Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hang gliding and learning overload

This summer the one thing I wanted to do was go hang gliding. I have always dreamed of soaring in the sky and hang gliding. I've never really done anything about the dream. For a while, I thought, that's a silly dream. Then I would think, it must be really expensive to do something like that.

Anyway, I did some research and found out that it is not that expensive to go hang gliding! So, I signed up for a class! I ended up learning a bit in the class about hang gliding. More importantly, I learned about the importance of checking for understanding and creating a positive learning environment.

The night before the class I called to confirm the meeting time. My instructor seemed to have forgotten that I had paid for a lesson. He then said, why don't we meet on the coast? We were planning on meeting in central Oregon, so this was a big change from the sign up. I was able to drive to the other location, so the next morning, out I drove.

I arrived at the school, and no one was there. An hour later the instructor showed up, after a few phone calls from me. If it wasn't that I wanted to learn so badly, and had driven 2 hours to get there, I would have left. The instructor finally got there an hour late. I asked if he had forgotten. He responded with, "Well, you really have control problems don't you. You're not going to be able to fly if you have control issues"

Once the lesson started, the instructor gave me all sorts of theory about how the wings work and how flying works and every few minutes would move onto another topic. There were no questions to check if I understood. After the previous comment about my control issues, I didn't really feel like saying much else. Various times, he got frustrated and angry with how his computer was working, and would start ranting about the computer.

Then, he would move onto another topic. There was no checking for how well I was understanding. If he did ask anything, it would be, "Do you understand?" I would say yes.

Why did I say yes?
  • Because the initial presentation was so over my head, I didn't think that he would explain in a way that made sense. 
  • Because he seemed to get frustrated when I didn't understand something the first few times. 
  • Because I didn't feel comfortable saying I didn't understand. 
  • Later I thought, here I am an adult, not comfortable asking questions. How do I make sure my students are always comfortable asking questions in the classroom?

In the end I was able to do some flying and the instructor was much better once we were on the dune making my first bunny flies. I don't really have much desire to go hang gliding again. Maybe I'll try with a different instructor some day.

While I learned a bit about flying, the most important thing I learned was making sure that my students feel comfortable asking questions and the need to check for understanding in a real way. I try to do these things in my classroom anyway, but this experience just confirmed how important these skills are for student learning.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Savor the summer

What one thing do you want to do before you go back to school? What one thing would give you pleasure or help you savor the summer? If you are not sure what you should do, try something you enjoyed as a kid!

This is my last weekend before I start back in the classroom. For me, the one thing I want to do is spend time with my family and parents and play in the water on the beach. I would also like to pick blackberries and make a blackberry crisp. These are two things I really enjoyed doing as a kid during the summer time.

During August, as a kid, I would pick tons of blackberries and make a fresh pie with my mom. (I'm going for the cobbler because I am eating healthy these days, and that is a good alternative:) I grew up on an island that has a perimeter of about 1.5 miles in Washington state. (My parents still live there). On a hot day, we would walk around the island and find a blackberry patch. Then we'd pick tons of berries. Most of the berries went in my mouth, and just enough to bake a pie went into the bowls!

Then, while the pie was baking, I would wait for the blackberry aroma to fill the house. I would know the pie was ready when I could smell it in the living room! We would top the hot pie with vanilla ice cream and enjoy eat bite.

This weekend, choose something you loved doing as a kid and savor the summer!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Moving rooms

This year I am moving from one room to another room. It was an unexpected move for me, so I was not completely packed up for it. It can be a bit overwhelming to set up your room at the beginning of the year, and even more when it is a new room.

Where am I going to put my desk? How will the students be grouped? Where will they get their supplies? How will my books be set up?

Here are some of the things I thought about in terms of setting up my room:

1. Teacher space and materials
I want to make sure that I am not taking up too much space. I like to put my desk in the back of the room, or behind the students so I can see them while I am sitting at my desk. (Also, I almost never sit at my desk . . . so I want it out of the way.)

Who can touch things on your desk? Do you want your students to hand in their assignments at your desk or at another place? Which is going to help you stay on top of grading and keep your desk as organized as you want it to be? I use boxes at different places in the room for turn in.

Where will you set up your teacher materials for different subjects? I tend to put all of my teachers guides out of the way, except for the units I am using. I put the unused units up high or somewhere so they do not take up valuable real estate at eye level!

2. Meeting spaces
Where are you going to have a whole group meeting space? How are you going to define this space? I like to use a carpet to define my whole group meeting space. I even have 5th and 6th grade students meet at the carpet.

Where are you going to do small group instruction? I want to make sure that the students who are meeting in a small group have their back to their classmates and that I can see them. I define these areas before moving on.

