Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Call It A Game

I have had some requests in the past for advice about unmotivated students. I will tell you truthfully, I have very few pointers on the matter. I have encountered more than one student whose self worth has been beaten down by their environment, their parents, even other teachers. These are the students who really believe that they'll never amount to anything so it is not even worth trying. In order to reach those students, first and foremost, I try to make all of my learning relevant to them and their lives. If they can see a real world purpose, I've often succeeded in motivating them to learn it.

Sometimes though, you just have to lie. Did I say that? I meant...stretch the truth. ;) I have conned my students into learning a million times by doing something so very simple: Calling it a game!

Students who have not succeeded in school because they simply don't care need an extra push. The second you put them on the spot and give them a team that is relying on them, their attitude changes.

Now, I didn't tell you to let them play games all day (because I'm pretty sure that would at least make you their favorite teacher, but might not be the motivational tool you're looking for). Instead, make them learn and call it a game. As always, I'll provide examples!

1) Vocabulary Silent Ball: The students were very tired of standardized testing the other day but they really needed to review their vocabulary for the next day's test. Instead of "studying" I let them all sit on top of their desks and throw a ball around. The second I called "Stop" the person holding the ball had to define a word. If the couldn't, they had to sit back in their seats and play continued until the last person on their desk became the "winner". They practiced vocabulary intently for 25 minutes in this way.
2) Animal Adjectives: My third graders are learning about adjectives but they hate anything that looks like I might make them write. Today, I gave them each a secret card with a picture of an animal on it. They had to write ten sentences describing the animals which they would present to the class. The student who could guess the animal first (without seeing the card) using the clue won a sticker. (And guess what? They all wrote complete sentences using adjectives and did their best jobs because they had to read them in front of an audience.)
3) Group Math Quiz: I asked my students to complete a word problem worksheet on Valentine's Day. Instead of having them work quietly at their desks, I let them work in groups. Usually this leads to some students working and some students sitting there doing nothing. To solve this, I made it a competition, each child would be graded by an opposing team member so each was responsible for having the correct answers thereby forcing each group member to participate in the process.
4) Show me your work: Every day in math class, the students learn a concept and practice several examples of the same concept. If I can tell they are getting tired of the repetition, I will give them individual dry erase boards. They have to solve their problems on their own and then when I yell "show me your work!" they hold the boards up. I split the class in half and award each of the two teams points based on how many people in their group answered the problem correctly.

Every one of these games sounds pretty boring to me. The kids are just doing the same work that they always would only there are points involved. Let me tell you though, they come to class begging for the "games" and they sure do learn a lot.

Monday, February 16, 2009


There's only two types of people in the world
The one's the entertain and the ones that observe
Well, I'm a put-on-a-show kind of girl
-Britney Spears

I'm pretty sure quoting Britney Spears actually takes me back a few cool points, but I heard these first few line of the song this morning and it completely reminded me of the way that I run my classroom.

Listening (and hearing) occurs in only a few ways. People listen most closely to things that they actually want to hear. If you are giving your students information that they don't want to hear, you have to present it in a way that they want to hear it.

Even if you are not a gregarious and outgoing person by nature, you need to find ways of engaging your students. There are always visual presentations and media that can be incorporated, but I find that creating a bright and vibrant presence is always most effective. When you are running classroom, you are running a circus. There are different acts and you are most definitely the ringleader.

I wrote a while back about how I wanted the students to remember to incorporate details in their expository writing. I stood up in front of the class and acted out all of their detailed instructions on how to make a PBJ sandwich exactly as they said them and looked ridiculous as I tried to balance a million different fake utensils and ingredients (because they never told me to put anything down). It was hilarious and silly but every single time they show me their work and I ask them about the peanut butter and jelly my students know to go back and add details!

I probably could have entitled this post "visual learners" and omitted the Britney altogether, but you get the idea.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

No More Hand Holding

I find that the hardest lesson I've learned in my first few years of teaching is how to let the baby birds fly solo. As a teacher, we are so invested in having our students succeed, that it can be scary to let them try things on their own (because they might fail!).

The one place where I am beginning to feel more successful in this area is with the creation of literacy centers. Independent stations where students are responsible for their own rotation and completion of tasks (which they will be assessed on) gives them not only a sense of ownership, but a chance to really demonstrate their individual skills. As with the implementation of anything successful, there are helpful guidelines.

