Friday, September 16, 2011

Making School Magic

     Remember at some point when you were a child when you became old enough to figure out that magic was fake?  It was almost depressing when we realized that the magician on stage was really using slight of hand and props to deceive us.  Even after we thought we had it all figured out, there would be times when a great magician could do something that we couldn’t explain.  It made us think that maybe there is such a thing as magic!
     In my classroom I try and add some wonder to the monotony of each day.  This can be as simple as pulling something fascinating out of a cabinet or as complex as planting something in the room to make it suddenly appear at the right moment.  The element of surprise has a great way of keeping students attention. 
     I also enjoy using props to keep the students engaged. For example, when I’m having my groups share out I will hold a sticky note above the heads of the students and say, “Sticky, who do you want to share?”  I then drop the sticky and the students watch as it flutters haphazardly down to the table.  I then say, “You are the chosen one.”  “Sticky has chosen you.”   As silly as this exchange may be, my students beg for more group work just so they can be chosen by the almighty sticky.  It’s like magic. 
     We all enjoy a little magic in our lives.  As adults it may take the form of a new baby, a fancy appliance that works miracles, or a place where we can recapture the wonder of our youth.  Without these moments of magic our lives can end up rather stale.  So let the show begin.

(In the comments below, please tell me how you add some magic to your student’s daily grind.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Victory for a Girl Named Hope

There is a girl in my class that I’ll call Hope that is a very sweet girl.  She is the kind that sits at the carpet and looks like she is paying close attention to the lesson and so at times I call upon her to have her share an answer with the class.   It is at this time that I discover that even though she is listening, the words are just bouncing around in her head.  So I wrap up the lesson and spend some more time talking with Hope and a few others to make sure that they understood what we were talking about.   I know that with low performing students, like Hope, that they can struggle to hold onto even the most basic of concepts. 
                Hours of tutoring, teaching, and conferencing have helped to give Hope a tenuous grasp of the basic concepts.  The blank stare that I used to see is slowly being replaced by bits and pieces of understanding.  Today my day was made when I had my students turn and explain a math concept to each other and I listened in on the conversation of Hope and her partner.  It seemed like she would be stymied again, but slowly she pulled from her mind the proper things to say and was able to explain today’s concept to her peer.  I made sure that I praised her for her excellent explanation and made sure to write a note in her agenda.  A broad smile remained on her face for the rest of the day. 
                The greatest joy in teaching is when we see one of our students who has not been blessed with much, gain understanding, because of our help.  To think that even though this one lesson is but a fragment of the learning that our students will need to be successful, the concepts we teach them are  more than the they had when they entered our classroom.  We have had the opportunity to improve a life forever.   So today I celebrate the little victory that meant the world to a girl named Hope. 

(In the comments below, please tell me of a little victory you had this week)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting It All Done

     If your day is anything like mine, then you arrive at school and begin completing hundreds of tasks.   I usually start my morning rounds by heading to my mailbox where I get a few items to pass out, some specific notes I’ll have to remember to deal with, a tardy notice to correct, and an administrative request.  I then walk down the hall and have conversations with a guidance counselor or peer who says hi and try to keep the information from our conversation in my mind.  I then enter the classroom sit down to check my email and find a parent email requesting information, twenty emails from my district and office personnel reminding me of upcoming events.  Finally, I gather up my copy requests, things to turn in and make a trip around passing stuff out as you power walk to be back by the time the students arrive. 
     Teaching is one of the few jobs where you are then locked into a room for several hours unable to take your eyes or concentration off your kids.  All the while parents, administrators, and other personnel are working hard to give you additional items to work on once you are released from your real job of teaching students.  So as the school day ends a teacher has to either race to get everything done before they leave or they simply give up and stay as long as it takes to get it all done. 
    A few years ago I was introduced to the OHIO principle. (Only Handle it Once)  Once I learned this I started placing my calendar by my computer.  As soon as I got an assignment that was due later I would write it down instead of just hoping I would remember.  For emails and administrative requests I would try and take care of it the first time I got the message.  The good part about this way of work is that I very rarely needed to worry about remembering to accomplish something.  It would already be done. 
     Until the legislature deems that each teacher should be provided with a personal secretary we all have to find systems that enable us to accomplish hundreds of tasks throughout the day.  Even with volunteers, Teacher Assistants, or simple organizational principles teachers accomplish incredible amounts of work each day.

(In the comments below, please tell me some of your systems for getting it all done.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Celebrate the Little Things

     In my classroom I have a chart that displays the student’s basic fact knowledge.  These facts are probably one of the most boring things to learn in school, but extremely important to being successful in 5th grade math.  If I simply said, “Learn these facts,” then most of the students who didn’t have photographic memories would not learn them ever.  
    After four previous years of teachers asking my students to learn their facts, I find myself having to foster in them a desire to accomplish this mundane task.  To this end, I posted a poster on the board to put my student’s progress toward their goal. We call them Math Fact Masters and you would think there wasn’t a cooler accomplishment in the world.  As each student passes a level we congratulate them in the front of the room.  As students complete all four levels they become famous for a day; sitting in the teachers cushy chair and getting a nice note in their agenda.    All the attention makes the students beg to practice their facts.
     As teachers we become the greatest motivator in our student’s lives.  The students look to us to teach them what they don’t already know and to encourage them to learn more.  As we celebrate our student’s successes we are showing them that even the most boring things in life can have great rewards.       

