Reading in Science Class

I have experimented with incorporating more reading into my 5th and 6th grade science classes. This started with a desire to have my students see how the science we were learning was connected to their everyday lives. So, I would find popular science articles for them to read and take notes on.

Class 1: The Trainwreck

However, during this first lesson, I found out that I cannot just give them an article, even when I have already taught the vocabulary and background knowledge. I did not realize that notetaking was such a complicated skill and as a direct result of my ignorance, this lesson failed. So, after trying to salvage the trainwreck of a lesson I went back to the drawing board. 

Class 2: Prepping for Reading

My new, more thought out approach was to print out a shorter article and go over how to read and take notes on it in a very teacher led fashion. I started by teaching a simplified MLA citation. I explained that you can normally find the author at the top or bottom of an article. Then we looked at the article and students raised their hands when they found the author. The students followed my lead as I wrote the author’s last name and first name on the board. We quickly wrote the title of the article. Finally, I showed them how to identify the website name. Annotation 2020-06-30 140658

With that we were finally ready to start our notes. Just kidding. I still needed to teach them how to take notes from a longer text first, because this is where it really fell apart in the first lesson. I had wrongly assumed that since we take notes each day, my students would know how to create their own. This assumption was far from reality. 

My approach to this involved pulling up some of my own powerpoints and having students open their books to the corresponding page in their textbooks. I asked whether they would prefer to write the paragraph in the book or the phrase on my powerpoint. Then we talked about how to summarize and take notes from a longer piece of writing, and I gave them two simple rules.

  1. No sentences allowed
  2. Do not just write down a word, you must explain it

After going over this and practicing a bit in our textbooks with familiar material, the class was over.

Class 3: Moderate Success

As the next class began, we reviewed the two notetaking rules from the previous class and I gave my students a warm up where they took notes on a paragraph. We reviewed what they wrote and then I passed out the article from last class. We were finally ready to take notes. As students were looking over the article, I drew attention to some text features (headings, links, underlined/highlighted words) and mentioned that they were very similar to the text features in their textbooks. 

I read the first two paragraphs out loud and we had a class discussion about what to write down. I wrote on the board and my students wrote on their summary sheet. After this, I allowed my students to work in pairs. The quality of this first, reading and notetaking activity was disappointingly low.

I still had about half of my students focusing on minor details or on only the interesting parts of the article, neglecting the important parts. Others continued to copy complete sentences from the article because paraphrasing is much more difficult than simply copying what you read. But I still consider this lesson a success because it was the first time my students have had to do anything like this, in any subject. I should expect it to be a bit rough in the beginning.

Feedback and Progress

I decided that this was worth trying again because I want my students to read challenging content in my subject area (Their textbooks are not so challenging). So, I gave feedback and a few weeks later, we tried it again. This time the results were much better. Students were generally following the instructions (no sentences, and giving explanations) and while some were still getting lost in the weeds, I was happy with their overall progress.

I noticed that many of my students needed more guidance on formatting their notes, just telling them to copy my format was not enough instruction. This led to another mini-lesson where I taught how to use bullet points and indentations in their notes, and to link each section of notes with a heading in the article. (This is a work in progress.)

As time went on, my students were able to complete their notes faster and with greater depth. This encouraged me to continue with it. I ended up making a Google Site in order to give my students a limited range of choice and to save paper. Ultimately, we read and summarize an average of two articles per chapter.

My Own Reflection

In science I am fairly skilled at breaking down concepts or skills into bite-sized chunks. Unfortunately this did not really transfer over when I tried to teach reading and notetaking skills because I overlooked how complicated they were. I am a science teacher and I was simply viewing the skills as a vehicle for learning my content.

Once I took the time to properly break down the skills and pre-teach each step, my students were able to find success. But, my pre-teaching in this area tends to be a bit rough as I am still learning how to teach the more technical parts of notetaking while balancing the need to cover material. Teaching is tricky stuff, but I’ll get there.


The Literary Canon: Who Makes the Cut?

A few days ago I got involved in a bit of a Twitter debate about the idea of a literary canon. Here’s the tweet that started it. (Matt is worth the follow!)

I found it interesting because, to me, the reality and importance of a canon is self evident. We have a set of books/writings that are considered to be classics and that ought to be taught.

What is the Canon?

