Freakonomics Radio discusses the quality of teachers.

Freakonomics Radio did an episode that asks the question: Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem? 

When I first saw the episode title I must admit my first intuition was to get a little upset, but when I calmed down and listened to the show I found it very interesting.  Freakonomics is known for applying economic research and principals to things that we do not typically look at as an economic problem.  I found that as I listened I learned a few things and I really agreed with many of the things discussed.

One example of an area we discussed that I agree with, is the question of teacher training.  It stated that we spend far to much time on theory rather than practice.  Yes, thats true.  Teaching methodology has not been advancing with the new technologies as fast as it should. There is no question that teacher training needs improvement.  

It is clear that teachers are not the only influence on students success.  It is also clear that outstanding teachers have a significant impact on student performance. I believe that there needs to be a change in our performance.  Many teachers including myself can look at a bad year of testing and put the blame about everywhere but on ourselves.  The fact is however, until we as individuals accept some responsibility the chance of us changing and improving are minimal.  

Overall this was a very fair look at the situation, and is well worth a listen.  If we listen with an open mind there are a lot of great things to learn.  They will continue with this weeks podcast looking at an educational program called Pathways to Learning.  I look forward to it.  

Give Students Time to Write

When we think about our students work day, it may not seem like there is a lack of writing time.  They have there daily journal topic, the response to a reading assignment, the essays in science and social studies, and the writing assignment that focuses on a specific genre, or skill.  Despite the many things students are called on to write about in a given week there is still one type of writing that is conspicuously missing.  That is allowing time for the students to write about what they want to write about.  

Free Writing time is essential for developing writers.  If all they are ever given time to do is what they are told to do, it is unlikely that they will ever develop a love for writing.  The big question that I'm sure is going through your mind is,  When?  Our days are packed and we cant fit in everything as is is.  The solution I decided on was to be a little more careful with my weekly writing assignment.  I have consolidated two weeks writing instruction goals into a one week lesson, and now every other week is dedicated to student choice writing.

You may be wondering why is it so important to provide students so much time to just write about what they want.  The main reason is that students in general love to write about things they are interested in.  Writing should be a positive and fun experience for our students, not a dreaded task.  When students are motivated we get their best work.  I can say that I have seen a difference in my students this year since I have started this.  Although this group of students came to me a little bit lower based on 3rd grade end of level testing, but already this year I am getting better writing not just on free writes, but in every type of writing.

 

We must be writers to teach writing well

Although it seems obvious to me that in order to be a good writing instructor, you must also be a good and practicing writer yourself. Writing is a process that only improves with practice. It seems to me that there's become a big disconnect between what writing instruction is now, and what is truly required for good writing.

Writing in the real world does not tend to follow the nice neat linear path that we like to teach. As we find ways as teachers to express ourselves through writing, we will start to recognize that writing can form in many different ways. We have a tendency to want to teach the specific step-by-step process, yet for me as a writer, it doesn't always fit in that nice little mold. It's not that I don't use many of the steps that we teach, but to be quite honest I don't brainstorm, then create a web, outline, create a rough draft, and revise and edit for every piece of writing that I do. In fact other than demonstrating this for my students I don't recall going through this entire process for any piece of writing.

When I suggest that we as teachers make sure that we are writing if we would like to continue to teach writing, I'm not suggesting that everybody try to publish a book or create a blog. Are writing does not always have to be published, in fact keeping a daily journal, or just trying to be a little more descriptive with our meeting notes might be enough. We simply need to be using our creative abilities in the process of organizing her thoughts on paper.

One of the biggest things that I began to realize, is that as I write I spend a lot more time sitting and thinking about what I will write than I do writing. I've gotten pretty frustrated that students in the past for doing the same thing. I don't want them to waste their time, and unfortunately rather than gently discussing ideas, or giving them time, I have just told them to get busy. There's a difficult balance in this because we all have students who will set the whole time and do nothing, but we need to be careful to allow her students that do try to have the time they need to be effective in their writing.

Let us as writing teachers seek out ways to write more so that we can improve our own writing instruction. Even if it's 15 minutes a day, it could make a big difference in our writing instruction.

