Easy Quesadillas

This easy quesadilla dinner is quick and simple.  Perfect to throw together after a busy day at school.  Your own kids can enjoy pitching in to prepare the meal.  (Serves 3-4 people)

Ingredients:477850958_02eff4bd8f

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • Fajita seasoning
  • Mexican cheese
  • Tortillas
  • Spinach leaves
  • Onion, sliced
  • Peppers, optional
  • Butter, melted
  • Salsa
  • Sour cream
  • Whole kernel corn (or corn salsa) optional

Sprinkle chicken breasts with fajita seasoning and brown in saucepan (or on a George Foreman grill) until no longer pink inside. Cut into thinly sliced strips and set aside.

Saute sliced onions in olive oil until browned.

Heat up a pancake griddle or skillet to 350 degrees.

Brush one side of a tortilla with butter and place butter side down on the hot griddle. Add a ring of cheese around the outer edge of the tortilla. Place chicken strips on tortilla along with spinach leaves, onion, corn and peppers. Sprinkle additional cheese on top.

Brush butter on one side of another tortilla and place butter side up on top of the one on the griddle. Press the edges to seal with melted cheese. Once the edges start to turn brown, flip the tortilla carefully, so as to not spill the contents. Continue to cook for about a minute until the other side is brown.

Remove from griddle to a cutting board and cut into triangles with a pizza cutter. Serve with sour cream and salsa.  Mexican rice or corn make a good accompaniment for the meal.

 

Encouraging leadership in your students

Encouraging leadership in students promotes a variety of qualities:

    1. Self confidence: By doing a job well students gain self confidence. They are able to assist others and make a contribution to the smooth running of the classroom. Once the classroom routine is up and running, you can spotlight a student of the week and/or leader of the month. By giving students jobs that they are capable of doing and doing well they gain confidence. Having their peers see them succeed promotes positive relationships as well. the-very-best-of-the-success-kid-meme
    2. Good decision making: Help students make a habit of weighing decisions and assessing pros and cons. When there’s conflict in the classroom, students should discuss options and outcomes. Role play various scenarios so that students know what is expected and have a framework for how to go about making the best choices. 
    3. Teamwork: In leadership roles students will learn to work cooperatively and appreciate others for their skills. Engage students in activities that highlight the strengths of individual students. Complete activities to show how we are the same/different. Pair students intentionally considering their strengths or interests, e.g. have a writer work with an artist to complete an assignment. 
    4. Organization:  Encourage students to voice their opinions about ways to organize things in the classroom. Have them discuss desk arrangement and talk through benefits and possible issues that might come up.  Hold students accountable to policing their own area. One idea is to name a group captain (or table captain) — someone who organizes supplies, leads clean-up time, or collects their work for submission.  This role can be rotated periodically to allow different students to explore leadership.

Fancy Mac and Cheese

This recipe requires little effort. It’s a great way to give a homemade twist to prepared mac and cheese.

Ingredients:

  • 2 containers of prepared microwavable macaroni and cheese (Bob Evans brand is my suggestion)
  • Velveeta or cheddar cheese soup, undiluted
  • 1 cup of grated casserole cheeseimages
  • Italian bread crumbs
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • French Fried Onions (Optional)
  • Bacon Bits (Optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a casserole dish. Empty macaroni and cheese into a mixing bowl. Stir in 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper and 1/2 cup bread crumbs, mix well. Spoon half of the mixture into the sprayed dish. Slice the Velveeta and place on top or pour 1/2 of the can of soup on top then add the rest of the mixture. Sprinkle the top with a thin layer of breadcrumbs. Add more Velveeta slices to cover the top.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese on top has melted and is bubbly.

For optional flair, sprinkle French Fried Onions or Bacon Bits to the final mac and cheese dish before serving.

How to Make a Difference in the Classroom

What is a teacher’s job?  Educating students is the simple answer. But shepherding a child through an understanding of subject matter isn’t simple.  If that’s accomplished, and you stop there, you are doing a disservice to your students.  Taking it to the next level can be daunting, exhausting, and demanding, but it’s the route to making a difference in the classroom.   

