Monday, July 27, 2009

Becoming a Great Teacher

One of my favorite books is What Great Teachers Do Differently by Todd Whitaker. I blogged about it last fall and how I hoped to use the books ideals to set the course for my school year. This summer, with school looming near on the horizon, I am writing my own steps to Becoming a Great Teacher, with Whitaker as my inspiration.

1. Forget about whose job it is and just do it. I personally often catch myself thinking.... hmmm.. I don't need to THAT, it's the secretary's job, or the principal's, or the custodian's, or another teacher's... I think I have enough to do to fulfill my own job requirements, why would I step outside that box to help someone else. This year, I will strive to help others as much as possible, weighing the cost to me carefully, and if that cost is minimal, things like answering the phone, putting the next person's copies on to run, or grabbing a kid to sweep the hallway when there is a mess. All those take a minute amount of MY time but can make the other party's day run smoother.

2. Focus on the students I do not connect with or particularly like. I know, I know...... you have never had a student YOU didn't like! I confess, I have, usually one or two each year out of the 70 students I teach. There is no real reason I don't like that particular young lady or man, they have done nothing undeserving of my attentions, but for whatever reason, I find myself detached from them. My goal this year is to make the extra effort TO CONNECT ON A PERSONAL LEVEL with those kids. I want them to feel worthy in my classroom, to avoid any chance they sense my dislike for them. I will strive to truly find characteristics in them I appreciate and dwell upon these.

3. Be supportive of other teachers in their goals, their curriculum and their personal lives. I tend to be all business at school, rarely socializing in the lounger, or working with other teachers to coordinate our curriculums. This year, I want to reach outside my own classroom to work more openly with others, encouraging their projects, and finding ways to support what they are doing in their classrooms. Perhaps this will be a way to help those teachers who struggle with classroom management and meeting their curriculum goals?
4. Be a stronger advocate for our students. I am non-confrontational as a general rule, but as the years go by, I have become more and more certain that we as teachers must be the protector of all that is right for our students. We cannot stand by and allow others to slight children when it comes to education. While it may not be "my place" to tell others what to do in their classrooms, that does not mean I cannot be more proactive in making suggestions about teaching, curriculum or classroom management. I can offer articles and books to share, engage in conversations, as well as just gently point out how their decisions may be impacting students and their learning.
If I can attack those 4 goals with gusto and finesse, I think my year will be off to a great start. I will know I am making a positive impact on students, other teachers, and ultimately my own classroom!
I sat today writing our school's Targeted Assistance Plan for our new certification as a Title 1 funded school. It was interesting writing this plan certainly. There is no form to fill in, no template to follow, simply a rubric of what the end product must contain. It gave me a glimpse into what students must sometimes feel like when we give them an assignment without adequate direction.

As my colleague and I sat writing, and thinking, and talking, writing, rewriting, reworking the words, until they flowed the way we thought they ought, it struck me over and over how we were more concerned about the document passing muster with the powers who be who will be doling out the monies, than how our program will actually look and function once school starts. Even when we had a clear vision of how we wanted things to progress, we were cautious to use the right buzzwords, word phrases carefully using 'may' instead of 'will' and 'to include strategies such as...' instead of 'using '.

The document became just that, a document, instead of a living progress towards true improvement of student growth and success, it is a piece of paper with the i's all dotted and the t's all crossed. We made sure we used criteria and criterion correctly (we hope...), that we didn't repeat the same phrases repeatedly, and that our pieces and parts were all copacetic, flowing elegantly with and into each other.

It became a "how many more steps do we have left" document instead of a "how can we best meet the needs of these kids, and best use the funds allocated to us" document.

Often in schools it seems this is the way these projects turn out. Writing school improvement plans, and even lesson plans, the initial goal, the intent coming out of the starting gate, was good, with potential. However, somewhere in the red tape and bureaucracy of the document itself, all the true worth was lost.

These documents, unfortunately, not only become a waste of time for those writing them, but then go on to become doorstop material rather than working breathing pieces of learning. No one reads them except the person checking it off to say, "JOB DONE...check!"

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a document in a 3 ring binder, with many marks of highlighters, and red pens, and green pens, and arrows, and smiles, and sticky notes, and addendums, article clippings and work samples...... showing what worked and what didn't, how we are changing the later, and improving upon the first? Shouldn't we be writing in pencil and changing in pen to show we have grown and learned from our mistakes, that we are ready to move on and up in our quest for educational excellence for all?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When I first became a teacher, I had all these idealistic plans of how perfectly my classroom would always run, how the lessons would always be engaging and active and open-ended, how my students would be perfect learners, always motivated to push themselves to that next level, wanting and craving more, more, more.

