I’ve previously written about the importance of classroom management (you can read my post “If They Aren’t Listening” here). I firmly believe it’s one of the foundations of effective instruction, and in this post, I want to share one of my favorite and most frequently used techniques in my classroom management toolbox.
Teachers frequently give multi-step directions. For example, while in the classroom, I might have given my students this directive to transition from one subject to another – “Please put away your math book, take out your science book, and open it to page 85.”
Now, in a situation like this, some students will hear the first part of the directions (“Put away your math book”), immediately put the math book away, and not hear the other two instructions. While the rest of the class would then have its science books out, these few students would be sitting at their cleared desks, wondering what to do next (much to the chagrin of the teacher). The teacher would then have to repeat the directions to ensure that everyone is ready to move on. If you’re a teacher, this situation probably sounds familiar.
While in the classroom, here’s what I did to try and prevent situations like this from happening. Before practically every direction I gave, I first said these magic words – When I say, “Go.” For example, with the instructions previously mentioned, here’s what I would have said:
“When I say, ‘Go’……Please put away your math book, take out your science book, and open it to page 85.”
Beginning on the first day of school, I trained my students to wait for that “Go” before doing anything. Did it take a while for them to learn the routine? Yep. Did students still sometimes miss a direction? Yes. But by using this classroom management technique, I was able to dramatically reduce wasted time involved in having to repeat directions. It only took a second or two to preface my directions with these four simple words, but the time saved was measured in minutes (and over the course of a school year, hours). I used this technique for so long that it became second nature to me. On a couple occasions I remember giving my students a direction, only to have them just sit there and do nothing. I recall staring back at them thinking What are they waiting for? Then one of the students told me, “You forgot to say, ‘Go’.”
If you’re looking for an easy way to save time in your classroom, give this technique a try. Just don’t forget to say, “Go.”
Fill the Glass
How are students in our classrooms like a glass of iced tea? Kind of an odd question, but read on to find out.
Before becoming a teacher, I, like many other college students, paid my bills with money earned waiting tables in a restaurant. For over five years, I served up turkey pot pies, Caesar salads, and apple pie a la mode to hungry customers at Marie Callender’s. Though I didn’t know it at the time, some of the training I received during those five years would serve as an excellent illustration of effective teaching. Restaurant training leading to good teaching? Let me explain.
When I first got my job as a server, I was taught that each server in the restaurant was responsible for a particular number of tables and customers seated at those tables. Nothing unique there. This is standard practice at all restaurants. But one thing the managers of Marie Callender’s emphasized was that servers should work as a team. Yes, each server was supposed to pay particular attention to his/her assigned tables, but I was taught (and reminded of time and time again) that when walking the floor of the restaurant, I was to keep an eye open for customers in need of assistance, regardless of whether or not they were seated in my section. For example, if I had a free moment and walked by a table where a customer needed her iced tea refilled, I should refill it. Makes sense. Not the most novel idea in the world, but stop and think about it for a moment. How often does this happen to you when you dine out? In my experience, not very often. You don’t have to have waited tables to know what I’m talking about. How many times have you been in a restaurant, needed a refill or something from the kitchen, but your server was nowhere to be found? We’ve all been there. Frustrating, huh? And how many times have you, while waiting for your server to return to your table, seen other servers pass by or stand idle against a wall, completely ignoring your empty glass that’s begging for a refill? If you’re like me, this happens all the time. Why? Because most of these servers have tunnel vision, focusing only on their assigned tables. Unfortunately, the servers who pass us by in the restaurant probably are thinking If iced tea needs refilled on Table 21, that’s not my problem, because I’m only responsible for Tables 16-20.
So here’s the question – Are we treating students like empty iced tea glasses? Are we passing them by, thinking That’s not my student, the same way servers pass by customers thinking That’s not my table? It’s easy for teachers to focus solely on the students in their classroom and on the subjects they teach, just as servers focus solely on their assigned tables. But is this what’s best for students and their learning? I think we’d all agree that restaurants offer better service to their customers when their employees serve not only their tables but are open and willing to assist anyone in need, regardless of where they’re seated. What if educators adopted this mindset?
I’m an administrator at a middle school, so I’ll use that educational setting as an example. What if science teachers stopped looking at their students as strictly science students, but as reading students as well? After all, there’s plenty of reading involved in science. What if a social studies teacher, while delivering content about the American Revolution, worked individually with a student who struggles with comprehension? What if a PE teacher came alongside a student and said, “Hey, I hear you’ve been working really hard in Language Arts class and did well on your last test. Keep up the great work!” Nurturing the affective domain of students is just as important as delivering the ABC’s and 123’s. How much more would students learn, and since we live in a world of high-stakes testing, how much better would they perform on the English Language Arts section of the state test if they had six teachers helping them with reading rather than just one?
