Raise your hand if you enjoy writing sub plans. What, no hands going up? You mean you don't enjoy the often tedious, time-consuming task of writing lesson plans for a substitute teacher? Me neither. I have yet to meet a teacher who does. While writing sub plans, have you ever thought, I wish I could just tell the teacher and students what I want them to do while I'm gone? Ladies and gentlemen, you can. I want to share with you something magical, something that will change your life. Okay, it won't change your life, but it will save you time. I introduce to you...audio sub plans.
Like life, substitute teachers are like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're going to get sometimes. There are some incredible substitute teachers out there and, unfortunately, there are some not-so-incredible ones. What if you spend two or three hours writing really detailed sub plans, but the substitute doesn't read them or misinterprets what you wrote? All that time spent was wasted. Enter audio sub plans. Instead of writing it all out, record a short message for the guest teacher and students. Then place the audio file on your classroom computer's desktop or burn it to a CD. Now, all the teacher has to do is double-click the file or play the CD and...Bingo -- your message, spoken with your own voice, will be heard as you intended. All you need to include in your written plans is a short sentence telling the guest teacher to play the audio file for the students. And don't underestimate the power of your voice when you're not there. I teach fifth grade, and the ability to insert a reminder in an audio message about classroom behavior is extremely powerful.
Click here to listen to a message I created for my students explaining what they were going to do during a math lesson when I was out of the classroom one day.
So, how can one record audio sub plans? There are many ways to easily record your voice, but three tools I would recommend are Audacity, GarageBand, or your smartphone. Audacity is a free download for PC and Mac, and GarageBand comes preinstalled on all Macs. Both are incredibly easy to use. If you're not familiar with these programs, you can watch some short tutorial videos I created that will show you just how easy it is to create an audio file using these pieces of software. Since you're not looking to create a polished work of art, there isn't a need for editing or adding music, so the process consists of simply clicking the red record button, speaking your message, clicking the stop button, and saving the message as an MP3 file. That's it. If you prefer, you can also use the recording feature of your smartphone. Just a few days ago, I recorded a message for a substitute teacher and my students using my iPhone. Using the Voice Memos app, I recorded my message, emailed it to my classroom's computer, and saved the file on the desktop. Quick, painless, and my message, in my exact words, made it to my students (and my substitute loved it).If you haven't yet tried creating audio sub plans, I highly encourage you to give it a try. You, your students, and your substitute teacher will be glad you did.
It’s easy to get frustrated as a teacher. We’ve all been there. The students aren’t behaving well. A lesson bombed. Students didn’t do well on an exam. All can lead to frustration on the job. Recently, I’ve been battling frustration at work, but not for one of the reasons mentioned above. First, let me say that I have an absolutely wonderful class of 5th graders this year. The students are sweet, have a great attitude toward learning, and I have no major behavior problems. Now some of you may be thinking, “Gosh, Brent! You’ve got it good.” Nope. I have it great. I am incredibly blessed to be able to teach the kids in my class and work with not simply colleagues, but friends. So what’s the problem, Brent?
Ironically, it has to do with technology, and the fact that my students have access to it. With the exception of one, every student in my classroom has a computer at home with Internet access, and more than half of them have an iPod (please don’t be a hater – I know I am fortunate). Yet despite these facts, most of my students this year are demonstrating apathy toward the resources I’m providing for them on my website (e.g. iPod flash cards, StudyCasts). For example, despite year-long offers of extra credit for downloading sets of iPod flash cards or the corresponding PowerPoints, only three students have taken advantage of this opportunity. Last week, I embedded a secret, “extra credit” password in a StudyCast. Twelve students said they listened to the broadcast, yet no one came to me with the password (a subsequent classroom discussion revealed they had not listened to the StudyCast, but were simply telling me what they thought I wanted to hear).
Again, I know I am fortunate. There are countless teachers who have students with limited or no access to technology. But my students DO have access to it, and they aren’t using it. Therein lies my frustration. I’ve asked myself, “Should I continue to spend my time and energy creating these technology resources if most of my students aren’t going to use them?” The answer is…absolutely.
In my frustration, I was reminded of the timeless story of the boy and hundreds of starfish that had washed up on a beach (if you’re not familiar with the story, watch this short video). It would be very easy to give up, saying, “What’s the use? These technology tools aren’t making a difference for all my students.” But the reality is, if even ONE student is able to use these resources to be more successful in the classroom, the time and effort spent creating them has been well worth it. While I’d love for all of my students to use these tools, one is enough, because after all, what if that one student was my son or daughter? Would I be grateful to the teacher for providing learning resources for my child, even though others in the class weren’t using them? You bet.
