Wednesday, December 16, 2015

time to recharge

Winter break provides a perfect chance for teachers to recharge. While August always and forever will feel like the true “new year,” the passing of one year ushering in another on January 1st provides an opportunity to reflect on what has gone well this year and what can be done to shift anything that is not going as well.

While you’re very ready for a break, it is important to know that some students feel a lot of stress as break approaches. School provides a structure some students crave and do not get when school is out of session. It is important to be mindful of this and watch for signs of distress in students as winter break gets closer. And remember that after break things might be stressful as students get back into the structure of school.

But for you, while the holidays can be so busy and overscheduled, you do need a chance to relax in order to be ready to tackle the end of the first semester and gear up for the second half of the year. Do what feels best – yoga, ice fishing, wine night with friends. Find a way to fill up your reserves so that you can return to school in January healthy, happy, and ready to support students through the remainder of the year.

Happy New Year, readers! See you in 2016!

Monday, December 7, 2015

the difference a phone call can make

When was the last time you called a student’s parents to tell them good news? These calls are often few and far between. And yet they can do so much good for the students, their guardians, and their relationships with you as the teacher. You're completely overwhelmed with the responsibilities of teaching, and now I'm telling you to add one more thing? It might seem hard to fit into a schedule already bursting at the seams. But think of this as a proactive way to support students and manage classroom behaviors in a positive way.

All too often, the only news that comes from a phone call home is bad news. Parents are often surprised to get a “good news” call, sometimes confused and wondering when the other show might drop. But reaching out to guardians this way can create allies, which are so important for students - both when things are going well and when they are not.

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!

Monday, August 3, 2015

becoming a professional (part 1)

The transition from student to teacher happens gradually, and then all at once. You have worked so hard in college throughout your courses, practica, and student teaching - as a teacher candidate. Suddenly, you have a job and are expected to be the full-time teacher for a group of students. Exciting! Terrifying! You have committed yourself the the well-being and success of your students, as well as maintaining rigorous standards of professional practice. But what does that really mean?

Spending time this summer thinking about what is expected of you as a teacher can be a really helpful framework for heading into a new school year. There are so many expectations for a teacher, but here are some of what makes a teacher a professional (adapted from Thompson (2009):
  1. Establish positive relationships with every student. How will you plan to get to know your students? In what ways is the curriculum flexible to build on student interests, skills, knowledge? How will you show your respect for students?
  2. Honor your students by having high expectations for all. How can you communicate high expectations? How will you differentiate to help all students succeed at high levels?
  3. Maintain a productive and safe learning environment. How can you use your classroom to support students in their learning? What organizational structures / routines will support student learning?
  4. Accept responsibility for what happens in your classroom. It can be tempting to find many reasons to excuse low student motivation, low test scores, inappropriate behaviors. But taking responsibility for these is empowering. You can do something to fix this! Think about ways to proactively plan for these in your classroom.
  5. Initiate a teamwork approach with parents / guardians. What is your plan for working with parents? How will you keep them informed? How will you invite them to ask questions? 
  6. Be a life-long learner. Being a successful teacher means that you live a life full of learning. Be open to new ideas, from your students and colleagues. Read. Attend workshops with an open mind. Take risks.
Reference: Thompson, J. G. (2009). The first-year teacher's checklist" A quick reference for classroom success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Monday, July 20, 2015

nonfiction resources for science and math

There is so much talk about nonfiction lately, especially as a response to the Common Core State Standards. There are some misconceptions (like that English teachers can't teach fiction any more in order to meet the nonfiction percentage of text required by the CCSS), but as the linked article states, "The Common Core does not say to get rid of literature and only read non-fiction. It says that 50% of what elementary, 60% of what middle school and 70% of what secondary students read should be non-fiction. The key here is throughout the entire day." This means that all teachers should be include and teaching nonfiction texts throughout the school day across content areas.

For science and math teachers, finding high-quality resources can sometimes be a challenge. But the great news is that there are lots of organizations out there to help you find the best sources for your students.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) publishes a list every year of the outstanding science trade books published for K-12 students. I look forward to the list every year to use to add to my classroom library.

Nonfiction Detectives is an awesome blog reviewing new nonfiction books. Here's their "Best of" list from 2014, which includes a science section. The 2012 list includes some math books too.