The bottom line is this – they’re all our students. Returning to the restaurant analogy, if the glass needs refilled, fill it. Remember, the important thing is not who fills the glass (teaching), but that the glass gets filled (learning).
Learning on Demand
If you haven't seen this commercial from Kaplan University, please take 60 seconds and watch it.
Despite being a couple years old, I think this ad does a great job of illustrating where education is headed. Actually, I believe it’s already there. One line from the commercial states, “It’s time to use technology to rewrite the rules of education.” As we see in the commercial, learning should no longer be confined to the four walls of a classroom, between the hours of 8:30 am and 3:00 pm, Monday through Friday. The reality is that learning can (and should) take place at 6:30 pm at the kitchen table, in bed on a Saturday morning, or in a subway station on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s face it, students don’t always “get it” the first time a concept is taught. Students benefit from reteaching and/or review sessions. But what happens when the bell rings and a student needs to see or hear it again? Should he/she be told, “Sorry, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to learn.” What about those students who don’t want to wait until tomorrow but are excited to learn now? What’s the solution? If only students could take the teaching, not just the textbook, home with them. Oh, wait. They can!
Mobile technology continues to find its way into the hands of students. I’m an administrator at the middle school level, and it seems like every student has a cell phone, most capable of playing audio and video files. What if teachers leveraged that technology instead of fighting it? Now, I’m not saying students should have free reign of their cell phones during the school day – that’s a discussion for another day. But what if teachers delivered content to their students that could be accessed on their cell phones, iPods, and iPads after hours? What if the reteaching and review sessions previously mentioned could be put in a format kids embrace, namely audio or video on their mobile devices? Fortunately, the technology tools available to teachers make this not only possible, but actually pretty easy.
While in the classroom, I provided my 5th grade students with audio review sessions called StudyCasts (you can listen to them here). I got the idea from former Missouri Teacher of the Year Eric Langhorstwho graciously shares his ideas with other educators. Before each Social Studies and Science test, I recorded myself going over the material that would be covered on the test. What I love so much about StudyCasts is that in addition to going over the notes students took in class, I was also able to review examples I gave or stories I told during class that weren’t necessarily in the notes. I didn’t do any editing of these recordings. If I coughed during a recording, I said, “Excuse me” and kept going. They weren’t meant to be polished works of art, they were meant to help my students study. StudyCasts weren’t intended to replace traditional studying, but rather to provide an additional study aid. I posted the broadcasts on my classroom website and in iTunes, making them easily to download to iPods or iPads. For students without Internet access, I would burn the broadcasts onto CDs for them. I would also burn a few extra CDs and raffle them off to all students. Their reaction? You would have thought I was giving away gold. Seriously, I worked my students into a frenzy by doing what? Giving away my teaching. I just packaged it in a way my kids thought was cool.
There are several applications out there you can use to easily create audio broadcasts like StudyCasts. Here are a few free resources I have used:
Here are some video-creation resources I’ve used:
“I like the StudyCasts because I can listen to them on my computer while I’m doing my homework. I listened to the Puritan StudyCast five times and I got a good grade.”
If we build it, they will come.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) conference led by Rick and Becky DuFour. If you are not familiar with the DuFour’s work with PLCs and ever get a chance to hear them speak, take advantage of that opportunity. The information you take away will change the way you teach (plus, they are extremely entertaining speakers).
It would be impossible to share all the amazing information presented by the DuFours, but one thing struck me more than anything else during the two-day conference – there is no shame in teachers admitting that they can’t do it all by themselves, or perhaps better said, it’s okay to admit that someone else in the building may do something better than you can. Everyone has teaching strengths and everyone has areas that, though they may not be considered weaknesses, are not as strong as those around them.
Let me give you an example from my teaching career. When I taught 5th grade, I taught with a man named Bryan, someone who was stellar at teaching writing. In discussing common writing assessments and sharing student samples with each other, I was consistently amazed at what he could get his students to produce. By comparison, my students’ writing was not nearly as descriptive. While I didn’t consider myself a bad writing teacher, it was obvious Bryan was better. The proof, writing samples from both our students, was right there in front of me. I was faced with a choice – go back to my classroom and try to hide the fact that my teaching methods were not as effective as they could be, or swallow my pride and learn from my friend. So I went to him and asked, “How are you getting your kids to write like that? What exactly are you doing?” And to Bryan’s credit, he shared with me his expertise. He didn’t think to himself, Wait, if I share my strategies, my secret will be out and I’ll no longer be the best. No, he realized that teaching is not about hoarding a “secret formula” so that his test scores would be superior to mine. He understood that our job was to work together to reach all of our students, not simply the ones on our individual class rosters.