(In the comments below, please tell me how you make your students feel special)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When Home is Not Helping

      I have a girl in my class with a sweet smile and a great deal of spirit.  She comes in most days cheerful, but as the year has progressed she has lost some of her chipper spirit.  Her grades have slipped and she is not focusing in class.  After handing back papers I took a moment to talk with her about her low test score.  I asked her how she had studied and if her mother had reviewed any of the material with her.  She looked at me and said, “My mom doesn’t have much time to help me, because she spends all her time yelling at my dad.  They are getting a divorce.” 
      Everyone has experienced or knows someone who has had a family that has been torn apart.   Kids naturally look to their parents to provide them with help and security.  When this family environment blows apart children experience stresses that can consume their emotional and mental strength. 
     As teachers we cannot fix the home environments that our students are coming from, but we can make an effort to understand our students.  As we understand what is going on at home, we can better understand why the students are acting the way they are at school.  Once we have this knowledge we can begin to develop support to meet the needs of our struggling students. 
   For the little girl in my class I know that I have to work hard to maintain her attention and I might have to recue her at times.  I’m going to provide extra tutoring opportunities since she will not be getting help at home.  It also brings home to me how important our classroom culture is.  I have to create a caring environment where my students feel safe.  I can’t change the hurt my students experience at home, but for 7 hours a day I can provide my students with attention, encouragement, and the skills they will need to be successful.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Extreme Complainers

      If there were an Olympic event for griping then I think the top awards could easily be won by   teachers.  After being verbally abused, underpaid, and looked down upon for working with kids, teachers have an easy excuse to be champion complainers.  We certainly have a great deal to complain about with all the nonsense we face each day, but at some point it gets to be enough. 
       I went to a school get-together Friday night so that I could get to know some of my fellow staff members better.  I got to see how talented a third grade teacher was who had built an addition on his house all by himself.  Another first grade teacher I talked to had traveled the world teaching with her Army husband.  As I moved from group to group I sat down with a crowd who were delving into students, parent, and other teaching related issues they had faced at school.  The names and topics were flying around and after a week of teaching, I just didn’t want to start my weekend with more talk about school.  So I graciously listened for a while and then made my way to the exit to go start my weekend away from education.
     Gripe sessions allow us to get troublesome issues out in the open.  Complaining enables us to find comfort that others are suffering in the same way we are.  We can even find humor in some of the ridiculous situations that we find ourselves in.  However, it can also be counterproductive when we spend so much time complaining about the problems that we become unable to see solutions to our issues.  Gossip can fly around so fast that we can sometimes have it fly back in your face by the time we have made a trip down the hall.     Complaining also leaves us unsatisfied, because after we have vented we really haven’t changed any of the issues that got our ire up in the first place. 
   We all need someone to confide in to help us carry our burdens.  Yet, when we think of our conversations throughout the day, would we say that we spend more time in productive conversation or in unproductive complaining?  From what I have seen, the most successful teachers have this balance right.

(In the comments below, let me know what you do when you are around Olympic complainers.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Help Me to Learn So I Can Improve

      I’m amazed at how much we celebrate fake in our society.   On television we see many characters that have no ability, but work to convince the public otherwise.  My daughters have come to accept that musicians on the radio are auto tuned so that whether they can sing or not the computer just fixes it.   We touch up our photos to make us more of what we are not.  People lie to get jobs stretching their resumes; the list could go on and on. 
    In my classroom I am always amazed how everyone knows everything until it is time for a test.  It makes our job harder to divine out the truth when children think they already know everything.  So we  have to constantly assess after our lessons to make sure the students  have learned what we intended for them to learn.  Even more important than our efforts to police our students is our constant effort to get kids to honestly assess their ability and become self-motivated to learn what they don’t know. 
     Today I had a student come to me before the end of school and said, “Mr. Smith, I don’t understand the math you taught me today. “  So while the other students were packing up for the end of the day I sat down and reviewed the lesson again.  She started to figure out where her misunderstandings were and I was able to get her on her way as the other students began to file out of the room.  I’ll make a point of praising her to her parents and in front of the class.  She is a student who is going to succeed because she realizes that to improve we must admit our weaknesses and make an effort to improve those areas. 
     What areas of our lives are we pretending to have mastery when we have so much more to learn?  What are we doing to improve in our weak areas?  Are we willing to ask for help?  These are all questions that we need to foster in our students.  It also doesn’t hurt to practice what we are teaching our students as well.

(In the comments below, please tell me what you do to motivate students to evaluate their abilities?)