Once there’s a basic mastery of the subject, students must be taught how to apply content to their world.  Young learners typically take facts at face value, and haven’t yet learned to question, probe, and expand their viewpoint.  The teacher’s job now becomes more than shepherd — it’s sherpa — leading the learner into new encounters, broader perspectives, and unchartered paths.  

How do you do this effectively?  First, it’s important to help students identify their learning style.  Provide different activities for the same learning objective and typically they’ll move toward their preferred style.  If not, you can assign a range of activities and assess their success with that particular style.

Second, explore techniques with your students that build connections. Teach them how to study and investigate their world. For example, remember when you were a student, and you’d think “When will I ever use this?”  As a teacher, every lesson plan should have that question answered before you begin teaching it.  If you can articulate real-world applications for the facts you are sharing, your students will more readily understand and more quickly make the knowledge their own. 

In time, as students begin to own their learning and see school as a doorway to the world outside, you will spark their imaginations and curiosity.  The student who learns how to learn is the student that become self-sufficient and accelerates beyond their baseline. This objective is the teacher’s real job, and the key to making a difference in the classroom.

Squad Goals

The life of an elementary teacher can be a lonely one.  In some schools, a solo teacher may be the only adult in their classroom and have little access to others.  If she or he is lucky, an assistant or college intern may spend some time in the room.  But it’s not uncommon for them to be the only adult in sight for hours at a time. New teachers, take note:  Being proactive in building a “squad” is an essential task.

Your “squad” should be a diverse support team assembled to make life easier, provide encouragement, and keep you sane when the stress of teaching builds.  squad

Look for immediate support in the form of other teachers (in your grade level and out) and the key staff members at your building (custodian, secretary, technology, nurse, counselor, cafeteria workers, etc.)  Sharing ideas and getting feedback is an obvious benefit, but just having friendly coworkers to chat with about life and outside activities is just as important.

Developing friendships outside of school is crucial too;  having a safe and objective listener to hear your concerns is vital.  This helps you avoid the temptation to “vent” to your fellow teachers or parents.  Those conversations are dangerous; they can quickly escalate into negativity, gossip or insubordination.

Develop a healthy and proactive rapport with parents.  You don’t want your first interaction with a parent to be a discipline issue or a discussion over a child’s poor performance.  Create consistent and positive touch points where you engage with parents early and often. (I will be posting more suggestions about this in a future blog post.)

At times teachers build a wall between themselves and the administration.  They see the Principal as the “enemy,” and prefer to keep their distance, believing that “out of sight, out of mind” is a smart strategy.  Working to include administrators on your squad may be tough, but it can have great rewards.  If your administrators are receptive, here are some ways to include them on your squad as well:

  • Ask the Principal or Assistant Principal to suggest some times when sending students to the office is most convenient.  During these times, you can make a regular practice of having children share their writing, journal entries, artwork, or special projects.  If a student is struggling in an area, getting help from the Principal or Assistant Principal can be helpful, and in some ways, it might even be a refreshing change of pace for someone whose days in the classroom are in the past. Administrators have things that come up unexpectedly, but for the most part, they are happy to set aside time for brief student visits.
  • Ask your administrator to come and read a story or share an experience with your children. This will not only make them feel closer to you, but it will also help reduce the intimidation factor for your students.  They will also have a chance to better understand what you are teaching and have an appreciation for your classroom management skills.  (And you probably don’t want your Principal’s first visit to your class to be during a formal observation, do you?)
  • If you have special occasions when parents or grandparents are “guest starring” in the class (like career day or a child’s birthday party), you might reach out to your Administrators to sub in for a parent whose work schedule prevents them from participating.  Being the ‘honored guest’ of those children helps build their self esteem. (The same tactic can work with other members of the staff too.)

