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Showing posts from February, 2014

Using "The Hunger Games" to Manage Behavior

Walk into a Kindergarten class, and you will believe in magic. How one lady manages to get 20 5-year-olds to snake quietly through the halls with only her smile and a charming, "Follow me, boys and girls", will amaze you. Elementary teachers are masters of patience and classroom management. Even the most troublesome of these babies will animately express their love for their mistress of learning.

Some of these teachers get really creative with their classroom management programs. Have lunch in an elementary school, and you will see what I mean. The kids will be all too eager to share with you whose clip was changed to orange, what prize they got out of the treasure box, how many Mrs.-Random-Teacher's Bucks they have, how many days it will be until they are the star student, how they are the luckiest person ever because they got to be the line leader twice in one week because the substitute didn't know...

What happens to all this greatness as the kids get older? When …

The AD/HD Whisperer

I have a gift for working with students with AD/HD. I don't say this to boast, but as an expression of humility for the journey that has led me here. I understand my students, I connect with them, and sometimes, though certainly not always, I am able to inspire their learning in a meaningful way. I say this with the same sort of false pride as one who won the lottery - it was only by luck, probability, and circumstance that I walk this path.

Unlike other "whisperers" though, I can truly relate, because I am just like them. Growing up I didn't realize I had attention difficulties. In the 1980's only the kids who climbed on desks were diagnosed. It was only by reflecting my students' mirrors upon myself that I began to understand how my attention deficits affect my life.

Many of you reading this probably know someone with AD/HD, and you may know quite a bit about it. One thing that's important to understand about attention deficits is that they can manifes…

The "S-Word" - Don't Call Kids "Smart"!

Over the past decade, I've happened across several articles/people/instances urging adults to stop calling children "smart."  They warn that by labeling them "smart," students will become lazy. Children will begin to believe they are somehow intrinsically better than "non-smart" kids, and their self-value will come from labels rather than actions. And if a child believes himself to be dumb, calling him otherwise will violate his trust.

Teachers woefully express their regret and challenge themselves to never use the S-word. They offer suggestions, though, such as emphasizing a child's efforts and accomplishments. When a child gets a 100 on a spelling test, you should say, "Wow! You really studied hard" rather than "You are so smart!"

The logic behind this argument makes sense, and I have wrestled with this idea when interacting with my own children and students. This is not entirely bad advice: questioning our words and their i…

Student Cell Phones: Beat 'Em or Join 'Em?

Those who follow me regularly know that when it comes to students, I subscribe to the "Join 'Em" philosophy more often than not. Not just digitally, either. Walk into my classroom and you may see me sitting on the floor working a problem, or checking out a student's YouTube channel after school. Education is about students getting what they need for their lives. My life and my schooling is already outdated and irrelevant.

When it comes to cell phones in class, though, the issue extends far beyond "beating 'em vs. joining 'em." I truly believe in the transformative powers of technology. Not only does technology have magical powers for increasing student engagement, but it also possesses the ability to create individualized learning experiences for our students. All that we dream of when imagining the ideal classroom (students working collaboratively on authentic, creative, meaningful projects) is possible through the device students carry in their po…

Digitally Illiterate Parents

Parent communication hits my self-improvement goal list every year. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of family-school connections. Having taught in Montessori elementary schools, I know first-hand the wonderful things parents can bring to a small community school. Moving to a public middle school, then high school, then back to middle school, I know how difficult it is to get parents involved in secondary public schools. Or...more accurately, I know how easy it is to dismiss them.

Certainly it's gotten better over the years, but I am still a long way from the true partnership in education that I envision. I send the bi-weekly emails and updates as needed, I call parents when there is a concern, I send home assessment information, and occasionally (and not nearly as often as I'd like) I send the "positive email home." Even so, I recognize that these are merely tokens that do little to build authentic relationships. It could be so much better!

This year I decided…

Breaking the Child

A few months ago my daughters and I went horseback riding for the first time. The instructor emphasized the importance of becoming the master of our horses. If we told our horse to do something, we had to MAKE them do it. Otherwise, the horse would become our master.

One of my daughters was a natural and had no problem taking control of the horse. But for me and my other girl, this was quite a struggle.

This experience made me reflect on my years in education and the number of times I've heard adults (teachers and parents) talk about the best way to control a child or a classroom. These conversations typically entail some form of breaking a child, like a horse. Teachers and parents constantly lament over some child's willfulness. Certainly teachers need to be in charge of the classroom, but I wonder: How far would you go to gain control of a child?

I don't know that I have the answer to this question, and certainly this is a personal journey for all of us. Most children a…

The Flipped-Then-Re-Flipped Classroom

Flipping the classroom is all the rage these days, and it seems teachers can't go to a professional development without hearing the term at least once. For those unfamiliar, "flipping the classroom" means that teachers provide the lecture as homework (usually through a video), and then students do the traditional homework in the classroom. This is a great idea, especially for math, since students really need support while they work their problems. I can testify that a flipped math class made all the difference for my daughter in 5th grade! As exciting as flipped classrooms are, the question is always asked, "What about the students who don't have the technology?"

