Thursday, July 29, 2010

I recently received a copy of Engaging Mathematics Students Using Cooperative Learning from Eye on Education publishing. Even though it is summer, and many other things were calling to me, somehow, this book kept making it back to the top of my To-Do pile. Upon reading it, I was not disappointed. As a matter of fact, I had difficulty putting it down.

Strebe does a great job of engaging the reader with his writing style that moves quickly from item to item leaving you with just enough information to understand the topic, without bogging you down with too many details.

There are many ideas in the book I plan to implement in my classroom this fall. I love his descriptions of many interchangeable ways to use cooperative learning to help students better understand mathematical (or any subject matter) concepts. His Think-Pair-Square-Share is one I am excited to use. It is easy to implement, and I can see my middle schoolers loving the social aspects of the process.

Strebe also advocates the use of various interrupters to refocus students when they inevitably begin to drift from your lessons. Many of these are the obvious - passing out papers, getting supplies, etc... - things we all MUST do in our classes. However, Strebe suggests using them at PLANNED times to change up what students are doing to help refocus them. Well, duh... why didn't *I* think of that?? I know now!

Another fun idea Strebe gives is using team competitions to encourage collaboration for learning. I have tried to use some competitions in the past with some success. Strebe's ideas gave me some great ideas about how to better structure these competitions for more effective outcomes.

All in all, I was thrilled with the book. It was easy to read, engaging and quick paced. I'll let you know how it works out this fall! :)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On another person's Facebook page this morning, the question was posed," "What is the purpose of public education in the life of a middle school student?"

My response:

To help guide them through the tramatic years between childhood and adulthood, giving them the skills they need to cope with any situation that will come their way. It is also about bridging their knowledge from the concrete to abstract, teaching them to analyze, question and solve problems for themselves. Middle schoolers need to see the relevance and potential application of what they are learning in order to truly absorb the material. As middle school educators, our job is to guide them through this bridging process.

Thinking more about my response, and trying to hone my answer to the intial question, I focused on the bridge analogy a bit more in my mind. Middle school truly is a bridge... a bridge across the gap of many aspects of a young person's life.

On the one side of that bridge stands a child, innocent, eager and vulnerable. Across the chasm spanned by middle school, a high schooler lurks in the shadows, not quite an adult, but no longer innocent, no longer as embracing of everything new and exciting, and most of all, independent, fiercely independent, in actions, thoughts and determination.

Somehow, the journey across the bridge has changed that child into the near adult, along the way, leading them to a clearer understanding of themselves, the world around them, and most importantly, how they can change that world.

Elementary students depend on their parents as well as teacher, to tell them what to do, how to do it, and to hold their hand throughout the process. They are concrete thinkers in most aspects, needing to see, smell, and touch something to understand the process. They are eager learners, still excited about the newness of learning.

High schoolers are adult-like, able to grasp abstract concepts, determined to find answers on their own, reluctant to be lead by the adults in their lives. They want to find their own way, or follow the path of their peers. They are often untrusting of anyone over 25, thinking these people are too old to 'get it'. High schoolers LOOK like adults, want to be treated like adults, and deserve the privileges associated with growing age.

Caught in the middle however, kids in grades 6-8, are a special breed all their own. They are begining to look the part of their high school counterparts, with attitudes to match their growing sizes. They are begining to understand abstract thoughts, begining to realize their role in changing the outcomes of their lives, and begining to make choices based on their own thoughts instead of those of their parents and teachers.
Middle schoolers love challenges, love to problem solve, love to be given a chance to think outside their comfort zone. They enjoy being pushed to excel, given responsibility to think, and being led by adults who demonstrate having faith in their ability to accomplish great things.
Middle school teachers have the greatest job in the world. At the one side of the bridge, we are holding the hands of little children, helping them, guiding them, across the span. At the other end of the bridge, we're far behind them, waving from the distance, watching them in their new bodies, racing into adulthood. We have to constantly find the balance between holding their hands, and pushing them across the bridge.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This summer, thanks to a millage renewal which passed this spring, our antiquated heating system at school is being overhauled, new boiler, new units in the classrooms, and hopefully, a consistent heating system will be in place before winter strikes. Work is progressing slowly but surely.