One of my favorite concepts regarding teamwork comes from an excellent book called High Five! The Magic of Working Together by Ken Blanchard, Sheldon Bowles, Don Carew, and Eunice Parisi-Carew. In it, the authors beautifully illustrate this concept regarding teamwork – collective skill transcends individual skills. It is more important to build the skill level of the team than it is to have a group of skilled individuals who work by themselves. When teachers share their skills with the rest of their team, the entire team benefits. Then, if a highly skilled teacher leaves to go to a different school, the team can still function at a high level because the shared skill does not leave with the teacher.
I think a real-life example of this concept is currently playing out in the National Football League. Peyton Manning, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has not played this season due to injury. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, a future Hall-of-Famer. Yet as I write this post, the Colts have a record of 0-10. For the past decade, the Colts have been consistent Super Bowl contenders, but with the loss of one highly skilled player, they have not been able to win a single game. Now, while this is not a perfect example, since Manning’s skill as a quarterback cannot be fully taught or shared with his teammates, I think it illustrates the point that if a team is only as good as one of its members, how good a team is it?
We all have strengths. I encourage you to share them with those around you.
Note: For any Colts fans out there, please know that I’m not trying to bash your team or kick them while they’re down. After all, I’m a fan of the San Diego Chargers, and we’ve all seen how bad they’ve been this season.
The Other Four-Letter Word
Throughout my career in education, I’ve heard my share of four-letter words. Unfortunately, I’ve heard them all. But over the last few years, I’ve realized there’s another often-used, yet widely accepted, four-letter word that can be very offensive. It’s a word I’ve heard countless times from students, and it’s become a word I don’t allow when used inappropriately. To which word am I referring? Just.
Ironically, this is one of my favorite and least favorite words, all depending on how it is used. When defined as “guided by truth, reason, and fairness,” it’s one of my favorite words. Injustice is one of my biggest pet peeves, so in this sense, I love the word just. Personally and professionally, I strive to create environments that are just. But when the word is defined as “only or merely” and precedes something important, the word rubs me the wrong way.
Let me explain. Too often I hear the word just used to excuse poor behavior choices. For example:
“But I did my homework. I just forgot to show my work.”
“I didn’t hit him. I just pushed him.”
“I was just kidding when I said that to her.”
“I got the right numbers. I just put the decimal point in the wrong place.”
When used in this way, the word just is intended to minimize the importance or significance of whatever follows the word in the sentence.
“I just forgot to show my work.” This implies that showing work isn’t important, despite the fact that it was a requirement of the teacher.
“I just pushed him.” This sends the message that pushing another student is an acceptable form of behavior.
“I was just kidding when I said that to her.” So being unkind and disrespectful to a classmate is okay because you said, after the fact, it was simply a joke?
“I got the right numbers. I just put the decimal point in the wrong place.” The answer is still wrong. Close doesn’t count.
In addition to academics, I’m a firm believer that educators must teach students to be responsible, and not only for things like remembering to complete their homework every day. Students must learn to take responsibility for all of their behavior choices. Allowing them to excuse inappropriate behavior with the word just is not doing them any favors, because the real world doesn’t work like that.
Suppose a banker tells his supervisor, “I entered all the right digits into the computer. I just put the decimal point in the wrong place.” The supervisor’s probable response? “You’re just fired.”
Never Say Never
When I began my teaching career, people would often ask me, "So, do you want to be a principal some day?" My response was always along the lines of "No way! I have no desire to become an administrator." And I didn't. I became a teacher because I wanted to teach, not because it was a stepping stone to the administrative ranks.
As an elementary school teacher, I was also asked during the early years of my career if I ever had plans to move up to middle school. Once again, I usually responded by saying that I was happy at the elementary level and had no plans to make the move to middle school.
Yet here I am, an assistant principal at a middle school. Who would have thought? Never say never.
