Saturday, November 28, 2015

they just won't stop talking

One of the most common complaints of teachers is that their students just won’t. stop. talking. Students aren’t trying to be naughty or disrespectful, they just chat. And chat. And chat. This is a management challenge that frustrates teachers at best.

One of my favorite “teacher books” is Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead by Jim Burke.  It is a collection of letters that Jim Burke and a new teacher, Joy, teaching down the hall from him, wrote throughout Joy’s first year of teaching. Burke had told Joy that if she had any questions, just ask. And ask she did.

In September, Joy wrote to ask about how Jim manages a class of 35 students that won’t stop talking. Jim provides a perspective of how intrusive behaviors in the classroom require teachers to ask why and sometimes that causes teachers to have to make hard choices in order to address needs that are not being met in the classroom. He references Frank Firpo, a master teacher in his school, and what he believes students need: comfort, safety, control, tradition, friendship, nuturance, recognition, success, independence, variety, curiosity, enjoyment.

A reflection on a management issue, such as talking, can begin with a reflection of the above values. In what ways does your classroom provide structures for these needs of students? Are there ways that classroom environment, instruction, and assessments could better support these needs? Specifically, Jim prompts teachers to think about these structures:
  • Are the rules clear? Are they consistently enforced?
  • Are there consequences for inappropriate behavior? And rewards for appropriate behavior
  • Do you talk with those that are the chattiest? What might be going on? If they need attention, can setting aside time to connect with them help?
  • Are the tasks of the class appropriate for students’ content knowledge, skills, and interests?
  • Do you have assigned seating? If so, can it be improved?
  • Can you make an agreement with student(s) with rewards and consequences for specific behaviors?
  • Have you tried exit slips to get a sense of how things are going from students?
  • How can you use student talk to support learning?

It would make life so much easier if there was a simple answer to the question of how to get students to stop talking. If only! There isn’t an easy answer, and there isn’t a simple trick to try. But reflecting on the above questions is a good place to start.
Burke also provides an action planner in the appendices of the book. As part of the process of determining how to solve an issue in the classroom, Burke suggests the following steps. While it is in the context of students’ talking as the concern, these steps can be applied widely for teachers (and students!) when a problem needs solving.
  1. Define the problem.
  2. Generate a list of possible causes.
  3. Describe the desired behavior or outcome (and why).
  4. Identify possible obstacles to success, such as knowledge, skills, stamina, adaptability, elasticity, commitment.
  5. Determine necessary resources (people, materials, facilities – not lessons or information) to help students make necessary changes.
  6. Identify the necessary knowledge – both for you and the students – to help students succeed.

I’ve used this process to help in a variety of ways in my teaching. Most of the time, I’m successful in implementing a change for the better. When I’m not, it usually is an indication that I haven’t thought of all the causes, obstacles, and resources needed to make a change. Give this a try – see if the process works for you and your students’ chattiness!

Reference: Burke, J. (2006). Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Monday, October 19, 2015

instructional options

Here we are, the end of October. School has been in session for a couple of months. Routines are established, beginning of year assessments are completed, and the heavy work of the academic year has been the focus for weeks.

When thinking about instruction, it can be so valuable to think about a variety of options. We all know this, but we fall into patterns really easily. We move, say, from whole group, to small homogeneous group, to one-on-one conferences and use this pattern for all lessons. But there are other options to keep in mind...

Whole group: Whole group instruction is appropriate when planning for common goals and experiences for the entire class. It can allow a teacher to provide valuable background in a new topic, directions for a procedure, or provide an experience with a new concept. Whole group instruction is a useful strategy for teachers in that it requires less preparation and fewer management strategies to implement. It's important to think about how to keep all students engaged throughout whole class lessons - think-pair-share, thumbs up-thumbs down, stop and summarize, write a question on a white board, reflection.

Small group homogeneous: Sometimes it is important to pull students together that all need to work on a particular skill. These homogeneous groups should be flexible and dynamic, and should change as students grow and progress. While it might be hard for teachers to resist, it is particularly helpful not to assign names to these groups - somehow the act of assigning a name to the group makes it harder to adjust. So, if the purpose of the lesson is to help students progress in particular needs, then homogeneous grouping works best. 

Small group heterogeneous: Heterogeneous groupings also work toward a common goal, but students have varied backgrounds and skills in the topic at hand. Groups can be randomly or intentionally assigned, depending on the purpose. Assigning roles to group members can help keep all students engaged in the work at hand.

Peer pairing: Partner work can help students beginning to work independently on a concept while working in a supportive environment. Peer partnering can also allow the teacher to work with small groups and one-on-one with students. 

One-on-one conferencing: When working one-on-one, the teacher can really target the specific needs of a student. These sessions are likely to be brief, but can be powerful. Knowing your students and their needs well will help make the most of these individual lessons.

While it might not work for students to experience all of these within one lesson or even across each day, they will benefit if they learn in a variety of contexts across the week. You can think about your instruction for the week with a chart:

Whole group
Small group - homogeneous
Small group - heterogeneous





Keep track of when you use which strategies, and try to increase the variety. Of course, the benefit of this is not just for variety's sake; the purpose is to differentiate to meet the needs of all students most effectively. So you'll have to choose appropriately for the content and student needs.

Happy planning!

Resource: Howard, M. (2012). Good to great teaching: Focusing on the literacy work that matters. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Monday, October 5, 2015

working with students who challenge us: two-minute intervention

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson - See more at:
 Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson - See more at:
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson - See more at:

Now that the school year is into October, 4-6 weeks in, we have begun to settle into routines. We've gotten to know our students, and we know which students challenge us the most. Something I plan to focus on this year a lot on the blog are management technique suggestions for teachers, something new teachers often say they need to support them.