Sometimes, though, books are more text than you're looking for. The Electronic Library for MN (ELM) is an amazing resource for teachers. Not only can you search for nonfiction articles to supplement your own learning about new topics, the databases have been culled to provide the best nonfiction resources for your students too. Check it out - it's free!

Where do you find the best nonfiction resources for science and math?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

effective feedback

In my graduate course on assessment, teachers spend time observing other teachers teaching for their uses of praise and formative feedback during lessons. It is one of the activities that teachers in the course find most valuable. Not only do they learn new ideas for providing feedback to students (or, sometimes, what not to do), but the act of observing also encourages reflection on their own practices. The right kind of feedback is essential for effective teaching and learning, and several recent reviews of literature on feedback indicate that there is some good consensus on what works and what doesn't work when it comes to feedback.

It can be hard, if not impossible, to carve out time to observe colleagues during the school year, but the summer might provide a perfect opportunity to do this reflective work. You might not have access to summer school classrooms, but if you've got an internet connection, you can do this activity at home.

Review the chart of effective (and ineffective) feedback practices (McMillan, 2014). Then, find a teacher to observe. This can be in a summer school classroom or online. Teacher Tube and Annenburg Learner are great resources for finding videos of teaching. Observe the teaching, and make note of examples of the effective and effective practices you observe.

Use challenging yet attainable goals Use goals that are too high or too low
Emphasize mastery goal orientation Emphasize performance goal orientation
Ensure that feedback is clear, transparent, and easily understood Use feedback that is unclear and/or difficult to understand
Compare student performance to standards, criteria, cognitive strategies and precious performance Compare student performance to the performance of other students or emphasize the person rather than the task
Use a moderate amount of specific, individualized, and descriptive feedback Use general or vague feedback
Give feedback as soon as possible especially for simple cognitive tasks, tests , and other assignments Give delayed feedback, except for slightly delayed feedback for cognitively complex tasks, especially for high achievers
Use both verification and elaboration feedback Use only verification feedback
Match feedback to student ability Use the same feedback for all students
Focus on key errors and misunderstandings Ignore key errors
Emphasize effort attributions Emphasize external attributions
Give feedback as students learn Give feedback only after performance
Anticipate probable feedback messages Rely on unplanned or unanticipated feedback

If you're watching videos, you are highly encouraged to do this work on a porch, with a refreshing drink, while the sun is shining :)

After completing this activity, make sure to reflect on your own practices as they relate to praise and formative feedback. What are two things you could make a plan to do next year that will help your students move forward in their learning through your use of formative feedback and praise? Write them down in that notebook of great ideas you keep all summer (you have one of those right? to keep track of the brilliant brainstorms you have while you're on the boat, driving the kids to soccer, or standing over the grill but are sure to forget once back-to-school workshops start? yeah, that one!). Return to these ideas in the weeks leading up to school and throughout September to keep a focus on effective praise and feedback.

reference: McMillan, J. H. (2014). Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective standards-based instruction (6th ed,). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

end-of-year reflections

It's finally here - the end of the school year. You have been frantically trying to tie up loose ends, final projects, portfolios, exams, fieldtrips. The spring is always a whirlwind.

Before you lock your classroom door for a final time this year, take a few minutes (or more) to reflect on the year. While finding the time to do this might seem impossible, it is one of the best ways for you to think about all you've accomplished and set yourself up for even more successes in the next year.

I really like the list of questions found here:

In particular, the following questions from the middle of the list might be really helpful for you to consider in planning for 2015-2016:
  • What do you hope your students remember most about you as a teacher?
  • In what ways were you helpful to your colleagues this year?
  • What was the most valuable thing you learned this year?
  • What was the biggest mistake you made this year? How can you avoid making the same mistake in the future?
  • What is something you did this year that went better than you thought it would?
  • What part of the school day is your favorite? Why?
  • What were your biggest organizational challenges this year?
  • Who was your most challenging student? Why?
  • In what ways did you change the lives of your students this year?
Spending some time reflecting on these questions can be affirming as well as provide a roadmap for things to consider in planning for future teaching. 

What is your favorite way to reflect on the end of the year?

Monday, May 25, 2015

MOOCs for teachers

Have you tried a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course)? While they;ve been around since 2008, it's only been the last 2 or 3 years that they've really exploded and more and more people, including teachers, have started taking advantage of the opportunity.

The New Teacher Center has partnered with Coursera to offer some MOOCs especially designed for new teachers. Right now, their three main series revolve around the Common Core in Math, Common Core in ELA with the Literacy Design Collaborative, and the First Year Teaching series. 

