Monday, February 28, 2011

Student Participation: the Cold Call (video)

Another interesting video from the Uncommon Schools youtube page.  In it, a practice called "the cold call" is described.  Basically, the teacher asks a question at a rapid-fire pace and calls on a random student.  The point is to keep the entire class on its toes by having everyone be mentally prepared to answer the question, and to keep students engaged and listening carefully.  The video notes that it's supposed to be positive and you want students to get the question right (as opposed to a "I caught you not listening" practice).  The second video shows the same cold call technique used in an upper-grade math class, which would help develop mental math skills.  These videos will lead me to a discussion later about challenging your students.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

1st Grader Uses “the S-Word”

Imagine my surprise when I noticed a well-behaved girl in Monday’s class was not in her seat, but tucked neatly inside her cubby as she whimpered in the fetal position.  The cubby area was in the back of the room, and there she was, trying to hide her face as she cried.

I tried to encourage her to come out, but she refused.  “They are lying about me!” she sobbed.  The other children at her table were busy working on the coloring sheet their teacher had left for them.  I asked them what was wrong with the cubby crier.

“She said the s-word,” one of the boys said solemnly. 

With that, the girl lunged out of her cubby, wailed loudly that she was being falsely accused.

I got her to calm down, and made a general announcement that no one should use “that kind of language” in class and reminded them all to use polite words.  I hadn’t expressed whether or not I believed she had cursed, so I thought that would settle the matter on all fronts.

Wrong.  The other kids at her table wanted to continue talking about exactly what she said.  Before I could cut one of the boys off, he quoted her exact words:  “She said that the picture looks stupid!”

There were loud gasps and a chorus of “ooooh, you’re not supposed to say that!” across the room.  I almost laughed, relieved that I clearly had mistaken which s-word was the cause of the whole controversy.

I quieted the class, made sure my crier was back in her seat coloring without using “unkind words,” and told the rest of her group to leave her alone.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Capstone's Super-Pets Writing Contest

Encourage students to write a story about how their pets are amazing, submit their entries to's DC Super-Pets Contest, and their story could appear in an actual DC book!

The contest calls for kids to write a newspaper article about an amazing pet, include a picture or drawing of the animal, and mail it in by February 28.

The winner will have their drawing done by an award-winning illustrator, and their story will be included in a Super-Pets book.  They will also receive free copies of the book for their school.  Runner-ups will receive free copies of the book, too.

This would be a great writing activity for students, especially those who love their pets and enjoy DC Comics.  Click the link and help them get started submitting before the deadline!

image:  microsoft

Monday, February 21, 2011

2011 ALA Award Winners

Have you seen the new ALA award winners?

A list of Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Printz and other awards can be found here.  Congratulations to all the authors and illustrators who won awards this year.  I, for one, can't wait to get ahold of these books and review them for myself.

Can any be used in your classroom this year?

Friday, February 18, 2011

What Good Teachers Do… Part V

Good teachers reflect.

Hands down, this is one of the most important lessons to me as an aspiring teacher (and as a blogger!).  Without the benefit of reflection, I’d continue making the same mistakes again and again, watching myself fall short, and not actively pursuing improvement.  If you don’t reflect, you want see where you need work and look for ways to get better.

Like the teacher who illustrated organization for me, another teacher demonstrated her personal commitment to this principle by promoting it amongst her students.

This fifth grade class had to do some things I’ve only come across once:

  •            They had to keep a log with their reflections about how they performed on tests.  I peeked at it as students were writing on them.  The log had a chart for them to fill out which said things like, “On this test, I would like to make a score of _____.  To accomplish this, I will _____________.”  On the other side, it had space for them to write how well they actually did on the test, if they reached their goal, and what they could do to keep doing well or do better next time.  I think it’s great for students to have something tangible that shows them their goals and makes them think about how to work to achieve them.  Being consistent with this log must take a lot of work, but I bet it pays off.  I think writing goals and reviewing them gives you a little more incentive to get them done.
  •          The class also had “reflection journals” which they wrote in during the last few minutes of the day.  Nothing fancy.  Just a little summary of how their day went, what they learned and what they may need to work tomorrow.  Simple, but it encourages students to reflect on their classroom experiences.   It’s a good way to bring closure to the day.

