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.



SPEND TIME PLANNING THE CLASSROOM LAYOUT CAREFULLY:

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?




THINK ABOUT ASSESSMENTS:

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.



YOUR TIME SCHEDULE:

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.



THINK THROUGH YOUR SET DAILY SCHEDULE:

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!

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