It’s my sincere hope that readers won’t view this post as an attempt on my part to say, “Look what I’m doing with technology!” Rather, my goal is to encourage teachers who, like me, have been frustrated because we feel like we’re not making a difference. If you’re providing your students with “extras,” let us remember not to get caught up in how many are using them, but rather to celebrate those that are. Because like the boy in the story, we can then say, “I made a difference for that one.”
This past October, I had the opportunity to attend the T.E.L.L. (Technology, Education, Leading, and Learning) Conference in Van Nuys, California. While sitting in a session led by my friend Sean Williams, I discovered another cool tool, one that I’d forgotten about until just the other day. At the very beginning of his presentation, Sean put a slide up that asked attendees to pull out their phones and text a code word to the number on the screen (much like shows like American Idol do when asking viewers to vote using their cell phones). So, I pulled out my iPhone, punched in the code word and number, and.....instantly received a text message with Sean’s contact information and a link to the online resources from his session. I remember sitting there thinking two words – sliced bread. As in, “This is the greatest thing since…”
Okay, so it isn’t the light bulb or the wheel, but this is definitely a cool tool. How did Sean do it? With an incredibly easy-to-use website called Contxts. All you have to do is sign up for a free account, choose a username (the word people will type when texting), and enter your 140-character message. That’s it. Then, direct people to text your username to 50500 and they’ll receive your customized message in a tidy little text message. It’s free, and there is no limit on how many times your message can be requested.
If you present at conferences, this is a fabulous way to quickly and easily get your contact information and web links into the hands (phones, actually) of your attendees. I’ll be using this resource at the CUE Conference in March, and I plan on using it again at Back-to-School Night next year with my students’ parents. I would love to hear some of your ideas on how Contxts could be used in an educational setting.
So thank you, Sean, for sharing this cool tool, and thank you, Ruston Hurley, for sharing it with Sean. And now I pass it on to you. Enjoy.
Cooperative grouping. Direct instruction. Use of manipulatives. Technology infusion. I’ve often heard teachers argue that one kind of lesson is better than others. Personally, I believe there are merits to each of the aforementioned types of lessons and that teachers should use all of them. Using only one type of teaching strategy is like taking only one type of vitamin. Sure it’s good for you, but your body needs a variety of vitamins to keep your body healthy.
While it is definitely important to vary our teaching strategies to ensure our students “get all their vitamins,” it is just as important (if not more important) to remember one thing – it all starts with classroom management. One of the first pieces of advice I like to give to new or prospective teachers is this:
If they aren’t listening, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying.
Sometimes it’s easy for us as teachers to fall in love with the lesson, neglecting the question – “Are the students engaged?” I know I’ve been guilty of it. I could have crafted the “perfect” lesson, but if my students are doodling, spinning rulers on their pencil points, talking with classmates, or simply staring out the window, how perfect is my lesson, really? Think of it this way. One could spend two or three hours writing amazingly detailed sub plans. But what happens if the substitute teacher doesn’t read them? All that hard work went for nothing. In the same way, spending two or three hours on a lesson that is delivered without effective classroom management can lead to teaching without learning.
Should we strive to craft great lessons that incorporate a variety of teaching strategies? Absolutely. But let us not forget that a lesson is only as good as the atmosphere in which it is delivered. It’s been asked, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Allow me to put an educational spin on that question…if students aren’t listening, does a teacher’s voice make a sound?
So today I decided to get out of the house and head down to my local Panera to get a little work done. After ordering and finding a table, I proceeded to pull out my iPhone to check my messages. Then, since my food had not yet arrived, I pulled out my Barnes & Noble Nook (an eReader that I absolutely love, by the way). Shortly thereafter my food was ready and I enjoyed a delicious sandwich while escaping into the book I am currently reading. After my meal, I opened up my laptop case and pulled out my MacBook Pro. While the computer was firing up, it hit me. I stopped, sat back, and asked myself, "Brent, do you realize what you have in front of you?" And I wasn't referring to the remains of my Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich.
