Thursday, August 19, 2010

First Day of School Vol. 3 - Waste Less Time in Class

Since I left the classroom, I have created Clickademics, a website where we film great teachers giving their most helpful lessons. One of my early observations was that each lesson only takes 5-9 minutes. I have filmed many of the lessons that I have filmed myself were ones for which I had devoted a whole class period, but they still only took 5-9 minutes on film because I could carefully choose my words and include the best examples. So if the lesson only takes 10 minutes of a class, what happens during the other 30 minutes?

Too much of the class day is spent on tasks of little academic value. Quieting down the class, making announcements, collecting papers, quieting down the class, passing out papers, answering questions, and quieting down the class. Instead of making yourself do all of the work, show the students how to take care of it themselves by establishing a routine. If every student knows what to do when class starts, where to turn in papers, where to find answers, then they don't need to slow down class asking you, and you are no longer a bottle neck. But these routines have to start on day one.

I recommend that you imagine all of the tasks that happen regularly in a classroom. Then think of an efficient way to do each task and never deviate. Students should be using their problem solving on class projects, not finding the stapler. They should use their questions on clarifying the material in class, not asking when homework is due. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Always have a seating chart. Always.
  2. Start every class period with an activity. Post a math problem, short writing assignment, or open ended question on the board each day. When students come to class, have them all open a certain notebook and do the warm up exercise. It will get their brains ready to learn, keep them from being bored, and help start class on time. Periodically, check their notebooks and give credit for keeping up with the exercises.
  3. Use mailboxes. As I wrote in an earlier post, creating cereal box mailboxes was one of the best teaching ideas I ever had. If every student has a mailbox in the classroom, you can distribute instructions, hand out announcements, and return graded work without taking any class time. Make it the students' first stop as they arrive in class so that they can pick up everything they need before class starts.
  4. Have a system for handing in work. Now, this is a little trickier because your system will depend on your students. If you teach high school, then an "In" box on your desk and a digital drop box on your class website should work fine. High school students should be responsible and self-motivated enough to take care of their own work since they will need to do this in college and the workplace. I, however, taught middle school, and I often had students that skipped work. I also had students who could swear they turned in the work but later found it stuffed in their backpacks. My system - students put the day's work on the corner of their desks as they worked on their warm-up exercises. I would walk through the room and pick up each student's work. If a student did not have the work, I would give him or her a late work receipt, proof for me and a reminder for the student. I could take roll as I walked the class, too.
  5. Post the week's work and all upcoming projects clearly. I posted this every Monday and required students to write it all down in a notebook. This can be done more electronically much faster and more efficiently, but students should still get used to using a calendar and To Do list since it will be a useful habit later in life.
  6. Use webpages, email, and social media. Offload as much as possible to the web where students can get answers when they need them and parents can know what is happening in class. Since the mid '90s, I had a class website where I posted a homework calendar, instructions for projects, PowerPoint slideshows from my lectures, and helpful lessons. I encouraged students to email me: they could get immediate answers so that they could keep up with their work, I spent less time answering question in class, and quieter students could get equal time as the outgoing students. And since students often asked the same questions, I could copy and paste one answer and use it again. If I were in the class today, I would use a class Facebook page and Twitter to send out reminders, hints, and answers to common questions. A Google calendar that could sync with the students' own calendars could instantly replace the student's paper homework notebook.
  7. Have an "Ask Two, Then Me" policy. I was surprised how many student questions were about topics we had already covered. If a student had a question, he or she should ask two neighbors before asking me. This answered most students' questions and did not require me to stop what I was doing.
If you want more hints, check out The New Teacher's Complete Sourcebook - highly rated my other users.

Friday, July 23, 2010

First Day of School Vol. 2 - The Name Game

It was the first day of a new semester, and I did not know where to go. I was taking education classes towards my credential, and I stopped at the reception desk to ask where the class met. There was a man in a sports coat standing nearby, and he said, "You must be Bradley. I'll walk with you to class."

At first, I was stunned. Then, when he introduced himself and told me that he was the professor of the class, I was amazed. When he later told the class how he already knew everyone's names, I was sold.

First, he explained how knowing students' names on the first day of class is incredibly useful. On one hand, it shows that you care about the students as individuals. They are important enough that you already know who they are. On the other hand, it puts them on notice that you are prepared, and you don't mess around. It sets a tone that time is important, and the first day should not be wasted with introductions.

Learning the students' names immediately shows the students that you are nurturing and no-nonsense at the same time.

