What Do Teachers Do?

As I’ve been working with my intern this winter, I’ve realized, once again, just how much teachers have to do/think about/know at any given moment.

1.) When I stand in front of my class, giving direct instruction, I have to constantly monitor the faces and actions of my students.  I need to not only make sure their eyes are open, I also “read” their facial expressions to see if I need to explain something differently.  I also need to make sure they are sitting up, not writing, doing homework, playing video games, etc.

2.) As I stand there, I need to keep an eye on the clock.  Each day, I HAVE to get through certain lessons and assignments.  My curriculum is scripted, which means if I don’t get through today’s lesson, tomorrow’s is impacted, and so on.  This means I need to make sure I’m completing the parts of the lesson on time.  So, I’m constantly checking the time to see how much time I have left (I also need to know if I’m going much faster than usual, which means I better have a back up plan!)

3.) I need to give students enough directions so they can complete whatever task I assign, but don’t give so much that they get bogged down.  I noticed my intern was giving them several questions to discuss at once.  Now, a group of high school or college students might be able to handle that, but 12 year olds cannot.  When we’re discussing the reading they have done, I need to explain what the question is asking, and keep it short.  Too much and they get lost in the words.

4.) I also need to prepare well.  This means, I better know how to pronounce all the words, I better know what they mean, and I definitely need to have read the passage in advance.  In addition, I need to know what the questions are getting at and how they relate to what we discussed yesterday and what we will discuss tomorrow.  This is especially noticeable in interns, since they often don’t believe they need to spend much time preparing.  They think (incorrectly) that because the curriculum is scripted, they can just use the book.  Then they are caught in front of the students, unsure where to go next.

5.) I need to remember which students need to be called on to keep them engaged and which students would be horrified to be called on.  I need to remember which students need to be strategically ignored and which ones I should call out for their behavior.  I need to remember which special ed students will be coming in partway through class and be ready to help them assimilate into the lesson.

6.) I need to keep track of which students I have called on.  It’s easy to call on the same students time after time.  There are always a couple of students who always raise their hands.  If I’m not careful, they’ll dominate the discussion and keep other students from being engaged.

7.) I have to use various strategies for engaging my students.  By changing it up, students are more engaged.  Any time you do the same thing time after time, we all shut down.  It’s important to stay out of the ruts that we can easily fall into.  However, I think humans are genetically programmed to fall into ruts, so it’s tough to fight against that natural inclination.

All of this is going on every time I’m up there teaching.  This is only one part of teaching.  It’s amazing to me, what we have to do, all the time!  Thank goodness a teacher’s brain is up to it!

Connecting with Students

Connecting with StudentsIt’s that time of year when teachers are thinking about how they want their next school year to go.   One thing I really like about teaching is that I get a new start each fall.  Even if it’s students I’ve worked with before (in the after school program, etc), it’s still a fresh year, fresh class, and all of that.  This is when I like to ponder how I am going to connect with my students.

To me, it’s the most important part of my job.  When my students feel like they are a part of a team, with me, instead of against me, my whole year goes more smoothly.  They are more willing to listen, to learn, to try, if they feel a connection to me.

I have a confession to make: I’m VERY lazy.  I like nothing more than to sit on the couch and read a book. watch TV or scroll through Pinterest.com.  Hard work is not my friend.  Therefore, I look for ways to do more with less effort.

Here are the things I do to try to connect with my students the lazy girl’s way:

1) I send a postcard to all of my students the week before school starts.  Our students don’t find out who their teacher is until that time, so I can’t send them earlier in the summer.  It’s just a simple postcard welcoming them to my classroom (or my team if I’m working with a team teacher) and letting them know when Back to School Night is.

2) I greet each student at the door each morning.  I’m expected to be supervising the hallway, anyway, so as students are walking past to go to lockers, or entering my room, I say good morning and try to make some sort of comment unique to them.

3) I pay attention to their interests,  If I can, I try to gear the lessons toward their interests.  I also bring in newspaper clippings about these interests if I come across anything.

4) I suggest books for them when we go to the library.  I try, again, to keep their interests in mind when I make suggestions.  I also talk to them about the books they are checking out.  I ask them to give me their opinion, offer similar titles, that sort of thing.

