For three months, I worked with a business coach. She thought I could build a “tutoring empire”. I explained to her that I could only see so many students a day, unless I began to hire employees or subcontract with other teachers I knew. There was a lot of discussion regarding what type of kids I served. She voted to add “students who want to excel”. In my 21 plus years in education, less than one-tenth of the population who are already successful in school feel they need, or want, a tutor. In the end, I dropped her suggestion for “excelling” students being part of the population that I was attempting to target.

Besides my homebound students that I work with through a local school district, I have a few private clients. One of them I help with math, usually about once a week and always the day before he has a test. His teacher moves quickly through the Algebra 3-4 curriculum, and keeps us both on our toes in understanding how she wants problems solved. This is typical of a student who would have a tutor: someone struggling a little with a subject and working with a tutor one or two times a week.

Another student, who is in middle school, has an IEP and barely qualifies for services. He is fully included in regular ed. classes, but has some accommodations that allow him to be successful in his classes. I meet with him once a week, and we work on whatever he has for homework that evening, which is usually social studies and math. It’s not that I spend a lot of time “teaching” him a concept as I do the previous student with higher math skills, but rather we discuss his writing, his understanding, how to locate information within a textbook, reading skills, and chunking his study time so he doesn’t cram the night before a test. His mother is very pleased with his improved grades and looks forward to me continuing with the student into high school.

There is a student I was helping with Geometry last school year. He attended a charter school that was academically challenging, and either because of or that it was just the circumstances, he was bullied. This student enjoys school and learning and has plans for his future.  This year, he is staying at home doing online curriculum through a public school and is much happier. I also see him only once a week, and we review whatever he’s doing with his math class, which is Algebra 3-4. I’ll note here that it amazes me how one class can have so many different approaches and how different math teachers decide which concepts are important enough to teach during the course. With this student, there is direct instruction.

The last two students I have are fraternal twin boys, juniors at a local high school, and typical of the prevalent attitude that I saw in the public high schools where I taught. They don’t care for school, don’t see the point in learning particular things or reading certain stories, and can’t wait to graduate and get into “the real world”. They are undecided as to a career interest. They generally start off each quarter doing well, but by the end they get through by the skin of their teeth, and they are fine with D’s on their report cards. There is a measure of disrespect towards their parents and teachers and anyone in authority. Though they haven’t disrespected me directly or to my face, I imagine their comments to their mother are similar as to what they tell me about their teachers. They generally don’t take responsibility for not completing an assignment, won’t keep up with their planners, think nothing of cheating on tests (one of them), are highly distractible, and need to be told repeatedly to watch their language and keep their chairs on the floor. I feel at home working with these boys, and I wonder how much my view has been skewed by the clientele I’ve been with the past 21 years. At least half the time I’m with them, I do counseling. We discuss grades, goals, what they can do to help themselves, etc. I text Mom a list of all that we did, and she continues to be grateful for whatever help I can give her and the boys. I meet with them once a week, unless there’s a big test and one of them is really struggling, then we meet more. Finals is always an interesting time, as we discuss what will happen if they don’t study and fail the class.

For each of the private students I spend time with, there is a different reason. Whether it’s direct instruction, general study skills help, counseling, or just an outside source to check in with, there are more reasons to hire a tutor than just waiting for struggles to begin or expecting a tutor to pull a student out of a hole they’ve dug themselves through incomplete assignments, not getting help from the teacher, not participating in class, not studying for tests, or they may be unfortunate enough to be in a class with a poor teacher and need help just to get through. However, I believe that there are already enough stressors in place in regular public high school, complicated by the biological influences of being a teenager, that pushing a student to excel is over the top. Did I mention that nearly all of my homebound students are at home due to high anxiety?

If you have a student that is struggling or that you feel needs a bit of outside support, one who could use some assistance with goals and figuring out the importance of education, then it would be a good time to hire a tutor. Remember, like every contractor you may hire, not all tutors are the same! Word of mouth is best. Meet with the tutor before you introduce them to your child. With luck, you’ll find one that is a good fit and your student will be more successful with the extra support.