Over the next few weeks I will be continuing to write articles to help us make our writing instruction better. This is the first of approximately 10 articles.

Give them Time, The new Paradigm in Writing and Reading Instruction.

In the past year I have read two books that have become very popular, one was regarding reading and the other writing. The first book is The Book Whisperer by Donna Lynn Miller. The second book I read was by Barry Lane and is entitled But How Do You Teach Writing?. Each of these books have many powerful suggestions to help improve student writing and reading skills. They become very popular among teachers, and I believe have had a significant positive impact on students as well.

When we dig down to the key principle in both books it is the same. The best way for students to get better at writing and reading is to give them more time with authentic reading and writing. Pacifically with reading I have really tried to ensure that my students get at least 30 minutes of personal reading time each school day. In order to get this I have had to cut back on how much time I spend in the basal, and teaching reading strategies. This made me a little bit nervous because the testing that the district monitors is tightly tied to the basal and the concepts taught in the lessons I was skipping. I strongly believed however that it was more important for students to have time to read in books they enjoy than to spend that time teaching strategies and skills. I have not eliminated the strategy and skills lessons, but they have gone from 30 minute lessons with lots of practice too focused 10 minute lessons with little to no practice. We are now a third of the way through the year, and so far my students are showing better gains than I have seen in previous years.

While this is hardly a scientific study, both books site a lot of research suggests that just giving students time to read and write will have a far bigger impact on student performance than teaching specific skills in these areas. For those of you that read my blog and think "this guy's grammar is atrocious, who does he think he is to tell us how to write?" I have to agree, but I would point out that most of my instructions growing up was focused far more on grammar and skills then it was just on allowing me time to write and express myself. If you think my grammar is bad now, you should read my stuff from a few years ago before I allowed myself to just start writing.

I personally believe that teaching specific techniques and skills in reading and writing are important. But I have also found that a 5 to 10 minute lesson, and a quick quiz that can fit on a 3 x 5 card, is just as effective if not more effective than a 30 minute lesson in a worksheet. If we can tighten up and focus our lessons into these little power lessons, students will have much more time to read and write about the things that they love. This is definitely a trend that is moving in the right direction.

Teacher Tech Tool Box Revision coming soon!

The Teacher’s Tech Toolbox started out as page on my website Sugoiteaching.com. On that site I gave a list of the programs, websites, and technology tools that I used in the classroom. I also gave a brief description of what each of these tools were for and how I use them. In the following years the technology has changed, and I have changed many of the tools that I was using. In addition to that I believe that it’s time to step up the game, and make this a resource that is truly valuable to teachers. Over the next couple months I intend to make an intensive revision to the Teachers Technology Toolbox.

In the end I’m hoping that my finished product will consist of two primary parts. The first part will be a much enhanced website that lists each of the technology tools and has links to videos that walks teachers through the basics of using each of the tools. The second part will be a book, which will include a chapter on how I make the technology tools work in my schedule, in addition to a chapter with detailed instructions for each of the tools.

I will be selling the book portion on Amazon for an eBook Price of $4.99, However all subscribers to my news letter will receive a free eBook version of the book when released.  Right now I am thinking that the news letter will be a monthly thing, but I commit to never sending anything to this email list more than once a week. 

Newsletter Signup

The Importance of Self Reflection in Students

Almost all the teachers I know have journals for students. Most often these journals are used at the beginning of the day where students are given a topic to write about and then they write on that topic. While I don't believe that writing on the topic is a bad thing, it just doesn't seem to fit the journal metaphor. In my personal journal I use it to reflect on the events of the day, therefore using it at the end of the day is the only thing that makes sense.

I have began using my journals at the end of the day is a reflection tool for student learning. I'm finding great value in the students taking a little time to reflect on the events of the day and on their learning. It seems that my most challenging students are also the ones that rarely take the time to think about consequences or the results of their actions. By setting aside time to think about those things I am even seeing behavior improve.