I think this teacher had some great ideas on having her students set goals and think about how to bring them to fruition.  From spending the day with them, I presume the teacher spends a lot of time reflecting and making strides towards her own goals.  I wish her a lot of luck because she certainly motivated me to do the same.

This concludes this installment of What Good Teachers Do.  I’ll be on the lookout for more good teaching tips and ideas from the good teachers I encounter.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Good Teachers Do… Part IV

Good teachers are resourceful.

You have to be in order to use materials that best fit your classroom’s needs.

I worked in a classroom a few weeks ago that showed me a great idea for a simple tool:  file folders.

When the class went to centers, one group at a time was supposed to go to the “folders station.”  I’ve seen younger elementary classes have center activities contained on file folders, so I was interested to see what this one entailed.

This teacher did something really simple.  All she had were basic reading comprehension sheets, the kind from any workbook or teacher resource book, that were laminated on each side of the file folders (including the front and back).  Each folder had a different passage for the students to read and response activities.  But because they were working on laminated folders, they could use dry erase markers on the folder. 

I was intrigued!  I’ve noticed that even when you give students regular work, if you let them do something besides just writing with regular paper and pencil (such as typing, or writing with colored pens on fancy paper), they have a much better attitude about completing the task.

Sure enough, these little 2nd graders were happy to be doing their comprehension sheets because they got to use MARKERS.  And wipe off their responses with TISSUE.  Much more creative than printing the exact same sheets out and making them do them with pencils.  What’s more, the teacher only had to print one copy of each activity because, once students were done, they could just wipe off their answers and put the folder up for the next student to grab.  Saves paper and it’s much easier than having to collect copies from the whole class.  A little creativity comes in handy!

I thought the laminated file folder idea was so good, that I began to think of other potential uses.  Print puzzles and brainteasers on the file folders, laminate them and let students work on them whenever they have the extra time.  Print magazine articles on them so that students can read, write, take the “quizzes,” and doodle on the pages, and then use the same copies again and again since their markings are not permanent.  Math drills, center work, writing practice and a ton of other activities could be done with this method, and it could breathe new life into student motivation.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Good Teachers Do… Part III

Good teachers differentiate.

I’ve learned that over the course of my subbing career.  I am in classrooms all the time with students who need a little more help than others, or students who are a little more advanced than the rest.  Sometimes, something as simple as completing an assignment can become stressful when you have 4 kids finished in a few minutes and looking for something to do, most others nearly done, and another handful who don’t even know how to begin.  Those situations really taught me the importance of differentiating lesson plans.

Another great thing about differentiation is that it gives ample opportunities to give choice to your students.

Just last week, I had a fifth grade class with a teacher who did a great job with this.  While we were checking over the homework in the morning, the school librarian (librarians rock, btw!) stopped by to drop off some class sets of books for the students.

“Yay!  The books are here!” The kids were kind of excited to get their books, which is just about the best thing ever.

Too bad the lesson plan didn’t mention anything about starting the books or introducing them, because those are my favorite kinds of lessons to lead.  The regular teacher will get that privilege when they return.  But one thing the teacher did do is offer the students a choice about which book they were going to read.  They could pick between Hatchet or Island of the Blue Dolphins.

They had already been introduced to the books a little, and their teacher was assigning them writing prompts and activities for their chosen book.  They were apparently going to study the books simultaneously through a differentiated reader’s workshop and booktalks (I suppose they’ll be talking a lot about nature in both stories).   I gathered all this from talking to students and looking at their literature packets, which they already had.

