Creating a Masterpiece

When a master craftsman works, he takes great care when selecting tools, preparing the work environment, and creating an end product.  Passion is the fuel that drives the craftsman to pursue excellence in their work.  Similarly, the passion for teaching — when coupled with care, preparation, and creativity — can produce masterpieces in the classroom.20680931

If you’re a passionate teacher — one who believes that impacting a young person through school can create lifelong change — you can approach your job with the same mindset as the master craftsman.  Here are a few things to have in mind:

  • Make your classroom into a workshop for learning.  The effectiveness of the setting can often dictate the depth of learning that occurs there.
  • Take care when selecting materials, curriculum or tools– use the best you can afford.
  • Be a master communicator. Prepare your words carefully, rehearse them fully, and assess their impact.  (See my other post about learning environments.)
  • Create wonder and interest in the lesson to move students to the next level. Recognize that it takes a lot to “wow” a kid in today’s world.  They have world-class entertainment at their fingertips at all times via smartphones, laptops, ipads, and other connected devices.  Ask yourself, “If I were a child in my class, what would it take to engage my interest and keep me focused on the content.”
  • Avoid judgment, criticism, and knee-jerk feedback.  The classroom needs to be a safe place for students to take risks, ask questions, and even fail.  Your response to their questions and mistakes can make or break their future.  One offhand remark or callous criticism can shut a student down and affect their attitude about learning for years, even decades.



The First Teacher

The moment children are born they begin learning. Infants immediately start building trust with their parents, relatives, and caregivers. When a baby cries and someone responds — whether it’s for food, a diaper change, or just to be held — they begin to trust that their needs will be met.21019585

As children grow, they are figuring out the way things work; when they coo and make noise, they get your attention and you respond to them.  They get encouragement and praise as they sit up, roll over and begin to walk. Through this relationship the parent/caregiver becomes the first teacher a child has.

An article on references research from the US Department of Education and offers some tips on how to use everyday experiences to begin to establish your role as your child’s first teacher!


Lemon Cool Whip Pie

This recipe is great to take to events, potlucks or just to have at home for summer dinners. It’s super easy, inexpensive and quick! coolwhip

1 Prepared Graham Cracker Crust

1 can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk

1 16 oz tub Cool Whip – thawed

1 can frozen lemonade – thawed

Mix Eagle Brand milk and Cool Whip, add ½ of the can of thawed lemonade. Mix thoroughly and pour in the pie crust. Chill for 2 hours and then serve.

What’s Going On?

Create an Agenda.  I love it when I go to a meeting and there’s an agenda. I like to prepare myself for the topics and/or tasks that will be covered and when there will be a break. The students in your class want to know the same thing.  They may not realize they want an “agenda” but they definitely want a road map for the tasks ahead. agenda1

Weekly.  I’d suggest that you create an ‘overview of the week’ schedule that doesn’t change, posted in an obvious place. It could include things like — which special classes are on what day, lunch/recess times, class meeting times, and restroom breaks. Having this schedule will cut down on some questions like “What time is recess?” or “When is lunch?” A posted schedule also helps a substitute or visitor to your class know what’s happening.

Daily.  For daily activities, post an agenda in the corner of the white board or a place that all students can see it.  Some items can be permanent, but others will change each day.  Write lesson/unit objectives on the board so students know what they will be learning for the day/week. Write them in the form of a question (Essential Questions) so that at the end of the day/lesson you can ask the question and see if your students have met the objective (ticket out the door). agenda2

Your students will appreciate the weekly and daily agenda.  Eventually they’ll come to expect it and quickly let you know if you’ve forgotten it. By incorporating this routine into your week/day you will be helping students develop their own organizational routines and planning habits. It will also keep you organized and on track.

Living in a learning environment

Teachers must live in a learning environment to create a learning environment for their students. As a teacher, you can never stop learning; the rules of the game are constantly changing. Students, information, technology, family structures, the way we communicate,  and the way we measure success are all in flux.

Even if your curriculum does not change from year to year; your students will, and you must too.