Last week, however, a rumor started circulating in the community that the start date of school was being pushed back from the Tuesday after Labor Day, our traditional 1st day, to sometime the end of September, even sometime in October.

I wasn't too concerned when I first heard the rumors, knowing I'd heard nothing official from school yet.

But the excitement of the rumor got me to thinking. Is it realistic to think students are excited at the prospect of going back to school? Sure, for some, it is the social aspect of school which sparks their interest and draws them into the anticipation of that first day. The opportunity to see friends they've not seen all summer, new school clothes and supplies, new classes and teachers will lure some of them into the anticipation.

However, for other students, is school really something to look forward to?

If you were a struggling student, one who works consistently below grade level, always overwhelmed by the work, the material itself, the quantity of work, the expectations.... would you be excited to return to those hallowed halls?

If you were returning to school wearing the same worn out hand-me-downs that didn't fit last year, and fit even less this year, knowing your classmates would be showing up with name brand logos splashed across their chests, new sneakers squeaking on their feet, and bookbags full of cool new school stuff while yours hangs empty from a broken strap, would you be excited to meet that new teacher?

If you had spent much of last year sitting in the hall or office, kicked out of class for your misunderstood actions, your unsquelchable enthusiasm, would you be looking forward to more of the same again this year?

If you spent last school year being teased, bullied and tormented, despite the fact you get good grades, wear all the right clothes, and follow the rules, would you be in such a hurry to don those new clothes that first day?

How can we, as educators, make school someplace ALL STUDENTS want to return to?

The solutions seems easy to me:
  • Make schools safe for all learners. Create curriculums that engage and excited all students at all levels. Stop focusing on test prep and turning the page, and find ways to let students be responsible for their own learning paths.

  • Work to provide additional services to our students, counseling, medical, clothing, food, hygiene, whatever it takes to help them fit in. Realize that school is not just about the curriculum, but about creating citizens of our society.

  • Welcome them all with open arms, come they dirty, poor, obnoxious, smart, slow, athletic, clumsy, fat, fit, popular, nerdy.... Make a special spot for each student, each type of child, at our table of learning.
Then.... maybe they will all be disappointed when they hear the starting date of school is pushed back.... maybe they will all be there early, excited on Day One!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Today, I am unpacking my Angry Eyes. The day started out innocently enough, with a phone call full of good intentions.
The middle school secretary called me to chat about a few things about school. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned she'd been cleaning out the office closet and found some items she thought I might need, and had stuck them in my classroom. Just basic kind of leftovers from here and there, markers, colored pencils, nothing spectacular, or earth shattering.
However, I was THRILLED, thinking, "WOW!! I won't have to fork out the $$$$ to buy those things on my own now."
As the day has progressed, the more I found myself excited at the prospect of not having to purchase these basic supplies for my classroom, the more a feeling of anger took the place of the excitement. Why should these basic tools be in such short supply in a public school? Why should I have to buy anything for my classroom out of my own pocket?
Do you think the White House has to scrounge for a pen to sign a document? Or, duct tape together a broken stapler because there isn't a replacement? Do you think our Congress people, at the federal or state level, are pouring over back to school sales, adding and re-adding the totals on their lists, making choices about what they purchase to make it through the year at their office desk?
But here I am... thinking if I don't have to purchase those Expo markers, maybe I can buy enough notebooks to give each student one in both social studies and math class. Maybe I can afford to order a few new atlases, instead of trying to make do one more year with those with all the missing pages. I wonder if I could get enough post-its to use for that activity I saw at a conference about helping students dissect text?
Education, quality education, needs consistent, adequate funding. Teachers are consistenly being asked to do more, and more, and MORE, with less and less and less. Once again, a slap in the face about our priorities in this country hits me broadside.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Back to School

A new school year is a clean slate, for students, as well as teachers.