I like the idea of differentiated workshops, and I’ve even read something about them, but I don’t recall actually seeing them used thus far in classes.  If I could do it t least occasionally in my own classroom, I would.  I wonder how easy districts make it to allow students to choose novels for a novel study.  I’m not sure if one of the two books offered is easier for certain students to read, but that’s one of the great assets of differentiating for students.  It looked to me that the students reading Hatchet would be doing a little bit more advanced analysis and making more difficult products for their book.  Overall, everyone seemed to get a real kick out of choosing “their” books instead of just having them assigned.

Getting all this planning together must take a lot more work, but students appreciate it, and I’m sure it makes things easier for the teacher in the long run.

If I could sit in on those booktalks, I would!


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What Good Teachers Do… Part II

Good teachers are efficient.

Often, I look up at the clock during a lesson I'm leading and think, "Yikes!  Not enough time!"  I know that's a common issue for teachers.  Valuing efficiency is important for good teachers because you have to figure out how to cram everything you need to teach into short intervals that are never enough time.  If you don't know how to do things efficiently, you'll lose valuable class time, and work a lot harder to accomplish less.

A good example of efficiency was presented to me by a kindergarten teacher I subbed for soon after Christmas break ended.  I should note here that, ideally, I would be a 4th or 5th grade regular teacher.  Younger students can be ok, but they're my least favorite to sub.  Even if they're a good class, I'd just prefer to be around and teach students in the middle grades.

But this particular K class taught me a lot.  One of the first things I noticed is that this teacher left A LOT of lesson plans.  There were at least 5 pages to the plan.  That was mostly because our activities for the day were outlined in a general plan of important procedures that described, in detail, what her class normally does.  About 3 or 4 pages neatly described things like math centers, language arts centers, calendar time and writing time, etc.  Even though she wasn't there, we would be sticking to routine as usual for the class.  The awesome plans proved she was organized to an impressive degree.

Printing out the plans and actually implementing them are two different things, though.  I held my breath as I set a timer and told students to go to math centers.  To my amazement, students knew exactly what to do. They knew to look up at a pocket chart with their names on it, find which center they were to visit, take out the materials and get right to work.  I didn't have to go over anything, explain the process or settle an argument about which kids were supposed to go the computer station versus practicing their math facts.  Those are things that usually happen when I tell students to go to centers, but none of that happened in this class.  "Well-trained!" I thought.  Once the timer dinged, they put everything up quickly and sat on the carpet for me to call time for the next center.  I was wowed!

Same thing at the language arts centers.  I couldn't believe how easily the class followed directions.  It wasn't just a behavior issue, although they were a good class.  It was clear to me that she had trained this class to follow procedures to the letter and it made for one of the smoothest days I've had the pleasure of enjoying.  Transition time between centers was, seriously, between 60-70 seconds.  I had to wonder if she timed them for clean up.

I was most impressed when it was "writing time."  Her lesson plan told me to ask students to take out their writing journals, write the prompt on the board and discuss it, and then let them write for 20 minutes.  As soon as I said, "OK guys, take out your writing journals..." everyone did it.  And not only that, but they opened up to a clean page, wrote their little heading and date at the top, and sat their with their pencils poised waiting for me to give the prompt.  WHAT?  I think my jaw dropped a little.  I don't think I've seen any class ever do that.  Normally, I have to wait while students take out their science journals instead of their writing journals, tune me out as I give the prompt, or cause various other distractions.  Usually, I at least have to remind students to write their heading, but not this class.  I told them, "Wow!  You could show some fifth graders a thing or two about getting ready to learn!"

And as they started writing, they kept writing for 20 minutes.  No one stared at the page and said, "I don't know what to write!"  No one wrote two lines and told me they were done.  No one even asked me how to spell anything!  I couldn't believe it.  Apparently, their teacher had taught them to JUST.WRITE for 20 minutes, regardless of spelling or anything else.  I could see them trying to sound out words quietly as they wrote.

