Monday, March 28, 2005

Tip #3: Say what you mean and mean what you say

It is a rainy start to Spring Break here. Luckily by this time to tomorrow I'm supposed to be in Texas, shopping with my mom and eating all the refried beans I desire.

For now, here's a tip I learned the hard way:

Every teacher has his or her own personality. Everybody knows that. You have to discover what works for you and stick with it. Few people recommend faking it because the kids notice when you are being insincere. That said, even if you are a jokester you must be careful.

Students like to know they will be respected. If you want to have a classroom where people are engaged and taking risks, the students must feel safe. If you've chosen to become a teacher, you can assume you respect kids. You have to show that respect, though, and kids can interpret things differently. For that reason, I recommend holding off on sarcasm until you really, really know your kids (and maybe still holding off, even then.)

When I was in high school, I completely understood sarcasm. My friends and I made sarcastic jokes all the time. I didn't realize until I was a teacher that most kids do NOT get sarcasm or irony at ALL. This is why their English teachers have to point it out to them all the time. I think Piaget would back me up on this as well. Since the kids aren't in the final state of operations, they see everything as black or white. There is no reason for saying one thing and meaning something else. Additionally, there are certain forms of autism that allow only for literal comprehension, and we are seeing more of those students in our classrooms.

When I was student teaching, I learned that sarcastic remarks were highly insulting to my students. Sometimes I wasn't meaning to insult them at all, and at other times I was just trying to tease them a little. Either way, it didn't work. The kids simply felt they were being made fun of. And, if students feel their teacher is making fun of the students, everything else hits the fan. A culture of disrespect is born. The kids will then insult the teacher and each other. (and they are good at it too! It can sting!). In fact, I think it opens the door for students to play with their own forms of sarcastic comments. They say rude things to one another and then say "I was just kidding!" or "That's not what I really meant!" If you have found yourself using the same excuses in your classroom, it looks hypocritical when you tell your students that it isn't an acceptable excuse for them to use.

To take it a step farther, this kind of kidding can be a safety issue. Many of our schools have adopted "zero tolerance" policies. Just "kidding" about wanting to shoot one is not acceptable. I have also seen students literally come to blows about something that was really just a miscommunication.

It doesn't set a great tone for academic learning either. A lot of times, I would exagerate a story to make a point, but some kids didn't pick up on the fact that I was kidding. Later, I would read in their essays about Teddy Roosevelt eating 7 dozen eggs (he only ate 1 dozen, which is still not great but....) or some other joke.

I find it is most efficient to say what I mean and mean what I say. Even with my so-called "gifted and talented" kids, I can't always be assured they will understand the real meaning of my words and it is just not worth the risk. It's fun to joke around with the kids sometimes, but we must find a way to do it that allows everyone to feel safe and respected. If you want to make fun of someone, make fun of yourself. All other subjects are off-limits.

Monday, March 21, 2005

No comment

This post has been censored by the author in an attempt to only post positively.

I hope to return tomorrow with Tip #3: When to use sarcasm in the classroom (Never. Ever.)

And then, well, I'm just going to have to post about what is going on at my school right now. It can't be ignored. Maybe I'll come up with a positive way to spin it in the meantime.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Steroids, Baseball, and Congress

Am I the only one wondering what in the world Congress is doing? I don't understand why they are holding these hearings on steroids in the major leagues. I don't like steroids and I don't think baseball players should use them. In fact, I think a lot is wrong with baseball right now, and I've shown my lack of support by refusing to attend the games here in town. I think the baseball players ought to be treated like any other drug users. But since when has Congress called up drug users to testify? Aren't there more important things to deal with? War, for instance? Or education, for another? Congress should let the local authorities do their jobs and find someone else to pick on.

My guess is this is just a big publicity attempt. All the congressmen/women on the committee will be featured on their hometown local news tonight in a story about how they are "cracking down" on drugs in our country. It is sure to feature a soundbite from the local representative chastising the players. I heard a tiny piece of the hearings today at the local coffee shop (we do NOT have cable) and they sounded just like I expected...a bunch of hogwash.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The winter blahs are melting with the snow

I blogged last month about the February Funk and the havoc it wreaks on teachers. Looking around the blogosphere, it's evident that we have moved on to March. Post-hip Chick is having a much better week, thanks to her kind and understanding 1st/2nd period. Polski3's View from Here is trying to blog positively. Amy of Amy Knits Texas seems to have her family feeling better and has an adorable spring dress in the works for her daughter. Ahora vamos a contar got some uplifting test results from her students and has decided to stick with her job for another year. What in Tarnation is looking forward to July when the next Harry Potter comes out. (I'm so excited it comes out on a non-school night -- I definitely plan on attending the release party at the local Borders!)