  • You need to be able to adapt the strategies you use for each unique group of learners and their needs. Evaluate your teaching methods; find time to reflect on recently taught lessons and review their effectiveness. Grade yourself, not just your students.
  • Technology is always changing. To be able to equip Owl sitting on books.students to learn from and with technology, you must be proficient in your knowledge and usage of the latest in technical gear, software, and web & multimedia standards.  Having an appreciation for social media and your students’ favorite games and apps is important too.
  • Family dynamics change and you must be sensitive when children face challenges at home.  Marital strife, a new baby, job changes, new living arrangements, and illness will impact each child uniquely. Blended families and divorce can also present an intense juggling act for the teacher.  Working to appropriately include both parents of a split family takes effort and sensitivity.
  • Paper and pencil assessments have their place in the classroom, but it’s more vital to teach students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.  A child that can regurgitate facts will ace a trivia quiz, but they will struggle to apply that data to the real world. Promoting inquiry and project-based assessments better prepares students for the long term.
  • Pick the brains of your grade-level colleagues on how they are approaching similar material.  Work together to adapt lessons and improve on each other’s work.  Ask a teacher, friend or trusted parent to give feedback on your teaching materials, unit ideas, and methodology.
  • Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.  Video tape yourself presenting lessons so you (or a third party) can critique it later.  In this age of iPads and smartphones it’s easy to do; there’s no excuse for not seeing yourself in action.  Ask the students themselves for feedback — you can create a simple survey using emoticons (smiley face, bored face, frowny face) about your delivery or the content of your instruction. Or simply ask open-ended questions, encouraging the kids to point out things that might have been confusing or times when you lost their interest.  Most children will be brutally honest when asked, which is what you want.

In every school there is a wealth of information. Learn from each other and find ways to improve and hone your teaching skills.

Here are a few sites to help get the learning juices flowing:


Playgrounds of Knowledge

When kids are asked to choose their favorite time of the school day, the majority say recess.  (A few might say lunch.) This comes from the fact that on the playground, students are totally engaged. They are physically, mentally and socially engaged; their imaginations are firing, their bodies are active, and they are connecting with a circle of friends and competitors of their own choosing.

If we as teachers could bring that enthusiasm and excitement into the classroom, we could transform the learning process and impact students exponentially.  Our goal should be to turn our classrooms into playgrounds of knowledge!

Such a transformation will require innovative thinking and ongoing commitment.  The methods will vary by grade level and curriculum, but here are a few brainstorms to jumpstart your creativity:

Think about how a playground is organized:  equipment is provided for structured individual fun (swings, slides, tunnels, monkeybars); seesaws and merry-go-rounds offer activity for a pair or small group; competitive game areas are typically available (e.g., foursquare, hopskotch, basketball, etc.), and where there’s room, there’s usually some wide open spaces for unstructured activities or large group play. 20216673

Your classroom could be arranged with similar intent.  Just like the playground offers individual, pair, small group, and large group opportunities, the classroom should too. Consider these needs when designing lessons and assessments too.  Give students opportunity to choose their own mode of learning (activity) and a customized output (assessment).  If you only offer one way of interacting with a topic or lesson, it’s unlikely that every child will engage.  Presenting information with creativity & variety from multiple vantage points is the key to reaching the largest number of students.

Play to the variety of learning styles that are represented in your class.  Challenge them to collaborate in unfamiliar or inventive ways.  Consciously put children together who are wired differently, have divergent interests, or come from different backgrounds.   Encouraging children to bring their individuality to group challenges can inspire them to grow in amazing ways.


Example:  You’re presenting a math lesson on perimeter using manipulatives.  At the start of class, place the manipulatives in bins around the room.  Encourage children to pick a random bin and begin exploring.  Each manipulative station could be themed (a sports arena, a space station, a pet store, a Lego lab, or art “studio.”) Kids will gravitate toward the ones that interest them, and they’ll select their own method (individual, pairs, or groups) based on natural preferences. (Watch them closely, you can learn a lot about a student’s personality and learning style in this way.)  A bit later, give them a specific task, but let them choose their own response to the task initially.  As the session progresses, you can begin to “stir the pot” and move kids out of their comfort zone to work in new areas or split up the cliques to challenge kids into new relationships.  Introducing a competition or game element could be a way to engage in the content with practicality and fun.  Divide the class into two teams, possibly having them line up or arrange themselves into specified areas of the room that you’ve taped off or pre-arranged.  Students pass a ruler from teammate to teammate, keeping track of the dimensions.  The first team to calculate the perimeter is the winner.

You could also connect the content to other disciplines (a perimeter can be a border, as a geographical, history, or social studies topic.)

The end result of this approach is that children find meaning in the subject matter, and have a higher level of ownership in the content.  They will stay physically & mentally engaged longer, and tap into dormant areas of their brains.  With time and some luck, one day your kids might say learning is their favorite thing about school.  (A few will still say lunch.)

Fiesta Chip Dip

The following recipe is an ideal “party food” and is quick and easy to prepare.  It travels well and is a big hit at staff get-togethers or potluck events.  Though it’s technically an appetizer, our family sometimes makes a meal out of this warm and hearty dish.  (Serve it with a salad to balance out the meal.)