Have a suggestion for finding a tutor or another reason why having a tutor can be helpful? Leave it in the comments. If you live in the Phoenix, AZ area and are looking for assistance, visit my website:


Through a referral, the school district where I had worked for 21 years, asked that I return in order to be hired as a homebound teacher and help a particular student. That was two months and six students ago. I have worked with students on homebound before. They had been former students of mine so it was easy to step into the role of the homebound teacher and meet the student at their house a couple of times a week in order to help them complete their assignments and continue to work towards the credits they needed for graduation. However, this time around, about 15 years later, I find that 5 of the 6 students I’m working with are home due to anxiety.

We all feel anxious are certain times. Being asked to speak in front of a crowd, impromptu or planned, can still create anxiety in most people. A little bit of stress, anxiety on the very low side of the scale, can help us meet deadlines and complete tasks that aren’t our favorites to do. But with these students, their anxiety level is such that they cannot function in a regular classroom. A couple have been in treatment. Most are on medications. I’m not their psychiatrist, so I’m not sure what other therapies they might be doing. Where would they, or are they, learning coping skills? What if they end up being able to function at home, but not in a grocery store? Can you see how this could severely impact their lives?

I wonder what causes these students to have such severe anxiety that they cannot attend school. We all know that children, any grade K-12, can say and do the most unkind things. Is it that bullying is a cause? Do effected students so fear being judged by others that they don’t go to school?  A few of the students I work with don’t go out to the grocery store or anywhere with any friends they may have. As a type of phobia, it’s more than just cajoling the student to attend school or take a trip with a parent on an errand. If a student is more predisposed to anxiety at this level, then shouldn’t interventions and coping skills be directly taught?

As a yoga instructor, I know how tools and techniques of the practice can affect a person. Would this be acceptable to students who are in the public school system? Breath work to help center the mind, mantras as something else to focus on besides the endless worry, postures to learn acceptance for how they show up could all be possible tools for these students to learn in an effort to overcome their anxiety. Some plan to return to the classroom once they feel they have everything under control. As adults, we know how rare that is and how short-lived. It seems possible that these students will have to find ways to deal with the anxiety for the rest of their lives.

How do you handle the feeling of being anxious? Is there a limit as to how much a person can deal with, and if so, what do people do when they tip to the other side of that line? I welcome your comments below.

Only Six Hours

February 3, 2011

   After I finished college and my student teaching, which consisted of eight weeks in a fourth grade classroom and eight weeks in a self-contained ED classroom, I thought what I was best prepared for was regular ed. elementary. What I ended up in, and remained in for the past twenty years, is high school Special Ed. Like all new teachers, I was enthusiastic and knew that I alone could change the lives of so many students. It took me about three years to realize that no matter how much I manipulated their schedules, got them the best classes with the most talented teachers, a study hall with me to ensure they completed their work, set them up for a plan that would have them graduating in four years, invariably I had some kids who sabotaged their success, sending me home in tears more days than not. They didn’t do anything overtly to insult me, but rather it was their choices, to continue to ditch class, to get high before coming to school, to completely disregard any rules at home that were set up to support them that upset me so. It took me many more years before I was able to let go and understand why they did what they did and how I could continue to walk in to school every day despite their choices and consequences.

   My thesis was an eight week counseling program set up to teach high school students problem-solving skills in order to decrease the number of referrals they received and increase their time in class. I didn’t prove my hypothesis. I had developed a great program, ran it more than once, but due to the level of students I worked with and the fact that half were gone from each weekly counseling session due to their choices, my research “proves” that the counseling program didn’t work. Hogwash. What was not allowed in the last chapter, the one where the conclusion was stated, was that schools only have students for six hours a day.

   Nearly twenty-five years ago, when I first took a Human Development class, we were told that a person’s personality was developed by the time they turned five years old. Since then, brain research has moved that timeline to two years, and even the first few days after birth are critical for bonding with a primary caregiver. One workshop I attended over the years presented their research findings in how kids on the autistic spectrum, kids with oppositional defiant disorder, severe learning disabilities, and other issues could be traced back to a lack of social skills due to the inability to “read” facial expressions and body language in others. This was partly due to the primary caregiver’s responses when the child was an infant, as well as postpartum depression and psychological issues of the caregiver. The best part about the workshop was that they had designed a program to greatly increase students’ abilities to “read” social situations. However, this was done in a private lab setting that received funding from a university. Which brings me back to the title of this blog: Only Six Hours.