While I think for older students you could just give them the time to reflect on what they learned without too much guidance, yet with my students in fourth grade I find it helpful for them to have an outline of keys concepts to write about. The way I do this outline is with the bulleted list on the board, like the following example:

  • Tell me one important thing to remember when multiplying two digit by two digit numbers?
  • List five more exciting verbs than "walk".
  • Why do you think mountain men came to Utah?

By giving a little guidance it helps to reflect on the key concepts taught that day. This reflection solidifies learning, and puts journal writing in the proper context. If you're wondering whether I abandoned writing to a prompt, I have not. While I don't do it every day, I call it a quick write, and we will do it a couple times a week.

This American Life talks Discipline in Schools

This American Life had an interesting episode this week.  They focused on the effectiveness of different discipline methods used in schools today.  It honestly made me take a good look at my own educational practices.  While the stories focus on some extreme examples, there were great insights into educational practices.  I highly recommend this podcast.

It can be found at: http://www.thisamericanlife.org 

We teach kids not curriculum

I heard a teaching tip in an unlikely place today.  I was in church listening to a missionary speaking about his experiences in teaching the people in the Marshall Islands.  He made the statement that his missionary efforts significantly improved when he realized that he was there to "Teach the person, not the lessons".  This comment hit me.  I realized that I have been focusing much of my attention in class on creating a great lesson, or a new teaching strategy.  If I focused a little more on the individual student perhaps my effectiveness would improve.  This does not mean that the curriculum or teaching strategies are not important, just that they are secondary to that relationship with our students.  

Great Planning tool awaits with PlanBook.com!

If your teacher lesson plan book is still made from trees, you are missing out on some great features.  There are many options for online lesson plans, and I have tried most, but one tool stood out and became my favorite.  Planbook.com seems to have it all.  Planbook.com is not necessarily easy to set up, but they have great video tutorials to help you get started.  Once you get through setting it up though it is very easy to plan quickly and has all the features that I need. The key features I was looking for are as follows:

  • Templates - I can set up each subject to have a basic outline for the lesson plan and it will copy through every day in that subject for the year.  
  • Built in standards - All of Utah's and I imagine most state standards are built in.  This means when I link a lesson to a standard I just have to search and add.  There is also an option to view all of the standards and it will show how many lessons have been taught for each standard.  
  • iPad App - This one was the tipping point between PlanBook.com and another app with similar features.  The other site had a mobile enabled site, but it was limited and didn't work well.  I needed something that works great on the web, and on my iPad.
  • Ease of Use - I have developed a bad habit of winging it when I don't take the time to plan.  There needed to be no barriers to planning.  PlanBook.com is easy enough to use that I never have any trouble taking the few minutes to plan out a day.
  • Printable - While I rarely print out lesson plans for my own use, I like to print them out for subs.  PlanBook.com makes it easy to print out great looking easy to follow plans for subs.

Planbook.com has met my need to be a quick easy way to get my daily lesson planning done quickly and efficiently.  Check it out at PlanBook.Com.

Today's updates for our site

Today I started a few different things on SugoiCreative.com. I've started going through many of my pictures and started collecting some photos that I feel are valuable education. These pictures will be free to use for anyone who wants to use them for the classroom. I hope that this will become a collection that will be easy to pronounce and have useful pictures that you could use some power points, websites, and other projects to use in your classroom. My only restriction is that I ask that you do not post these pictures on other stock photography websites.  

I have also started to new blogs where I will definitely post in writing topic and a math problem today. I askmy students write in their journals daily and I will be using this these resources for my own classroom, and welcome anybody else who would like to use them. I teach fourth grade but I think the topics are appropriate from about 3rd to 6th Grade.  The problem of the day will be at the world math problem usually requires several steps to complete. They might need a little bit of guidance to get started. 

Great Classroom Reward ideas From the Kids

Today I was teaching a cooperative learning structure called  "Jot Thoughts" .  This structure focuses on brain storming and is a great way to get kids working together in coming up with ideas.  

Prior to the lesson you will need a large stack of slips of paper for each group.

Step 1: Announce the topic  to the class, and set a time limit.