Our word canon comes from the Greek word kanôn, which means measuring rod or standard. The term kanôn was initially used in Christianity to distinguish which scriptures were God-breathed and thus canon with those that were merely written by man and were therefore, apocryphal. Canon made its first, consistent foray into broader literature in 1768 when David Ruhnken used it to describe a selective list of writing (McDonald, 2007). And his use stuck. 

The literary canon is made up of works of literature that have been particularly influential and lasting. Generally there has been a region attached to the canon such as the Western Literary Canon or American Literary Canon. For our purposes, the modifier before canon is only signalling where the works became influential and lasting and is not particularly important. Different regions will have different, yet overlapping canons because while some works of literature will impact multiple regions, others have a more localized one.

What makes something “canon” is that it has been influential and lasting, not who wrote it or where it was written. This is how the Greek poet Homer made the list with his Iliad and Odyssey. And why The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky are included. They aren’t American or from the West, but their works greatly influenced American and Western thought and culture.

Entering the Canon

So, how does a piece of literature become canon? To enter the canon a work of literature not only must be influential and long lasting, it must also be continuously selected and reselected (Rabb, 1988).

However, beyond being “continuously selected and reselected”, the criteria for entering the canon remains vague, for better and for worse. For example, in a 1984 meeting by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies entitled, “Making and Rethinking the Canon caused quite a ruckus.

“The title of the seminar- provoked a striking lack of consensus about what kinds of topics or methods of inquiry would suit such a title. Questions about power and authority offered the only stable common ground. Other questions varied in focus and perspective. What are the principles by which the canon has been formed in the past and is re-formed in the present? How reliable are the processes by which works are included or excluded? Are we moving toward a narrowing or a broadening of the canon? How will questions of gender affect the eighteenth-century canon? What roles do exigencies of pedagogy and/or publishing play? How wide is the gap between adulation for a work and reading it? between respect or tradition and critical/ theoretical trends? What is the relationship between esteem for a work and its susceptibility to popular modes of analysis? What are the conceptual frameworks and categories by which we ascertain the “greatness” of literature? For scholars, critics, and teachers of the eighteenth century, these questions were, and continue to be, vexing” (Rabb, 1988).

Others have suggested that to become canon, or to be considered among the “great works” the literature generally must be something we can learn from, help us judge and shape personal and social values, move the reader to identify with the characters, define genres, push/expand genres, etc (Altieri, 1983).

So, entering the canon is complex. Not only do different people place different weights on different aspects, but some of them disagree on which aspects should be included in assessing the literature at all! I’d go further and say that the above is a non-exhaustive list of potential ways to determine canon. The fuzziness is frustrating, but there is no alternative. Any sort of ranking would produce a canon and suffer from its own shortcomings.

If you want to operationalize this, just apply the above “qualifications” to any literary criticism framework. They are not all equally valid, but most of them will get you to roughly the same place.

A good and relatively (not totally!) controversy free parallel to the literary canon would be the Hall of Fame for any sport, which is essentially a selective list of the greatest players. Let’s look at baseball. To enter baseball’s hall of fame, a player must receive at least 75% of the vote. That Babe Ruth or Mariano Rivera deserve their spot in the hall of fame is obvious. But the disagreements become clear if you look at who barely made the cut for example, Ryne Sandberg slipped in with 76.2%. Meaning that there were a relatively large percent of voters who thought he had a good, not outstanding career. 

Or, to court controversy, look at Pete Rose. His stats show that he deserves a place, but his gambling baseball games, including those he played in kept him out. Look at Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds today. Based on their play in the field alone, they warrant entrance into the hall of fame, but they are cheaters (steroids) and have thus far been kept out.

So while halls of fame (canons for sports) may have some specific rules like a minimum vote percentage, who gets selected is still subjective. Forming a canon is an inexact science with inexact boundaries. 

The Fuzzy Canon

Shakespeare obviously deserves to be included in the canon, anyone who doubts his place is as sane as one who doubts Michael Jordan’s place in the basketball hall of fame. The places near the peak of any canon are clear. But where does the canon start? Who makes the cut? Why?

Again, as entrance to the literary canon is not scientific, we cannot draw a line. To attempt to do so would result in the butchering of literary analysis. 

If you are seeking for some magic line, or formula to better understand the canon, you are seeking for fool’s gold and Atlantis. You will always be disappointed. The fact that the canon has fuzziness does not negate its reality any more than the fuzziness of tallness or shortness negates the reality of your height. The best we can do is follow general rules and to realize that the edges are fuzzy as a feature, not a bug. 