   By the time they reach school, their personality is set. Sure, caring teachers help students to fine tune their characters, to learn the lines of right and wrong when it concerns others, and to push them to strive for success in every area of their lives. And for the majority of students, teachers do a bang up job. It is every teacher’s dream to have classes full of students who learn at grade level, who are motivated, and take responsibility for their education. Instead, the gap between those motivated for success and those whose motivation is derived from disrupting class and other attention seeking behaviors, is widening. As is the academic abilities of students. The “middle of the road” kid barely exists any more. Why? There are several theories. Changes in the family dynamics, in society as a whole, in the lack of change in education to meet the more diverse needs of its learners. But my opinion for why educational systems affect students less is that we only have them for six hours.

   Years ago, when students were raised with in-tact families who usually had a parent who was home, grew up very different from the vast array of living arrangements and discipline practices that we see now. Back then, having students for six hours meant there was a bunch of learning going on. Now, six hours is only scratching the surface, and teachers must compete not only with technology and the increase that a social life plays in the life of a student, but also the difficulties in society and family dynamics, and teach curriculum, and develop their characters, in only six hours a day.

   Not always is the competition from home, but sometimes the difficulties observed in behavior at school are the very ones seen at home by the parents. The advantage to this is that it offers an opportunity for the school and the parents to work as partners to bring the student around to a place of success and choices that offer favorable outcomes for the student rather than a removal of all privileges. There are no forms to sign, and no way to know for sure if the parents, or all of the teachers, are upholding their end of the bargain when it comes to holding the agreed upon line with student behavior. The hope is that with the six hours at school and the hours when the student is with the parents, that the behavior is curbed, or redirected, and the student experiences success.

   As we know by now, there is no “returning to the glory days” of education, whatever that means for you. There is technology and societal changes and curriculum doesn’t hold the same allure it once did. Our six hours with our students is now a center for competition for their attention and efforts. A partnership with the parents and other teachers is beneficial, thus stretching the six hours of contact with struggling students. Review the students in your classes. How many are from “middle class” homes? How many are from a different ethnic or cultural background than a “typical” American student? How much of your time do you spend redirecting students back to task instead of engaging in technology and fellow students? Has the discipline issues increased in your classroom or school? How much of what you are supposed to teach is relevant to the students’ current or future lives? How much time do you have to spend with individual students, especially those whom you know that would greatly benefit from time with you? And how often do you get frustrated, knowing there is more you could do, if there was only time?

   Take a deep breath and know that you only have six hours with the students. Sometimes we’ll be able to recognize our influence in a student, and other times we’ll never know if what we said had any impact at all. There are many hurdles that are bigger than any one of us can solve. Know that each day you choose to walk into your classroom and do what you can for the students you can reach will make all the difference. And on those days when you’re pulling out your hair and questioning if anything you say or do makes a difference, remember, we only have them for six hours.

   If you’re looking for worthwhile ways to practice and assess what you’re teaching, visit my website and check out the materials I’ve created. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion for helping teachers remember that we only have students for a small amount of time.


January 13, 2011

   Back in the olden days, when I first began teaching, we were told to make friends with the school secretary, the custodian, the nurse, and the cafeteria lady. After all, those were the people who really ran the school, not my fellow teachers or the principal. I followed that advice, and I continue that practice today, though I do include every staff member when it comes to their contribution to running a school.

   The secretary knew all the parents, most of the kids, when and where teachers and administration could be reached, and all the important information. The custodian not only cleaned the boards and emptied the trash, but he would move furniture and boxes for you, and if you needed something repaired, even if it wasn’t school property, it was taken care of. The cafeteria lady knew what each teacher liked, and on special days would save extra cookies or the fresher cartons of milk. And who better than the school nurse to have you gargle with warm salt water, slip you a few Tylenol when you’ve had a rough morning, or given you bandages when you chose a busy Monday to break in new shoes.

   Don’t get me wrong. All of these people are vital to the functioning of a school. However, I propose that there is one great resource that is untapped in nearly every school building, regardless of the level, whether it be private or public, and that is the Special Education teacher. What you have in that one person, or a whole department in the case of the school where I work, is an untold wealth of knowledge and experience. Yesterday, I announced to the staff of my high school, my new position as coordinator of the Learning Resource Center. The question that arises is, will they take advantage of this (me) resource?

