Back To Class!

Well, it’s been a year since “Teacher, teacher!” has been up and running. A lot has happened in that year. I moved and changed jobs! I went back to the classroom, 4th grade more specifically. I decided to take a break from posting and focus on teaching (it has been 16 years since I was in the classroom as a teacher)! backtoclassIt was a successful year and I am eager to get back at it; both school and posting.


I hope you will find my posts both informative and helpful. Feel free to use any of the information or ideas you find here. I will be posting helpful hints, lessons I’ve learned, successes and failures, recipes, and humorous stories.

Stay tuned!



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 Most Important Times of the Day

With all the pressures of teaching, every minute is precious. But there are two times of the day when you can purposefully set the tone for learning: the first 10 minutes — un-wrap — and the last 10 minutes — wrap-up.

In the first 10 minutes, students need to know that you’re glad they are at school and happy to see them. Stand at the door 10-minute-clock-300x300and welcome them to class; make small talk with them; ask about the previous afternoon — inquire about a game they played in or what they did. Have an activity on the board or on their desks for them to plunge into; you need to create a sense of purpose to begin the day.  This could be an academic activity that encourages them to interact. Whether you do this or not, students will find ways to talk and socialize.  If you give them constructive opportunities to do so during un-wrap, it’s easier to engage them academically when necessary.  (Note:  I wouldn’t do this the first week of school. The first week or two should be completely orchestrated by you.) The morning arrival time needs to be structured, and it’s best to have a writing/drawing prompt or interest survey waiting for them.

We all like to prepare for the day ahead, and students are no different. Giving your students an agenda during un-wrap can help prevent the nagging questions they’re prone to raise throughout the day.  (What special do we have today; what’s for lunch; what are we doing in math?)

The last 10 minutes of the day are equally important.  Begin the wrap-up by recapping the day:  highlight what happened and emphasize key accomplishments. You should model this recap for them early in the year, but eventually turn it over to them. Give them an opportunity to identify what was fun or what they learned.  Encourage them to verbalize something that was difficult.

Other topics for wrap-up include a preview of tomorrow’s activities, which gives them something to anticipate. (Keep it positive.)  Provide a topic or question they can ask at home to keep parents involved.

You should not only talk about the academic side of things but social topics too. Students are very aware of what goes on in the class socially, e.g. who’s friends with whom, who got in trouble, who was mean to them, etc.  By talking about these things before students leave, you can put it in context, and prevent a simmering pot from turning into an explosion at home.  Often a child will suppress their feelings about a conflict or incident at school until a parent or sibling prompts them at home.  The sudden attention can result in an emotional (and often inaccurate) memory of events from the day.  Using wrap-up time to diffuse these emotions can head off angry phone calls from parents.

This reflection time is an important skill for students to learn so they can evaluate their day on their own and learn analytical and self-assessment methods.  It also provides insight to you about the efficacy of your  lessons; something you thought went well may not have had the same impact on students. Early in the year, wrap-up time can give you a chance to remind students of any materials they’ll need for homework or tomorrow’s assignments.  As time goes by, they will be doing this themselves; it will become a habit. They’ll learn to check everything before they leave and you won’t get the email or phone call saying Suzy left her book at school and couldn’t do her homework.

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.

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.)