Altieri (1983) explains the fuzziness well when he says,

 “Clearly, canons are not natural facts and do not warrant the kinds of evidence we use in discussing matters of fact. We are not likely to find general laws governing our acts as canon-formers, nor is extended empirical inquiry likely to resolve any of the essential theoretical issues. Canons are based on both descriptive and normative claims; we cannot escape the problem of judging others’ value statements by our own values.”

Does Ryne Sandberg deserve his hall of fame slot? Does every book in the canon deserve its spot? What do we do when different groups produce differing canons? It’s fuzzy.

Criticisms of the Canon

Criticisms of the canon invariably center around around relevance or who gets in. And this is healthy. Because the canon is formed over time in a relatively idiocentric, organic process, there is no way to filter out the bigotry and oversights of the past. As a result, great minority writers have been excluded from the canon through no fault of their own. We can and should work to remedy this as we engage in the endless Canon Wars and “continuously select and reselect” the canon. 

The Purpose of a Canon

Even with all the disagreement surrounding what qualities a book should have in order to enter than canon. The concept is still eminently useful. A canon gives us a list of works that are considered to be the best of the best that has some sort of filter beyond “best selling”. This is helpful for individuals who want to read good literature, not just famous or popular works. 

While the canon is helpful for individuals, it is irreplaceable for educators. The primary limitation in education is that there is too little time and too many good books. We have to choose and canons are eminently helpful in this regard.

As far as how teachers should use the canon, I do not think there are any hard and fast rules. I would say that teachers should regularly but not exclusively teach from the canon.

The Alternative to a Canon

Maybe you dislike the canon because it is primarily old works written in and about cultures vastly different from the one our students inhabit. And in addition you think that too many minorities have been excluded by racism and bigotry. So you decide to get rid of the canon and do what’s best for your students.

Maybe you choose Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling for its themes of courage and friendship.
You choose the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseimi for its themes of betrayal/redemtion, family relationships, and political or cultural relevance.
And you choose Counting Descent by Clint Smith for how his poetry engages the minority experience and complicates our conception of lineage and tradition.
(Your reading list for your students includes many more works of literature but for our purposes three books is enough)

And your list starts becoming more popular. Other teachers begin to use it and add similar works to it. Its use grows and it is gradually taught in more and more schools. And you are happy because your list of recommended books is more inclusive than the old canon.

But, don’t you see what is happening? As your list gains popularity, it gains authority. More teachers reference your list while planning their curriculum, there is an occasional news article about a trendy new reading list. One of the articles calls it a new canon for a new age…

You see, there is no true alternative. The canon is a list of works considered to be the best of the best. If you would get rid of the canon, what would you replace it with? The replacement would simply be another list, a new canon.

If you think we should abandon the canon yet do not attempt to replace the canon, you would lead yourself and others adrift in a literary sea. We must assess books for quality. Determining (assessing) which are the best is a useful exercise. The result of this assessment will always lead to some sort of canon, even if you change the name to make yourself feel better.

So the only answer is to improve the canon. Which works should be considered in that aren’t? (probably many) Which books should be taken out? (probably a few)


Altieri, C. (1983). An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon. Critical Inquiry, 10(1), 37–60. doi: 10.1086/448236

McDonald, Lee Martin (2007). The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority (Updated and revised 3rd ed.). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56563-925-6.

Rabb, M. A. (1988). Making and Rethinking the Canon: General Introduction and the Case of “Millenium Hall”. Modern Language Studies18(1), 3. doi: 10.2307/3194697

Reflections on Integrating Tech into the Elementary Classroom

It is now about 5 weeks into the school year and enough time has passed for me to reflect on how things are going.

One thing I have learned is that adding one piece of tech to my teaching may be simple for me, but it is not so straightforward for my 5th and 6th grade students. This year, I wanted to use Quizlet in my classroom as a way to incorporate retrieval and spaced practice but it has not gone well yet. I thought it would be simple. I can have my students make an account and then they just need to join the class by watching me model it on the projector and following the printed out instructions (with pics!). Fifteen minutes of set up for a years worth of learning.

Not so fast.