Hope the second half of everyone's week gets even better!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Drumroll.....It's tip #2

Listen up people. Tip #2 is for those of you that teach classes that are "regular" or "standard" or "below level" or whatever your district calls them. I don't use these strategies as much with Gifted and Talented kids because what GT really means these days is motivated, and today's tip deals with unmotivated students.

Still with me?

I learned the hard way while student teaching that assessment and grading can play a significant role in classroom management. While teaching, I was so overwhelmed with everything (my mentor teacher was actually on maternity leave, so I was completely on my own from day 1) that grading was usually the last thing I got to on the to-do list. I was too concerned with learning the material, organizing lesson plans, attending the required intern courses at night, etc. As a result, things piled up. When I actually sat down to grade papers I had all sorts of stacks. Some, I thought, were kids that turned things in late, or were absent, but I wasn't sure. Also, there were plenty of kids that had not turned in an assignment or two. When I gave them an updated grade at the quarter and half-quarter mark, they were often shocked (or pretended to be shocked) at their grades. "How could I have a D??!! There's no way!" When I explained they were missing an assignment they would claim they didn't know about it or give some other lame excuse that we've all heard before.

Additionally, because I was usually so far behind in grading, I often didn't collect assignments at all. I'd just let the kids "hang on to them for now." The students picked up on that pretty quickly and their first question on any assignment became "Are you collecting this?" They stopped doing their work because they didn't think I would collect it, or if I did they knew they could turn it in late and I would never notice because by the time I got to grading it I couldn't remember if they were legitimately absent or what.

And, as you know, when kids stop doing their work, nothing else goes right either. And that's what happened. Teenagers think in the here and now. They must have immediate consequences for their behavior or they don't see the connection. They needed to see that the work they did was impacting them right away.

When I started my own classroom, I started fresh with these rules.

1. I keep the papers organized. I set up a plastic crate to keep all papers in. Their is a hanging divider for each class period. Any time a class turns in an assignment, I put it in a file folder and put it in the tub. I also have one file folder labeled "old" for each class. Assignments that are turned in after the others have already been graded go in that file.

2. I collect everything. I tell the students on the first day of class not to even bother asking. I will collect ALL of it. Here's the catch: some of it I just collect to see if they did it or not. I simply give a check, check-minus, or no grade at all. These are papers that we usually end up going over at some point. Then, they can make sure all of their answers are correct. But at least I know they attempted it. Sometimes, if I want to go over the answers on the same day, I walk around the room and check them off. Other assignments I collect and grade word-for-word. Those are given a number grade. And actually, I have to admit, by the end of the year I might occasionally not collect something, but the kids don't notice. They've gotten into the habit of doing the work and knowing they'll be held accountable.

3. I grade just about everything the same day that I collect it. Now, I'll be the first to admit that doesn't always happen. And obviously, with essays or other involved projects the kids might have to wait one or two weeks, even. But anything that can be graded in the short-term is. When I record it, I put a tiny dot in the gradebook if the person was absent from class. Since I am doing this on the same day, I can actually REMEMBER whether the kid was absent or just didn't hand it in. If they didn't hand something in, I mark it as a 0 right then. I make the 0 really big though, so that I can enter a grade later if the assignment is handed in. Then it looks like a number with a circle around it, indicating that the assignment was handed in late. (This helps during conferences when a parents asks how many assignments their child has turned in late.

4. I return the graded work the next day while students are working on their drill. This way, they see the immediate consequences of what they did the day before. It also usually ends with a student who was previously absent saying "oh, did you collect that yesterday? I need to turn mine in." I would never remember to ask for it on my own.

5. I have rules about turning in work and I stick with them. All absent work must be turned in within 3 days of an absence or it becomes a 0. Obviously, I make exceptions for kids that are out for a week with mono. I take late work only one day late and for half credit. This is a pretty harsh rule and I would definitely relax it for younger kids, but my students are a year away from college or the real world and they should learn now. When I first told my department head that I was instigating this policy, he told me I was crazy, that the kids would fail, and that if parents complained he wouldn't back me up. Well, I've been using the policy for 1 and 1/3 years and no one has filed a complaint yet. The policy is made clear to students AND parents at the beginning of the course.