3. Classroom library
The more students have access to books, the more they will read. I like to take a tip from booksellers and have my books facing cover out. I put them in boxes that are labeled by subject. (I will take some pictures of this, once I have everything set up!)

What sort of system will you use? Will it be subject based, or will your library be skill based? How will it be organized so your students can do the upkeep?

4. Student materials
Will students keep their materials at their desks or in common areas. I actually advocate for common areas and clear routines on how to pick up materials. Why? Because, your students need to have good reasons to move. We all get a little brain dead when we have to sit for long periods of time.

I like to have a bookshelf right by the door that has all sorts of equipment - like glue, scissors, paper, reading logs, writing logs etc. This way the supplies are easy to get while walking into the classroom.

For math, I put all of the manipulatives that my students will use into plastic storage boxes. Each pair of two students shares the box. In the bags are base ten blocks, pattern blocks, rulers, calculators, a clock etc. On the lid there is a printed paper that has an inventory list. The students use the same set of boxes for the entire year and they are neatly stored in the front of the room.

If you would like to learn more about organizing, check out the class on Organizing From the Inside Out.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Planning to fail

The first day of school, I actually plan and hope that my students fail. I know that sounds a bit strange.

For example, I hope they fail at lining up correctly the first time. Why would you want that? You have been given the opportunity to teach them where your limits are and what you expect. If they do it perfectly the first time (unlikely anyway), they don't really know where the limits are.

Why should you plan for them to fail? Well, it is much easier for you to come up with your backup plan before the first day of school than it is in the moment. You ask them to line up and someone is talking and what do you do now? You don't want to jump to discipline, this is a prime teaching moment. You also don't want to be stressed for time!

What do I do?
  • We all sit back down. I'm not stressed about them being late for lunch, because I planned for this. If they do it perfectly (unlikely) we can do it again and try to beat our time. (Even fifth and sixth graders will practice this 4 or 5 times if I use a timer and make it into a game!)
  • As a class we review the purpose of lining up quickly and quietly.
  • We review the expectations.
  • I give positive feedback to the students that did it correctly.
  • I have the students who had a hard time demonstrate the incorrect way and the correct way. 
  • We practice till we can do it correctly with lots of positive feedback along the way for the students who are doing the right thing.
 So take a moment and take time to plan for mistakes. It will help your students be successful for the rest of the year!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Which is best - heterogeneous or homogeneous groupings?

Best for who? It turns out that the best type of group depends on the student.

Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock, in their book work, Classroom Instruction That Works, explain that different groupings have very different outcomes depending on the student.

What is best for the middle of the road student?
For the student who is achieving right in the middle, homogeneous grouping gets dramatically better results. As you have probably noticed, the higher achieving students tend to take leadership roles (or control) of groups when you have mixed abilities. When all of the students in the middle are working together, they have more chances to take on leadership roles and actually end up performing at a higher level.

What is best for low-achieving students?
Heterogeneous grouping works much better for lower achieving students. The group tends to pull up these students. The students get exposed to higher rigor and content with their peers at different skill levels.

What is best for high-achieving students?
If you ask your high-achievers, many of them will say that they just wish they could work along or by themselves. Most of them resent constantly acting as the tutor. Heterogeneous groupings do not increase outcomes for these students.

So, what should you do? 
Well, really that is up to you! But here are some ideas . . .

You might want to use a combination of different grouping styles. Knowing that for 80% of your class, homogeneous groupings gets the best results, and for 20% of your class heterogeneous groupings is the way to go, you probably want to use a mixture. Don't do all heterogeneous groupings. At the same time, don't to all homogeneous groupings.

You might want to combine up cooperative learning with small group direct instruction. One thing I do that has been successful is give my students a mini-quiz (1-2 items) before I assign groups. I then place my top 80% in homogeneous cooperative learning groups.

I do not, though, put my lowest 20% in a cooperative learning group. I instead spend time teaching strategies and reteaching the specific skills that these students are missing. I sometimes let them know that they can join a group when they meet mastery of the skills. This only works, though, if the rest of the cooperative groups really know how to work together and can be fairly independent.

Monday, August 15, 2011

How to create your own videos

It is actually fairly easy to create your own videos!

Why would you want to create them?
  • When you have some videos that you have created, you can use them over multiple years. 
  • Students can watch them if they are home sick. 
  • Students who need extra time and pause you and listen to the presentation again. 
  • My students really enjoy the videos.
  • Your advanced students can work at their own pace and learn more.