Step 2: Students write one idea per slip of paper, and read it out-loud to their group and place it on the table. then grab another piece of paper to write another idea.

Step 3: At the end of their time I like to do some type of organizing for the ideas they generated.

My focus was ideas for rewards that I could give the class when they did something well.  The students came up with many great and some not so great ideas.  After the brainstorm I had them sort their ideas by cost.  It turned out to be fun for the kids, and it was very interesting to listen to them discuss what they thought things would cost.  I decided that I would share some of the suggestions that were created from this activity

 

Free:

  • Wii Party
  • Extra Recess
  • No Homework
  • Tickets
  • Story Time
  • Paper for drawing
  • Video Game Party
  • Skip Math
  • Dance Party
  • Karaoke Party
  • Tokens
  • PJ Day
  • No Science
  • Move Desks
  • iPad Time
  • Marbles Game
  • Reduced Assignments
  • Rocks
  • TV Time
  • Movies

Cheap

  • Ice Cream Party
  • Root beer floats
  • Pencil sharpeners
  • Binders
  • Toys (Treasure chest)
  • Candy
  • Soda
  • PowerAde
  • Fruit
  • Waffle or Pancake Party
  • Smoothies
  • Ball
  • Cookie
  • Pencils
  • Erasers
  • Markers
  • Bubble Gum
  • Bubble Gum Blowing Contest
  • Hot Dog Party
  • Slap bracelet

A Little More Pricey

  • Pizza Party
  • Sandwiches
  • Shirt
  • Back Packs
  • Giant Candy Bars
  • Hamburger Party
  • Field Trips
  • Water Bottles
  • Marbles
  • Rulers
  • Field Trip

A few things that didn’t make the cut

  • Unlimited Cookies
  • A $100 bill
  • Flat Screen TV
  • Never Ending Soda (Soda Fountain)
  • Captain Pooch with Captain Steed (yea, I don’t know either)
  • Chickens
  • Cow
  • Doggy
  • Doghouse
  • X-Box
  • iPod
  • Car
  • Light Saber
  • A Wall

Encourage Writing Through Media Production

Getting many students to write is typically not a huge problem.  For some students however it is a significant challenge.  Teachers have often used publishing on websites, and teacher made books, and other places to get the students excited about writing.  I have found a publishing method that is fairly effective to get even the most reluctant writers excited about writing.  The use of video production has been used for a while in some tech savvy classrooms and always gets the kids excited.  The big change now is that new software and hardware makes this process super easy for even non-techy teachers.  

A great example of this is an iPad app called ToonTastic.  I had the students write scripts, on a story board format that matched the ToonTastic story format.  By the way, when you have a student who you can barely get a few sentences out of in normal situations asks if they can stay in from recess to work on a script, you know you have a great assignment.  With the script in hand and no experience my fourth grade students were able to produce a 5 minute animated video, with great story lines in about 20-30 minutes on the iPad.   This simple tool got some of my most reluctant writers excited about writing.   

This is just one little example of how production could enhance writing.  I think I would get just as much excitement if students were just animating a Poem or a short story rather than a traditional script.  The key is giving them a new, fun, and interesting way to make the presentation of their work exciting.  In the next several articles I will share with you some of the great tools I have found to make this possible. 

How to get a child to sit in their chair. (Should We)

I read an interesting series of posts on a bulletin board on LinkedIn where a question was posed.  My students are in first grade. One of them never sit down on his chair!  What can I do?  The responses that were posted were very good and I though I should share a few of the best.

Otis said, "I have had students like this. It is really challenging and sometimes what I would do is set up a work station or area where that student can work standing up. After a while, I begin the slowly transition the child to a chair, little by little, sometimes just five minutes at a time. I also buy a bunch of cheap bath mats for kids who struggle with chairs and have them work on those on the floor."A teacher replied to this and a few other suggestions in a condescending way so I will not quote her, but she did make a few good points.  She questioned the necessity of worrying about a child who liked to stand more than they sat.  She stated that we should focus more on the work that is produced by the child, than whether the child is sitting or standing. 

