Planning For The Upcoming School Year

I have big plans for the upcoming school year. Foremost among them is to improve my teaching so that my students can learn more. I plan on accomplishing this primarily by more thoroughly, more consistently applying the science of learning in my classroom. 

I will accomplish this by giving my students knowledge organizers (KO) at the beginning of each chapter. The purpose of this is for my students to have an outline with the relevant vocabulary, concept questions/answers, and important diagrams. I will explicitly teach my students how to self quiz with the KO by covering up the term, definition, or answer column with a piece of paper and then saying/writing the answer. For a good introduction and primer on KOs and how to use them, check out this blog from Durrington High School.

erosion and deposition KO

I am also going to  ask my school to pay for a subscription to Quizlet. The purpose behind paying for Quizlet is to get access to the data. My plan will be to use Quizlet in class about once per week for ~10-15minutes, and to require students to use Quizlet for homework once per week. 

The questions students will be answering with Quizlet will involve nearly everything I want them to learn. The content will range from simple vocabulary memorization to concept questions. To see how to quickly and easily make flashcard decks with Quizlet, click here.

Quizlet should improve student learning by giving instant feedback and tracking their answers over time. I can harness this data to directly benefit my students by having them look at their own data and teaching them how to interpret it and then to spend more time studying what they struggle with. 

The data is also where I get the benefits of subscribing. Quizlet will aggregate the data for me and I will be able to see which questions are easy for students and which are hard, and the assignments will be automatically graded. I will have access to all of this at the click of a button, with NO GRADING. So, the hope is that I will improve student learning, be able to give specific feedback to individuals/groups/classes, be able to dig deeper into the content because students will be retaining more due to the spaced repetition and retrieval practice Quizlet provides. AND I should be able to do all of this while reducing my workload!

I am planning on using one more tech based tool, Seneca Learning. In my 6th grade class I will use the KS3 Geography content because it fits perfectly with Earth Science. My plan for this is to provide students with time to go through the modules about every other week. When the content is relevant but we do not have class time, it will be assigned as homework (Most of the modules can be done in less than 10 minutes).

This will be helpful because, like Quizlet, I will get data on student time and performance without having to grade the student work myself, saving time. Seneca Learning also does a good job of providing numerous examples, diagrams, and applications that reinforce and extend what we are learning.

I will need to be careful of how I have students use tech. I think the above tools are helpful, provided students engage with them smartly. In order to encourage this, I will have a zero tolerance policy with tech. If students are on the wrong website/playing, then their iPad will be taken away in a series of escalating lengths.

I am also planning explicitly teaching my students 6 effective study strategies. I will primarily teach my students about retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding. I will tell them about spacing, but the spacing will be more passive for my students (it will be based on my planning) whereas the students will be active in retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding.

These strategies will help them reap the full benefits of their own study time and improve their use of various study tools (KOs, Quizlet, Seneca, etc). 

One study strategy that I am focusing on in a new way will be elaboration. The elaboration study strategy involves providing explanations of ideas/concepts and making connections between different topics and your life. To facilitate this I made the worksheet shown below. At first, we will do the worksheet together. Then as students become used to the format and process they will have more and more independence.

elaboration

The goal is to encourage my students to move from memorizing everything (This is a real problem in Taiwan) to seeing the relationships/distinctions between different vocabulary and concepts, which will help their memorization, understanding, and ability to apply what we are learning.

In order to help students make connections between what we are learning in the science classroom and the “real world” I am going to provide students with a handful of articles each month of which they will choose one to make connections with and summarize. They will also cite the article in a simplified format before moving to proper MLA format 2nd semester (Cross-curricular!).

Through all of this, I will give students regular low/no-stakes quizzes that require students to be able to know the vocabulary and concepts and apply them to different situations. The quizzes will generally take between 5-15 minutes of class time. This time includes checking their answers and clarifying misconceptions.

I am not implementing all of this from scratch. Doing all of this from ground zero would be impossible and lead to an exhausted teacher and less educated students. I am not implementing anything new, I am just tweaking how I use various tools with the goals of being more consistent and enabling my students to learn more.