After all these years, I have become less idealistic, and much more realistic when planning. I know that interruptions will happen, technology will glitch, and heaven forbid, the occasional student just might not be 100% engaged, 100% of the time.

That knowledge, however, does not prevent me from dreaming this time of the year, as I start thinking about new lessons and units for the upcoming school year. This summer, in particular, I am trying to think about social studies lessons for the upcoming year. This is my 3rd year in a row teaching Eastern Hemisphere 7th grade social studies. The grade level content expectations outlined by the State of Michigan are horrendous, covering enough material to keep college seniors busy for an entire school year, and certainly over the top for 7th graders. This makes teaching the class an additional challenge as I try to hit as many topics as possible from the list created by the state, but still give my students what I consider to be worthwhile, deep thinking activities to provoke them to really become involved in a topic and think how they can use their newfound knowledge to make a difference.

One of my goals is to use video clips more effectively. It is easy to pop in a video and discuss during the scenes, or after the entirety of the movie. I want to become more efficient at using just short clips however. With the help of United Streaming from Discovery Education, I want to find shorter clips that enhance exactly what we are learning about, and use them more often, instead of the long videos that are more overarching for a topic. I think my students will be more engaged with shorter clips, and I will be able to provide more stimulating discussion and writing prompts.

I know how I want this to look in my classroom, and have used in some in the past. Time is the one factor which makes this process intimidating. How do I ever find time to search, preview and think through video clips for each lesson, or even several lessons a week?

Isn't that how it is in teaching..... time, time, time.... If I had more time for planning, I would be able to create more engaging and meaningful lessons!

But enough blogging about what I want the lessons to look like, and back to planning the lessons, including how my students will blog their own reflections!

Monday, July 06, 2009

It is only midsummer but my mind is already starting to think BACK TO SCHOOL, BACK TO SCHOOL.... .

As my thoughts were twisting and turning over topics like math projects, alignment of social studies curriculum, bulletin boards, technology, classroom management and restructuring my assessments, I started thinking about new teachers and remembering the intrepidation I felt before starting my first fall.

This got me to thinking maybe if I structure my own back to school planning into a plan for new teachers, it will force me into my own organization planning mode as well.

Beyond the obvious planning for the school year, like classroom rules, parent letters, opening day activities... teachers should consider the following:

PLAN AHEAD FOR NEXT YEAR (your 2nd year of teaching!):

Start a notebook for each class. I plan to use a 3 ring binder for each subject I teach, full of plastic sleeves. Here I will outline each lesson as I teach it, complete with a copy of all handouts and a key, as well as where these are saved electronically, as well as the file names.

After each lesson, I plan to jot down notes for next year - what worked, what didn't work, why.. ideas for how to improve the lesson. While this all sounds tedious and time consuming, it has to be better than my current method of 'try and remember what I did in the past' that sometimes works, but more often fails.

I am going to think through my lessons carefully, trying to keep the true purpose of the lesson in mind. I've been reading Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham. In chapter 3, Willingham gives a perfect example of the importance of doing this. He talks about a 4th grade teacher who was teaching a lesson on the Underground Railroad. Because biscuits were an important food for the runaway slaves, the teacher had his students bake biscuits thinking this would somehow help students remember the lesson. As Willingham points out, however, students likely got caught up in the actual fun of making the biscuits, and completely forgot the connection to the lesson. "Whatever students think about is what they remember," says Willingham. Keeping this in mind as I design lessons will help me focus on what my students are thinking about while we are learning.

If I make notes about the lessons as I am teaching, consider improvements as I am assessing student work, and reflect on how to best improve these lessons, my next year will be much easier.


The key to a smooth running classroom starts with your layout of your desk, the student desks and the location of materials.

~You will want students grouped so they can work together, but you want the flexibility to be able to separate them when assignments are designed for independent work. Try to keep desks/tables in a flexible setup so you can move them for different classes/projects. Sometimes, due to power access, this may not be possible, but think about all the different possibilites of assignment types you will utilize during the year and choose the one best suited desk layout.