There aren't any starting immediately, but their First Year Teaching series usually begins in July. So definitely make a note to check back towards the end of the school year to see when a start date for that course might become available. And check with your Teaching & Learning department - these hours for the course might contribute towards PD or course credits  for lane changes based on the completion certificate.

Additional MOOC offerings that might be worth looking into can be found here and here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

tired teaching?

Guest Blogger: Jay Rasmussen, Ph. D., Professor of Education at Bethel University


Tired Teaching?

While the title of this first blog post does not sound terribly exciting, it does describe how new teachers feel at times. “Tired teaching” is not just the result of countless hours put into planning, teaching, and grading. It is also a result of trying to function in a challenging work environment filled with “important” meetings and competing demands for time. The phenomenon I describe of tired teaching is known in the professional literature. Weimer (2010) characterizes it this way:

it lacks energy and is delivered without passion; it is easily offended by immature student behaviors; it favors the tried and true over innovation and change; it does the minimum, be that feedback to students, office hours, or the use of technology; it decries the value of professional development and manifests a kind of creeping cynicism about almost everything academic. (p. 174)

Now, no teacher sets out to become a passionless teaching machine. Waning instructional vitality sets in with time but it can be dealt with when recognized. It is important, however, to acknowledge that no one institution, leader, or colleague can do this for us. Staying alive and fresh as a teacher will only result from purposeful action that we take.

So, how do we avoid being that instructor who plods through the day counting the years until retirement? Weimer (2010) offers a few helpful suggestions:

     Contribute toward a healthy institutional environment. Without this type of environment “we get frustrated, then furious. We get depressed, then disillusioned. We get tired, then exhausted. We get skeptical, then cynical” (p. 181).
     Recognize that there is much to learn about teaching. One must consider if experience teaches everything one needs to know.  And, are the lessons learned through experience always the right ones” (p. 184)? “Most would agree that experience is a good teacher, but not when it’s the only teacher” (p. 186). “Without an infusion of ideas and information from outside, without openness to other pedagogical methods, without recognition that education is a phenomenon that can be studied systematically and learned about endlessly, teaching stays put; it runs in place” (p. 185).
     Consider how to marry methods and content. This takes a sophisticated knowledge to accomplish and it often begins with recognition that some forms of content are best understood when processed collaboratively, some by experience, some by example, etc.  “What is taught and how it is taught are inextricably linked” (p. 187). The most effective teachers are not necessarily those with the most sophisticated content knowledge; the best teachers are often those with a continually growing repertoire of instructional strategies that develop along with their content knowledge.
     Embrace the power of change. A regular amount of change “does for teaching exactly what exercise does to improve overall health” (p. 192). That change can be in the form of new courses, new texts, new delivery modes (e.g., online), new students, etc.
     Infuse new ideas. Instructional vitality thrives on new ideas. Most would concur that regular pedagogical reading should be a part of every teacher’s life but research has consistently shown that this does not happen. Fortunately, new ideas and fresh insights are readily available in the form of professional development activities, consultation with faculty development specialists, and conversations with colleagues.
     Explore different conceptions of teaching.  What teachers believe about teaching has an impact on how they actually teach. Akerlind (2003) found that teachers typically start as teacher transmission-focused which revolves around covering material. This category is often followed by being teacher-student relations focused which is characterized by developing good relations with students as a way of motivating them. The next category, student engagement-focused, brings attention to what students (vs. the teacher) are doing. The final category is student learning focused. Teaching in this category is focused on assisting students in developing critical and original thinking, questioning of existing knowledge, exploring new ideas, and becoming independent learners. It is important to note that growth in conceptions about teaching does not occur automatically as careers progress. Movement on this developmental continuum requires conscious effort.

Bertolt Brecht once said, “The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.” Learning, especially as a teacher, is effectively summed up by thinking about the two characters for the word “learn” in the Chinese language. One character represents “study” and the other represents “practice constantly.”

It is an honor to author this blog post. What are your thoughts/feelings, experiences, questions, and suggestions related to being a tired teacher as you move into your new career?

Let us learn together!

Jay Rasmussen, Ph. D.
Bethel University
Professor of Education
Faculty Development Coordinator
Program Director MA in Education


Akerlind, G.S. (2003). Growing and developing as a university teacher: Variation in meaning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(4), 375-390.