My professor knew my name because he had memorized everyone's name before class started. He used a mnemonic device. He paired something he knew well, in this case his favorite golf course, with something he did not know, the students' names. It worked well since there were roughly 18 students in the class and 18 holes on the course. He recommend that we pair the known and unknown in a memorable, even silly way. For instance, hole #4 has many sand traps which reminds him of Sandra, or he always plays hole #12 badly which reminds him of the name Bradley. And how did he know my name at the reception desk having never met me? There were only two men in the course, and I did not look like I would be names "Carlos."

So what can you do, especially if you have a lot me students than 18? Make a seating chart for the first day. Don't put the students in alphabetical order, though. Every other teacher does that, and the kids at the end of the alphabet are tired of sitting together in the back. But do make a pattern that you makes sense to you, like shorter names on the left of the room, or names that rhyme nearby. Hint: don't put students with the same name next to each other because it will be hard to call on one and not the other. Study the list of names before the first day of class. It will impress the students when you ask them by name about their day, or you say, "It is time to start, but we seem to be missing Rachel. Has anyone seen her?"

Two more tips: get a copy of last year's yearbook and try to match faces to names. You can even xerox the pages, cut out the faces, and place them on your seating chart. Secondly, don't ask last year's teachers about your new students. If a student earned a bad reputation in the previous class, give him or her a chance to grow up over the summer and have a fresh start. Besides, you'll know who the trouble-makers are in the first two days.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

First Day of School Vol. 1 - Self-Assessment

Teaching is an unforgiving profession; mistakes made at the beginning of the year can take months to undo. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate about the impression we give on the first day.

Even though we are in the middle of summer, it is not too early to prepare for school. In fact, if you have some new, exciting things to try, you are going to look forward to school starting again instead of dreading the end of vacation.

First, spend some time thinking about the impression you want to give on the first day. When you students go home, what will they say when their folks ask, "What is your teacher like?" There is not one right answer: you need to match your first impression to your strengths. If you are more professional and no-nonsense, it would not be helpful to seem nurturing and casual on day one. If you have a big heart unlimited patience for your students, don't let anyone tell you, "No smiling until winter break." You and your students will have a miserable Fall.

Before I share any of the lessons I learned from your 14 first days of school, ask yourself how you stand on these topics:

Love 'em up, their just kids.....................................................Tough, no-nonsense

Students are responsible for themselves...................................Strict daily routine

There's more to education.........................................................Time is short, we have a
than getting through the textbook                                             lot to learn to get to our goal

It will mean more if they discover it                         I know what lies ahead, and I want to prepare them

There are great teachers at both ends of the spectrum, and many of us try to live in the middle and get the best of each. Give yourself an honest assessment and build a classroom that plays to your strengths and lets the students develop their strengths as well.

By the way, if you have never seen Harry Wong, you are missing out. He is the master at creating a happy, healthy, productive classroom. We watched his video series at a staff in-service, and he really inspired every teacher in the room, especially me.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rethinking Final Exams

It's Spring time, and while the students think that summer is almost here, you see final exams looming up ahead. Before you make a multiple choice test that covers every topic for the whole year, consider the purpose of a final.

A final exam should assess the student's mastery of the material and readiness to move on to the next class. A final should not be a painful rite of passage. A long test that asks the student to regurgitate information rewards students for cramming facts into their short term memory. Furthermore, some students just take tests well - they have that type of intelligence. Getting an A on a multiple choice does not necessarily mean that the student has fully comprehended the information from the class.

Start by writing down what a student should know at the end of your class. If a successful student were to leave your class, what skills would she master? What skills should she be familiar with? What facts should she know?

Now, think broadly about assessments. What would a student need to do to show that he really learned the important lessons from your course? Perhaps the student could make a movie, a timeline, a mural, a one act play. Consider asking the student to make a Facebook fan page for a person from history, a literary character, an important mathematician, or foreign country. Board games, trivia games, and Jeopardy are all fun ways for students to show off their knowledge. Paired with an essay or some other written portion, you should be able to judge if the student has comprehended the content at least as well as a traditional exam.

When you make a final assessment more authentic, the students will enjoy pouring more effort into it. If you give your students a choice, each one can select a project that fits with his or her learning style. Yes, these projects may take longer to grade, but when have you ever taken the easy way out?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Quick Grading Tip

Every time I collected a set of essays or projects, I always told myself that I would grade them quickly. Once I started, though, I found myself writing a comment here, making a correction there. My drive to help my students told me to give specific help to each student, but the clock told me that I did not have time to spend fifteen minutes on every student's paper and project.

Here is a way to give helpful advice quickly. Use the "Find" and "Replace" function on your computer.

Grading on the computer is terrific because your comments look more professional than writing in red pen. You have a permanent record of comments for later reference or parent conferences. In fact, if a parent emails you with a question about an assignment, you can simply copy and paste the grade and comments into the email.