6. I give students grade updates almost every week. When I started teaching, I investigated lots of gradebook programs and eventually invested my money in FirstClass. One reason I like it is that it will print out little grade summaries for each student, about 8 students to a page. Every Saturday morning, I enter the grades for the week and print out new slips. (This is also usually when I go through the 'old' file for each class and grade late/absent work.) The kids get the slips on Monday morning. I think this has helped immensely. Once again, the kids see immediate consequences. They also see how their grade fluctuates from week to week. ("Whoa! I didn't turn in that one assignment and now I have a D!") Also, no surprises means no arguing at the end of the quarter, and it means I can alert parents to negative trends before it is too late.

7. Eleventh graders are not too old for positive reinforcement. A's on tests result in stickers on papers. Also, I use their work to decorate my bulletin board. Any time we do something creative, I put the best work on the bulletin board. If you make it to the board, you get extra credit. This rewards the kids who do well and shows the other students what "creativity" looks like. I find it very hard to explain that to them, but when they see the work they understand what they could have done to make their paper better. Before and after class, students hover around the board to see "who made it" and brag about their accomplishments.

I hope some of these tips help people out there. Different things work for different people, and it's probably most important that you design something that works for you and stick with it. Please feel free to share comments or questions.

Monday, March 14, 2005

More warm fuzzies...

Another day, another reason to teach.

Today in U.S. History we were learning about WW2 propaganda. Another of my favorite lessons! I have a whole slew of posters we look at and evaluate. It is one of the few times I can do nothing but stand up front and lead a discussion for the entire period with my standard classes and not lose the kids.

Several of the posters are great examples of the attitudes towards women of the time: You can be strong, independent, but you must look like a woman and you must remember you are doing it only with men's permission and for the men. Someday you will just be a pretty gal again.

One student raised her hand and said, "Well, okay....You know those other countries in the world today, that like, won't let women do certain things and the men are in control of their families and everything else...Did we used to be like that?"

Now, a lot of people would be flabbergasted that she wasn't aware. And they'd be sad. But this is a younger generation and her comment makes me happy in two ways: First, she sees such equal opportunities in her life that she's not aware that we used to be that way. She's not aware of the struggle of women because she hasn't had to struggle herself. I think it shows we have made progress.

Secondly, if she wasn't in my class today, she might have gone on much longer in her life completely unaware of the history of women in America (true, she should have already known some of this from earlier in the course, but these kids really struggle, so let' s be positive!). Today, I can rest assured that I did in fact make a difference. I did teach someone something they didn't know!

Tip #2 is coming up... It's all about how grading can affect behavior in your class.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Everyone knows about the Puffs Plus right?

The fact that newer or prospective teachers could be reading my blog got me thinking: What kinds of advice do I have to share with them after two whole years in the classroom? So, for the next few days, I'm going to be a good example and provide support for fellow teachers instead of griping about some of the problems at my school right now (like my 10th graders cheating on their reading quiz, staff reduction, annoying childish teachers..oh wait, focus Abigail, FOCUS).

So, here's tip #1:

Tip number one is all about practicality. If you have chalkboards in your classroom, you know that erasers do absolutely no good. Instead, you should use Puffs Plus tissues to clean your board. I'm assuming most of you already know this because good teaching tricks tend to spread like wildfire. If you don't already use them, though, I highly recommend it. You cannot use Puffs with Aloe, or Superduper Kleenex, or any other kind. It must be Puffs Plus. Try it! They clean the board better than soap and water.

Monday, March 07, 2005

You know you work in pressure-driven school when...

You pass out updated grade slips to the students, and a tenth grader starts to cry when she sees she has a B. This isn't a FINAL quarter grade, people, just her grade so far with several weeks left to go. I know I should be thankful for working in such a great school, but to a certain extent, things can go overboard sometimes. This kind of pressure is one of the reasons academic dishonesty has become such a problem at my school.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

And they're off and reading, folks!

Yesterday I promised to discuss my reading unit and I'm sure all of you have been sitting on the edge of your chairs wanting to know more, so here it is:

My tenth grade world history is labeled "gifted and talented." All of these students are headed for college, where they will be expected to read "trade books" in addition to textbooks. Additionally, most of these kids are taking AP social studies classes over the next two years. Unfortunately, even though AP is supposed to be college level, it is too focused on test preparation to waste time reading a book. So, I see it as my duty to teach them how to read a history book. This is not found anywhere in the curriculum, so I've designed the entire thing on my own, with assistance from our English department chair.