Kindergartners, ladies and gentlemen.

I probably wrote one of the most glorious notes to a teacher ever written.  The class behaved well, but it was the teacher's effort that seriously impressed me.  Hardly a minute was wasted in that class, and students actually had time to learn because of how efficiently everything was done.  When I think of a class "running like clockwork," this class will immediately come to mind.

image: microsoft

Monday, February 14, 2011

What Good Teachers Do… Part I

Good teachers organize.  A teacher I subbed for a few weeks ago helped illustrate that for me in a way that I found most entertaining.

I have subbed for this teacher several times during the past two years, and I love it.  She teaches 4th grade gifted students, and I always enjoy my day when I’m there.  That’s why I agreed to sub for her even though this particular day was only a half day job for the afternoon.  I try to avoid half days unless it’s for a teacher I like a lot.

I arrived in the classroom a little before noon, greeted the teacher and her students, and she chatted with me a bit as she was grabbing her things to leave for the day.   The class was working on a writing assignment.  Suddenly, she remembered something.  It all started with an innocent question:  “Kevin, where’s your homework?”

The students had turned their homework in earlier and, apparently, Kevin said he had done his but he needed to look for it.  Just before stepping out the door, she remembered to get it from him.

We both look over to Kevin, who is a nice enough kid, as he pulls out this MASSIVE binder with papers hanging out of it and stuffed haphazardly every which way.  It was a mess.  He starts sifting through the papers trying to find his homework.  I believed that he had done it, but that he’d lost it somewhere in the junky binder.  His teacher stood over him as she waited for him to find it.  After several minutes, when the homework still hadn’t surfaced, he started rummaging through his desk.

Then she literally said, “You must be joking!”  Peering down into his desk, she must’ve seen an awful mess.  There was no turning back for her now.  She put down her purse and bags, grabbed a trashcan, pulled up a seat next to him, and made him clean out the entire desk.

It was no longer even about finding the missing assignment.  It was about making Kevin find order in the midst of the chaos he created with his graded papers, drawings, school reminders that probably never made it to his parents, etc.  I peeked around at the rest of the class, and all of their desks were clean.  It was something the teacher actively promoted in the class, but Kevin was a bit resistant.  He had papers and trash in his desk from several weeks ago, before the Christmas break.  His teacher made him pull out every.single.thing, throw away what wasn’t necessary and straighten up everything that was left.  It was one of those “do it NOW” things, as I guessed he had been promising to clean it but hadn’t gotten around to it.  I heard the teacher mutter, “I should be checking your desk every week to make sure it’s clean.”

I was in awe, let me tell you.  This teacher was so committed to the idea of organization that, not only did she make it her own habit, she also demanded the same attitude from all of her students.  Whatever appointment or thing she had to do that afternoon, she left thirty minutes later than she intended because she wanted to make sure he organized everything to her high standards.  Once she finally got her things and left, Kevin’s desk and binder looked wonderful.  I don’t think he found his assignment, but he understood that he wouldn’t lose things so easily if he followed his teacher’s example.  Of course he is a bright kid, but she was not going to let him keep neglecting one of his responsibilities as a student:  stay organized.   Good teachers have to do it, as well as good students.

I admired her for what she did.  I know not every teacher can stay late or do things at the drop of a hat, but it certainly showed me her level of commitment for her students.


image: microsoft

Friday, February 11, 2011

What Good Teachers Do: An Introduction

When I began this blog, I envisioned it as a place for me to talk about my personal experiences as well as my findings about educating and reaching students.

I specifically said I wanted to talk about the things I see that work in the classroom and things that don't.  Admittedly, I haven't talked as much about my personal experiences as I intended.  I try to update pretty regularly, but most of my posts aren't specifcally about my own sub jobs.  I want to improve that.

