Why Do We Have to Learn This?

At some point you will hear (or have already heard) a loud refrain from a child in your class:  “Why do we have to learn this?!”

Instinct may make you defensive, but this is a valid question.  And the answer can’t be — because it will be on the test or because I said so.  Students must feel their work has meaning and is valuable to them. If a child struggles to see value, they may go through the motions of the work, but they may not truly learn. The content has to be relevant to them today.why

For example, most elementary students are expected to learn about U.S. Presidents or significant historical dates and places.  Is the objective to merely memorize trivia?  Or are we challenging students to learn about characteristics of leadership, the principles of a Democratic society or how governing decisions affect our lives? 

Instruction of this type can be more than fact-based; it can be an opportunity to instill values (such as tolerance, obedience, leadership, cooperation.)  It can also provide an atmosphere for developing analytical or discussion skills.  (Ask students to compare and contrast political candidates or the impact of a local legal decision.)  

Clearly there are some facts and figures that students just have to learn.  And making it immediately relevant can be tough.  In that case, you can make the work engaging by providing different modes of delivery: books, movie clips, experiments, student-led discussions, etc.

As the teacher you must model for them how to go about problem solving. Navigating a confusing lesson is a problem that must be solved.  Talk through the topic and show your approach: what questions do you ask yourself as you make sense of a difficulty?  Celebrate when they accomplish something, teach them positive self-talk, demonstrate it for them.

Help them see that all learning is an opportunity, not an obligation.  With these tactics in play, eventually the refrain will change from “Why do we have to learn this?” to “When can we learn more about this?”

 

 

The Morning Meeting

The Morning Meeting.  Establishing routines is a key to accomplishing goals in the elementary setting.  For many children, school may be the first environment where they’ve encountered a structured schedule.   The more you can create rhythms, habits and routines, the more quickly your students will learn to self-regulate their own time and energy, follow procedures, and achieve learning objectives.f2755a29d5f2d21057d9fb6be5252123

I like to start every day with a morning ritual that includes a greeting, daily agenda, goals for the day, and a sharing time.

Set the Tone.  I take about two minutes to welcome the group and give them an overview of what’s happening that day.  Use a positive tone to start the day upbeat, but make sure you’re businesslike and professional so they know that it’s time to get focused. Your manner will help kids focus their energy from “arrival” mode into “learning” mode.  

Daily Agenda.  Depending on what you’re teaching, try to identify two or three specific goals to highlight.  If something unique is going on during the day (a fire drill, a guest, or special activity) be sure to mention that too and quickly remind children about rules or procedures that might relate.  Be brief and stick to the big picture items. Kids will lose interest if you detail every individual piece of the day.

Care to Share.  The morning is a good time to encourage your students to report on things going on in their lives (if something big has happened, a child will want to share it anyway, and it might interrupt a lesson later in the day.)  Have a “baton” (it could be a stuffed animal, toy or special object) that you can pass around from child to child; if they don’t have anything to say, they can pass it on to the next person.  If you have a class of introverts, you might create a schedule or provide topics or prompts for certain students to prepare for in advance.

 

The Two Most Dreaded Words…

Indoor Recess! Two of the most dreaded words any teacher must utter.

How can you take the difficult challenge of indoor recess and turn it into a positive?  Well, it’s impossible to make it as much fun as outdoor recess, but here are a few small suggestions to make it bearable for you and your kids:

  • Offer some structured activities that don’t seem too structured.  Part of what makes kids love recess is that its “their” free time, and you don’t want to mess with that too much.  Offer choices and give the kids the opportunity to select the activities that interest them that day.
  • In anticipation of the inevitable indoor recess day, fill a bin with board games, puzzles, comic books, toys, travel games, craft projects, and art supplies.  You might check your local thrift store or ask for “hand me downs” from parents in upper grades.  It’s important that these items be reserved only for indoor recess day.  If these items are exclusively available for only those times, they will feel like a treat and add some unique excitement and fun to the day.
  • Give students the components of a game (a few beanbags, some tape, rolled-up socks, paper towel rolls, yarn, etc.)  Challenge them to invent a new game or adapt an existing sport into something that’s safe and fun for indoor play.
  • Gather the group and watch a movie or Youtube clip (something fun.) Add a play component to the viewing by creating a scavenger hunt or BINGO game, specific to the clip you’re viewing.  Example:  when you see someone wearing a hat in the clip, you can check it off your list, get a point, or mark it on your BINGO card.

