Monday, May 5, 2014

Entrance is a Privilege!

The exit ticket is a tool I use on occasion in order to get a quick assessment at the end of the class period.  Each student is challenged to perform under the condition that he or she is not finished with class until having answered correctly.  Every time I use this tool I am surprised at the intensity with which students attempt to complete the given task.  The incentive to be finished is apparently a strong one.

Several weeks ago I observed a math teacher who put a brilliant twist on the exit ticket by turning it into an entrance ticket.  Before the start of every class he stood outside the door to his room armed with a stack of flash cards.  His students were not allowed to physically enter the room until they had individually answered a question correctly.  As I watched his students eagerly answer in order to be allowed into his room, several things became clear about the nature of his class.  Here are just a few of them:

1. The students wanted to be there.  The incentive that had them working so hard was not to be finished, but to get started!

2. Students were reviewing and giving feedback to their teacher well before the bell for class rang.  Talk about setting the tone for a hard-working class!

3. This exercise demanded 100% participation from the get-go.  Entrance to class was a privilege that a passive non-participant could not earn.

While an entrance ticket may not be logistically practical or even possible for every teacher, I invite you to join me as I take a hard look at how my classes begin.  What can you do to up your game at the start of class?  What simple steps can you take to communicate to students that their time spent in class will be worthwhile and that hard work and high expectations are for everyone?   Try to find something concrete and simple that you can work into your routine and eventually turn into habit.  Give it a try and see what you can learn!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Does Your Classroom Say About You?

This week's guest post is by Jessica Raba, the executive director of the Lutheran Schools Association in New York.

When I started teaching a little over a decade ago, I had visions of a functioning classroom that were akin to my own experience. Colorful walls displaying student work, lots of books, nooks and corners in which my students could get lost in said books, small desks with name tags on them facing the front of the room, impeccable teacher-made posters dotting the room, neat writing on the board, beckoning students to come in and learn. Blissful.

Fast forward a few years and my desks were much bigger (I was teaching middle school rather than elementary, as I'd originally intended), the room was colorful, there were books around, I'd created the corners and libraries to the best of my ability, but it wasn't as neat and impeccable as I'd prepared for in my first days of teaching. Fast forward to empty walls at the start of the year, beckoning for student work, desks without nametags, allowing for movement and less about ownership than a tool to help facilitate learning. Not perfect. Not necessarily blissful. But, more in line with a view toward real, messy learning.

Simply put, my vision of education and all the learning and teaching that go with it, had changed. Some years after that second scene, I imagine I'd do things much differently, but one key element would remain the same.

You see, in the years between my first year of teaching and the visions of perfect classrooms, I realized that I needed to shift my thinking, my starting point. I realized that I was beginning with the outward expression of school, rather than with the why of education and learning. I don't choose those words lightly, either. In college, I spent time working at a teacher store a few summers...I would stock shelves and run my fingers over cute bulletin board borders, nametags, posters, everything that I envisioned coming together to make the perfect classroom. I'd be the perfect teacher. Sure, maybe if I were to have my room featured in one of the teacher store catalogs.

But, not if I were to consider the students that would inhabit the desks over the year, and to deeply consider my goals for them.

In talking with a colleague the other day, the subject of classroom environment came up. He had the chance recently to visit a school that he'd never visited before. One of his key observations was the set-up of the classrooms he visited. Rather than rows, he saw desks grouped in clusters, and in place of the neat rooms we see in Hollywood's depictions of HS classrooms, he saw horseshoes that helped ensure that class participation in discussions was front and center. Those teachers' goals for students were pretty clear.

Each year, we have a blank slate in our classrooms, and I wonder if starting with the why of learning might help us to create classroom environments conducive to learning. The difference in the first two anecdotes of this post were that in the first, I set up my classroom and then began planning for learning. In the second, I planned for learning, and my classroom set up came next.

Where do you begin? What does your classroom say about you?

Consider these questions (certainly not an exhaustive list!) as you prepare for future learning, be it this year or in the years to come:

  • What do I hope for my students, this year, and in life?
  • What types of experiences will they need in preparation?
  • How might I set up the learning space such that these experiences are more likely to occur?
I'd love to hear from you -- how do you set up your learning space? Please feel free to share photos and ideas with me on Twitter (@jessicaraba), to get the conversation going!

Monday, April 21, 2014

When You Think You Can't...You Can

Make a list of all of the hurdles you encounter on a daily basis.  List out all of the reasons that you can't do what you were hoping to do.  Read through your list and then watch this.

Hurdles do not have to be hurdles if you really believe in what you're doing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Seat Signals

Seat Signals - In the Classroom

Once again, a simple piece of practical classroom advice taken from the essential Teach Like Champion, this strategy is called "seat signals".

The rationale is this: a student asking to go to the bathroom, or to get out of their seat for any reason can be very disruptive. A student arguing with a teacher who answers "no" to their request to leave can also be highly disruptive. Thus, the solution is fairly simple: a set of hand signals that signify common requests. 

The criteria for said signals must be

  • done from their seats
  • nonverbal
  • do not require verbal answers
  • posted on the wall
Some common ones include: 
  • hand up, two fingers crossed (Can I use the bathroom?)
  • hold pencil up (I need a new pencil)
  • left hand pinching nose (I need a tissue)
  • One finger held up in circular motion (I need to get out of my seat for whatever)
  • frisbee/fishing motions (Would you like to play frisbee and/or go fishing with me?)
Remember that when these things are not done out loud, you not only avoid derailing the momentum of your lesson, but you can also use every minute of your teaching time. Try it out and see what you can learn. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Radical Endeavor For the Common Idealist - Overworking and Oversizing..