I write this post after completing my first two days of the school year as a middle school administrator. How'd it go? It went well. My principal was ill and was forced to miss the final two days leading up to school starting as well as the first two days of school. That added to the stress of my new position, but my fellow assistant principal and I did our best to rally the troops, and all things considered, the first day went very smoothly. I even had the pleasure of speaking with a very, very upset parent. But I survived. The second day saw fundraiser assemblies, more breaks and lunches, and despite several dress code violations, the day once again ended well.
One of my big goals this week was to make connections with students, to try and make the campus a place of safety. See, I had a miserable experience when I was in middle school. I was consistently picked on and rarely felt safe when I had to leave the classroom and walk around campus during breaks and lunches. So as I walked the campus these past two days, I saw myself in many of the 1,500 students. I saw myself in that scared boy or girl who just wants to feel comfortable at school, to make new friends, to fit in. Was I able to assuage the fear and uncertainty of every student on campus? Unfortunately, no. But it's my prayer that those I was able to meet and talk to felt a bit safer, a bit more comfortable, that their assistant principal is there to do everything he can to make sure they don't feel the way he felt when he was a 6th grader.
I have a lot to learn, but I'm excited about this opportunity. God has placed me in this position for a reason, and I look forward to seeing what He has planned for me and Shivela Middle School.
A New Chapter
“One stage of your journey is over, another begins.”
- Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Who knew that a quote from one of my favorite movie trilogies would become applicable in my life? Well, it has, as next school year I will be leaving the classroom after 15 years of teaching to become an assistant principal at Shivela Middle School in my district. While I will greatly miss the staff, students, and parents of Tovashal, I'm absolutely ecstatic about the opportunity to support teachers as they support their students.
Some of you may be wondering what will happen to mrcoley.com, my classroom website. The resources on my site will remain online for teachers and students to access, but the site will no longer be updated as I shift my focus to my new position. I will continue to blog, however. :-)
This is not the end. I hope you’ll continue to follow me as my journey leads me to new and exciting places (like middle school).
If you teach language arts at the elementary or middle school level, chances are explicit vocabulary instruction is an integral part of your teaching. In my fifth grade classroom, in addition to teaching my students how to use context clues to help determine the meanings of new/unfamiliar words, I pre-teach certain vocabulary words that are embedded in each story of our district-adopted reading series (in my case, Houghton Mifflin). I introduce the words before we start each story, students learn and review the definitions of the words during the week, and they typically score well on the vocabulary quizzes I give them. Sounds good, right? But what happens to the students’ knowledge of Story #1’s words when we’ve moved on to Story #2? Or taking it a step further, how well are my students remembering the definitions of Story #1’s words when we’re on Story #10? The question is not Are my students learning the definitions of the words? but rather Are they retaining the definitions of the words?
Now, if I told my students to study their old vocabulary words on their own, they’d be about as excited as if I told them to go clean their rooms. It's probably not going to happen. So instead, we play a game I call Define It, and in this post, I want to share with you how it’s played.
With about two months remaining in the school year, I take 100 vocabulary words that were introduced during the year and create a word wall. Each word on the wall is numbered, 1 through 100. Each day, a few students from each team (in my classroom, teams are made up of table groups) roll two 10-sided dice to determine which words they will try to define. The number rolled on the first die represents the tens digit of the vocabulary word's number, and the number rolled on the second die represents the ones digit. For example, rolling a 3 and then a 4 would mean the student would have to define word number 34.
If a student is correctly able to define the word, his/her team earns one point. If the student can also use the word in a sentence, he/she earns a second point for the team. If students get stuck and are having difficulty defining a word, they can choose to have me use the word in a sentence. If they can then correctly define the word, they earn one point. This way, students are given an opportunity to practice defining words using context clues. So basically, students have a chance to earn two points with no help from me, or one point with some assistance. In the event that a student is unable to define the word after it is used in a sentence, I randomly select a student using my classroom's random sticks. If the student selected can correctly define the word, his/her team earns a point. This way, everyone in the class stays alert, because students never know when they may have an opportunity to earn an extra point for their team.
To make the game even more exciting, I like to make certain words “bonus” words, meaning they are worth double the points. For example, I may designate all even-numbered words as bonus words for the day, so if students roll an even number, they have a chance to earn four points instead of the typical two. This is also a great way to keep teams that are behind in points engaged, as all it takes is defining a few bonus words to get their team back in the game. Points are tallied, and the team with the most points at the end of each month wins a small prize.
If you’re like me and have struggled with helping your students retain vocabulary they learned early on in the school year, give Define It a try with your class. My students love it, and I think yours will too.