To sum it up, I will

  1. Use Knowledge Organizers throughout my units
  2. Use Quizlet to help students learn both vocabulary and key concepts (retrieval and spaced practice)
  3. Use Seneca Learning to reinforce what my students are learning
  4. Teach and model effective study strategies (retrieval practice, elaboration, dual coding, etc)
  5. Encourage connections to the “real world” by requiring summaries of science articles
  6. Integrate low/no-stakes quizzing throughout all units

Choosing A School For Your Child: What To Look For

When parents are looking at schools for their children, what should they be looking for?

I would recommend focusing on a few areas.

A. School’s Overarching Philosophy
B. Academic Approach/Standards/Expectations
C. Teaching Reading

A. School’s Overarching Philosophy

It is probably impossible to find out an individual teacher’s approach because the school is not likely to allow you to interview its teachers (for good reason, teachers are busy!). But you can find out what the school’s basic philosophy is (or, at least the principal’s basic philosophy) when you are talking with an administrator about potentially enrolling your children at their school. 

In a school wide philosophy you should be looking for a generic approach to education. Is the school doing what they can to create a safe and warm environment? 

A huge part of creating a safe and warm environment involves rules, procedures, transitions, and discipline. It will be harder for parents to figure out rules and procedures because these likely vary from teacher to teacher. Hopefully there will be some school wide policies.

Things to ask about…

  1. Class Rules: Rules matter, and even rebellious children are acutely aware of when someone breaks the rules.
    1. There should be few written rules in a classroom. The reason for this being, simple rules can be broadly applied. Having many rules leads to an environment of expecting a specific rule for everything.
      1. For parents, you can ask the administrator general questions about class rules (there may be school-wide rules in every classroom). In an ideal case, you could ask for the classroom rules list from your child’s future teacher (This will not always be possible, and not being able to provide this is not indicative of a problem. However, being able to provide this would indicate a well organized school.)
    2. All the rules in my classroom: 
      1. Be respectful
      2. Be responsible
      3. Get work done
      4. Hopefully have fun
    3. The rules in your child’s classroom should be short and sweet. From this point, it is the teacher’s responsibility to elaborate on the rules. This gives the students clear examples and non-examples on what each rule means. The teacher will occasionally refer back to the rules, especially when a new circumstance comes up and the teacher needs to explain how the students broke one or more of the rules in a new and creative way. 
    4. I demand that students get work done (I would go as far as to say teachers who do not demand this are engaging in malpractice and should change their minds or leave the profession). 
    5. I include the “Hopefully have fun” as a rule because I want students to have fun and enjoy learning. But I cannot force fun. This rule is more about intentionally creating a positive classroom culture
  2. Class Procedures: Children, especially small children love routines because they love to know what is coming next. Why else would they ask you to read that book to them for the 8th time today?
    1. I think that the best a parent can likely do is to ask the administrator to see a class schedule/explain a typical day as this gets nitty gritty fast and will vary from teacher to teacher. 
    2. Once your child is enrolled however, hopefully the teacher will have a variety of verbal/visual cues that are used consistently. And hopefully each class has a clear structure, allowing your child to know what to do and to know how to be prepared. The structure needn’t be the same everyday, but is should be ~the same most days.
  3. Class transitions: How the school deals with non-teaching time is a big tell. 
    1. Ask about how students transition between classes. Ideally you would be able to observe students going to P.E./Art/Lunch/Recess.
    2. These transitions should not be chaotic, even for lunch/recess. If chaos is allowed, then that tells you something. Students who are in a class will lose learning time if the hallway outside their door is loud. This time adds up because there are many transitions each day.
  4. Discipline: You will learn bits and pieces about how the school deals with behavioral issues by asking about rules, procedures, and transitions but it is helpful to be direct.
    1. Hopefully the discipline policy of your child’s school will embody the “warm strict” approach.
      1. Here is a succinct Twitter thread on the warm/strict approach.
    2. Questions to ask about discipline would be..
      1. How does the discipline process work? When/How will parents be involved?
        1. What qualifies for an in-school/out of school suspension?
        2. Various forms of detentions
      2. How does the school deal with both the perpetrator and the victim of bullying?
  5. One way you can effectively get an inside peek at the schools practiced values as opposed to their stated values is to ask about the professional development (PD) they offer teachers.
    1. Ask how much money the school offers teachers for PD each year.
    2. Ask to see their professional development library. 
Good Books Bad Books
Powerful Teaching: by Pooja Argwal and Patrice Bain These books are all about having a powerful presence in the classroom and are essentially based on a cult of personality around the teacher (An unsustainable approach). Or the books are fluffy on content.
Understanding How We Learn: by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, and Oliver Cavigioli Teach Like A Pirate
Why Knowledge Matters by Ed Hirsch Jr. Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire
Bringing Words To Life by Isabel Beck Chicken Noodle Soup For The Teacher’s Soul
Making Kids Cleverer by David Didau Anything that reads like a list. Ex: 13 Quick Ways To Be A Better Teacher!
The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham
The Learning Rainforest by Tom Sherrington
Language At The Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg
The Curriculum by Mary Myatt
  1. The “Good Books” column are books that I can vouch for. I have certainly not provided anywhere close to an exhaustive list, but this list is relatively wide ranging, if focused on the teaching and learning aspects of education. 
  2. I would say that it would be great if the library included various books on how the cultural/economic backgrounds of students influences their education. Unfortunately I am not as well read on this topic so I have no suggestions because my teaching context is not particularly diverse (it is limited to upper-middle/upper class Taiwanese students).