Here is my list of back to school tips for getting your classroom & yourself ready for your best year ever:

1. The classroom itself:
Look at the room arrangement. Since my tables stay in the same place all year because of the computer cords and the need for access to electricity, making certain the placement works well is crucial. I like students to be able to talk to elbow partners, work in small groups, and have room for large projects, so grouping tables together makes sense for me.

I use bookshelves to block places I don’t want easily accessed by students, like my storage cupboards. I surround my own desk with shelves of professional reading materials so they are easy for me to grab, in addition to giving the image to students that I read and learn as well. Shelves with places for assignments to be turned in, absent work to be collected, paper, pencil sharpeners, art supplies, etc... need to be in easy traffic areas for students.

Another consideration is ability to easily see all the boards as needed. On the back wall of my classroom is the Daily Assignment Board, where I write the day’s lesson, any work due today or upcoming reminders. On the side wall is the small board with today’s date. In the front, the main board where I teach, use the projector and document camera. Students obviously can’t see all of these at the same time, but I try to ensure all three boards in easily in range.

While I am far from the type to have exciting up to date bulletin boards, I do like to start the year with something eye catching and worthwhile.
My favorites include:
· Why Do I Need Math – with pictures of a variety of occupations showing math skills at work
· All About Me – pictures of me throughout my life, including those dorky middle school pictures, my family, dog, house and yard
· Pictures and cards from past students
· Newspaper Collage – This is the most difficult. One summer I clipped every picture out of the local newspaper that had students in my incoming classes – playing softball, showing animals at the fair, at the 4th of July Parade.
With a little thought and planning, you can tweak your classroom to best suit your needs and the needs of your students.

2. Curriculum:
· Aside from the obvious aligning your curriculum to the state expectations, start thinking about integrating other subjects and topics into your lessons. For example, Talk Like a Pirate Day is each year on September 19. What a fun, engaging beginning of the year way to hook your students, regardless of your subject matter! Students will love the corny pirate one liners and you will have the opportunity to teach them about maps, language, travel, morals, unexpected outcomes… the possibilities are endless.
· Beyond incorporating fun topics into your curriculum, strategize your attack plan. Rethink how you grade, assess and report learning to students and parents. Set up your plan for test retakes, extra study sessions before/after school, and how you will accommodate students with Individualized Education Plans.
· Talk to your librarian or media specialist to get ideas on how you can best utilize their services.
· Dig through the support materials that come with your textbook series. Chances are, there are some cool, easy to use ideas in there you’ve overlooked in the past.
· Work on generating one unit you’ve never taught before. Find websites, interactive online activities, and support materials, NOW, while you have some extra time.

3. Communication:
Think about your plan to communicate with parents and students. Does your website need some fine tuning? What changes do you want/need to plan?
Think about:
· Daily assignments
· Long term projects/tests
· Contact information
· Online links for materials, both daily work as well as supplemental materials

4. Yourself

If you are like me, every school year, you say this year you are going to eat healthier, exercise more, all those good things you know will make you feel better. Plan NOW. Buy that refrigerator for your classroom to keep cold drinks and healthy snacks close by. Make a list of healthy snacks to pack for school. Cook a few dinner entrees and freeze them so those first few weeks won’t be so overwhelming when you come home at night.
Plan to use part of your lunch or prep period to walk outside. Use this time to regroup, clear your head, and get ready for the next period. Strategize your mental health!
Take care of any last minute doctor or dentist appointments before the school year starts so you don’t have to write sub plans! Come back to school polished, healthy and ready to go!

It really is a clean slate for you as well as your students. Make this year your best teaching year! Get off to a great start, before the students ever walk in the door.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Middle School & Adolescence....
2 words that send shivers down the spines of parents and teachers alike.
From a middle school teacher's perspective, all those shivers are unnecessary. Making the most of your child's middle school years is quite simple: Send them to boarding school and change your phone number, email address and any other means of contact.
Seriously? Middle schoolers are a difficult crew to navigate with at times, but these years can also mark some of the best times you will spend with your child. Caught in the balance between childhood and adulthood, these kids are searching for their identity, looking for support, help, and most of all, unconditional love and acceptance.
The first step to successful navigation through the storm is flexibility. Middle schoolers need and crave rules, but need to feel as if they have a say in these rules. Be ready to negotiate, change, and bend the rules to fit the circumstances. That doesn't mean letting go of your family values and ideals, or letting your teen run the show. Just be ready to listen, rethink and reconsider how rules are enforced. If school night bedtime is normally 9, but there is some MUST BE WATCHED show in tonight until 10, negotiate - You may stay up and watch the show, but you must still get yourself up and ready for school on time. If you aren't ready when the bus comes, no TV for a week. (or whatever consequence you choose) Put the power in the teen's hands.
The next step is teaching responsibility. When your child starts middle school, you need to buy them 2 items: an alarm clock and a laundry basket, and teach them to use both. Don't rush to rescue them when they don't get up on time. Skipping breakfast to catch the bus, wearing dirty clothes to school, will not kill them! However, it might teach them to become more responsible. Helping them learning to manage their time, learning to think ahead, will not only take the getting them up and doing their laundry responsibility from your already busy life, it will ultimately help your teen when they are out on their own.
The last key to success ties in with the last one. While you are teaching responsibility, teach your child that failure might be an option. Don't be a helicopter parent, swooping in to drive them back to school to get a forgotten book every day, calling or writing the teacher to get an extension on a project, or finishing homework for your child. Middle school is about building good habits. Have clear cut expectations about work completion, grades, behavior and effort, along with clearly outlined consequences when those expectations are not met. Then, let your child take the lead, either meeting the expectations or not. It is difficult to step back and let them fail, but in the grand scheme of life and school, the middle grades are the time to let them flounder and learn to deal with the consequences.
Middle schoolers aren't just big KIDS and they aren't just littler high schoolers. They are unique creatures, interesting, intelligent, and on the cusp of adulthood. With a little creativity and perserverance on your part, you can make these the BEST years of their lives.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Nature versus Nurture
My granddaughter, Rylie, is 14 ½ months old now. I spend as much time with her as possible. Of course, I think she is the cutest, smartest, sweetest, most perfectest little girl ever to walk the planet.

But watching her grow and learn makes me realize the many disadvantages students come to school with. Rylie has someone constantly at her beck and call, teaching her about her world, helping her grow and learn.
We chart Rylie's progress on those milestone charts you can find online or in any baby box, highlighting her accomplishments one by one, leap by leap. At 14 1/2 months, her milestone chart for babies 12-18 months is almost completely highlighted. While I would like to attribute that exceptional ability to the genes she inherited from me, I am quite certain these milestone are flying by quickly more because of the way she is being raised than by anything inherent in her DNA.
Granted, some children are born with some learning difficulty, something went wrong somewhere along the way. But for the average normal baby, if they were raised in a rich environment, I truly think they could all soar.
Today was just another Rylie day, but all the things she saw and learned today were soaked up in the magical sponge of her brain, stored there for the next learning experience she can tag with the same information.
All parents need to be made aware of the importance of experiences for their children. It isn't about money, or education, it is about time and effort.
The picture of Rylie above shows her at Tractor Supply Company this spring when the baby chicks arrived. She was mesmerized by the soft fluffy chirpy balls that had scratchy claws and sharp beaks. Letting her kneel there and see them, picking them up for her to touch, patiently waiting for her to be done soaking up all that experience, all that cost nothing.
Today, Rylie went to visit her newborn cousin for the first time. Rylie's mom and I went to visit, taking her along, like we do no matter where we go. Knowing a 14 month old would get bored in the hospital room quickly, first her mom went to visit the new baby on her own while Rylie and I wandered the hospital. Other than the yogurt I bought her in the cafeteria, the experience was completely free. But in the hour's time, we touch the rock and brick walls, rubbed the smooth paint, the textured wallpaper, played in the water cascading down the fountain, sniffed the fake flowers, the scented candles, looked at the myriad of paintings and photographs adorning the walls, discovered automatic doors, perused the gift shop through the windows, watched an electrician fixing the wiring, and learned that Rylie CAN open the bathroom door all by herself, regardless of what Grandma is doing at the moment.
Rylie goes for walks in the woods, touches trees, leaves and dirt, listens to birds sing in the trees, watches them fly above, tosses rocks into rivers and lakes, lays down to watch ants crawl by. She 'reads' labels in the grocery store, gazes longingly at fish in the aquariums at Walmart, tries in shoes in every store that has them. She walks in my yard and sniffs (and picks...) flowers. She reads books with everyone in her life, most of them bought at garage sales for 25 cents each. Just from books, she can identify an amazing amount of things she has never encountered in real life. She goes and does, and learns along the way.
When Rylie goes to school, she will be ready, her brain full of information to start her formal education, linking together all those little bits and pieces she's already stored to the new information.
Somehow, we need to educate parents better. We need to convince them the importance of early experiences for their children. Don't plop them in front of the television. Don't hand them a video game. Take them outside. Take them to the library. Take them to the grocery store. Don't strap them in the seat. Let them walk and explore, look and learn. Take the time to be patient, let them do things on their own time, talk to them, explaining everything everywhere.
Nature versus nurture?? Nature wins, hands down. Rylie's 18 month chart is nearly complete because she has a mom and dad and grandparents who take the time to let her learn, now, while her little brain is the most absorbent it will ever be. And.... I am sure a tiny tad is because of the DNA from grandma too :)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Michigan schools are hurting like many in other places, no doubt. Last year, the state cut per pupil funding $165 per student, regardless where in the spectrum of state aid your school fell. This cut was devastating to every district.

Now, it looks as if districts will get a raise for the upcoming school year.

Woohoo, let’s celebrate.

Oh… wait… they are giving us back $11 per student. No, that is not a typo. ELEVEN dollars PER STUDENT.

There are many ways to look at this generous gift. For my district, our student population of just under 900 students, this generosity will grant us nearly $9900. Wow… the possibilities of what to do with that much money are endless. Transportation costs are just under $3000 a day, so we can keep those busses on the road for 3 days! Or, we can fund a third of a beginning teacher’s wages (not benefits, just wages).

If we look at this gift per student, it breaks down to just over 6 cents per day per student. I CAN afford to give each student a pencil every day after all!

Or maybe, I can pool the $11 per student for the ones I teach – about 55 7th graders and 25 8th graders next fall – and with that $880 I can…. Hmmm… math books are about $80 each so I guess I could buy 11 of those. It will be interesting trying to share those among all the kids, but we can be creative. If your last name starts with A – L, you get a book to take home on Monday and Wednesday, M-Z, you get them on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday will be reserved for those absent on their appointed day.

Oh, you say, textbooks are not needed with today’s technologies? OK, I will just use that money to buy new laptops. Hmmm… maybe I could get 2, or even 3 netbooks for that sum? Sharing 3 netbooks won’t be tough at all. Hopefully, the network itself is in decent enough shape to keep us going every day.

Forget the problem that they other teachers who have those students will want their own share of the bankroll. Forget the heat bill, the water bill, building improvements, art supplies, classroom furniture…

Again, it seems, we are destined to show the children of our country they are not a priority. As a nation, we’ve spent over $732 BILLION dollars on the war in Iraq. If you add the cost of the war in Afghanistan, we are WELL over $1 TRILLION. (
Even more outrageous, the city of Philadelphia cut their budget for fireworks from $3 million to $2.1 million this year. Oh how sad for them.... Boston spent $2.5 million, and DC won't even release the information on their show. (
Tiger Woods will earn $110 million this year, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Kimi Raikkonen will all earn $45 million each. Even Dale Earnhardt will bring home a cool $34 million. (
And here I sit counting that $11 a kid.... rolling in the money.... counting my blessings...