1) Set up and practice the system early. Do not wait until halfway through the year to start the centers. Students need to get into routine and expectations as early as possible. You could even practice 5 second/10 second transitions during the first day of school introductory activities.
2) Integrate information. If the literacy centers tie in to other subject matters, students will become proficient at making connections and understand the greater importance of what they are learning.
3) Get passively involved. One of the literacy centers that I often use is called "Read with the teacher." The students will see you as a part of their regular literacy time but they will still remain responsible for the work. They are required to read aloud to the teacher and generate questions that they think the teacher might use if she were to test them on the material.
4) Use interactive listening centers. When I first started using listening centers I noticed that the students were sitting passively and not attending to the information they were hearing. I think that listening centers are important for building fluency but the students need something to stimulate thinking. Now, I copy the portion of the text that they are listening to and write numbers on each page. The numbers correlate to a question that they must pause the tape and answer. This keeps them engaged and gives them a purpose for reading.
5) Culture and crafts stations! While I understand that these centers can be harder to justify educationally if they are not well executed, they can be the most meaningful learning tools out of all of them. Examples of this are: a) We read the story of Arachne and the Weaver and the students learned how to weave using "looms" and yarn. b) We read a story that took place in Vietnam and the students had to follow a recipe to create a traditional dish and use chopsticks (learned from an instructional guide) to consume it.

If you are having trouble letting go and giving students the chance to pave their own way, this solution works well and can be modified to fit any subject. The beauty of it is that students will figure things out for themselves because they'll have can't be at every station at once! ;)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Know Your Limits

It is very natural to get in over your head. As I learned as a first year teacher, there is no shortage of activities, clubs, and events to get involved in. If you are not careful, being involved quickly becomes too much. I am probably the worst offender of all when it comes to this idea: Know Your Limitations. In fact, I just recently received these words in an e-mail from my best friend in Minnesota:

I know that you tend to take on everyone else's problems in addition to your own. Be sure that you do the things that you enjoy and take sometime to be selfish and take care of yourself first.

Now, you all know how I feel about being selfish. However, I do believe that limits are necessary in order to be the most effective part of whatever you do. In short, if you spread yourself too thin, you end up doing every halfway. If you understand your limits, you can devote everything you've got to each of the things you have carefully selected to do.

1. Know when to say no. It is important to be a vital part of your work team and school environment, but you can't do it all. People will just have to understand that your job isn't your entire life/identity.
2. Ask for help. Surround yourself with good people who understand your tendency to take on too much and let them take care of you/ease some of the burden.
3. Decide what is important (prioritize). Recognize that if you decide to make your job the only thing that matters, that is all you'll have. Choose the most important things in your life to attend to.
4. Diversify your interests. Make sure that you set aside time to do not just what you know is important, but what you truly enjoy doing. Giving yourself lots of different options will make you more well rounded and ready to take on everything that you do.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Be Human

I went to the doctor last night for an issue that has been a part of my entire life. I am fine, but it is something that will continue to frustrate and eventually negatively affect me if I can not find a way to prevent it. Needless to say, it has been a long and difficult process.

In any case, my first impression of the doctor was that he was fairly cold and distant. Because I am familiar with the whole process, I am also able to distance myself and speak with medical clarity. However, at one point, my defenses broke and I showed how emotional the whole process has been for me. In that second, everything about his demeanor changed. He put his hand on my elbow and stated simply and affectionately:

"Everyone has their 'thing' that they have to deal with. You have been blessed in many other ways, but this is just your 'thing'."

He revealed to me his human side, the side responsible for feeling and compassion, and was clearly a better doctor for it. That is the side that it is imperative to reveal sometimes, even in the professional setting, in order to build trust.

In the classroom, for example, students can see right through a teacher who is too "perfect". I talk all the time about the things that I struggle with. They need to know that they are not alone, that math was hard for me too when I was growing up. They need to know that some things are funny, and that normal people who are amused usually laugh (and when it is appropriate to do so). They need to know that I have had struggles and successes and that, if they wanted to, they could grow up to be the kind of person I am and have the kind of things that I have. I'm not special, my life is attainable, and because I care about them, I'm accessible.

My favorite thing that I tell my students is, "My Spanish isn't perfect and your English isn't perfect. That just means we'll have to learn together."

There should always be limits, but sometimes I even act just like my students. Today we were reading a story that mixes up all of the old fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It was in the form of a play and was very silly. At one point, Little Miss Muffet ends up with the handsome prince instead of being scared by the spider as per usual. My 4th grade student who was playing The Prince was supposed to read the line (to Miss Muffet), "Would you like to go back to my palace?" Of course, being a bilingual student (while simultaneously using his most impressive swagger) he instead boldly questioned, "Would you like to go back to my place?" I was laughing so hard I couldn't catch my breath to read my next narration line. And the kids were right there with me. They would look at me and laugh even harder. It was hilarious.

Eventually I got back control of myself and my students. It wasn't a perfect teaching moment, but it sure was fun for a second there to break character and get to be the real version of myself. The one thing that I've learned about all of it is, if you can't be yourself (be human) in front of your students, they'll never understand you and respect you for the super human they believe you to be.