B. Academic Approach/Standards/Expectations

Your child’s school will tell you that they have high academic standards. And of course they will. Your job is to figure out what this means. The place to start would be to ask about the academic standards.

  1. Academic Approach: The school will likely have what can either be categorized as a progressive approach (typically valuing experiences and social learning) or a traditional approach (typically valuing content knowledge). And, in all likelihood the school will self-identify as educationally progressive. This will involve being student-centered, project based learning, and inquiry learning. All of these things sound good, but they are actually harmful approaches, especially for struggling students.
    1. As a parent, what you can do is ask if the teachers use direct or explicit instruction. At its core, this is essentially an “I do, We do, You do” approach. Do the teachers teach and model the content and then give students practice? After practice and correction, are students given opportunities to apply what they have learned to different contexts?
    2. The best schools will fuse aspects from the progressive and traditional approaches. They should make sure students know the content with regular opportunities for students to show what they know (graded and ungraded). They should give ample opportunities for students to apply what they are learning. 
    3. A school should be judicious with how it does to group projects because it is too easy for one student to do all the work. It is also easy for students to do a project and not really learn anything of substance because they just look everything up as they need to. (Finding information on the internet is an important skill! But being able to find something does not indicate that learning has happened.)
      1. Schools should also regularly give students the chance to work together. Hopefully the school will intentionally build students’ social skills and ability to effectively work in groups.
  2. Academic Standards: In all likelihood your child’s school will use the Common Core Standards for English and Math and the Next Generation Science Standards for Science. For Social Studies there is not as much of an agreed upon standard. It could range from using an individual state’s standard or an associations standards.
    1. If the school has curated their own standards, beware. What does this mean?
    2. Looking into specific standards is a lot of work and, I think, not really necessary for parents. The purpose is to let you know what the school will broadly be teaching each year.
  3. Academic Expectations: Here is where the rubber starts to meet the road.
    1. What does the school do to help struggling students?
      1. There should be concrete steps. If the answer is vague, beware.
    2. What does the school do to challenge students who excel?
      1. There should be concrete steps. If the answer is vague, beware.

C. Teaching Reading

Even though this teaching reading is academic, I am giving the teaching of reading its own category because of its importance. Approaches called Whole Language and Balanced Literacy are common and their approaches make sense on a surface level. However, both have no validity. Both approaches result in many students who struggle to read. Your child’s school should teach phonics, and ideally will teach Synthetic Phonics.

If you are in a position to choose your child’s school and there is a school that sounds great but uses Whole Language or Balanced Literacy I would recommend avoiding that school. If you are in a position to choose, choose a school with Synthetic Phonics. 

ParkerPhonics is a great place to start learning about what your child’s school should be doing. Here he offers a detailed explainer on synthetic phonics.

This is a lot to think about, and it is unlikely you will have time to ask all these questions when you visit a school. But you can use this as a jumping off point.

Note: The best information will come from trusted inside sources. If you know a teacher at the school, ask them. Also, the best way to get a read on school culture and student behavior is to ask a substitute teacher because most students will be at their “worst” behavior for a sub.