I don't want to name the book we read in this post because I fear that my students will google the name and happen upon my blog. The book is about a scientist/mathematician during the Scientific Revolution. It is written by Dava Sobel. It can be found listed as one of my favorite books in my blogger profile. I chose this book because it has many things going on at once. I tell the students that they may not find every single part interesting, but they will find a lot of it interesting. This is only my second year to do this, but last year it worked fairly well. I gave students a survey at the end of the unit and most of them at least felt that it wasn't any worse than what we normally do. Many students admitted that it changed they way they viewed history or what they thought historians "did." Below, I'm listing a few things I did that have seemed to work:

I get their attention their very first day with a photograph of the scientist's old, shriveled up finger which is on display in a museum in Florence. After the students are done being grossed out, they invariably ask "Why would anyone do that?" "Ahhh," I say. "Why would they? We'll talk about that at the end of the book."

I break the book up into "strands." Strands are like themes found throughout the book. Obviously there is a historical strand. The book gives us a good idea on how the Black Plague and the Council of Trent affected citizens, among many other things, and it uses primary documents to do so. There is also a science/mathematical strand focusing on the the various theories of the time, proof for the theories, etc. There is a gender or sociological strand that focuses on what life was like for people during the time period, what a "family" was, what options were available to women during the time period, etc. And finally, there is a philosophical/religious strand that deals with truth (what is it?), reason, faith, the struggles of the Catholic Church, etc.

I give students choice and ownership by allowing them to choose one strand they are most interested in. Of course, everyone is expected to read for a historical perspective, but beyond that they can choose one from among the three others to focus on. (Interesting/sad sidenote here: Last year I called the gender/sociological strand the feminist/sociological strand, and very few kids signed up. This year the name change meant that an equal number of kids signed up for each group.)

I provide thought questions ahead of time. Some questions are dealt with for the entire book while others only focus on one of the six parts that Sobel has divided the book into. I also have about 10 vocabulary words for each part that I feel are essential for understanding within the context of the writing. For instance, in the first chapter, legitimate is used to refer to the fact that the scientists' children are born out of wedlock. That has major ramifications for their future.

I give kids time to read in class. When they see the book they are scared to death, because it is fairly long, at least in high school years. They are reading Crime and Punishment in their English class at the same time. The second day of the unit I give them the entire period to just read. (When have they ever done that in a social studies class?) I encourage them to time themselves so they can pace it out later. I give them a full reading day for all six parts of the book. Some might say an entire six days spent just reading is a waste of time, but one of my goals here is to help them adopt a positive attitude towards reading a trade book. If students are doing a nice job on the unit towards the end, I allow them to bring in cd players and snacks on reading days.

Each part culminates in a short quiz and a discussion. The quiz is not designed to be nitpicky. It's designed to make sure the kids are actually reading. You either know the answers or you don't, and it's obvious to the teacher you aren't doing the reading. For the discussions, we focus on the thought questions provided beforehand. I lead the first discussion, but after that we break up into our three strand groups and the kids take turns, in pairs, leading the discussion. Students are graded on their contributions.

Students keep all materials in a spiral notebook, separate from all other subjects. They can decorate the cover however they choose (once again supporting ownership). On the first day of the unit, we number the pages and keep a table of contents. All notes, activities, and my grades and comments on all activities are kept in this notebook.

I offer them information on different forms of taking notes. I give them advance notice to buy the book if they like to highlight. I encourage them to jot down notes in their notebook as they go along. I point out how post-its can be helpful in noting important points without breaking the flow of reading. I even buy cool Hawaiian t-shirt and girly heart post-its from Target and give them out as prizes for good comments during discussion. By the end of the book, kids have found a "groove" for taking notes and that I hope carries them into college.

It all culminates with the 5-paragraph essay, of course. And, in the end, they discover the essay I've been warning them about is a question I gave them on the first day of class that they have been taking notes on the entire time. They can use their spiral notebook while writing the essay.

There are two GT World History teachers at our school, and the other teacher does not do this. I know that I open myself up to arguments from the students since it appears to be extra work. But after spending the first day explaining why it is important and helping them get set up, I don't hear many complaints. The students see that they are spending the same amount of time reading this book as they would their regular textbook, but they find this book more interesting. I have my administration's support as well. This is partly because we do not have a standardized test for World History yet. If we did, there is no way I could do this. In essence, we are spending 4 1/2 weeks on one man (although I do give some lecture on what is going on throughout Europe during the same time period: absolutism and enlightenment). But to me, they are learning about a lot more than this once scientist because they see how history interacts. The Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Reformation all come together so well in this book. Usually, when we teach history it is compartmentalized chunks. It is worth 4 1/2 weeks to me if they understand that events don't happen in a vacuum, if they understand that history is not a textbook, if they learn the lifelong skill of reading history books.