I have noticed that when grading an assignment, most students seem to make the same mistakes. When writing comments by hand, I seem to write "Avoid Run-On Sentences" or "Remember to Add a Topic Sentence" several times. Instead of writing the same ten comments over and over, I just assign them a number.

Make a list of positive and negative comments that you think that you will write. You may need to skim a few papers first, and you can always add to the list as you grade. Assign each comment a number (a two digit number works best). As you grade the papers or projects, type the number of the comment that fits the paper - I usually like to give one positive comment and two things for the student to work on. When find an unusual project, you might need to type a comment by hand (be sure to only use words and not numbers; I will explain why later.)

At the end of grading, you will have each student's name, a grade, and a few numbers that represent comments on your list. Now is the fun part, highlight the comment numbers and hold down "CTRL" ("CMND" on a Mac) and "h". This is the "find and replace" function. In the field for "find," type the number of the first command, like "50." In the "replace" field, type our the comment, like "Great use of quotes from the text." Now every student who had a "50" next to his or her name has the comment typed out. Do that for all of the codes, and you have specific comments for each student. You can now print them out, cut them into strips, and staple them to the students' papers.

Here are some things to make it work smoothly:

  • Do your work in Excel and import your students' names from an electronic copy of your roster.
  • If you are using a rubric (and you should be), make a column for each graded item. (Introduction: 8, Organization:10, Spelling and Grammar: 18). As long as the number grade is in its own column, Excel can add up the total grade for you. Again, be sure that the number grades do not conflict with the comment numbers.
  • Use two digit numbers - if you use "2" for a comment, you might replace part of "12" by accident.
  • If you want to be really fancy, print them on labels and stick them to the paper or project.
  • Can families check grades on you school's website? See if there is a field where you can paste a copy of your grade comments.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Not Sure if Students are Doing the Reading? Let Them Prove it.

Since I taught literature, my students always had a novel that they should be reading at home, but I never knew for sure if they were keeping up with the reading. The common solution to this problem is the periodic reading comprehension test.

I gave many of these, but they took a lot of class time, they took even more time to grade, and they didn't always accomplish my goal. Some students did the reading but happened to skip over an important fact that was on the quiz. Other students, often the ones who struggled, spent twice as much time reading, but their poor test taking skills got in their way and earned them a grade that looked like they skipped the reading. Conversely, too many students did skip the reading but looked at plot summaries online or asked friends about the plot. These students often earned better grades than many of the students who completed the assignment.

One day, while I was trying to solve this problem, I realized that it's not my problem, it's the students'. The next day when I assigned the next week's reading, I asked the students if they liked reading comprehension quizzes. Of course, they did not. I then informed them that it would be up to them to prove to me that they read the assignment. I wanted to really push their problem solving skills, so I make half of the grade based on how effectively they proved that they read. The other half? how creative their solution was. One could also make it a contest to see which student or which class came up with the best solution.

I have never had students devote more effort to a reading assignment. Far more students completed the reading than usual. Unfortunately, some students lacked creativity, turning in notes from their mommies stating that they had done the reading. I also had a few that made a poster because at our school, they had done so many posters over the years that the word "project" = "poster." Conversely, I had very fun, unusual submissions. One student wrote his own quiz and then took it. A few students made home movies acting out the plot. One student did the same thing but with animated stick figures. One swore an oath on a Bible while another tape recorded herself reading the whole chapter aloud - I fast forwarded to the end. My favorite was a student who took a photograph every ten minutes of herself reading with a clock in the background; you could see the turned pages staking up as the clock hand moved.

Obviously, students in school need to write essays and take tests. But often, there is a fun and creative alternative to boring busy work. Instead of asking students to write the answer to a question, have them give the answer in anything except words. Or have them write a poem, act it out in class, or send it in a text message. Many students are so bored with the same old assignments that they really appreciate a teacher that does something unexpected.

And if you just have to give reading comprehension quizzes, roll a die or flip a coin right before the quiz to see which classes have to take it. The students think it is great because they don't have to take a quiz, but they still had to prepare for it, and you have half as many quizzes to grade.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Get A Handle On Late Work

Late work. Ugh. Why do I have to spend extra time grading late work just because the student did not spend time doing the work when it was due?

Look at late work a different way. Homework due dates are a way for us to help our students learn responsibility when the stakes are low so that they are prepared for the real world when the stakes are high. If a student loses a letter grade in my class because of missed deadlines, hopefully that student will learn her lesson and not ruin her credit as an adult because of missed payments. Isn't that worth an hour or two each week?

For most homework assignments, I simply deducted 10% per day for two days. Whatever system you use, make sure that the penalties motivate the students without destroying their grades due to one bad night. Otherwise, here are some ways that I learned over the years to juggle late work.