Cool Tool - SignUpGenius
Ever had an event where a sign-up sheet was required? Maybe you’re a teacher who has needed parent volunteers for a field trip or class party. Or maybe you’ve been the team mom for your son’s T-ball team and needed parents to sign up to bring snacks for each game of the season. If any of these situations sound familiar, you need to check out SignUpGenius.
SignUpGenius is a free and incredibly easy way to create online group sign-up lists. Using the website’s form wizard with a variety of templates, you can create an online sign-up sheet in a matter of minutes. You have the option of making your sign-up sheet public or private, and once set up, a link to your SignUpGenius webpage is sent to people you’d like to invite to sign up. When visiting your customized sign-up sheet, potential volunteers can see what’s available and what’s already been taken. Plus, every time someone signs up, you receive an email notification. No more shuffling papers or worrying about two people signing up for the same thing. For more information on how it all works, click here.
In a world where we’re always looking for time-savers, SignUpGenius definitely qualifies.
Flattery vs. Frustration
If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that I also maintain a classroom website at www.mrcoley.com. What began in 1999 as a simple site with just a few pages has grown into a pretty extensive collection of resources for my students, their parents, and other teachers. The mission of mrcoley.com is to 1) enhance parent-teacher-student communication, 2) provide resources that will support increased academic achievement, 3) showcase student work, and 4) share ideas with other educators. (Please note that while mrcoley.com is still online, it is no longer being updated since I have left the classroom.)
I love sharing. It’s one of my passions. As stated above, it’s one of the reasons I maintain my website. I have been blessed to have amazing teachers over the years share with me, and my website is one of the ways I’m trying to give back (see my post “Paying It Forward”). I often receive emails from teachers across the country asking for permission to use an idea they’ve seen on my site. I’m always extremely flattered to hear a teacher has stumbled upon my site and found it to be a resource. When asked for my permission to use an idea found on my site, I typically reply with the following words:
"Please feel free to borrow ideas you see on mrcoley.com and use them in your classroom or on your classroom website. I love sharing resources and ideas with other teachers (it's one of the goals for my site). That being said, I firmly believe that educators need to share and borrow in the appropriate way. Plagiarism is not something we accept from our students, and it shouldn't be something we as educators practice. If you decide to borrow an idea and include it on your website, I ask that you include a link back to my site and that you don't copy and paste my exact wording, formatting, and graphics. I have spent years building my site and crafting the text on its pages, so to see it copied and pasted onto another site as someone else's original work is extremely frustrating, not to mention illegal. In short, feel free to borrow the ideas, but please give credit where credit is due, and make it reflect your site and not mine."
Over the past several years, I have discovered many teachers who have found my website, copied my exact words (sometimes entire pages complete with graphics and formatting), and republished them onto their own sites. Believe it or not, I’ve found a couple teachers who copied practically my entire site, word for word, replacing only my name with theirs, without a word of credit. I’m often told by friends I should be flattered, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I agree – imitation is a form of flattery. But copying and pasting is a form of stealing. Seeing a teacher imitate my site is extremely flattering. It makes my day each and every time I hear from a teacher who likes my website. Seeing a teacher copy my site is extremely frustrating. There is a difference between borrowing ideas and stealing content. Ideas are not copyrighted – they are free to be copied. Teachers should look for new and fresh ideas to make their teaching better – that’s what good teachers do. Someone’s words, on the other hand, unless otherwise stated, are copyrighted and may not be copied and republished (even if a copyright symbol or notice is not placed on the webpage). Bottom line – granting permission to use an idea does not constitute the right to copy one’s exact words. The exception to this is if material is copied from a source that is licensed under Creative Commons. Creative Commons grants users the right to copy material, provided credit is given to the original creator of the material. In my experience, however, most of the websites I have come across are not licensed under Creative Commons, but rather operate under standard copyright.
So the question is, why do teachers do this? How could a teacher who would never accept this type of action from students model this kind of behavior? I’m sure there are some teachers out there who know exactly what they’re doing and just don’t care. But honestly, I think most of the teachers who copy and paste someone else’s words have no idea they’re doing anything wrong. Sad, but I think it's true. Maybe it’s a mindset of It’s okay, I’m a teacher. Teachers are allowed to do this because it’s for educational purposes.Whatever the reason, it isn’t right. Ignorance doesn’t make it okay.
It's my hope that this post would serve as a sort of public service announcement, because if teachers are engaging in this type of behavior and truly don’t know they’re doing anything wrong, someone needs to say something. Well, I've said something.
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
Brent on Twitter