5) I ask the class to “try out” new ideas that I have.  Whenever I want to try something new, I tell the class that I’d like to try it and I need their feedback.  I always ask them what they think as we work through my new idea and when we finish.  I always preface it with the fact that I may need to overrule them, but I want to hear what they think.

6) If I’m going to do something that might seem like a trick I’m playing on them, I warn them that I’m going to play a trick on them.  It helps them feel better when we get to the “trick” and they trust me the rest of the time.  For instance, sometimes I’ll have them list all the terms they can think of related to a subject (like a football game) and then ask them to write about it without using any of those words.  Giving them a heads up keeps them from being angry at me about the writing assignment.

7) I laugh at myself.  I often tell them stories about silly things I’ve done, mistakes I’ve made, foolish situations I’ve gotten into.  By sharing these stories, they feel better when they run into some sort of embarrassing situation.  They also feel as if they know me, which helps them to connect.

8) I start off the year with a letter to the class.  I write about my interests, my daughters, my life and then ask them to write a letter to me.  It’s always fun to see what they write back to me.

What do you do to connect with your students?

Starting a Book Club

Our after school program has started a parent child book club.  The idea behind the club is to give students an opportunity to read with their parent and help the parents with some reading strategies they can use at home.

For our first book, we chose IFunny by James Patterson.  We decided to go with a humorous book because it draws students in.  This particular novel is geared towards middle school, but interest and reading level.  It’s about a boy in a wheelchair who wants to break into stand up comedy.

Worth reading!

Worth reading!

What’s great about Patterson’s books is that they have lots of things going on.  Not only does he have the comedy routine challenges, the wheelchair challenges and generally being a middle school student (which is always challenging!) but he is living with his aunt and uncle and the biggest bully in school is his cousin.  There are a number of scenes with the bully going after him, but he handles all of it with poise and charm.

For the first meeting, we put together a powerpoint of pictures of scenes from New York City.  Since our students live in a small, rural town in Michigan, they don’t have much experience with big cities.  Our tallest building is the grain elevator at 2 stories.  🙂  By giving them some background on the setting, we made it easier for them to visualize what they were reading.

New York City sites

The second meeting will include some youtube videos of old-time stand up comedians: Groucho Marx, Abbott and Costello, and Victor Borge.  Some of these people are mentioned in the book, so giving them an idea of who they are and what they were like will help them better understand the reading.

In addition to discussing the book and its ideas, we order in a pizza to share.  There’s something about food that makes everyone more comfortable.  It feels more like a party and less like a class.

As we go forward, in our next few meetings, we’ll do some read alouds to demonstrate to parents that kids are never to old to enjoy being read to.  We’ll also try out our own stand up comedy and see how we do.  We’ll finish with a trip to a bookstore to learn strategies to choose a book you would enjoy.

I really believe that a lot of reading is about enjoying the book, so the main focus in our book club has been how to find a book you like to read.  Once a student wants to read, half the battle is over.

Do you hold any sort of book club for your parents/students?  If so, I’d love to know what you read, what you do and how it goes.  We’re just starting, so we’re still figuring things out!

Student Led Conferences

student led conferenceOur sixth grade team has been holding student led conferences in the spring for a number of years.  We spend several weeks preparing.  First, students go over their grade reports, write down their current grade in each class and any missing assignments.  With the computer grading system, they are also able to look at their overall percentages in categories like homework, tests, participation, etc.  This information helps them look honestly at their work habits.

Next, students fill out a self evaluation page.  Statements like “I come to class prepared”, “I turn in my work on time” or “I put time and effort into my work” help students prepare to explain their grades and work habits to their parents.  I have found that students often grade themselves more harshly than I would on many of these categories.

At this point, we talk to them about setting goals.  We ask them to set a goal for the third trimester, along with a plan to reach it, and a goal for 7th grade.  We also have them write down their favorite things about 6th grade, to keep everything on a positive note.  It’s always interesting to see the goals they set.  They take the process very seriously and tailor their goals to their current achievement and hopes for the future.

Once we have the preparations in place, we take them to the computer lab to create a powerpoint.  Since we have a smartboard in the classroom, we’ve found that having them create a powerpoint to use during their conference gives them a boost of confidence, and shows their parents some of the technology they use each day.  We don’t give them much direction at this point, other than to remind them that the slides will serve to help them talk to their parents about how they have been doing in school.