I have students who struggle to translate the printed instructions to their iPad’s screen (English is their second language). I have students who forgot their email and/or password. With the first round of tests coming up, I still do not have every student signed up. And I recently found out I gave some people access to my Quizlet class that are not even in the country I teach. Oops.

I like to think I am a competent, well-planned teacher who has a handle on basic tech, but adding this has given me my doubts. I am planning on giving one more push for Quizlet because I am convinced of the efficacy of retrieval and spaced practice. It would be a powerful tool to use as a class warm-up. And a great way for faster students to review at the end of a class (I am less convinced of Quizlet’s usefulness outside of the classroom because the internet is too full of distractions). However, no tool is worth making my life or my students’ lives harder. If this next push doesn’t work, I will simply cut my losses and use some good ol’ fashioned physical flashcards.

Not All Tech is a Nightmare

On the bright side, my class science website has gone swimmingly. I had students glue a QR code to the back cover of their notebooks and it’s only a scan away. The way I use my website is to have students read and take notes on articles that are related to what we are learning in class. The plan is for students to read and take notes on two articles per chapter. I am also requiring them to do a simplified version of an MLA citation that will become a full blown MLA citation by the end of the semester.

One thing I am seeing with this is that my students still require explicit teaching in this area. The first time we did the activity, too many students wasted time because they were unsure of what to write down. This was my fault, I assumed the activity was simple, because it would be simple for me. My 5th and 6th grade students are not me, they are still learning how to take notes. 

To remedy this I drew their attention to the article title, headings, and bolded words and explained how to use them in their notetaking. At this point, my students were largely able to do it on their own and I was able to provide timely help those who needed more guidance.

Final Reflections

Tech can be great. It can also be a great headache. We need to be smart about how we use and incorporate it. Even when our plan is backed by science (retrieval practice and spaced practice) and each step is literally spelled out and modeled by the teacher (as in my case), if students cannot use the tech, it isn’t going to be worth it, even if the tech is amazing. Teaching is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by giving yourself a tech headache. 

Find something that fits these three categories:

  1. Works for you
  2. Works for your students
  3. Is backed by research

If either of the first two are lacking, you will have a headache, and your students probably will too. If the third is lacking, you are likely doing your students a disservice.

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”)

Closed hands transition to open 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. 

Be Clear. Be Concise.

Teachers need to be clear in all forms of instruction. Saying this much is obvious, but how to actually be clear is less so. We must first take our audience into account, our students. How old are they? Are they native speakers? How much do they already know?

Once we have a working knowledge of this, we have the hope of being clear.

Planning brings clarity.

Plan out your instructions/procedures beforehand. Do not plan the activity and neglect to plan the how-to.

Routines bring clarity.

Develop routines for daily tasks. Routines are especially helpful during transition times. When routines are established, students can instantly know what to do just by observing a teacher’s hand motion.

Teachers must be concise. Being concise helps to bring clarity because it is easier for students to remember a short set of instructions than a long set.

Editing brings conciseness. Look over your plan, cut out what you do not need. Remember, to base your cuts on your students’ background knowledge.

Start with clear and detailed explanations and then fade the explanations out over time to help your students master the content. “To tie an overhand knot we will first…then…and finally…”

Overhand Knot Tying Example
Novice Expert
Image result for overhand knot

(with teacher demonstrations and assistance)

  1. Tie an overhand knot.

For concise explanations, start with the goal. “We will tie an overhand knot.”

This helps your students follow the instructions because they know the end/goal at the beginning.

Cut what you say. Do you like, um, you know, use filler words? Be cognizant of how you speak and actively work to reduce how often you use unneeded words.

The meaning of clarity and conciseness is obvious, but actually being clear and concise is difficult. You should intentionally work at it.

Teachers and Workload

Teaching is a tough job, but we can make it harder than necessary. Hopefully your school is actively working to reduce your workload by reducing the amount of data drops and by reviewing its marking policies. However, even if you are stuck in a school with many data drops and onerous marking policies, you can work to reduce your own workload.

One way is to simply grade less! It sounds too good to be true, but it is. Grading student work is not a particularly valuable form of feedback. Instead, you can look into whole class marking. This will drastically cut down the time you spend grading, and, as an added bonus you will be giving actionable feedback to your students.