Weimer, M. (2010). Inspired college teaching: A career-long resource for professional growth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Monday, April 27, 2015

students whose behavior challenges us

Teachers know that students challenge us in a variety of ways. Knowing how to work with students who are challenges for these varieties of reasons is one of the main ways teachers consider themselves either successful or not. And this is not to be taken lightly, as 13% of U.S. teachers leave the profession every year, and many of those cite job dissatisfaction, including the challenging behaviors of students, as their reason for leaving.

There are a number of strategies to work with students when behaviors are challenging in the classroom. In Rappaport & Minahan's Cracking the Behavior Code, the authors outline strategies for work with a variety of challenging student behaviors.

Oppositional - A student exhibit oppositional behaviors have frequent outbursts, argue with or question rules, blames others for their mistakes, and maybe has tantrums.

For oppositional students, some accommodations are to modify schedules so the student can alternate between subjects she likes and those she doesn't. Arrange a quiet, alternate activity if recess is a challenge. Give open-ended, flexible assignments and assessments. Offer hands-on experiences. When interacting with an child exhibiting oppositional behaviors, focus on their strengths, avoid power struggles, avoid yes-no questions or asking "ok?" if making a request, and make indirect demands when possible. In addition, set limits that are enforceable, reasonable, clear, and simple.

Withdrawn - A child who is withdrawn, either consistently or occasionally, exhibits low motivation and interest, can be irritable, and have low energy. A withdrawn child may be experiencing depression, which is often accompanied by headaches, muscle fatigue and soreness, or stomachaches. They may be clingy with the teacher or act bored.

When thinking about accommodating students exhibiting withdrawn behaviors, teachers can support these students by setting up the child with a buddy for recess or specialists, teach experiential lessons, use students' interests in planning instruction and assessment, and foster self-efficacy. Interaction strategies that have shown to be effective include giving positive, specific feedback, reframe students' negative self-perceptions including sharing evidence to dispute those negative self-perceptions, and avoid using sarcasm. Other response strategies are to avoid over-helping withdrawn students in order to foster self-reliance and self-efficacy.

Anxious - A child who is anxious is easily frustrated, upset, or startled.  These students might have difficulty finishing work, avoid work, and frequently worry (about school as well as other areas). 

For children who are anxious, it is important to build a safe environment for their work. Anxious children appreciate frequent breaks and untimed assignments and assessments - broken into smaller chunks so they are not overwhelmed.  Meditation or calming exercises are particularly helpful rituals that can support students who are anxious, as well as teaching self-regulation strategies for what to do when they are feeling anxious. It can be helpful to be concise with directions, use activities to build self-esteem and self-efficacy, and work on building relationships within the class. In addition, avoid employing responses that reinforce avoidance such as time-outs, provide specific, positive feedback when students are self-regulating, and be explicit with the student about their anxiety and when the student is showing anxious behaviors. 

While it is late in the year, there is still time to practice new strategies when interacting with students exhibiting challenging behaviors.  What are your most effective strategies for working with challenging student behaviors?

Monday, April 13, 2015

the right questions

At the New Teacher Center annual symposium in February (great conference, btw), I learned about The Right Question Institute and the Question Formulation Technique. Since learning about it, I have used this successfully in a number of my classes, and have coached teachers to use it with their K-12 students. This is a great strategy to use to activate prior knowledge, to encourage questioning techniques, and to develop critical thinking skills.

The technique begins with a focus statement or an image. Students read the statement or view the image in class. For example, students in an ELA class might respond to a statement about a character in a common text, math students might view a graph or science students might view a picture of an X-ray, and social studies students might view a painting of a historical event. It is important that the focus is not a question, but rather a provocative statement or image that might evoke many questions from students. 

Students in small groups (or whole class, dictated to the teacher in lower grades), produce questions that are raised for them in response to the focus image or statement. Before beginning, students should identify a note taker for the group. There are four rules for students when producing questions:
- Ask as many questions as you can
- Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions
- Write down every question exactly as it is stated
- Change any statement into a question
Additionally, students should write questions that remain relevant to the topic.

Give the students a specific amount of time to produce questions (3 min, 5 min, 8 min, etc.) and then have them reread the questions. 