Previous posts on classroom management can be found here. Today, the focus is on a proactive management technique focused on building relationships with students who are challenging - the two-minute intervention (Mendler, 2012). The two-minute intervention is simple - spend two minutes each day for 10 consecutive days trying to build your relationship with that one student that is most challenging. It may be difficult at first - the student may be reluctant to talk, but it's important to keep at it trying not to get too discouraged. Staying committed to two minutes, for 10 days can make a remarkable difference in your relationship with this student. Plan to connect with the student while others are working independently on something, so it can be woven into your lesson plan, and not seen as something that will take away from instruction.

So what can you do for these 2 minutes? If you've done an interest inventory, now is the perfect time to revisit that information. Find something that the student is passionate about outside of school and begin there. Notice if the student is wearing a team jersey or talks with friends about a particular game or activity, and begin with these ideas. Start small. Even 30 seconds of positive conversation can begin to shift your relationship with a student.

Have you tried this intervention? Share suggestions with other teachers below!

Monday, September 14, 2015

becoming a professional (part 2): working with others

The days of teaching "with your door closed" are no longer viable. Teaching is a collaborative effort, and for the better. New teachers can draw on their experiences during student teaching, when increasingly the model is to use co-teaching to support teacher candidates (and students!) during the student teaching experience. Co-teaching is one aspect of the collaborative efforts in schools, though there are many other ways that teachers need to work with others. The teamwork aspect of working in a school can be challenging but so rewarding. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when beginning your work with others in your new school (or to re-frame your work in your current school, for those with experience!).
  1.  Working with others, and guidance from your peers, can help increase your self-efficacy. You may think that it is easier to keep your concerns, struggles, and failures to yourself. But sharing these with colleagues, and getting effective advice, can help make you more successful. Your colleagues are full of expertise and experience - find ways to tap into that.
  2. Sharing ideas can save you (and others) time. Yes, working with others can be time-consuming. But when you tackle new projects together, and share what you develop, this can save all of you time.
  3. Understanding the school goals can help you be a more productive member of the school community. Spend some time now, if possible, understanding the goals of the school. When you know these goals, and have thought about how your work supports the goals, the better able you'll be to dive into the work of the school. Knowing the school culture, history, and goals is an essential part of being part of the community.
  4. Know that what you say and do is important to how others view you. Think about what you say and do, and do what you can to show others the capable, hard-working, respectful, responsible person you are!
  5. Focus on student learning. Keep that running through your head as you work in the school and with others. It should be the top priority.
  6. Ask for help! Similar to the first point, it is ok not to know things. It's ok to ask for help. Your colleagues expect it when you're new (or even if you're experienced!). 
  7. And, on the other hand, be willing to help when others need help. Showing yourself to be quick to help will be a good thing for you in a new school.
  8. Remain open-minded. This can be hard to do at times, but is so essential when working with others in a school. There is almost never one "right way" to do something, and you can always learn from others' expertise.
What do you keep in mind when starting a new job or beginning a new collaborative project with others?

Reference: Thompson, J. G. (2009). The first-year teacher's checklist" A quick reference for classroom success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

new beginnings

Whether you are already well into your academic year or just beginning, in your first, or third, or thirteenth, or thirtieth year of teaching, this poem can be meaningful at the start of a new school year for us all.

Blessing for a New Position

John O'Donohue
from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (2008)

May your new work excite your heart,
Kindle in your mind creativity
To journey beyond the old limits
Of all that has become wearisome.

May this work challenge you toward
New frontiers that will emerge
As you begin to approach them,
Calling forth from you the full force
And depth of your undiscovered gifts.

May the work fit the rhythms of your soul,
Enabling you to draw from the invisible
New ideas and a vision that will inspire.

Remember to be kind
To those who work for you,
Endeavor to remain aware
Of the quiet world
That lives behind each face.

Be fair in your expectations, 
Compassionate in your criticism.
May you have the grace of encouragement
To awaken the gift in the other’s heart,
Building in them the confidence
To follow the call of the gift.

May you come to know that work
Which emerges from the mind of love
Will have beauty and form.

May this new work be worthy
Of the energy of your heart
And the light of your thought.

May your work assume
A proper space in your life;
Instead of owning or using you,
May it challenge and refine you,
Bringing you every day further
Into the wonder of your heart.

Monday, August 31, 2015

NSTA Book Beat

Calling all Science teachers! Have you signed up for the National Science Teachers Association - NSTA Book Beat email list? It is a great resource for Science teachers, including summaries of new books pertinant for Science teachers across disciplines.

A recent Book Beat email included some chapters out of books related to planning for the beginning of the year. There is a chapter about planning the first week of school from the book Rise and Shine: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Science Teacher. And there are some great ideas for beginning each class period (that are actually applicable to any content area, not just Science) from the book The New Science Teacher's Handbook: What You Didn't Learn From Student Teaching.

Check it out!

Monday, August 17, 2015

NTC MOOCs for new teachers

In May, I wrote about MOOCs (massive open online courses) that are available for new teachers through the New Teacher Center. At the time, their First Year Teacher series was not available, but it is now!

The NTC's First Year Teacher Success from the Start series is available, on demand. There is a secondary and an elementary course offered. Each course has 6 modules with presentations and assignments. You can start the courses at any time. The course is free, but in order to receive a certificate of completion, there is a $49 cost associated. Check with the professional development and/or continuing education credits office in your district before paying for the certificate to see if the credits will count towards license renewal credits or professional development for you.

What a great way to get back into school mode and ready for the year!