Ask administrative assistants, custodians, cafeteria workers or counselors to visit your room regularly too. Students see their faces every day but they may rarely interact with them. Having them share with your students is a great way to open your classroom to a new world and build positive relationships.  Other adults in your school might be able to reach and impact a student’s behavior in a positive way that as the teacher you are not able.

Changing Bad Behavior into Good

“The cost of being positive, very little.  The benefit of being positive, tremendous.”
— Miguel Angel Soto

The quote above should probably be hanging prominently in every elementary classroom. Remaining positive when dealing with negatives can be difficult, and in many cases, the teacher’s attitude is particularly important, especially when the challenge is student behavior.  

Simply stating the rules and procedures in positive ways is easy; getting students to reflect those rules in the form of positive actions takes finesse. The behavioral expectations from the student’s home are the ones that he or she brings to school. But just because a certain behavior is okay at home doesn’t mean it’s okay at school.  Here are a few tips for getting students to accept and embrace that fact.

When a child interrupts, it’s the timing of the disruption that’s the problem, not the behavior itself.  To combat the problem, give the student an index card and a ‘special’ marker and when they feel the urge to blurt out, encourage them to write down a word or two on the card.  When instruction is completed, they can then share their thoughts with you. By redirecting the situation into a positive activity, you can manage the disruption and possibly retrain them toward more acceptable behavior.

If a student can’t stay seated when doing their work and are intruding on their classmates, try taping off a space on the floor around their work area.  Give the area a special name (call it “in bounds” or “work zone” or “inner space”) and let them stand at their desk or sit near their desk, as long as they stay in the taped-off area.  You’re providing them a degree of freedom to accommodate their needs, while keeping them from being a nuisance to others.  Note: managing this carefully can produce excellent results for students with sensory issues, ADHD, or excess energy.

 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Classroom management takes up a significant part of most teachers’ day. To me there is a significant difference between classroom management and behavior management. Behavior management is when you are responding to, encouraging and correcting the student’s response to classroom rules and not being a distraction to themselves or others.

Classroom management are the things that contribute to the smooth operation of the learning environment.  (Though they are related — how you manage the classroom often affects student behavior.)  Classroom management can include aspects of the lesson you’ve prepared, procedures for material distribution, leaving and entering the classroom, expectations for behavior both inside and outside of the room.21833569

Just as each student in your class is different, so are teachers.  A teacher who has young learners for the entire day has a different set of demands than one in upper grades who may “share” the child with other teachers over the course of the day. Each teacher’s rules, attitude, demeanor and approach will vary.  As a result, you need to be very explicit in what you expect from your students, and set your own procedures that work best for you and your students.  If you aren’t proactive in mastering classroom management, the class will manage you!

Taking time to devise simple routines can pay big dividends.  Talk specifically with students about tasks that they will do every day.  Set clear and consistent expectations for the following:

  • What to do at the beginning of class
  • How you handle passing out papers
  • Turning in assignments
  • Lining up
  • Leaving class for the restroom
  • Transitioning from task to task
  • Packing up at the end of class
  • What to do if an assignment is completed early

Non-instructional time can open the door for misbehavior; setting expectations at the start of the year can eliminate unwanted behavior later on.

Try to think of all the activities that constitute a typical day.  Write down what you would expect for each to go smoothly and efficiently, and list everything you’d like the students to know and what their role should be. Arrange the room to accommodate this plan. 

Here’s the most important part:  on the first day of school announce that you will be explaining the procedures for the class.  (If you call them rules there will be at least one kid whose mind will instantly start plotting ways to break them!)  Start by discussing what a procedure is — using examples like video games, sports or playing an instrument.  (In video games, you have to learn how to use the controller, create your character, and have enough memory on the card to store your progress.)  Equate these rote activities with positive outcomes, explain the procedure in detail, and then practice. Keep practicing until they get it right. Give lots of verbal praise for successes, and instruct with specifics when things go south. 