There are a lot of options to adress this problem from Duct Taping the child to the chair (based on the Florida case this is not the best plan) to totally not worrying about it.  While our world is changing and more people are using standing work stations, or exercise balls, it is not everywhere.  Our job is to prepare children for their future, and as a first grader is facing at least 11-to-15 more years of school where sitting is expected , not addressing the issue is irresponsable in my opinion.  Although we need to adress it it also is not a critical issue.  That is why I like Otis's idea.  It adresses the issue without being confrontative or making too big of deal about it.   

Getting Things Done

If you are one of the few who follow this site, you know that it is not updated as much as it should be. I,as many other teachers, feel that there is far to much to do and that leaves hobbies such as blogs on the back burner.
I have just finished listening to a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen. I was able to implement some of the skills taught in this book and have finally found myself with a clear vision of what needs to be done. This book is great and can fit into most people's life style.
As teachers we sometimes avoid reading material that we perceive as being developed for the business field. This book however is ideally suited for teachers. The key to the system is having a systematic way to process information and paper that crosses our desk. I can't think of another profession that handles more information and paper than an educator.
If you are like me and struggling to get on top of it all, taking a closer look at Getting Things Done. You'll see how effective it is for me based on the frequency of posts following today.

Underwater astonishments - David Gallo by TEDEducation

Here is a great new YouTube Video to use in your instruction. It is called Underwater astonishments - David Gallo. View full lesson: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/underwater-astonishments-david-gallo

David Gallo shows jaw-dropping footage of amazing sea creatures, including a color-shifting cuttlefish, a perfectly camouflaged octopus, and a Times Square's worth of neon light displays from fish who live in the blackest depths of the ocean.

Talk by David Gallo.<br><br> via YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Hi5muM44NE

IFTTT

via Personal Recipe 2589760: http://ifttt.com/myrecipes/personal/2589760

New Year of Teaching Goals!

Every year at this time we tend to reflect on how we are doing and set goals to improve.  I like many others have set a few reselutions.  The one I feel is most important deals with becoming a better teacher.  I have in mind several specific ideas to make this happen, and I felt it would be valuable to share some of my ideas.

First and formost I need to get to know my students better.  I feel that I have a great relationship with my students but I think it is more important than ever to build a stronger relationship of trust between my students and I.  If students feel comfortable in the classroom and they trus you as a teacher it is far easier for students to learn.  I feel that this also helps students cope with challenges better and can prevent disastorous outcomes of students feel like they don't belong.

Second, I will create more of my own content.  I use many resources to help me teach, from textbooks to websites, some are great and some are just not.  I have spent far more time looking for adaquate replacements than it would take to create my own.  I have decided to start with my weakest resource areas and create my own tools, such as worksheets, report outlines, and study guides to better serve my students.  The upside is that I will then have some great resources to share on this site.

Finally, I would like to focus more on individual students progress.  I have reciently added a significant amount of technology to my classroom that makes it fast and easy to to monitor student progress.  This will allow me more time to focus on individual student needs, I intend to use that time well.  I will also gladly share in future posts some of the tech tools I have aquired and tell how I got them.

The new year, is a great time in the middle of the school year to reflect on how we've been doing, and refocus our efforts in order to give our students the best education possible.  Our job is very important, we must do it well.

 

The Words we Use in Teaching

The way we speak to students has a significant impact on student learning. Regardless of whether were learning science, math, or reading, language is the glue that ties it all together in our minds. By using more appropriate language, especially using questions, we can help students better make the connections in their learning.

In the book”Choice Words” by Peter H. Johnson, he explores how exemplary teachers use language in instructing children. If you like to find a fast and effective way to improve your teaching practice, choice words can give you a great start in the process.

"Nothing Ever Happen's on 90th Street" for teaching Ideas.

"Nothing Ever Happens On 90th Street" written by Roni Schotter and Illistrated by Krysten Brooker is a responce to the common question we recieve as teachers "I don't have anything to write about".  Eva, wanders through her amazing street looking for ideas to write about.  It is quite clear to the reader how many ideas she is passing up.  This book is perfect to introduce the Ideas trait of writing.