Becoming a Consistent Teacher: Stares, Hand Signals, and Routines

My school year wrapped up and I might be happier than my students. It isn’t that I dislike my job or am burned out. It’s just that having a break is wonderful.

When I compare the end of this year with the end of last year, it is a world of difference. Last year, I was exhausted, burned out, and looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of getting away from work). This year, I am happy, have energy, and am looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of enjoying the break). The primary reason for this change is personal growth.

The primary areas I have grown is consistency in classroom management and classroom routines.

  1. Classroom Management

Having consistent classroom management procedures drastically improved my teaching and reduced my stress. My “secret” is so simple, it is a little ridiculous. 

“3, 2, 1, Stop.”

I hold one hand in the air and countdown with my hand and voice. At ‘stop’ my hand forms a fist and my voice rises in pitch.

That’s it. The beauty lies in the simplicity. The ‘countdown’ cues students to quickly come to a stopping point in their work/discussions. The ‘stop’ cues them to stop. The rise in pitch is yet another cue. If many students do not respond, I pose a rhetorical question, “When I say 3, 2, 1, Stop. What should you do?” This is generally enough to get most students to stop. But for those who require more assistance, I have found it effective to move into their proximity while giving them a teacher stare. 

The Teacher Stare

The teacher stare is not angry, happy, or blank. It clearly communicates displeasure and should always be accompanied/followed with a signal that directs the students towards proper behavior.

A few seconds have passed and, in all likelihood, you now have the misbehaving students’ attention. Once they are looking at you, you can use a hand signal to guide the students into proper behavior.

Pro Tip: If there are multiple students misbehaving across the room, you should give each group the teacher stare, moving towards the worst violators. At the same time, use hand signals to cue behaving students sitting near those misbehaving to get their attention. This could involve signaling the behaving students (near the misbehaving ones) to tap the misbehaving students on the shoulder and point towards the teacher.

Hand Signals

Hand signals work because they are clear and simple. They also work well for students who struggle with English because these students will already understand the concept of the signal (be quiet/open you book/write/etc), even if they do not understand the accompanying words. The key to hand signals, is being consistent. You must teach the signals before you use them and then you must use them regularly to ensure students remember what the signals mean (Teaching and reinforcing hand signals is a very quick process). You should find that regularly using hand signals improves student behavior and reduces the amount of time you spend correcting students.

 

Quiet Open your book/notebook You should be working (move your hand like you are writing, accompany with a look to imply, “get to work”)
8547558-female-beautiful-closed-hands-isolated-on-white-background.jpg

Closed hands transition to open hands

Hands

The key to classroom management is being consistent and clear. Establishing simple routines and consistently applying/enforcing them is challenging at first because you are not used to it, and neither are your students. But it is worth it. You should persevere.

  1. Classroom Routines

The two types of classroom routines I have focused on building are procedural and transition routines. 

Procedural Routines

Procedural routines involve what students do once they have been given a task. It is easy to just have an inferred procedural routine, I gave “it” to you, so do “it”. But this is unnecessarily vague. Be intentional with your routines. Teach students how you want them to take notes. Organize your class to have the same overall structure each day. Have a few standardized formats for your worksheets. 

The purpose of this standardization in everything from lesson structure, notes, assignments is not for controlling students. The purpose of standardization is to allow for productive freedom. The standardization gives students the structure they need to be creative.

Transition Routines

Transition routines are imperative to build. But, if you observe an expert teacher they can seem to be naturally occurring. But they are not. Successful transitions are a result of careful planning and training. In order to grow in this area you must be intentional. Think about it, and try different setups and instructions in the classroom. Find one that works, and stick with it. 

What is the next step for students?

What do they need to bring?

Where do they need to go?

How should they go there?

What will students do when they get there?

Students will not naturally transition from one task or location to the next. Have a plan, train them. Praise them for their successes, even in something as small as a transition, because successful transitions are not small. A class that is full of successful transitions can easily save you 5 minutes each class. Those extra minutes add up very quickly.

I am certainly not done learning in these two areas, but the progress I made in classroom management and routines seems to have had an out sized impact on both my students’ learning and my quality of life.