If you are saying you cannot do this because your school’s policy, you likely still have work arounds. Grade formative assessments on completion. Have more in class assignments. If you have book scrutinies and every student needs to have correct answers, don’t include your harder more summative assessments in it. Instead, choose easy ones that will look good to your school so you can get the paperwork done quickly and spend more time focusing on what matters.

If the school policies and enforcement are so strict that these work arounds will not work, I’d suggest looking for another job elsewhere. It is not worth the stress.

Another way to reduce your workload is to set a firm leaving time. I will leave work at X o’clock and be home for dinner. Setting this as a firm personal deadline can be immensely powerful. It will also help you realize that the work can wait, it will be there tomorrow. And generally, even if it doesn’t get done, you and your students will be ok.

Teaching is a profoundly important job. We change students’ lives. And we should celebrate that. However, it is important that we do not burn ourselves out in our drive to be good teachers and help students succeed. Remember, if we quit teaching, we will no longer have the same impact. Find ways to reduce your workload to increase your sanity.

Teaching is a Job

This is part 2 of a post series where I explore my teaching philosophy. It is a very much in process document. Hopefully my efforts to formulate my thoughts are helpful for you too.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Even if you feel you were born to be a teacher or that teaching is your calling, like myself, you should view teaching as a job first and foremost. The reason being is that teaching can easily take over your life and those who view it as a calling are especially susceptible. When that happens, not only does your quality of life suffer, your teaching suffers, your students suffer.

I believe that teaching can easily take over your life because it is inherently intimate. You interact with the same students day in and day out. You see their struggles, failures, and successes. You learn about their interests and home life. The relationship we build with our students drives us to do more. And this is emphatically a positive.

However, this drive has a darker side. It can lead us to obsess over our job and we can become over-dedicated.

  • Regularly taking work home, and working unpaid
  • Taking on more responsibility at work, for the kids, and somebody has to do it
  • Planning lessons late into the night
  • When you have a social life, it consists of talking about work

When this happens to a few people in a school, the culture changes. Instead of being pleased by some teachers going above and beyond, it becomes an implicit expectation.

“Why didn’t you check your email over the weekend?”

“Look at all the great manipulatives Teacher Joe bought for his class. It would really help your students if you got some too.”

“Teacher Sally went to Wal-Mart and spent $400 on school supplies.”

“Have you donated tissues to the school yet? We really need them at the beginning of the year and during winter you know.”

When this happens at a few schools, the district’s culture changes. In a few districts, and the educational culture of the state begins to change. In a few states, and the nation’s educational culture changes. I believe that this culture is a major contributor to teachers becoming burnout and to teachers being taken advantage of by the school funding system.

The antidote, I believe is to maintain the view of teaching as incredibly important, inherently valuable, and fundamental to a flourishing society while viewing it as a job. A job has a “clock”. You are responsible to work from time A to time B. Before and after, is yours. A calling has no limit, jobs do. This is a freeing realization.

Now that I view teaching as a job (albeit, one I feel called to), I have found it much easier to go home with papers ungraded and imperfect lesson plans. This, in turn, has drastically reduced my stress. Which, then, has made me happy to go into work, and I feel that I am able to be more productive with my time there.

A teacher who is burned out is suffering and this teacher’s suffering is causing their students to suffer too. Sometimes doing less allows you to do more. Teaching is a job. A stressful one, but a good one. All teachers should strive to improve. But, to improve, you must stay in the profession and learn how to manage the stresses and temptations that come along for the ride. The best defense is healthy boundaries.

If you feel called into the field of education, welcome! It is a fantastically fulfilling place. But don’t make it your life, it will eat yours. If you make it your job, you just may fulfill your calling.

Teachers and Love

In my previous post, I began writing my philosophy of education that focused on 5 areas.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

I summarized #1 like this.

My manifesto starts with controversy. Love, you say? Inappropriate. However, you are wrong. In the case of a teacher, love for students simply means wanting the best for them. You may argue that I should just drop the word love and go with “Teachers must want the best for their students”. I disagree with that because the word love is more powerful and brings weightier connotations. I want this statement to have that weight and those connotations.

Education is a service industry and its aims are best achieved when teachers seek to serve their students. I believe that this service is best acted out not simply out of duty or even affection, but love.