The next phase of the process is designed to improve questions. Students should now review the questions and identify the questions as either open-ended or closed questions. Students will need some instruction on this before they will be able to identify questions accurately. Not all students will agree on whether a question is open or closed, and that's ok! The debate is part of the process, as students are analyzing each question. Mark open-ended questions with an "o" and closed questions with a "c." 

Next, students should discuss the value of the each type of question, both in general and for the specific questions for the focus. What knowledge would they gain by answering the closed questions? The open-ended questions?

Once students have identified and debated the types of questions, students should work to change one type of question to another. Students should alter an open-ended question to be closed and vice versa. Students can discuss what knowledge they might gain from this process with those particular questions.  

Next, students evaluate the questions they have written and prioritize their three most important questions. As they narrow, they should be thinking about why they select each of their most important questions. 

Finally, students should discuss next steps: how will you use these questions? How would you answer these questions?

This process is really about supporting students in asking questions, rather than the process of answering the questions. Teaching students to be inquisitive and curious through asking questions is an important skill, one that can be well-supported with this strategy.

Try it out, and then post back here how it went!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

secondary STEM teacher? ask a mentor.

Ever have a question you need answered from an expert teacher? Ever want feedback on an aspect of your teaching? Ask a Mentor.

Because secondary teachers in the STEM fields are often the only specialist in their building (or sometimes even their district), it can be hard to find mentors that are content specialists as well as teaching experts for new STEM teachers. 

The New Teacher Center is offering a wonderful, FREE service for secondary teachers in STEM fields. You can select one of their vetted mentors, specialists in their fields, and submit a question (and can upload a video of your teaching too) for feedback. You'll receive feedback, either written or by video, within 48 hours of submitting your question.

If you check it out, post a comment about how it worked!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

webinars for new teachers

New Teacher Help is a professional learning community (PLC) that helps new teachers get advice and support, and share experiences about the first years of teaching.

In order to support new teachers, New Teacher Help provides a series of free webinars, live chats, and online discussions. The upcoming webinars are hosted
 by Shannon Holden, who has been a high school and middle school teacher and administrator, and a new teacher coach, in North Dakota, Texas, and Missouri for 20 years.

Check out the list below, and see if any of these webinars might be helpful to you and your practice!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

rethinking children's literature

There has been quite a bit of press regarding the need for more diverse children's literature. The We Need Diverse Books movement has developed into a nonprofit organization designed to advocate for more diversity in children's book publishing.

To put some numbers behind this, the Cooperative Children's Book Center School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison reviewed books received by the library each year beginning in 1985. In the first year of the review, of the 2500 books reviewed, 18 were by African American authors or illustrators. Fast forward almost 30 years later to 2013, and of the 3200 books reviewed, only 68 were written by African American authors and 93 were about African American characters; this means a little less than 3% of books published for children were about African Americans (though they represent over 15% of the student population in the US). Other racial/ethnic groups do not fair any better: by (18) and about (34) American Indians, by (90) and about (69) Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, and by (48) and about (57) Latinos. In total, Though the student population in US schools is mostly nonwhite, our books are about people of color in only 8% of books published in 2013.

Though as teachers we don't control what gets published, we do have a say in what libraries purchase, what books we ask for in public libraries, what we suggest to students that they read, and what we look for in bookstores. If you need help determining some high-quality diverse titles for your classroom library, check out the resources here. You can also download the free literary magazine focused on promoting diversity in children's literature to your tablet read about more great resources.

It's time to put the pressure on the publishing companies by letting them know that diverse books are in demand. Working together as a school to increase the diverse titles in classroom and school libraries is an essential part of helping students see their place in the world.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

organizing for student engagement

It's that time of year, at least in Minnesota, where motivation can be a bit lacking. We haven't seen the sun since 2014, though we have hardly any snow to show for it (unlike you, Boston)! Cold and flu season has been particularly brutal this year, and many teachers have been sick themselves as well as helping sick students get caught up.

But, you're more than halfway through the year. Spring is almost right around the corner. It's a good time to refocus, and one place to focus can be on student engagement.

There are many ways to do this, but Jackson & Zmuda (2014) write about four keys to engagement that teachers can control and consider when planning instruction.

First is clarity. From a student perspective, clarity means students can answer the question what am I aiming for? It can be hard to stay focused on the larger purpose, both as students and as teachers, especially at this point in an academic year. It's important for students to know why something is important, as well as what success looks like. This is more than just posting a learning target on the board. While helpful, students really need to understand the goal and refer to and use the learning target throughout the lesson. When learning targets not only refer to what students will learn but also what they will do (and are the criteria for success) so students know how to show that they've met the target (Brookhart & Moss, 2014).