On the second day of school, practice the procedures again; let’s see who can remember them.  Then practice!  For the first week or two of school, practicing procedures is one of the most important things you can do.  Once the procedures are habitual, learning can follow.  Sure, you are giving up some instruction time, but the investment will pay off in spades.  As winter break approaches and other teachers are having to ‘remind’ students how to behave, your class will be sailing through their objectives.  You will gain back that “lost” instruction time as the year progresses.

You may have to practice once or twice again after winter break, but having solid procedures in place will alleviate stress.  An added benefit will be on the day you have a substitute, your class will run smoothly because your students are in the habit of following the procedures.

Reflecting and Adjusting Behaviors

As adults we ‘reflect’ on events and situations all throughout our day.  Sometimes we do so without even realizing it:  burning our tongue on a hot beverage causes us to adjust our behavior.  We blow into the cup or let it cool before sipping again.  We reflect and adjust in traffic — getting a speeding ticket makes us reflect on our behavior — and we drive a little slower (for a while.) mirror

Reflecting and adjusting is the essence of the learning process. If we don’t reflect and make adjustments we’ll continue to make the same errors time and again. Through years of experience we’ve learned to reflect automatically on some things but have to make a conscious effort for others.  When we see red brake lights ahead of us on the road, an experienced driver doesn’t consciously apply the brake.  It’s a reflex.  A student driver’s response to red is much more conscious, and in some cases, the adjustment is too severe (they slam on the brakes.)  If that student failed to hit the brakes and rear-ended the driver in front, there’s a good chance they’d learn the lesson of adjusting.

If you’re trying a new recipe for home baked chocolate chip cookies, the reflect-and-adjust process is top of mind.  “Will the oven temperature be accurate?  How long should the cookies bake?  Are the eggs in the fridge fresh enough to use?”  If the cookies burn, you’ll approach the task differently the next time.  Does the recipe need to be changed?  Or is it the over temperature that’s at fault?

When we reflect on what went wrong, we evaluate each aspect of the process and try to find the cause of the error. From the example above, we can’t say that the cookies are just bad-tasting cookies. An adjustment needs to be made.

In his article, Mark Clements sites the classic example of a hot stove:  if I touch the burner and hurt my hand, I immediately reflect.  If I’m reflecting properly, I’ll change my behavior (by quickly removing my hand from the hot burner.)  And then I adjust for the future; I won’t simply assume that all stoves are bad; it’s just the ones that are hot that should give me pause.

In learning environments, students must have reflection time in order to assess their errors and determine how to fix them.  Reflecting on success is also important.  The student should analyze their results and capitalize on the “win” so they can build on it. If a student performs poorly on an assignment, and the teacher just hands it back without an opportunity to reflect and make corrections, progress is halted.   For real learning to occur, students need to understand their mistakes and have a chance to correct them.

In the classroom, reflection is not a default skill for most students.  It must be taught and encouraged.

Should Students Get Rewards?

We all like to be rewarded for a job well done. We expect to get our checks on payday, and we enjoy the occasional casual day or tickets to leave early.  Why would students be any different?

Having a reward system in your class can be tricky. Ideally you want students behave properly, not just for a reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.  But let’s face it, a little extra motivation from time to time can’t hurt.  After years of experimenting with different reward systems, I’ve found a few that seem effective.