Thanks for reading this long and rambling post. I am interested in writing up my experiences for an educational or world history journal some day. Obviously, this post is written in a much more informal manner, but any comments you have would help me in shaping a future manucript. I'll keep you updated with how this years' kids do with the unit.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A little about me...

I don't have much blogging inspiration tonight. I've used all my inspiration getting my next World History unit together. I actually have my students read a book, can you believe it?! Reading outside of English class, whoda thought? In the next few days I'll fill you in on what I do and how I do it. For now, a little information about me.

One of my friends forwarded me one of those "get to know you" emails a few days ago. I always ignore them but since it was a snow day I actually filled it out. Here are the questions and my replies, with personal information omitted.

1. What time is it? 8:19 pm
3. Nicknames: munchkin
4. Piercings: one in each ear. I used to have second holes in each but
they've closed up.
5. What is the most recent movie you've seen in the theater: The Aviator
6. Eye color: green mostly; it depends on what I'm wearing.
7. Where were you born? Clear Lake Humana Hospital; Clear Lake, Texas
8. Favorite foods: anything with cheese or chocolate
9. Ever been to Africa: No, Italy and Canada are the only foreign countries I've been to.
10. Ever been toilet papering? Oh yes. Many times. You could get 4 rolls
for 69 cents at Krogers. My high school girlfriends and I called ourselves
the paperdolls (with a logo and everything.) One time we papered a house in broad daylight!
11. Love someone so much it made you cry: sure
12. Been in a car accident: Yes. Once my sister drove into a parked car, just days after getting her license. One other time someone rear-ended me on the freeway feeder lane.
13. Croutons or bacon bits: croutons
14. Favorite day of the week: Sunday during a three day weekend or the summer
15. Favorite restaurant: Gringos Mexican Restaurant in Pearland, TX. The plato zapata comes with a chalupa, guacamole salad cheese enchiladas topped with cheese, and rice and beans. It's $6.50.
16. Favorite flower: tulips, any color
17. Favorite sport to watch: college football
18. Favorite drink: I drink water most of the time. Kahlua and milk would be second favorite.
19. Favorite ice cream: Marble Slab sweet cream in a choclate dipped waffle cone
20. Disney or Warner Brothers: Warner Bros, I guess. My children's literature class ruined Disney for me forever
21. Favorite fast food restaurant: Qdoba Burritos. Actually Freebirds is my favorite because they have spinach tortillas and refried beans, but since they are in Texas, that's not very fast is it?
22. How many times did you fail your drivers license test? Passed on the first try.
23. Before this one, from whom did you get your last e-mail: ING telling me our savings account rate went up!
24. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card: Well, I'm not sure I would be able to enjoy myself knowing I had to pay it off, but it would probably be J.Jill.
25. What do you do most often when you are bored? Check the weather online
26. Bedtime: 9:30 sharp.
30. Favorite TV shows: Gilmore Girls and Cosby Show
31. Last person you went to dinner with? my husband
32. Ford or Chevy: If I have to choose among the two, Ford, but we own two Hondas.
33. What are you listening to right now: The "Not Jazz" playlist on my husband's mp3 player, currently Patty Griffin
34. What is your favorite color: blue
35. Lake, Ocean or river: ocean
36. How many tattoos do you have: ewww.
38. Time you finished this e-mail: 8:38 pm

If your blog-surfing hasn't been quenched, I suggest you head on over to the Education Wonks page, which just posted their weekly Education carnival. I'm not sure how they find time for it, being in the teaching profession and all, but it's a great blog overall.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

And at night the dust bunnies came out and ate you...

I took a risk today and gave my students the essay part of their twenties and thirties unit exam. This was in spite of the fact that due to the snow I had not seen them since last Wednesday and today's class periods were shortened because of a delayed start. I expected lots of whining and poor test grades, but overall they have been good.

Reading essays always allows you to pick up on miscommunication and sometimes it's quite funny. Here's an example from first period:

"You might think farmers did not suffer during the depression since they grew their own food, but they suffered a lot. There was a great drought in the plains and big dust balls became a huge problem."