Here is my response: THEY DO! THEY HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY! Each year I begin my class with a math activity where the students are collecting data from their classmates. They discover which sites are used by their peers (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat) and how often. My students see this as a m…

Grades vs. Experience-Points

Last week I had the opportunity to discuss gamification with a team of professors at Texas A&M University. As I presented my understanding of this concept, I came to an important realization on the negative impact of grades.

I've never really been a fan of grades, even as a child. No matter how systematic we try to make the grades, they will always be arbitrary: what quiz we decide to give, what questions we ask, how we weight homework vs. classwork vs. tests, etc. What is the point? Do grades accurately measure what we want them to measure? Do they tell the story we want told? I don't believe they do.

What are we even measuring? Achievement? Ability? Completion? Aptitude? Perseverance? Compliance?

If they aren't accurate measuring tools, why have them? Some might argue grades motivate students. Having taught in Montessori schools where there are no grades, I can say, that the vast majority of students will work for the sake of learning and for the satisfaction of com…

Easing Parent Anxiety

Last year, as our state test approached, my parents' level of anxiety increased tremendously. The closer the date came, the more emails and phone calls I received. The parents were concerned. They were worried, and some of my 8th grade parents were panicking. (In Texas, 5th and 8th graders have to pass their math and reading tests to move to the next grade level.)

The parents passed their anxiety onto their students, who were already filled with worry.

This year, I decided to take a more proactive approach to easing my parents' anxiety. A couple of days ago, I hosted a parent night. The intentions of this night were to create an open forum for discussion, so that their questions could be answered and their concerns could be heard. I arranged my seats in a half-circle to create an atmosphere of comfort and to promote discussion.

As parents came in, I told them specifically how much I enjoy their child. I wanted the parents to see how much I value their child.

I started the nigh…

Gamification Mistake #1: Fair Play

I titled this post Mistake #1, because I am certain that I will make many more mistakes while gamifying my class.

One thing I've been learning about is the aspect of "Fair Play," which basically just means making sure the game is fair for the players. This is quite intuitive: of course, we all want to play a game that is fair. If we have no chance of winning, if the game is way too easy, or if the opponent cannot be beat, we will give up. Obviously! But I'm a teacher, not a gamer, and I didn't really think about this very, very important aspect, when designing my STAAR Wars app.

I knew I wanted to divide each class period into two teams, but I hadn't thought much about how to make it fair. I let the students decide whether they wanted to be on the "Dark Side" or the "Rebel Forces." When the teams ended up uneven, I gave the disadvantaged side a multiplier.

I made this worksheet worth 5 points. So, for the disadvantaged team, I gave them a …

The Magical Leaderboard

As many of you know, this is my first experience with gamifying my classroom, and there is certainly a lot for me to learn! As a teacher, my focus is on the content/curriculum, and game design comes second. My first app (STAAR Wars) is far from polished and I'm building as I go, but being pressed for time (hey, I'm in grad school) and needing to get my students started, I had to just throw it out there for them.

I cannot stress enough how new this journey is for me, how much I am learning, and how much I still have to learn.

Today, I want to talk about the leaderboard. For you non-gaming folks, this is basically just the scoreboard that lets you know how you score against the other teams. I knew I was going to add this element, but again I was focused on getting the content out there. Also, I was struggling with the how of building the leaderboard.

My students, though, live in a game world, and they were not allowing me to skip this fundamental gaming principle. I threw someth…

From Fractions to Felonies (Part 1)




This post is the first in a series, where we will explore this connection of repeated math failures and juvenile delinquency. The intention is to create awareness and to open discussion of this topic.

Juvenile detention may seem like an odd topic for a math blog, but from my perspective, there is a direct correlation. To illustrate this, let's trace the path for a typical juvenile offender backwards.

Now, I would agree that there should probably be many steps added below "Failure in School." What would you add?

Learning disabilities?Poverty?Language barriers?Trouble-making behavior?Poor parenting?Cultural differences?
No doubt there are a variety of factors that contribute to students' failures in schools, but that is far beyond the scope of this blog. There is little (outside of early intervention advocacy) that teachers can do to prevent students from reaching that stage of "failure in school." …

How (and Why) to Level Assignments

One of the most important practices I keep is "leveling assignments." I do this with nearly every concept I teach. Because I teach intervention, this is easy to do, but it can still be done with major concepts in a general ed classroom.

Here is why I find this SO important:

1. People are intrinsically motivated to "level up".

2. Students will work quickly through assignments which are too easy, providing a natural review.

3. Success breeds success. Completing the first level leads students to believe they can complete the next. Conversely, if a student fails at the first couple of problems on a non-leveled assignment, they will likely give up.

4. This allows me to identify the EXACT area of confusion.

5. Students can get the help they need before becoming frustrated.

Think of this as a video game. The ultimate goal is the worksheet/assignment that you want them to complete, and the levels are easier precursor work that gets them there. This is similar to unit planning, w…