Another thing I've wondered about is what regular teachers think of a blog like this one.  When I do manage to describe my workdays, I wonder what impression I give of teachers and school staff.  I wonder if I seem way too critical of regular teachers when I talk a lot about bad workdays, difficult classrooms, missing lesson plans, etc.  Does that make teachers seem incompetent?  Like I'm being really judgmental?  To be fair, those things happen quite a bit and, in being honest, I wanted to discuss the frustrations of the job.  Perhaps it would help a regular teacher keep a few things in mind for when they prepare for a sub or teach their students.  But I don't want regular teachers to think all subs come into a room and nitpick everything.  I don't do that at work but I think I don't fairly balance my experiences on the blog.  

It's interesting to talk about bad work days.  They happen.  It's cathartic.  I was actually going to make a post about how, earlier this week, I was once again left with poorly constructed lesson plans, not really to cast aspersions on the teacher, but to describe an afternoon of "winging it" that actually rounded out interestingly.  But I thought, "Why do that?  I can't remember the last time I posted about something that shed a positive light on the teachers for which I sub.  That's not fair."  Thinking about it, one of the few positive mentions I've made about something done by a teacher I've personally subbed for is found in the post dedicated to the Class Build-a-Story activity I so admire.  That was far too long ago!

So, I will save the story I intended about that particular day and post it later, but I must be more proactive in talking about the good things I see in schools, and the amazing educators I encounter most of the days that I work.  I want to be a regular teacher, and I do glean a lot of things from the classrooms I visit.  Not just, "Oh no, never do it like that teacher."  There's also a lot of, "Wow, this teacher is awesome.  I want to do this like him/her!"  I learn as much from the good as I do the bad, if not more.

In this case, next week will be dedicated to the good teaching habits and positive stories I've personally seen since the semester began.  I see tons of teachers like the ones I will describe, but I so rarely talk about them.  I hope to change that.  For the regular teachers who pass by this blog, I apologize if I've ever seemed too critical.  So many great teachers are a positive influence on me and serve as models for me everyday.  What Good Teachers Do... will be a series dedicated to them.


image: microsoft

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Practice Math with Penguins

This activity comes courtesy of Erica Bohrer and her first grade class.   She helped her students practice their math skills by having them create penguins and write an addition sentence to go with their creation.  Kids love penguins and making art projects, so I’m sure this was a big hit.   Her blog showcases some nice examples how this pretty simple project makes a great hallway display of student work.

She also provides a download link for the activity.  The TeachersPayTeachers link allows you to get the entire download for free.  It includes:
·      full instructions for the activity
·      traceable templates for students to create the penguins and fish
·      sheets for students to write their word problems to go with their pictures

Always on the lookout for more creative classroom activities,


image:  microsoft

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Free, Printable Black History Worksheets

Schoodoodle has a free, printable booklet full of worksheets about African-American historical figures.  This is perfect not only for Black History Month lessons, but also for any time you want reading comprehension activities or a spotlight on important people in American history.

The booklet contains exercises on people like:
... and many more!
Not only do the worksheets include reading comprehension skill questions, vocabulary practice, etc. but they also include writing prompts that make extensions easy for each activity.  Thanks to Schoodoodle for providing the resource!


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Win a School Garden from Welch’s!

The 2nd Annual Welch’s Harvest Grants Program is underway, which means an opportunity to win a garden for your school is right at your fingertips.  Simply register and apply for the Harvest Grant, and you could help your school be one of 100 to be awarded a garden.  The deadline for submission is February 11.


image: Microsoft

Monday, February 7, 2011

Register for a Live Webcast Celebrating Freedom Rides

The National Museum of American History is presenting a live webcast on Feb. 9 that is available for middle and high school classrooms.  From the website:  "Freedom Rides veterans Congressman John Lewis, D-GA, Diane Nash, Jim Zwerg, and Reverend James Lawson will share how they became involved in the Freedom Rides and how their lives were affected by them. They will join filmmaker Stanley Nelson and scholar Raymond Arsenault to discuss the meaning of the Freedom Rides and the role of young people in shaping America’s past and future."