~If you have laptops, power access becomes a huge piece of the puzzle. Power strips and cords running across the floor with no thought to traffic flow are a hazard for tripping and pulling computers off tables.

~Students need to be able to see the board/s and/or screens you will "teach" from. It is sometimes acceptable to expect students to turn around but you don't want them to spend their entire class period sitting sideways in a chair!

~The teacher desk needs to be out of the way, in a spot out of student traffic paths. My hard and fast rule is no students behind my desk. I want to be able to ensure students cannot see anything that may be open on my computer screen or miscellaneous papers on my desk.

~Materials you do not want students to access easily need to be blocked. Materials for their use need to be marked and easily accesible to encourage the appropriate return to their home location. I love using open tubs for markers, colored pencils, and crayons. Coffee cans make perfect homes for rulers and scissors.

~Think about where students will turn in assignments, get paper to write on, store notebooks, find special tools for projects, sharpen pencils, grab passes to leave the classroom, and find absent work. Try to organize to maximize the natural flow of walking in the classroom and taking their seats. Practice entering the room as a student would, thinking through the placement of important items.

~Put the desks where you think you want them, pull out chairs and sit in them, leave the chair pulled out and try to walk between them. Can you get to all students to help them easily? Can students move smoothly from place to place without tripping over cords or other students?


We know that our final grades should be based on summative assessments, not formative assessments, such as homework, and not based on attendance or participation. However, how will you deal with that? Will you allow/require/encourage retakes on tests/assessments? on homework? How will these be managed? How will you report grades to parents on retakes? With a program such as PowerSchool, keeping track of retakes is easy - you can exempt the intial grade, but have it still show so students and parents can see the progress towards mastery.

Thinking through your own philosophy thoroughly can help assure you can explain your methods accurately and effectively to both students and parents. It is acceptable to change if you find the method is not working, but make sure the changes are explained completely to all stakeholders.


Whether you are a morning person, night owl, or just a middle of the road-er, you will need to spend some time outside the normal school day planning, cleaning, grading, etc. I find it best to come to school early each morning. Teachers at my school are required to arrive at 7:50 but I plan to get to school at 7 each morning. This gives me a good solid half hour before anyone else arrives to make copies, think, plan, etc.. without interruptions. Once other teachers start to arrive, the inevitable conversations start. Someone pops in to ask to borrow a book, looking for a particular website, or just to chat. My first half hour is my most precious one, the silent time, considering whether or not I am ready for the day.

I also plan to spend a few hours each weekend at school, organizing for the upcoming week. I plan out the lessons for the week, tentatively of course, get my assignment calendar updated online, make copies and keys for assignments, or samples of work to share with students. If I know I will be gone one day, I write lesson plans ahead of time so I do not have to do the last minute night before panic.

Those extra few hours a week I spend outside the school day help keep me organzied and calm, avoiding being one of the panicked people fighting for a spot at the copier at 8:20 as the last bell is ringing. Those minutes give me more time on task with my students, allowing more learning to occur. Some teachers can manage without putting in that extra time, but for me, I find it is well worth the committment.


What will students do when they enter your room? Will there be some sort of 'starter' or bellringer on the board?

How will students know what you are doing that day and what materials they need to bring to class?

While the class structure will likely vary from lesson to lesson, some things should be written in stone. Every day when math students enter my room, they KNOW to look at board for their Math Starter, a short activity related to today's lesson. It might tie yesterday's learning to today's, be a hook for thinking about new material, or practice problems from yesterday, but students know to grab their notebook and get immediately to work.

They always know what we are doing by looking at the board for today's schedule. They know what to bring to class by a quick glance at the whiteboard hanging in the hall by my door with materials needed for each class.

How will you wrap up the lesson? Will you use exit slips, a quick question, or a game to end and wrap up the lesson? Other cool ways to end class can be found at: Closing Activities at the End of Class.

Will you give classtime to work on homework? will you assign homework at all? If you do give homework, how will this be assessed?

Some great examples of other ways to make your teaching more effective can be found at the OED's list of Ten Ways to Make Your Teaching More Effective.

However you decide to structure your class period, make it meaningful, both at the start and conclusion of class. The first and last 5 minutes are when you make the most impact on student learning.

Bottom line... planning makes your teaching more time effective and gives it more potential for student learning. Think about your goals, think about the best path to reach them, and go forth and mold those little minds!! With a little thought before they walk in the door, your time spent with them will be all the more enjoyable for you and for them!