Here is one way you can use to create the video:

  1. Create a Power Point presentation of whatever you want to teach. You saw examples of that in my Rules video and Welcome to 4th grade video. 
  2. Make sure you have a microphone that you can plug into your computer. You are going to want to use a plug in mic to get good sound. Here are all sorts of ones that might work with your computer:
  3. You need some sort of screencast software. A free program that you can use is Jing. It will allow you to take up to 5 minutes of a video and you can upload it to their server. If you buy the program, you can also upload to youtube. (It costs around $15). I don't mind that the program limits me to 5 minutes. Really, much longer than that is probably too long for most students!
  4. If you choose Jing, you want to spend 10 minutes going through the tutorial.
  5. You are ready to create and upload your first video! 

I highly recommend that you try it out!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Classroom Rules Video

Here is another one of my beginning of the year videos. This is the video where I explain to my students my rules and how to fill out a think sheet (the behavior system our school uses).

I find that if I am clear about what will happen right from the start, the students are much happier and we are able to do all sorts of cooperative and active learning activities. Hopefully this gives you some ideas you can use in your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Feeling anxious about the new year?

I don't know about you, but I start getting anxious around the beginning of August.

What will my students be like this year? How will things go? Will I have enough time to set up my classroom? (Probably not to perfection . . . but then again the classroom doesn't need to be perfect! Just inviting.)

You too probably vacillate between feeling pumped up about the new year and planning all sorts of great welcoming activities and feeling a bit anxious. How to you calm those nerves? Here are a few effective tips from some recent research. (Manzoni et al., 2005)

1. Progressive Relaxation
If you go onto itunes or any other online music site, you can search for progressive relaxation MP3s. I have a few different versions that I use. You can also do the relaxation on your own. You just tense up a muscle, hold it for a few seconds, and then release.

If you get really nervous before the first days of school, you can start out the day by listening to the MP3. You can also end the day doing progressive relaxation. This is what I sometimes do, and it helps me sleep well, so I can be a better teacher and mom.

2. Talking Back to Your Thoughts
Yes, this really works! (It is also called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - CBT). If you are really anxious, you might need to see a professional, but this can be very effective on your own too. Here is a great workbook that shows you the steps to using CBT. There are many other effective workbooks as well.

Some of the common thinking errors you notice and change are: all or nothing, emotional reasoning, and fortune telling.

Here is a small example of how it works.

Your old thought: I'm never going to get everything done before school starts.
Type of thought: All or nothing thinking
New Thought: I might not get everything done, and that is ok. I'll make sure I get the most important things done for day one, and then take it from there.

3. Exercise
While this method was not one of the top 5 according to the study above, I know it works. You might find that taking a walk helps you reduce your stress, or gardening. You might even find that lifting weights helps. (This is my favorite!) If you do some shoulder presses, it almost acts like progressive relaxation. You really stress your shoulders (where I tend to hold my stress) as you lift the weight, and then relax as you put it down.

Just make sure to lift the weight slowly and use proper form! No getting hurt before school starts!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Video: Beginning of the year routines

Now that it is August, I am starting to think about the beginning of the year. In the past I have created a power point presentation of some of my routines, but this year I am actually video taping some of those power points. This way, some of my students can see the presentations before school starts.

This is the first video that I've created. You probably won't be able to use the actual video, but I am happy to share the power point so you could modify it. Just email me at if you would like to receive the power points for this presentation.

 Why create a video?
  • Students who have access can watch before school starts
  • Students who watch before school starts get a feel for my routines (Even just having four or five students who know my routines can make a big difference.)
  • When a get a new student in the middle of the year, they can also watch the video
  • Parents get a clear understanding of my expectations
  • Parents who are not strong readers still have access to some of the routines
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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

One simple way to improve memory

What if your students had better memories?

They would learn more, and you would have to repeat yourself less? What if their memories were 10% better? That would be like adding 17 days to the school year! (10% of 170 days)

There is a simple way of improving memory that scientists have recently discovered (MacLeod et al., 2010). It is something you can do in the classroom, and takes almost no time!

What is the trick?

Saying things out loud - including mouthing them.

How might you use this in the classroom? Your imagination is the limit, but here are a few ideas:
  • When studying vocabulary words, make sure students mouth the words or whisper them
  • Before doing multi-step problem, have students repeat out loud to a partner the steps
  • Before a complex transition, have the students chorus key elements
  • Have students read out loud the morning routine a few times the first days of school
  • Have students read out loud to a partner, instead of in their heads sometimes
  • Have students say math facts out loud while they are writing them down

Motivation is important in making any change. Giving students a reason they can connect to will help them out. Have students brainstorm what they like to do after school and then ask them if they would like to have more time to play, and still get good grades. 

If you have students come up with their own reason why they want them to vocalize, they will be much more likely to buy in!