I had three computers, neatly lined up on the table, staring up at me as if to say, "Do you realize how good you have it?" And at that moment, I was reminded how far we've come. When I began teaching 15 years ago, I didn't have a computer in my classroom, much less the Internet. Yet at that moment, I had on my table a phone capable of so much more than making calls, a device with instant access to over two million books, and a computer that puts unlimited information at my fingertips in a matter of seconds (not to mention free wifi).
So the next time I impatiently tap my finger while waiting for a slow internet connection or sigh because my cell coverage is poor, I hope I remember today and think back to what it was like when I went to a restaurant for a different reason -- to simply eat.
Think back to your first year of teaching. For some, it was just a few years ago. For others, it may seem a distant memory (and some of you may still be in your first year). Regardless of how long you've been teaching, think back to the beginning. Did you have an experienced teacher mentor you through your first year or two? Whether it was informal or in a program such as BTSA, did you have someone come alongside you and share lessons, help you with your classroom management, show you the ins and outs of your new school? I did. Mrs. Kawase was her name, and I was incredibly blessed to work with her as she took me under her wing and showed me what it takes to be a great teacher. She listened when I had questions, freely shared her resources, and more than anything, was a friendly face during a very overwhelming year.
I've asked the same question to teachers recently at presentations I've given -- "Did you have a mentor?" Unfortunately, very few teachers have said they had someone to mentor them at the beginning of their careers. After thinking about it, I asked myself, "Why not?" Is it because there weren't any teachers qualified to give a first-year teacher guidance? I find that hard to believe. Whatever the reason, it isn't right.
What about now? How many of you currently have someone you would call an educational mentor? I do. His name is Tony Vincent (www.learninginhand.com). Some of you may be familiar with his work. A former 5th grade teacher, he is now an independent consultant who works with teachers and students all over the world to help them tap into the power of educational technology. Spend some time on my website and you'll find his name on many of the pages, as he has been instrumental in helping me infuse emerging technologies like blogs, podcasts and iPod flash cards into my teaching. Tony has been an incredible resource to me, and although it's not an official title, I consider him to be my educational technology mentor.
Here's the point I want to make -- I've never met Tony. I have never been in the same room with him. As far as I know, we've never been in the same state at the same time. He lives in Arizona, while I live in California. With the exception of one Skype call, I've never even spoken with him. All of our communication has been in the form of text (email, Twitter, etc.). Yet because of his influence, because he has freely and graciously shared his ideas, expertise, and resources through his website, I am a better teacher than I was a few years ago. All because he was willing to share.
Are you sharing? Are you a mentor? Are you paying it forward? We all have something to share, whether we're in our second or third year of teaching or our second or third decade. It may be big or it may be small, but with millions of teachers in the world, someone may be online right now looking for what you have. So share, through a blog, a wiki, a website, Twitter, or simply a conversation in the staff room. Do not underestimate your influence.
A few years ago, I received an email from a teacher in another state. After seeing some social studies flowchart notes I had posted on my website (http://www.mrcoley.com/flowcharts_examples.htm), she sent me a short message. Below is an excerpt from the email, shared with her permission.
"I thought you should know that today you managed to indirectly touch the lives of 18 students here in Alabama...Last night I stumbled across your website and noticed your social studies flowchart notes for your lesson on Columbus. Coincidentally this just happens to be the lesson we are on in social studies. So, I thought I'd give it a shot with my kids. TODAY WAS THE FIRST DAY that my students ENJOYED social studies. Today was the first day my students comprehended ANYTHING having to do with social studies...I just thought you would want to know that you made a difference in the lives of 18 children today, even though we are almost a continent away."
Do not underestimate your influence.
OK, so I'm a little slow. I've had my 5th grade students blogging for a couple of years, and I'm just now joining the party. Better late than never, right?
Starting my own blog is something I've thought about doing for a while, but I never did due to that little voice in the back of my head that kept saying, "What do you have to say that other people would want to read?" Well, I've listened to that voice long enough. Am I going to change the world with this blog? Probably not. Do I have all the answers to questions about teaching and educational technology? Absolutely not. But I'd like to think that after 15 years in the classroom, I've learned a few things that are worth sharing.
So join me on my blogging journey and hopefully I’ll make it worth your while. Oh, and that little voice? Well, I’ll tell it the same thing I tell teachers during my professional development workshops. I understand that not every one of my students will take advantage of my classroom website, tutorial videos, or iPod flash cards. That’s okay. But if even one student benefits from one of these tools, the time and effort spent creating them was well worth it. In the same way, if one teacher gets something out of this blog, it will have been worth my time.
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.
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