   Today, I posted a reminder in our email conference what services I’m offering and how the whole Special Ed. department is shifting our focus to more inclusion with team-teaching situations, and how we’re extending ourselves to create a more proactive environment for all students. I will be the space students come to if they need an alternate test site or assessments read to them. If more one-on-one assistance is needed with an assignment or project, that, too, is a role I’m filling. I’ve offered to modify their assignments and tests to make them more accessible to Special Ed. students. I even left a comment that if they have an idea as to how else I can assist them, that all they need to do is ask.

   But I wonder how many will. Before No Child Left Behind, there were ‘good’ Special Ed. teachers and those who weren’t so good. As soon as the words ‘Highly Qualified’ began to float around, I was concerned. Generally, Special Ed. teachers don’t go to teacher college to learn content. We go to learn how to teach, how to adapt curriculum, how to work with difficult kids and parents who are in denial, unrealistic, or supportive. We memorize the laws and practice standing up for our students when some teachers would rather not deal with them. Our vast scope of adaptability, whether in curriculum, physical or emotional environment, is often ignored. General Ed. teachers are usually appreciative when we give them background on particular students and suggestions for success. For the most part, they are willing to abide by the IEP’s and offer accommodations and attend meetings. And all of this is for the support of the student. But what about support of the staff?

   Before NCLB, those of us who knew we missed out on curriculum during our college days, attended every professional development workshop we could to brush up on what we had forgotten we’d learned while in school. For most of us, we didn’t attend college to learn content, but rather decided to make a career of teaching. And that act requires often more knowledge than what is covered in Special Ed. 101 or a handful of observation hours in a Special Ed. classroom. There is no one greater, either Special Ed. or General Ed., in terms of knowledge, but rather I suggest it is the combination of both that will ensure the highest success for more students, both those with IEP’s and those without.

   I invite you to have lunch with your Special Ed. teacher(s) at your building. Pick their brains on trends in education, changes in state and federal laws, ways to work with a particular student, or suggestions for improving your assessments. You have at your site an untapped resource in the guise of the teacher who has eight kids in her class with an aide and invites you to early morning meetings. Will you be curious enough to ask questions? Secure in your skills as a teacher to reach out for options to alter your curriculum for better accessibility for all students? Or will you continue to not make eye contact with the teacher who works with ‘those kids’? I suppose my building is much like yours, only I’m seeing the issue from the other side of the fence. Outside my door is a sign that says: “Resource Teacher”. And I wonder, how many will take advantage of all I can offer?

   Through my years of improving my own content knowledge and what I’ve created for my students, I’ve made available some materials. Visit my website: and decide if how I’ve chosen to alter the curriculum might answer some of your questions, and thus be a resource for you. Leave a comment as to how you have utilized your Special Ed. staff at your school.

The Purpose of Assessments

December 31, 2010

   For a majority of teachers in the classroom today, the sequence of instruction is the same: teach, practice, test. We test to see if the students learned what we thought we taught. It is an assessment of what they know, and how well we presented the information and if we gave them ample opportunities to practice. If students don’t pass the test, we might offer an extra worksheet, but we move on because our principal, State, and the next year’s teachers are expecting students to leave our classrooms ‘knowing’ certain information. But do they really ‘know’ it if they cannot pass a test on it? And if we spend extra time on a concept, then we don’t ‘get through’ the entire curriculum, and how will that effect the ever-important test scores?

   For some teachers, perhaps this isn’t the quandary that it is for others. I don’t think it matters on the number of students in a class, but how much the teacher is vested in the growth of the students and whether or not relationships are formed. In my experience, I know well before I plan to give an assessment who in my class has the information, can apply it, and do well on a test, and who needs more practice. There are those students who don’t do well on tests, and those that follow the pattern of not completing assignments, and therefore not practicing the material, and their lack of understanding comes through on the test.