  • Whole group rewards – My heart fills with pride when someone compliments my class for walking quietly down the hall or displaying good manners in the cafeteria. I have a block chart in the classroom where we track class compliments.  When someone gives us praise, we color in a block. When a certain number of blocks are colored in, we enjoy a class treat. I may bring in doughnuts or popsicles, 21468471give them an extra recess, no homework for an evening, or a 15-minute free choice activity.
  • Small group rewards – Desks can be arranged so that students sit in cooperative groups of three or four.  When a group does exceptional work, works together well, or goes the extra mile on a task, their table gets a point.  At the end of a given period (a week or two weeks) or when a points benchmark is met, the group gets a small reward. Students might get to sit in a special place at lunch, or get to pick a friend to sit with them in the cafeteria.  Often, the reward itself isn’t important; just the fact that they are being recognized can reinforce good behavior.
  • Individual rewards – With individual rewards, you can customize and modify rewards based on student needs.  They can be given immediately or stored up to ‘cash in’ at a later date. Examples are: special trip to the office for recognition, phone call or note home, special coupon from a local restaurant.  I recommend using a “ticket system” to track behavior.  Students start the week (or designated period) with a certain number tickets.  If the child misbehaves or breaks a rule, he or she surrenders a ticket (or more depending on severity of the violation.)  When the week ends, the remaining tickets can be traded in for rewards.  You can customize the ticket system to work daily for students who need immediate recognition and then back away to include more days as they progress and you see more desired behavior.  Another version is where they earn the tickets throughout the day, collect them, and then cash them in at a later date.  (I prefer the immediacy and tangible nature of starting the week with tickets and counting down, rather than earning over time.  It seems to reinforce delayed gratification and help students recognize that bad behavior has immediate consequences.) For individual rewards you can modify it based on the needs of the children and work on specific target behaviors.
    • For individual rewards and behavior modification you might encounter a situation where students feel the expectations/rewards aren’t fair — especially if you’re working with a particular student on target behaviors. You may have to spend some time going over ‘fair versus equal.’  (See the related post.)

For older students, you might consider using a checkbook system (teaching math and money principles while they work toward rewards.)  As they do good deeds, perform the duties of their “job” in the classroom, or meet behavior expectations, “money” is deposited into their account.  (Withdrawals can be made for violations.)   At the end of the semester, have a class auction where they can purchase items donated by parents or local patrons.

Let’s Talk About “Fair Versus Equal”

As a classroom teacher you will eventually have to address the issue of fair versus equal.  Children are masters at pointing out when they think things aren’t fair.  When one child gets a reward for a certain behavior, or another gets extra time to complete an assignment, your students are likely to protest with the refrain “That’s not fair.”  Helping them understand the difference can be the centerpiece of a great discussion and ongoing lesson about fairness and equality.

It’s important to have a discussion early in the year about what is fair and what is equal. Present scenarios and role play the difference, and allow students to come to their own conclusions. In time, they will carry these ideals into other areas of school — in the cafeteria, in games, on the playground, and in their friendships.

Start with a definition. Ask students what they think it means for something to be fair. Write down their answers and thoughts on chart paper. On another piece of paper write down their thoughts of what it means for things to be equal. Come to a consensus that “being fair means that everyone gets what they need” and being equal means that “everyone gets exactly the same thing.”

Discuss times when things being equal is beneficial, e.g. equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunity. (This can be a theme for topics/units.) Then discuss what it means to be fair, explaining that every person is different and has different needs. Students will relate to the following example.  “You have a sibling three years younger than you. Your parents declare that you both should go to bed at 7:30, so that it’s equal.  A fair scenario is a bedtime based on the age and maturity of the sibling.  The younger child goes to bed at 7:30, while you go to bed at 8:30.  That’s fair but not equal.”

If you had a “show and tell” day at school, it would be important that every child get a chance to present.  That would be equality in action.  You wouldn’t want some of the kids to get their moment in the spotlight, while others were denied the opportunity.

But if you had a behavior system where the reward was a pizza party for all the kids who abided by the rules, allowing every child to get pizza — even those that misbehaved — wouldn’t be fair.

Here’s a practical demonstration you can use with your students:  Outline the rules of a game or relay race where the winning team gets a prize (a trophy, a crown or a treat.)  You build up the kids’ competitive fire, rally them to give their all and try with all their might to win.  Keep building the stakes up and up, until the end of the contest.  When you’ve finally declared a winner, let the air out of the room by giving all the students (even those  on the losing team) the prize.  Students will quickly understand that being “equal” isn’t the same as being “fair.”

These principles are most applicable when managing behavior in the class. Yes, it will take more time at the beginning of the year but learning the difference can pay off in the long run.