It was my hope that time travel would be been invented before writing this post so we could have accurately complete the survey that I will not approximate through pure speculation. However, it is my belief that if you were to go back in time and ask high school students the question: "How to you feel about AP tests?", it would look like this:
15 years ago: What is an AP test?
10 years ago: They are a great opportunity for myself and a select few other super-intellectuals to get college credit. 
10 weeks ago: All my friends are doing them so I am too. It's so hard.
10 years from now: I think I heard my mom talking about those once. 

Just as 50 years ago, getting a "C" on your report card was supposed to mean "average", the status quo and meaning of symbols and standings in education change and inflate just like currency, language, and pretty much everything else. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely can be a bad thing for those students who are born the wrong year and through complete stochasticity end up being the martyrs during the grand finale of an educational fad on its deathbed. This may be radical (5th Monday, deal with it) to say, but many believe (self included) that student workload right now for high-achieving schools/students is at its zenith and is not sustainable. Thus, I encourage you, faithful pedagogue, to investigate the matter briefly by doing the following:

1. Re-read and re-watch an old post from this blog, as well as the videos that accompany. The one called "Race to Nowhere", . Watch the trailer if not the entire movie. And, if you have the time, check out this more recent article featured in ,  The Atlantic, titled,

2. "My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me" . It's the journalistic findings of a dad who is curious about his daughter's homework and sleep schedule so he does all of his daughter's homework for a week and says what he learns. It's definitely worth the read.

Thus, give these a shot, and see what you can learn.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Good teachers--from the students' perspective

This time of year it might be necessary to rejuvenate ourselves and our classrooms in order to help the students (and ourselves) finish strong. There are many blogs, tweets, articles, posts, etc. on what makes a good teacher that at times it might seem overwhelming… “I need to use technology effectively for 67% of the class period, engage students with different learning styles, return homework the next day so they have feedback, monitor their behavior, join #edchat, and return parent e-mails…” While all of these are great suggestions and the experts do know what they’re talking about- I decided to get some different input so I asked current and former students (aren’t they the ones we need to connect with anyway), “what makes a good teacher?” 

Here are the results (in their words):

  • Passion and love for what they’re doing
  • Dedication
  • Changing up methods of teaching—keeping us interested
  • Encouraging and genuinely cares about students’ well-being
  • Fun, keeps the class awake, fun activities, encouraging
  • Engaging and sets the students up for success, truly wants them to do well
  •  Loving the subject and finding new ways to get students interested 
  •  Music, a lack of monotony
  • Fun and interesting lecture, fair with no bias
  • Focuses on taking what we learn in the classroom and applying it to real life. It’s more fun learning about things when I understand what I am learning
  •  A God-loving person whom takes pride in their work and is just
  • Spends time explaining topics and makes sure class knows subject well
  • Knowing how to handle a classroom
  • Leadership. Fairness. Organization. Personality. Creativity. Effective communication. Compassion.
  •  A good teacher is a leader but also a friend when needed
  •  Definitely taking the time to know each student individually and showing concern for each student’s success in a class
  • A "good" teacher is one who makes themselves available not only in class but outside of class. Someone who switches things up for every class period and one who gets to know their students on a more personal level.
  •  A good teacher is someone who makes learning fun and does something new each class period. Also not just necessarily in the classroom but being a good example to the students. High school is a time of mixed emotions (puberty) and discovering oneself and having a professional friend/teacher as an example is extremely helpful.
  •  Earning respect from day one and allowing some goofing off when appropriate!

These answers are from high school students but I think they can apply to all levels. If we just focus on one of these a day we will be busy for 21 days becoming a better teacher in the eyes of those who need us. Try some of them and see what you can learn…

Monday, March 10, 2014

Build a Google Site

Today I would like to challenge you to explore Google Sites, a tool that saves me time and energy in the following ways:

- organizes my courses
- makes notes and other materials immediately accessible to any absent students
- provides a framework for employing the “flip” through videos and other media
- easily integrates my Google Calendar to display lesson plans
- gives me a way to add a creative personal touch to my courses

While many options exist for maintaining a class website, I enjoy the individuality and flexibility of Google sites.  I have great control over the look of each site (color scheme, layout, etc) and I can be creative while keeping things simple.  It is extremely easy to post videos and links for my students to watch, as well as the notes and assignments for each unit.  Last year I uploaded a pdf file of each day’s notes, and now I can easily direct absent students to find their missing work on the website.  Google is known for products that are user-friendly, and there isn’t another online company out there that I feel will be sticking around longer.  Though I have my digital notes backed up, it’s nice to know my sites will be there next year.  Making changes, adding lessons, linking videos, and finding ways to inspire students are all made easy by this great app. 

This is not something you can necessarily sit down and commit to in a day, but my challenge to you is to spend 20 minutes this week building a simple website.  Your practice site does not have to be a class website.  Have fun with it, but in the back of your mind be thinking about how it could serve you and your students.  Here are a few links to help you get started: (to dive right in)

Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Site (to read about it first)

Google Sites Classroom Template (to check out Google’s template – way more complex than mine)

Link to my Precalculus site (very simple, still in its early stages, but is constantly adapting to the changes I make in the course)

Getting my sites started took some work, but the time was worth the investment.  Now I have sites that grow and adapt as I improve my course, keeping a digital record of all my work.  If you love creating and could use an online filing cabinet for your course, or if you have been looking for a good platform for employing the “flip,” Google Sites could be just the right thing.  Give it a try and see what you can learn.