I chose to start my philosophy with love because it is both a tone and context setter. I firmly believe that our actions as teachers should flow from love. My main reason for starting here is not because I naturally love my students. My natural inclination is to teach my classes and get out because relationships are difficult and often frustrating (especially with young children). But I believe my default approach is incompatible with the approach a service industry job requires. Relationships matter. I started with love because I am a Christian and believe it is foundational and more important than knowledge. (1 Corinthians 13:2, If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”)

So, the next obvious question is what does this look like?

In my overview article, I described the love a teacher should have for their student as “wanting the best for your students.”

However, this is not so helpful as a road-map. It is too broad and vague. We must put this love in its context, education. What is the purpose of education? I propose that the primary purpose of education is to help students learn about that which is true and/or valuable while helping them learn about society and the world. I will unpack this more when I get to #4. In short, education should help students learn about the world and their culture’s values.

This then makes teaching the primary role of the teacher. While this seems commonsensical I feel it needs to be said. Google isn’t a magic cure all. Skills that are not based in knowledge are ultimately empty and not useful. Students must know stuff without looking it up.

The other way teachers can love their students is by enforcing the rules in a warm manner. I have seen some schools referring to this as “warm-strict”. I think this is a fantastic approach. Essentially this approach tells students, “We have rules, and you must follow them for your own good and for others.” But, and this part is key, it also makes clear to the students, I value you for you.

Finally, I will get to the most traditional aspect of love, the relationship. The reason I go to this part last is because I view teaching students and warmly enforcing the rules as foundational. They allow for relationships with students to grow. When students know that the teacher and school value learning, they are more apt to try and learn. If you are not teaching, you are not loving your students, plain and simple. Warmly enforcing the rules is important because it helps to embody the idea of love. When the students know what the rules are, that they will be punished for breaking them, and that they will be valued no matter what, they will be more likely to both follow the rules and learn.

Finally, it is in this calm, focused environment created by the warm-strictness and the focus on teaching and learning that allows the relationship between a student and a teacher to flourish. Here, the teacher can interact and get to know students and their academic interests in the classroom while learning their personal interests during breaktimes/lunch/etc. Notice my order. In the class, I believe it is important to focus on academics as a way to love your students. Sure, you will pick up on their personal interests in the classroom, you will have times where you tell jokes in the classroom, but your focus must be on educating them. Use the down times in your school wisely. Get to know your students. Make it clear that you value them. Even if you feel you can’t tell your students you love them, express it.

Day Two: Messy Labs and Learning

I am doing a long term lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Click here to read about day one.

Day two was much less stressful for me because the setup portion of the lab was complete. My students just needed to use the aquaponics system to make observations. We have made observations before, but always of inanimate objects, where there is a clear focus. Living organisms move and react to stimulus, making it difficult for students to choose an organism or behavior to focus on and observe.

I did not calculate this new difficulty into my planning. I assumed that an observation was an observation. I reviewed how to make good observations with my students in the warm up, had them practice on their own with some quick examples (courtesy of my actions), then we made observations from a video of my own fish tank, finally I set half of the class loose on observations (remember, I only have enough supplies for ½ of my students to use the aquaponics systems at a time). The other half of students were given a reading about how beavers interact with their environment.

My biggest take home from this lesson was, equipment limitations stink. It would be much easier to do this lab if each group could work on it at the same time. That being said, my students were focused and working hard throughout the lesson, both the observers and the beaver researchers. The observations took longer than anticipated due to the novelty of observing moving organisms. I had planned on having each group make observations, but there simply wasn’t time. So, the other group will make observations in the next class.

The other take home was more obvious in hindsight. I should have found a reading that directly related to our aquaponics system. I want my students to have the knowledge to apply what we are learning (ecosystems and organism interactions) to multiple situations, which is why I have given them the reading on how beavers interact with their environment (which is excellent, check it out if you teach science: Beavers and the Environment). But, they struggled to pull the information out of the text for two reasons.

  1. Taiwan does not have beavers, so my students are very unfamiliar with them. The brief mini-lesson on beavers and the environment was insufficient to allow them to make the connections I was hoping for.
  2. They have not mastered the concept of organism interactions within a familiar ecosystem, so they cannot yet effectively generalize the concept.

Doing a lab with half the class at a time has been challenging and helpful for me. It is helping me hone my classroom management strategies and therefor grow as a teacher. For the rest of this lab (about 1 month) I will ensure that the half of the class not using the aquaponics system will be doing a task that is directly related to aquaponics. And in the future, we will generalize the concepts (organism interactions) starting as a whole class.