   Since the end of the semester was just a short two weeks ago, I was thinking of this as I was compiling problems for the final exams. In our district, the Board policy states that every teacher must give a final exam or cumulative project. In the past, I’ve given a paper-pencil test in the fall, and the spring semester ended with a project. I know which of my students will do well on the paper-pencil test, as it is those students who are consistent in completing homework, participate in class, and work constructively on paired and group projects. Very rarely am I surprised. Those that do poorly, are the students who fail to utilize study skills, or take advantage of all the resources available to them. I often wondered why we needed to require students to complete a final exam or project. Is there one in life? What about when a person leaves a job or a relationship ends? Is there a questionnaire, a test that one must pass? If school is to prepare students for life, I fail to see why a final exam is so important.

   And how much of the information crammed for in order to take a final, is actually remembered later on? My guess is that it’s not much. I’d like to offer an alternative. Instead of reading a novel and giving a test on what the students remember from it, have them write a reflective essay. What did they learn from the author and the characters? Was there anything that they could apply to their own life? Has the story changed their thinking or beliefs in any way? If so, how? For a math class, instead of continuing to complete naked-number problems, have the students chart their own progress, and write what they have learned, and what they still don’t understand. Why not have them teach a concept to the class or a small group of students? Instead of focusing so much on symbolic problems, embed the concepts into story problems. Students learn more when they realize there is a purpose for learning something, rather than to just get to the next level or memorize the steps in a problem. Science is perhaps the easiest, as all we have to do is look around us, and we can see how it applies to our lives. For Social Studies, I’ve always found that students struggle with the wars and time periods and famous people because their world knowledge is so small. So, give them that knowledge, but not strictly through books. Reenactments, guest speakers, movies, web quests, and projects asking students to draw their own conclusions, decide if there are any parallels to current times, and how it affects them.

   I shake my head at the 150 vocabulary words that students are asked to match for an Economics final, or the obscure triangles they are to solve for angles or side measurements, which came from one section in one chapter months earlier. Can they apply the knowledge? That is the question. Our State tests measure knowledge, not learning, nor how or even if, students can apply what teachers present. My belief is that if we offer students different ways to show what they know, how it applies to their life and their world, and the ones in the future, then we have done our jobs. Simply passing a final exam, whether it is matching words and definitions or 100 Algebra problems, the importance should be on what the student has learned, internalized, and can apply, not on what they can regurgitate. In the kits that I’ve developed and used with my own students, there are numerous ways that I’ve offered for students to practice concepts and skills and show what they know. You can view them at Leave a comment if there’s an alternative to paper-pencil assessments that you use.

Sending Kids on their Way

December 9, 2010

   I teach at a high school that uses a block schedule, 85 minutes a class, four classes plus lunch each semester. With most of the classes only a semester long, the attempt is to take a year-long class of 45 minutes, and teach the curriculum in one semester. This allows for more project-based teaching, labs in science classes and vocational programs, and also encourages teachers to utilize Cooperative Learning, rather than straight lecture. And it is right about this time every year, that I look over what we’ve covered in class and begin to assess whether or not I’ve served the students well.

   In the past several years, I’ve been able to keep my Algebra students all year. This year, I was slotted to teach two math levels, something I haven’t done in quite a while. Always being  up for a challenge, I was excited to teach a class I hadn’t spent time with in years, knowing I would be creating learning experiences and materials to help my students acquire information. So time passed, and all the interruptions are gone. There are only 4 days left before their final, and then I won’t see them in class again.

   In an effort to be proactive in the changing laws and with the more challenging students that our school serves, our Department will be moving toward a different model. Team-teaching for a few of the classes, and turning my classroom into the Learning Resource Center. There is a laundry list of services that the LRC will offer, such as an alternate test site, computers available for projects, tutoring, and counseling. As I look around my room, physically there are things that need to be changed, tables instead of desks, and moving bookshelves and other seating arrangements to make room for computer tables and quite places to complete assessments. As I started to gather things up, put them away, or give them away, I began to think about where my students would go.

   On Tuesday, we’d spent about three hours hacking out a new Master Schedule for our department and placing students where we thought was best for them, based on their level and the teacher(s) available. After considering where these students were placed, I began to have doubts. Was I the right person for this position? How comfortable was I in giving up my classes to do something we had never done at my school? Analyzing it from every angle, I decided that we did the best we could, and though next semester will be a learning experience, students can only benefit from this shift in program.

