who asks questions about his or her child’s learning, be excited.  An involved parent has been shown to increase student achievement.  Give parents a vehicle for communication and make it easy for them to use it.  Look for ways to make everyone smile during the day.  By making the experience enjoyable, we set students up for better learning.  Happy students are more likely to listen to what we have to say.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Should we view parents as clients?  I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know that good customer service makes for happy customers.  And happy customers give good reviews.  What do you think?

Humor is a Great Way to Build Interest


Ever have one of those days?

One thing I’ve often found in my classroom is that a well placed joke can pique even the most disinterested student’s attention.  I’ve found making a (typically bad) joke during instructional time can keep students listening.  In fact, I’ve been working on powerpoints for my new Reading Street materials this summer and I’ve inserted silly pictures or jokes into each day’s presentation.  I find most of these on, but is also a good source.

What’s great about these jokes is that it helps the class see you as more of a regular person.  When we laugh together, we bond, which makes them more likely to want to learn what you have to teach.  It also relieves stress, which we all know is in plentiful supply in a middle school!

Gotta love a pun!

As the students spend their days worrying about whether they fit in, it’s nice to take a break from the worry and relax for a minute.  I’ve also had students come to me with jokes between classes because they know I like silly, corny jokes.

Today, I found a wonderful video, made by people at Mission Control about the Mars Curiosity Rover:  Take a look – it’s fun to watch and helps make a point with your students that being silly can blow off steam and helps anyone do a better job.  If NASA can laugh at itself, certainly an eleven year old can.

Do you use humor in your class?  What have you found to be the best way to engage your students?

Kids will totally love this one!

Absent? Lost an Assignment? Look Here!

In my classroom, I keep folders for all of the extra worksheets, permission slips, letters and other paperwork that is handed out.  They are in a holder at the back of the room (near the turn in basket).  Each folder is a different color and labeled with a day of the week.

When I have handed out a new paper, I put any extras in the folder for that day.  This keeps all of the papers somewhat organized, and allows students to access what they need.  In the past, I tried to put papers for absent students, with their name on it, in a spot to hand back when they returned.  However, I would inevitably get busy, forget to do that, and some poor student would miss an assignment.

By keeping the extras in a folder, the students know just where to look when they return from being absent.  Missed school on a Tuesday?  Check the Tuesday folder.  Missed Wednesday through Friday?  Check all three.  This is also handy when a parent requests homework for absent students – I simply pull from the appropriate folders and all of the assignments are ready to go.

This puts the responsibility on the student, instead of on me.  It’s very easy for them to keep track of what they have missed, and they can each get what they need.  Since students are absent on varying days, for varying lengths of time, this keeps me from having to remember each absence.

In addition to helping absent students, it also helps those students who lose a paper.  I usually run 5-6 extra copies, which allows them to get an extra paper without involving me.  This eliminates excuses for not having the correct assignment.

Each day, when I put fresh papers in the folder, I remove the past week’s papers.  (On Monday, when I place papers in the folder, I remove the old Monday papers).  I used to empty the folders on Friday (since our deadline for all work is Friday), but this became an issue when a student was absent at the end of the week.  By leaving the papers in the folders for a week, it assures that students have plenty of time to retrieve what they need.

These folders save me large amounts of stress!

This system makes it very easy for everyone in the classroom (including special ed teachers who team with me).  Even other teachers are able to stop in and find the papers needed – for instance, if a parent stops for work and I’m not available.  It’s also useful during the Undone Club, since students can get a copy of missing work and complete it.  Any time I can remove students’ excuses, it’s a good day!

The white wire baskets are where the students turn in their work.

Youtube for the Classroom

I often use in my classroom.  Being able to use a short video clip to demonstrate a concept or idea helps students better understand what I’m teaching them.  I’ve found that by searching the site with a keyword, I can find lots of different videos to choose from.

The drawback to is that it can include inappropriate comments or ads.  In addition, the suggestions are occasionally not something you want your students looking at.  To the rescue is “A Cleaner Internet”.  This site takes all of that extra stuff off of the youtube  page and allows you to simply show the video you wanted.

Using this site, you can still search for the videos you’d like.  In fact, I generally insert the link into a powerpoint that I’m using, allowing me to simply click on the link during the lecture.  (More on powerpoints later).  By seamlessly integrating the youtube site into your powerpoint, you can save valuable time in class.  In addition, students who access your powerpoint from home can still look at the video, if they have internet access.

Simply go to for the extension.  It’s super simple to install and from that point on, you simply type into your browser and it takes you to the clean version.  This was one of the best tools I’ve found for the classroom presentation!