  • 1 pound of ground beef
  • 1 pound of mild ground sausage (e.g. Jimmy Dean, Bob Evans, Tennessee Pride)
  • 1 can of undiluted nacho cheese soup
  • 1 can of undiluted cheddar cheese soup
  • 1 can of Ro-Tel (optional)
  • 8 ounces of Velveeta Cheese, cubed (This is half of a standard block)
  • Large bag of Tortilla Chips (I prefer to use Tostitos Scoops)


Brown and drain the ground beef and sausage and place in a large crockpot.  Add both cans of soup (and Ro-Tel if you want a spicier flavor) and mix with a spoon.  Add cubes of Velveeta on top of the mixture.  Set crockpot to low and heat for ~30 minutes.  Serve with tortilla chips.

The recipe is quick and simple.  I often mix together the ingredients in advance and then heat up the dip about a half hour before I leave for the event.  It’s better if kept warm, so I often serve it in the crockpot set to low.

The recipe can also be prepared in a baking dish and heated in the oven.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until cheese is bubbly.

“Please come to the office.”

Please come to the office! These five simple words strike fear in the hearts of students and teachers alike. Even as grown-ups, when we hear our name and that phrase over the intercom we instantly fear the worst.  “Did I do something wrong?” is followed by a mental scroll of all the things we could have done to be at cross purposes with our bosses.  We feel the Principal’s office is a place to avoid at all costs, and even an experienced teacher with nothing to hide can feel “less than” when venturing into the office.


“Please come to the office.”


We all have to go there from time to time, but what can administrators do to lessen fear of the office, especially for faculty and support staff?

  1. Beginning with day one of a new year (and consistently thereafter) invite faculty members into the office for informal, positive, and fun conversations.
  2. Arrange the office environment in such a way that it becomes a “common area” where faculty and staff have positive reasons to stop by — maybe there’s a candy bowl, a copier or shredder, supply closet, or if possible, have all of the faculty’s mailboxes strategically placed in or near the office.  You want your team members to visit frequently, and find themselves engaging in casual conversations with administrators and the office staff as much as possible.
  3. Rather than using intercom announcements to request an office visit for tough conversations or discipline, honor your team members’ privacy by sending an email or placing a note in their inbox, so their visit to the office isn’t a public spectacle.

How can we lessen the fear of the office for students?

  1. Be visible in the building and classroom, so students get to know you as a person, and not an intimidating figurehead.  When they see you frequently in the classroom, cafeteria, hallways, or playground, you are building a positive relationship with the students and they are less likely to view you as a stranger when called to the office.
  2. Encourage teachers to send students to the office to share academic accomplishments, milestones, proud moments, artwork or written work, or good deeds.
  3. Be ready to offer small accolades and positive reinforcement when children stop by the office.  A compliment or high five can go a long way to making the office a positive destination.  For special accomplishments, give a simple treat or academic prize when they visit the office.  Stickers, bookmarks, pencils, erasers, and other school supply items are appropriate.  Try not to make a habit of giving candy, toys, or distracting items during an office visit.
  4. Recognize student birthdays by inviting the child to the office on their special day. Consider giving a birthday card, a restaurant or store coupon/gift certificate, or a chance to reach into the “treasure box” for a trinket, game, or puzzle. (This type of program offers a wonderful excuse to build partnerships with local businesses and restaurants who can supply the treasures, gift cards and coupons.)

If you have other suggestions for removing the fear of the office, please comment.


Visitors Welcome

When I was a teacher, I wanted my Principal and Assistant Principal to come to my room frequently; I didn’t want their first glimpse of my teaching to be on observation day! I hoped they could visit often and see my students in action, to monitor and applaud their progress. I was proud of them and wanted others to share in that pride. I also wanted the leadership team to see my approach to teaching:Welcome-Mat.jpg if I coaxed two sentences out of a reluctant reader, I wanted them there to witness the moment and celebrate with the student.

When I became an administrator, I vowed to visit classrooms regularly.  My goal is to see the full spectrum of what’s going on in the class and look for strengths in my teachers, offer suggestions, or share a simple word of encouragement. In addition, I want students to be comfortable with my presence in the room.

Teachers should also be encouraged to invite fellow faculty members into their rooms.  The administrator should take the lead to build this habit into the school’s culture, either by subbing for an hour or two to allow the teacher to observe in another room or by hiring a substitute to clear the decks.  It takes some time and effort to coordinate, but teachers can gain real insight by watching their peers lead a lesson or engage with their students.