The next key goes hand-in-hand with clarity, Teachers can focus on providing a relevant context for the lesson / learning target. This allows students to answer why should I care? Related to the idea of "starting with why," teachers should be able to answer "why do I need to know this" easily for students. Teachers can provide the importance and relevance of a new topic, and students can help fill in the real-world applications. Students should have a sense of why they need to understand something, both for current and future educational goals.

Another key to this work is to provide a supportive classroom culture for students. This helps students answer who is invested in my success and for teachers to answer how can I show students my support? This relates to students' self-efficacy, Students need to believe in themselves, certainly, but they also need to believe there is support from others in the hard work. Teachers show their support by anticipating confusion. explicitly identifying red flags and helping students understand how to avoid them, and providing interventions along the way based on formative assessment collected as students are learning something new. One way to do this is to allow for revisions, rather than just assigning a grade and moving on. Creating a climate that learns from mistakes, rather than just moving on, can be an essential way teachers support students.

Finally, in planning instruction to support student engagement, teachers can make sure they are providing appropriate challenges. This means students know how to respond to the question how is it working for me? Finding the right balance between challenge and skill, assignments that are meaningful and relevant, that require high-levels of thinking, that aren't "google-able" is a real challenge for teachers. When teachers can boil down to the essential ideas, and focus assignments on that, students will have a likelier chance of understanding the reason for the assignment and feel supported in completing the work. You want students to persist in times of struggle, and when an assignment seems relevant and do-able, they are more likely to stick with it.

Student engagement is such a complex component of teaching. It moves beyond student compliance, and focuses on purpose and support. With these keys, teachers can provide the context for learning that can lead to student engagement.

Friday, January 23, 2015

modeling your thinking

One of the instructional strategies that has a lot of research to support its use is the think-aloud. This strategy can feel awkward at first, but is so beneficial for students of all ages in all content areas to see the work in action. It moves beyond modeling something, as it really seeks to uncover thinking, rather than just the "doing" of something new. 

The think-aloud strategy is most often applied to reading texts across content areas to support comprehension. Teachers model their thinking as they read aloud, indicating places in the text where they employ strategies. This can be used across content areas, particularly when students are being asked to read more challenging content texts. When you get started using the think-aloud, it can help to use Hmmmm... as a signal that you are transitioning from the text to your thinking, so students don't get confused about what is in the text and what is in your thinking.

Below are a few cues if you need ideas for sentence starters in read-alouds (adapted from Schoenbach, R., Greenleaf, C. L., & Murphy, L. (2012) Reading for Understanding. San Fracisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. and Wilhelm, J. D. (2001). Strategic Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook:
  • I predict... (prediction)
  • I think the next part... (prediction)
  • Why did... (questioning)
  • What did... (questioning)
  • Why was... (questioning)
  • Should there... (questioning)
  • I picture... (visualizing)
  • This is similar to... (making connections)
  • This reminds me of... (making connections)
  • I got confused when... (monitoring)
  • I'm not sure of... (monitoring)
  • I didn't expect... (monitoring)
  • I think next time I'll... (monitoring)
  • I think this is mainly about... (summarizing)
  • I think the most important part is... (summarizing)
For these think-alouds, I'm talking broadly about "text" - math problems, learning objectives, lab reports, images, song lyrics, sports rules, speeches - you name it. The think-aloud is widely adaptable to the work of teachers, and is really effective for helping apprentice students into the thinking of any discipline.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

transitioning from break

While most teachers count down the days until break, many students find breaks from school to be difficult. Many students live in challenging homes and neighborhoods, and the uncertainty and lack of structure for some students makes breaks from school hard.

Spending time with students transitioning after a break (or even a weekend) can help students refocus and center the class on the relationships built and community of the classroom. Some questions to use as openers for transition are found in the book When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game by Allen Mendler (2012).  Here are a few to get started:
  • What is one thing you did, saw, or heard this weekend that was interesting?
  • Who would like to share something important that happened to them?
  • Is there anything that happened that made you feel happy? sad? mad? disappointed? scared?
  • What is something that made you feel proud? What would make you feel even more proud?
Giving students a chance to share their experiences, fears, or hopes can help them before beginning back to work.

What are some ways you help your students transition back to school after a weekend or a break?