 

All Aboard the Technology Train

If you are age 35 or younger, you can stop reading this post now:  This post is written for us “old fogies,” especially those of us who have come to use computers late in life.  

If you’ve been teaching for 20 years or more, you may be surprised how tech savvy your students and their parents really are.  Most parents with elementary age kids were born in the mid-80s or later, and have spent most of their lives with access to laptops, the Internet, and digital tools.  They aren’t intimidated by it, and in some cases, they expect you to use technology to reach them.

If you’ve been resistant to get on board the “technology train,” rest assured, you can learn.  I am half a century old (!) and have learned to embrace technology out of necessity, and then out of appreciation.  After I got over the initial hump, I began to learn that most technology is relatively easy to use, once you start.  Just getting going is half the battle.  Use YouTube as a resource.  There are fantastic tutorials online there (and in other places) to show you how to get up to speed quickly.  A peer or friend can show you too, but I’d recommend the “hands on” approach.  You’ll learn more quickly and completely if you’re the one making the mistakes and being forced to figure things out.  If you get stuck, simply Google your question, and an answer is probably a click or two away.  

Once you’ve mastered the basics, technology is a great way to involve parents.  Using email is certainly an essential mechanism, and it has the most privacy controls, but social media has a wealth of potential too.  computee.JPG Create a class Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter account (or whatever the latest social media fad is by the time you read this post.)  Students can even get involved in creating or sharing content (as long as you monitor their activity.)  If you think videos could be fun and effective, consider setting up a class YouTube or Vimeo channel.  Please note: for any social media projects or online activities, it’s important to get parents to grant permission or sign a general release.

These ideas also create a unique opportunity for parental involvement and volunteering.  A busy professional may not have time to volunteer in the classroom during the day, but putting in a few hours during their off time to update your Facebook page or add pictures to your class blog is a wonderful way to get them to participate.

Once you’ve established your communication outlet(s), you can use them for these and other ideas:

  • Send updates to parents about class activities, special announcements and upcoming lessons.
  • Research and suggest apps for parents to download for students to use.
  • Send an article or link to parenting tips on blogs and online publications.
  • Record lessons or special activities and upload to your video channel; send links out for parents who aren’t able to attend.
  • Set up a Shutterfly, Flickr, Google Drive or Instagram account share pictures.
  • Learn to create QR Codes to make it easy to share links and connections.

To make it easy on less-savvy parents, you can always print out copies of the information and send it home with the kids or through traditional means.  

Benefits of Student Engagement

When you think of student engagement you think about students being drawn into their learning. To know if your class is engaged we must first define engagement.  Phil Schlecty “Increasing Student Engagement.” Missouri Leadership Academy; (Jan. 1994) says students who are engaged exhibit three characteristics:

  • they are attracted to their work,eager-student
  • they persist in their work despite challenges and obstacles, and
  • they take visible delight in accomplishing their work.

Some lessons will hit all three targets, but there are objectives that aren’t that exciting but still need to be taught.  Things like long division, editing/revisions, fractions (need I say more?) may present a challenge for engagement.

Think about activities that you are excited to engage in:

  • What motivates you to participate in those activities?
  • What skills do you draw upon to engage in the activity?
  • What are your expectations for the outcome of the activity?

As adults we can choose we have options.  We can choose the activities and learning that we’ll spend time to pursue. Our strengths and interests guide us and push us towards engagement. When we succeed we can then transfer those skills to other possibly less desirable activities.

For students who don’t have the same freedom, it is the teacher’s job to create lessons that motivate students to fully engage in the learning process. Students must be engaged in all of ‘school’ — in its global form —  academics, interpersonal, extracurricular, social and relational.

Check back in for posts about academic and social engagement.

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.

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.

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.