   As I looked around my room today at the students that I’ve had since the middle of August, I began to wonder what perhaps every teacher thinks about when they retire or leave one school for another: Did I matter? Did I do the best job I could to prepare them for their next class and for life after high school? With a deep breath, I realize, yes, I did my best to serve my students. And now they’re moving on to other teachers when I would normally have them through May. I know my colleagues are very capable instructors, and that my students will be in good hands.

   I asked myself to move back to that space of excitement. This is an opportunity to serve in a different way, to work with more teachers and parents and students. I won’t be delivering group, direct instruction, but I will be working with students in a tutoring situation, helping them with myriad questions regarding registration, graduation, post-secondary options, and assisting general education teachers in accommodations and modifications in their curriculum to ensure the success of all students. And it is from this place of gentle anticipation that I give my students a soft push to move on to their next teacher, another class, and different experiences than what we shared.

  I know that I will continue to create not only a learning atmosphere, but also whatever adjustments are needed to this program to ensure its success and that of the students and teachers that it will support. Like graduation at the end of the school year, when students march across the stage, receive their diploma, and launch into their lives with only memories, some knowledge, and a few friends, my current students will move on, and I, too, will open the next chapter of my career. On my website, I list tips to help teachers in their classrooms, as well as some classroom materials that I have created. Check it out, and leave a comment about your thoughts when you’ve had to send kids on their way.

   I wrote a post for my creativity blog ( yesterday about how I’ve noticed the other places in my life, besides my writing, where my creativity has shown up. This is directly related to this post on using the State Standards to create materials for your classroom.

   About ten years ago, education got a shot in the arm, and began a shift. It was just after Standards for each curriculum area had come under the spotlight. For some states, the Standards had been around for a while. Many teachers, myself included, were unfamiliar with them at the time. Since then, however, most of us have attended professional development and read articles and books about ‘unwrapping’ the Standards. Not only have we, as a teaching profession, been strongly encouraged to know and understand the Standards related to the subjects we teach, but some of us have developed an intimate relationship with the list of concepts and skills that students are to learn at each grade level.

   Once I understood the process in ‘unwrapping’ the Standards, I found that they weren’t so intimidating, and that it really opened up so many more options for how to teach the concepts, as well as for giving students multiple ways in which to practice and show what they know. Not only did it make the Standards mean more to me, but it gave me a road map of how to structure my teaching. It was from this understanding that I was able to create the multitude of centers, menus, assessments, games, learning logs, journals, group and paired activities that offered my students an opportunity to practice in different ways, thus deepening their comprehension.

   Here is the short version of using the Standards for creating materials to further student learning.

1) Obtain a copy of your State’s Standards for the subject you teach (or one of the subjects at the elementary level).

2) Decide on a concept that you will be teaching, and focus on the verbs in the Teaching or Learning Objectives in the Standard.

3) Words like: identify, classify, name, solve, evaluate, label, diagram, graph, include, and support are all what students must ‘do’.

4) Consider how a student can ‘identify’ parts of a cell (for example). They could label a picture, color different parts different colors, make flashcards of the vocabulary word on one side and a picture of the part on the other side, these words can be used in a Bingo game or paired activity of Concentration or Go Fish. There’s also 20 Questions, Mystery Part, and all of the Kagan structures that could be used in conjunction with the textbook or one of the ideas above.

5) With the use of index cards and colored markers, and a little bit of time, a rudimentary game can be created and students’ learning soars.

   I’ve used these ‘steps’ over the past ten years to develop materials for my classes. Some of them didn’t work as I had planned, and sometimes the materials were created to be used only once. All of this came from a need that I saw where students were not given enough time, or were not engaged in traditional learning and teaching techniques. We all know by now that students learn in different ways, and some need more practice than others. Some students, for assessments, would rather give an oral report, where others may choose to make a poster. In the workforce, creativity and originality in problem solving is rewarded. Why not start the process in school?

   I wrote in my post yesterday that ‘necessity is the mother of creativity’. In my classroom, that is evident. Instead of having students struggle and not master the Standards over which they will be tested (and many of them will have their diploma riding on the fact that they can pass the tests), why not spend a little time and create something that will bring a little joy into your classroom and a lot of learning to your students? To get an idea of what I’ve created, check out the materials available on my website I invite you to leave a comment about a game or activity that you’ve created from the Standards in order to help your students make connections.