  • Eliminate arguments - get a date stamp. You do not want to debate with a student about whether an assignment was late or not, especially at the end of the quarter when grades are due. I had a date stamp that I would use on any paper that was not submitted on the due date, and I would be sure to note if the student was absent or had another reason for turing in the assignment late.
  • Late work receipts - for student and teacher. I taught middle school, so I wanted to provide a little extra support since my students were a little young for a sink-or-swim approach to late work. I printed out a form, three to a page. On the left of the form, there was a place for the student to write his or her name, the assignment, the due date, the excuse for being late, and day when he or she planned on turning it in. On the right side of the form was a tear off receipt where the student wrote the same information. When I walked around class collecting homework, I would give a form to each student who did not complete the assignment. The  student could keep half as a reminder to finish the work. I could keep the other half in case I needed to remind the student to turn in the work the next day. When the assignment was turned in, I would staple my receipt to the work to remind the student that the work had been turned in late.
  • Just don't accept late work - the nice way. One of the best moments in my teaching, which I will write about another time, was when I gave a series of interesting and effective projects. Over a number of weeks, the students had to turn in six out of seven projects, so everyone got a rest week. Responsible students could save the rest week until the end, many students would use the rest week in the middle when they were having a busy time, and other students used it up at the beginning. Either way, projects were due on time, or they became the rest week (absent students could email projects or send them with someone already coming to school). A second missing project would earn a zero.  It made things a lot simpler. This plan works well for homework assignments too - anything where the students must turn in several items but can skip one without missing an important learning experience.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Simplest and Best Teaching Idea I Ever Had

In my first two years of teaching, I noticed that I was wasting a great deal of time every week passing out papers. Every teacher knows that idle students mean trouble, so I either had to give the students busy work while I passed out papers, or I had to do it fast, hoping that the students would not resort to spit balls.

My solution? At the beginning of my third year of teaching, I asked all of the students to bring cereal boxes. When I had enough, I made them into mailboxes. I cut off three of the top flaps, put them in stacks of similar size, and stapled them together. At the end, I had a bank of mailboxes 10 high and 15 wide on the back counter of my classroom.

After exporting the students' names from my grade book, I color coded them by class, alphabetized by their last name, and imported them into file folder labels. Each student had his or her own mailbox in my classroom.

If I had graded papers to return, they just went into the mailboxes. Happily, students' grades were more private so that a student with a very low or very high grade on a test did not feel self conscience. If I had an assignment or project instructions to distribute, they would go in the mailboxes, and I could be confident that each student had a copy. I made sure to have multiple hole punchers and recycling bins nearby so that students could put papers in the proper place.

The last unexpected benefit was that students who caused delays in class because of minor discipline issues or tardiness could make up for my wasted time by stuffing mailboxes after school.

A few years later, my cereal box idea was so successful that the school bought me more permanent paper organizing boxes. They looked a little more professional, but they lacked that DIY charm of the cereal boxes.

Monday, February 22, 2010

How Teachers Can Use

Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king whose punishment from the gods was to roll a huge stone to the top of  a hill everyday. At the end of each day, the stone rolled to the bottom of the hill, ready for the next day's rolling. If you think about it, teaching can be very Sisyphusian. If you have several sections of the same subject, you teach the same lesson several times a day, you review it later in the week, you review it again before the test, and you still have to start the process over again the next year. This doesn't even include the absent students.

I created  my website Clickademics to do some of the repetition automatically, freeing teachers up for more creative projects and more individualized help. I film teachers giving their best lessons and make them available to students online.

Here are some ways that Clickademics can help teachers be more effective:

  • If an upcoming exam covers material that is in a Clickademics lesson, the teacher can link to the video lessons as a study aid.
  • If a student is struggling with a basic concept, and the teacher cannot take class time to go over it again, the teacher can direct the student to the lesson so that he or she can review at home.
  • If students are absent, the teacher can have them review online at home instead of staying after school for a make-up lesson. This is especially helpful in schools where student athletes often miss the last class of the day to travel for a game since these athletes can rarely stay after class since it would conflict with sports practice.
  • All students have different learning styles, and some students benefit from hearing a lesson taught in multiple ways.
More and more, teachers are encouraged to provide two challenging classroom experiences: more project based learning and differentiated learning. The problem for teachers is that hands-on, creative projects take a great deal of class time, and differentiated learning requires multiple lesson plans to help students with different learning styles and abilities. If the students could learn the basics using online-video, there could be more class time for these effective yet complicated lessons and projects.

Of course, all classroom concepts can be found in the textbook, but all experienced teachers know that the students who really need help with the material rarely go home and read everything they should. Online video is a much more effective teaching tool.

If you want to learn more about project based learning and differentiated instruction, check out these books: