Thursday, March 28, 2013

Slam Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate all forms of poetry.

I know it's difficult to get students to understand, and therefore appreciate, poetry.   It's challenging to get them to understand that it's more than rhyming couplets or quatrain stanzas written with an ABAB rhyme scheme. Yet, it's not an impossible challenge.

I've had success helping my students enjoy reading and listening to poetry and, more importantly, discovering their own inner poet. One of the best things my school does each year is introduce students to a new (for them) form of poetry, slam poetry. The best way I can describe it is to say it's an in-your-face poetry reading that is centered around an emotional experience of the poet. When performed well, it's simply amazing to watch.

For the past eleven years we've brought in former national and international slam champion, Gayle Danley, to conduct slam poetry workshops with our students. She begins the week-long workshop with a one-of-a-kind performance of her slam poems.  This is a must-see performance!  Students watch Gayle perform her poems, and then throughout the week she visits our classrooms to help the students create their own slam poems. The visit culminates with students' slam performances, which are always quite memorable.

Gayle is an incredibly gifted slam poet. She's a true wordsmith who has a unique and effective way of inspiring students. You should check her out, but be warned ... you and your students are not going to view poetry the same way again.

  • Help make your poetry unit fun by giving each student their own poetic license.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Planting Seeds

If you've read my previous posts, you know that I'm big on trying to motivate my 5th-graders.  I want them to believe that they can do and be almost anything if they are willing to put forth the effort.  This message, like so many others sent to them, is a seed - it gets planted now with the hopes of sprouting at a future date.  That date always seemed so far away to me because my students are only ten, and for many years my former students were still only in middle school or just barely in high school.

I've finally been teaching long enough (this is my 11th year) that my former students are near the end of their formal education.  Students from my first year of teaching turn twenty-one this year, and most of them are finishing up their third year of college.

I try my best to be aware of what's going on with my former students - even if it's just through 3rd party word-of-mouth.  I know where most of them are at school, and I'm up on major life events - be they positive or negative.  In addition, there are a handful of students that I still keep in regular contact with.  I'm grateful for the time they make for me, and I always enjoy hearing their memories of the time they spent in my classroom and what they've been up to since.

It's such an odd feeling to have my students grow old.  My fondest memories of them are forever frozen at the age of 10, when they were innocent and carefree.  To see them at twice that age is astonishing.  I don't feel like I've changed too much over the past 10 years, but my students have lived half their life in that time and grown enormously - in so many ways.   They've had numerous other teachers and school experiences in that time, which make those of 5th grade seem to pale in comparison.

Emilee talks to my students while they take notes.
The students wrote news articles about her visit.
More amazing than the change in my students appearance is the realization that they are about to enter (or in some cases have entered) "the real world."  They have life and career goals and aspirations, and many of them are already taking steps to make them a reality.

One of my former students who is making her dreams a reality came back to visit my current 5th-graders recently.  Her name is Emilee, and she is a professional race car driver and full-time college nursing student.  I was her teacher 11 years ago, and then later I was her tutor and even her basketball coach for a season.  Emilee visited my classroom last month to share about her up-and-coming racing career and to talk to my students about the importance of believing in yourself and following your dreams.  She is the embodiment of the message that I try to give to my students, and so I was happy to see that they hung on her every word.  I just sat back and watched her give advice to these kids that are sitting where she used to sit, and as I did I couldn't help but think that perhaps I was seeing the growth of some of seeds that I planted.  That was a pretty incredible sight to see!

A wall of student news articles about Emilee's classroom visit and/or career.
This was the culmination of our journalism unit.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Raising Horseshoe Crabs in my Classroom

I haven't posted in a while, which I'm sure is heart-breaking to my 3 followers.   I'm all about not reinventing the wheel and making the most of your resources, so I thought I'd post a link to a blog that I was asked to write about my experience raising horseshoe crabs in my classroom.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

As a teacher it's such an amazing feeling when a lesson goes exactly (or better than) the way you planned it.  We put so much time and energy outside of the "normal" work day into creating, planning, and preparing lessons, and sometimes all it takes to make all that prep work feel worthwhile is just for the lesson to go well.  When I say well I mean students having that "ah-ha" moment where you can see in their faces that they get it.  They're both excited and proud, and it's obvious that actual learning occurred.  I love those moments!

There's an expression in the world of education that says there are no knew ideas in teaching; only recycled old ones.  I understand where that sentiment comes from, although I don't totally agree with it.  There are certainly core methodologies and practices (cooperative learning, for example) that are tried and true, no matter the discipline.  However, I think it's what teachers do with those established practices that separate them from their peers.  The delivery of instruction from teacher to teacher is as unique as our individual students.  It's in the delivery where teachers insert their own style and creative new ideas.  Furthermore, in this technologically advanced day and age, there are so many new tools available for teachers to create and deliver content to their students with.  Computers have made it possible to expand on and improve "old" ideas.  In fact, it's actually frustrating to try to keep up.  I know there are opportunities out there that I'm not taking advantage of, but I enjoy the challenge of discovering new tools available to me - like this blog.

Having said all that, I want to share some of my favorite teaching ideas with you.  It's possible that the main idea may not have originated with me, but the enhancements to it and the materials used are absolutely my own.

PowerPoint Lessons
Prior to becoming a teacher, I took a prerequisite class for my graduate teaching program at the local community college.  In that class, the teacher delivered all of her lessons using PowerPoint presentations.  I remember thinking how great it was that she wouldn't have to recreate these lessons each semester and how she could add media content (videos, web links, pictures) into her slideshows that would enhance the learning experience.  Additionally, I liked the fact that I didn't have to watch her write on the board because her notes were already in the presentation.  She could talk with us and move around while we took notes.  I told myself then that I wanted to try to make many of my lessons using PowerPoint so that my lessons and students could benefit from the things I previously mentioned.

I haven't quite succeeded in making all of my lessons electronic, and I have suffered from two complete hard drive crashes in my career, but I have created many PowerPoint lessons that I use year after year.  My students, being the techno-crazed generation that they are, seem to enjoy this multi-media method of delivering content, too.  I use these slideshows to provide students with definitions, examples, including short video clips, and practice.  Whenever possible I add web links to sites that provide on-line practice, and I'll take my students to the computer lab and have each of them open up their own copy of the PowerPoint file.  They put on headphones and work at a self-driven pace through the lesson.

Here is a small sampling of some of my PowerPoint lessons:

A student balances her account.

Classroom Economy
I'm not going to say anything more about this than what I've already said in a previous blog post: .  I will say that this economy seems to be the thing that I receive the most positive feedback from parents and students on, and it's very effective with classroom management.

Persuasive Letters
After spending a few weeks learning about persuasion, I have my students write persuasive letters to people and organizations asking them to do or believe something.  I don't allow these letters to be greedy gimme-gimme letters.  I do, however, encourage my students to write to companies and individuals that they deal with frequently, and I have them focus on something they would like to see changed or improved.  I tell the students that I'm going to actually mail these letters, but a lot of time I find that they don't believe me ... that is until we start receiving responses back.  It's amazing to see how willing organizations are to not only respond to students but to grant their requests.  This, of course, motivates my students to continue writing letters on their own, which is a lost practice among this generation.

After 12 years of having students write persuasive letters, I have a notecard box filled with addresses, and I have a folder bursting with copies of the responses students have received.  They've received many things they've asked for and a lot of things they didn't ask for (freebies, autographs, pictures, etc.).   We've received form letters, posters, and large UPS packages.  Of course, not every student receives a response, and I tell my students that beforehand, but it's still fun for them to try.

Real-World Problem-Solving
I love the challenge of turning my students into strong problem-solvers (see my post:  It's one area where there are so many real-world opportunities for learning.  As much as possible, I try to pull in real examples for my students to problem-solve with.  

One of my favorite real world examples involves this video clip of an actual exchange between a customer and a phone service rep.  I'll leave it up to you to listen to the details of the call, but I thought this was a great opportunity to see how my students would handle the same problem.  After all, there are several key math concepts embedded within this example: decimal place value, conversions, importance of correct units, etc.  After teaching them about decimal place value, I pose a similar problem to my students: .  They are typically split into two areas of thought - just like the video - which allows for some great classroom discussion.  Finally, I show them the video.  They are engaged and interested, which is all a teacher can really hope for, right?

That's enough for now; I certainly have plenty more.  Thanks for reading, and feel free to share some of your favorites.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Importance of Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is a necessity in life.  Each day, people encounter a barrage of new (and old) "problems."  These problems can be as simple as what to wear, or as significant and complex as saving the life of someone in distress.  Certainly the problems that we encounter each day differ depending on the individual, but there's no denying that life is a series of challenges, difficulties, and "problems" for which the way you go about tackling them says a lot about who you are as a person.

Children are not immune to facing daily problems; one could even argue that they face more difficulties than adults as they explore and try to make sense of the world around them.  Children also face different problems than adults do, including problems that adults take for granted, like tying shoelaces or communicating simple ideas (I know adults can struggle with this, too).  Additionally, school provides a whole new array of problems for kids: making friends; figuring out math; paying attention; working with others; and making sense of all the new information being thrown their way.  With all that coming at them, it's essential that students be equipped with strategies to help them solve all these problems.  Unfortunately, it seems like many students are having increasing difficulty solving even the simplest of problems.

Students approach me all the time and say things like, "I don't have a pencil," or "My pencil broke," or "There's no chair at my desk (despite the fact that there are several empty ones near their desk)," while they wait to see what solution I have for them.   I have a red basket that ALL papers for me go into, and I've told students that this is where they should turn things in, yet I have students ask me almost daily, "Where should I put this?" while flashing a piece of paper in my face.  I know these seem like simple questions, but I believe they're signs of a larger problem of learned helplessness, which is definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum from good problem-solving.  If adults are always solving problems for children, how will they gain the practice necessary to solve their own problems?  This is something I constantly think about with my own children as they ask me to do things like open their snack bag before they've even attempted it.  Sure, it's easy for me to do, and sometimes even after they try they still can't get it open, but how will they ever learn to open it if they aren't given the opportunity?  This resistance towards helping them solve simple problems is a struggle for me.  It's an urge I have to constantly fight because it's natural for me to want to help people, especially my own children.

The New York Times recently had an opinion piece, "Raising Successful Children," by psychologist Madeline Levine where she says, "The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them to satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child."  That last part resonated with me because there are plenty of times where I would like to swoop in and tie my 6-year-old's shoes so that we could get out the door faster, but he is very capable of tying them on his own.  Ms. Levine goes on to say, "When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self," and "the central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident, and generally in accord with reality."  The realities are that life demands that people be skilled problem-solvers, life is not always fair, and sometimes in life you struggle and make mistakes.

Two accounts of learned helplessness from my freshmen year of college have stayed with me for many years.  The first is of a girl from New Jersey who lived on my floor and needed help during the first week of school filling her car up with gas.  New Jersey's gas stations are full-serve, which means you stay in your car and someone pumps your gas for you.  As a result, this 18-year-old college student who was now living in Maryland had no idea how to put gas in her car.   The second story came from someone else who lived on my floor that first year who told me that his mom still brushed his 10-year-old little brother's teeth.  I don't know what became of that kid, but I bet Mom didn't go off to college with him to help him continue brushing.  I hope at some point he was given the opportunity to try it on his own.  

In the article "Spoiled Rotten" from the July 2, 2012 edition of the The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about a psychologist who specializes in treating young adults who says that we do too much for our kids because we overestimate our influence:  "Never before have parents been so (mistakenly) convinced that their every move has a ripple effect into their child's future success.  Most parents today were brought up in a culture that put a strong emphasis on being special.  Being special takes hard work and can't be trusted to children.  Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight."  This type of student that she is referring to struggles tremendously in school as they have no confidence and are afraid to be wrong so they don't ask questions and they won't take risks.

In addition to my own observations, I hear and read about tales of high school students who don't know how to fill out a college essay or write their college applications, or whose parents attend their college interviews with them.  In that "Spoiled Rotten" article, Ms. Kolbert writes about "snowplow parents" who "try to clear every obstacle from their children's path."  She states how the children that are the recipients of such obstacle-clearing "worry that they may not be able manage college in the absence of household help."  She goes on to quote research conducted by sociologists at Boston College that found that "today's incoming freshmen are less likely to be concerned about the rigors of higher education than 'about how they will handle the logistics of everyday life.'"  

I truly believe that the best way to learn is to try, make mistakes, reflect on those mistakes, learn from them, and then try again.  This is how I learned almost everything I know about computers and computer software, home repair, and even playing sports.  This is also the approach I take with my students.  I equate learning to being on a journey in a car, and I tell them they need to be in the driver's seat.  Mom, Dad, and I will be in the passenger and back seats providing guidance and support, but they need to be in control of the journey.  They need to be the ones completing their homework.  They need to be the ones asking questions to the teacher when they don't understand.  They need to be the ones working out issues with their friends.

From my passenger seat position I try to provide my students with a supportive environment where I encourage them to take positive risks, make mistakes, and explore the content that they're learning about.  I don't necessarily set them up for failure, but I do set them up for struggle.  The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics defines problem-solving as "... engaging in a task for which the solution method is not known in advance.  In order to find a solution, students must draw on their knowledge, and through this process, they will often develop new mathematical understandings."  That obviously is intended to apply to math, but I think it applies to all problem-solving.   There's tremendous personal value in wrestling with a problem, and there's even greater value in solving that problem you've wrestled with.  To me, it's the best way to learn.

We can't just expect children to be naturally skilled problem-solvers.  Solving problems is a skill that must be learned, and like anything else that you learn, the more you practice the better you get.  Fortunately,  opportunities for practicing problem-solving are all around us in our everyday lives.  We need to embrace these opportunities, perhaps while even providing additional ones, and not take them away from our children.

Classroom Economy

The most prominent extrinsic motivator in my classroom is my class economy, or as I refer to it, my choices-based economy.  In this economy, all students have jobs, for which they earn a salary, they all pay rent for their desks, and they all have access to a class bank and store.  The currency used is called a "Jayner." Students are highly motivated to earn this money, and there are many opportunities for them to earn extra cash by making positive choices in the classroom: following directions; being respectful and/or helpful; etc.  Similarly, poor choices will cost you Jayners, hence the "choices-based" reference.

Jayners come in denominations of 5’s, 10’s, 20’s, 50’s, 100’s, and 500’s, and I usually carry around a stack of 5’s to pass out on the spot when I see good choices being made.  This serves two purposes: 1) It allows me to acknowledge students who are making good choices, and 2) It serves as a reminder to students who are not making the best choices.  I usually pass out small denominations, but on the occasion where I’m trying to make a point - like say only one person is following directions while all the others are not - I will pass out a much higher denomination or just unload my stack of 5’s on one person. It serves as a great attention-getter.

Every student needs to have a job (or at least the opportunity for a job) in this economy. It’s difficult to come up with 25 or so relevant jobs, so some jobs need more than one worker and some jobs require more effort  than others. Students are paid on the 15th and 30th of each month, receiving half their monthly salary each time. Students must apply for their job by submitting a job application, and jobs are changed every month or two. Students receive raises for a job well done and can be fired for not doing their job. 

Every student has an account at the class bank. The bank is open once per week for student deposits and withdrawals. On the 15th and 30th of each month, student salaries are put in their bank accounts (by the bankers). On the 1st of each month, rent is taken out of students’ accounts by the bankers. Bankers also subtract fees for messy desks and late homeworks, as reported on by the desk inspector and HW checkers. Students are responsible for keeping an account log at their desk so they know how much they have in the bank. 

Students have the opportunity to spend their Jayners at the class store. The store is open once per week at the same time the bank is open. Two cashiers work the store. They receive money from the bank to make change, and they sell items (erasers, pencils, books, etc.) that I acquire via donations or small purchases.

Every student pays rent for their desk. Rent is paid on the 1st of the month and covers the rest of that month. Initially, rent prices are set as high as students’ salaries to encourage saving. As the year goes on, rent is raised as salaries/earnings increase. Students also have the opportunity to purchase their desks at a price set by me. This price is usually something that is not attainable until some saving has occurred (i.e., 3 months salary, etc.) Once a desk has been purchased, no rent is taken from that student. Also, a student who has purchased their own desk will have the opportunity to purchase someone else’s desk once they saved up enough money. Students who purchase other students’ desks receive rent from that person, and they can set the rent price. However, the rent price can not be higher than the teacher’s rent price.

This economy teaches my students responsibility, forces them to apply math to a real situation, and teaches them the importance of money management.  It's also a great motivator for positive choices, as students see Jayners as real cash and are motivated to earn it.  Now if I could just stop washing wads of it in my pants' pockets.


A person can have tremendous abilities, but if they're not motivated, they're not likely to reach their full potential.  It's far too easy to do the minimum amount, to quit when things get difficult, and to take the easy route.  This is true for many students.  They come to school with many of the cognitive skills to be successful, but if they're not motivated to do their best and learn all that they can, they're not going to get the most out school.  They're likely to quit when the work becomes difficult and/or only do the minimal amount to get by.

In the beginning of the school year, I talk to my students about motivation.  We talk about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and I give them examples of each.  I tell them that my preference is for them to be intrinsically motivated, and I think that most of them are - at least, as much as you can expect a ten-year-old to be.  Don't get me wrong, they're also highly extrinsically motivated, which is to say that they enjoy a good tangible reward for a job well done.  Who doesn't?  I'm not against offering up such rewards - even motivated adults benefit from a dangling carrot every now and them.  I just don't think material objects like a prize or a piece of candy send as powerful of a message as a good intrinsic treat for the brain.  When a student pushes themselves to be better - for the sake of being better - and they succeed, it's a thing of beauty to witness.  It makes them stronger, builds confidence, and changes the way they approach school.  

I spend a lot of time and effort trying to inspire my students to do their absolute best.  Some of my efforts are overt, like my many motivational posters or my repetition of timeless sayings: "you can lead a horse to water ..."  Other attempts to motivate my students are more subtle, like my Superstar Board where students get to put their names on a bulletin board if they give what I deem to be a "superstar" response.  It involves no other reward other than seeing their name on a bulletin board, but the students take a lot of pride in signing their star, and their faces light up when I ask them to "sign a superstar."  I've heard many students say to me that their goal is to sign a superstar or to sign the most superstars.  In other words, they're motivated!

I strive to utilize a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in my classroom.  Whether it's my Superstar Board, my classroom economy reward system, or a one-on-one conversation with a student, I constantly look for chances to motivate my students to the point where they're going to give their absolute best.  When it happens, it makes everything I do worthwhile, and it's why I believe that the best gifts I can give my students are inspiration and motivation.