Register here for the webcast, a teacher's guide, and view this special video about the Freedom Rides, an important part of American history:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Are Black Authors in Your Class Library?

Black History Month gives an opportunity to assess how much diversity we promote each day.  If you look in your classroom library, do you know how many black authors are represented?  If you were asked to list some of your favorite black authors of children books, or some popular books for children with black characters, could you readily respond?

If you need some help in this area, try The Brown Bookshelf is the place for you.  As I posted during Hispanic Heritage Month, it's good to have a list of books that showcase diversity for your students.  The Brown Bookshelf provides just that, complete with author interviews, book reviews and tons of information about black authors and illustrators.  If you're looking for books about black characters or by black authors and illustrators, chances are likely that this blog can help you in your quest.  The blog also is making February their 28 Days Later initiative , which they describe as "a month-long showcase of the best in Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels written and illustrated by African Americans."

I'm always impressed when I visit classes and schools that have a broad representation of authors and characters in their books:  male and female, different cultures and ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, etc.  It's part of helping students become better readers and recognizing the value in people's differences.  The Brown Bookshelf is just one resource that helps teachers in that regard.


image:  microsoft

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wintery Inference Activity for Primary Grades

Babbling Abby put together a fun lesson for her first-graders about making inferences.  Inspired by the snowy season, she challenged her class to become “Inference Investigators,” with her lesson including a case file with clues for her students to piece together.  After working collaboratively, students were able to create a timeline of events based on the inferences they made about their clues.  Sounds like an engaging, effective lesson to me!  Check out her blog post for a detailed description of the lesson.

Babbling Abby has the entire printable lesson plan for this activity available for purchase on TeachersPayTeachers.  You could also use her lesson as inspiration and adapt it to fit the needs of your class.  I’ve always liked the idea of teaching inferences through “detective/mystery” concepts because I think that kids respond well to that type of challenge.

Stay warm!


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Turn Broken Crayons into a Valentine Craft


I found this interesting Valentine’s Day activity that’s both practical and eye-catching.  It’s practical because, around this time in the year, elementary classes often have tons of broken crayons that will be discarded, lost or replaced.  This project gives you an opportunity to make use of those all broken and stunted crayons that are probably collecting in a big tub, or in students’ pencil boxes.

The project is eye-catching because the little heart-shaped creations are colorful, artistic and would make good non-candy gifts for a classroom party. 
Pink and Green Mama made a thorough description of the melted crayon hearts project (also click here).  Look how pretty!  All that’s really necessary are sorted crayons (challenge students to peel off the paper during free time), a baking sheet, some vegetable spray, and a place to cool.  The melting process is a pretty quick one!

Here is another good example.

I also found this helpful description on  Marilyn Brackney gives some good tips on combining the colors in the baking sheet:  she advises you to stick to putting colors close together on the color wheel in the same mold, which creates prettier mixes in the final products.

The good thing about this project is that long after Valentine’s Day is over, students can keep and use the heart-shaped crayons for their coloring.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Decorate Your Door for Black History Month

Check out this inspirational Schooltube video from Edwards Middle School.  In it, you see footage of the entire school participating in a door-decorating contest to celebrate Black History Month.  Each class chose a person to highlight, worked together on different components of their door design, and showcased their best efforts for judging.  

I like this project because it provides a good research activity, gets students working actively and cooperatively, and it gets the whole school involved in acknowledging an essential part of American history.  Plus, I bet the kids had some fun!  Another good thing is that the concept could be adapted to fit any other special concept you want students to highlight (for instance, a time period in history or an author study).  

I also found another good link with a door decorated to resemble a book by a Black author.  Could you organize this activity for your school or grade?  How great would it be to have students take a tour of the Black History Month “exhibits” and jot down notes about interesting things they learned, possibly as a springboard for further study?   How will you celebrate Black History Month?