Some students keep their slideshow pretty basic – just the facts.  Others include pictures, transitions, animations and sounds.  We leave all of that up to their individual preference.

Finally, students are given time to practice their presentations.  They work with a partner and go over their slides, practicing what to say.  One thing we have them practice is introducing us to their parents.  This is an important social skill, so we make sure they know how to do it properly, with names included.  In addition, we suggest they ask parents to “hold all questions until the end”.  Giving them that small amount of power really makes them feel good about the process.  Of course, we practice making that request politely.

Over the years, with the advent of smartboards, and the addition of the powerpoint, I’ve noticed a real change in the parents’ reactions.  In the past, with paper notes, parents tended to ask a lot of questions and often got angry with their child as he or she revealed the grades.  However, using the powerpoint, the parents seem so awestruck by what their child is capable, they generally don’t have as many questions.  Whether it’s because the slides answer all the questions, or parents just aren’t used to seeing a smartboard in use, I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure of, having the students prepare and run their own conference is a very worthwhile activity.  I have found it’s very good for them to see what goes into the grades they earn.  It also gives them that necessary practice presenting, and gives them a measure of confidence for the future.  (It’s also a much easier conference night for me, since I don’t have to spend the entire three hours talking non-stop!)

Do you hold student led conferences?  Are they well attended?


The Widening Technology Gap Between Districts?

So, February 6 is Digital Learning Day.  That sounds like a great idea for educators.  However, it raises an important question:  what about the gap between the haves and the have nots?  I have noticed, on various social media sites, that there is a distinct difference between my district’s finances, along with the families’ abilities to fund technology within those districts and other, neighboring districts.

Often, I see suggestions for the newest iPad apps to use in your classroom to support learning.  Our district can’t afford to purchase iPads for the students.  Then, I see suggestions for “if you only have one iPad in your classroom”.  That ignores the fact that many districts don’t have wifi available.

I also hear suggestions for groups of students to use the several computers I have in my classroom to access the internet.  What if there is only one computer – a teacher computer that students are not allowed to use?

Next comes the suggestions to use the computer lab (apparently some buildings have multiple labs for their classes to use).  Our building has one lab for 4 grades to share (400 students using one lab!) and that one had a water main break over Christmas and we’re still waiting for the insurance to help us purchase new computers for it.

Of course, many will tell me that the school district could purchase a laptop cart, iPods for the students to use, the list goes on and on.  While I appreciate the well meaning ideas, our district and our students can’t use them.

Finally, there’s the idea of writing grants.  Unfortunately, most corporate grants are for towns which include a storefront for that business.  What if your town is made up of small hometown businesses without corporate grants?

Here’s what I deal with on a daily basis:

one computer in my classroom – hooked up to a projector and interactive whiteboard.  (The projector is dying and there are no plans to replace it)

my own personal iPad, but no wifi and no plans to put it in the building

A VERY old iPod nano that used to belong to my daughter (10 years or so – the old silver rectangular version – Apple employees were shocked when I brought it in for some work to be done)

An oldish iPod touch – also abandoned by my daughter when she bought her own iPhone

one computer lab, used to teach computer class (not every year, though – it depends on where we need to place teachers and school board members’ whims)

Students whose families can’t afford smartphones and tablets and all the other electronic wonders of the 21st century

households which have no internet access, or only dial up (yes, dial up!)  Here in rural America, not everyone has access to multiple high speed internet providers

My worry is that teachers in these other districts can’t seem to conceive of a school which has such limited technology.  It’s hard for them to believe we could have this sort of limited internet access, when we are only 30 minutes from the state capitol.

When our country has some students working with iPods, iPhones, iPads, laptops, wifi, etc and others who aren’t even able to open a Google page, what will the future bring?  Is it okay for us to continue merrily on our way, leaving a large portion of our students in the dust, assuming they will “catch up” some day?

When will these students catch up?  How will this happen?  How are they to compete for jobs with technology savvy students from other districts?  How are they to succeed in college, in an ever advancing digital society?

What are we doing to these hard working students and families?  Are we dooming them to a life of minimum wage jobs?  Are we creating a new class of people who can never hope to achieve the American dream?

It’s a question worth asking.

Reach for the Stars

Photo courtesy of NASA

Oh my goodness, I just watched the most awesome beginning of the year video!  Will.i.am 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, Will.i.am 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.