   Chances are, we’ve all had homework assigned to us at some point during our K-12 years, and if we attended college, then doing more work out of class than in class was a given. Those that didn’t develop the study skills necessary to succeed in a traditional educational environment (what we generally have in the U.S.), then chances are they will not be successful in higher education. However, I know for a fact that just because one ‘skates by’ in high school doesn’t mean that will be how college classes will be passed. And even if both high school and college are met with half-hearted attempts at learning, it is no direct link to a failure in the ‘real world’. There are those anomalies that drop out of high school or flunk out of college, or barely earn a diploma or degree, and yet they become incredible business people or have other value to offer to enrich others’ lives. I do point this out to my students when they argue about completing homework, and on occasion I have debated with myself on how I learned and how this new generation ‘learns’, and whether or not homework is obsolete.

   I teach on a block schedule (85 minutes a day, every day) and due to the type of the classes I teach, I have the students all year long instead of just one semester. My classes include direct instruction, but there is also a ton of other opportunities to learn and practice the material as well as allowing the students to show what they know in different ways. Despite all this, my students benefit greatly for nightly homework. I make it as easy for them as possible. They don’t have to lug their books home and back to school (or leave them in their friend’s car) because I pass out a worksheet. So, if you’re rolling your eyes at either 1) the trees I’m killing in making copies, or 2) the dreaded ‘worksheet queen’, that’s alright, as you have the right to your opinion.

   A single worksheet eliminates the misplacement of a textbook and days on end when it is forgotten at home or various other locations. A handout doesn’t weigh as much as a book, and I make sure we complete a few problems in class and that they have copied down any extra instructions before it is tucked away in their binders and backpacks. This doesn’t mean that it always comes back the next day or that it is always completed. There is extra incentive to bring it back completed because I award participation points daily for having the homework and also for offering answers and working problems out on the board. By the end of the quarter, the points end up to around 400 to 450, and it is quite indicative of what the student knows. Those that are consistent in returning with the homework are the ones who do better on assessments, have something with which to participate in class discussions, and with more points, their grade is either bumped up to the next letter (occasionally it brings them down if they continually choose to forego completing the homework assignments), or stays the same with a solid letter grade.

   I have been told ‘horror’ stories of students spending six hours every night completing homework. Some parents believe that all school work should be completed at school. Since I assign it regularly, I ensure that it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. I know that students have other classes that also assign homework, and I do believe that ‘down time’ and ‘family and friend’ time is important if kids are to grow up well-adjusted. Occasionally, I’ll ask my students to record information at home (how many minutes of commercials there are during a 30 or 60-minute television show) or to bring something in from home or off the Internet or out of another textbook (like a graph). In any case, I’m very careful as to what I assign (that the students can complete it by themselves) and that the time needed is minimal.

   I’ve heard of some teachers assigning homework as punishment. Okay, I won’t step up on my soapbox, but how are students to care enough about assignments to do them diligently and consistently if it has a negative connotation and is assigned as a ‘bad’ consequence? Almost all of my homework (with the exception of the examples listed above) is assigned in order to give the student the opportunity for more practice on a skill or concept. Why? Despite what parents and others who are not in the classroom teaching think, there simply isn’t the time.

   Even if one were to set aside all the interruptions (assemblies, fire drills, bus evacuations, presentations, author visits, heath screenings, pictures, testing, etc.) the amount of information that each State has decided that every student needs to know at each grade level, the Standards, is enormous. The question was raised years ago as to why the U.S. consistently places last in math and science testing when compared to Japan and Germany. The explanation: other countries teach deeper, the U.S. teaches wider. In essence, students in the U.S. are exposed to concepts and skills one day, and a couple of days later, there is yet another piece to learn. Anyone who has been in school can say that they, or someone they know, passed a class and never did an assignment. Or, the student admits that they’re not sure what they are learning, but they try to memorize (or find a way to cheat) for the next test. The next semester, the next year, it is on to another class and more information that they are exposed to, but don’t have the opportunities to learn in-depth. The solution? Homework.

   To give or not to give homework is a question that each teacher (sometimes influenced by the building they work at) must answer for themselves. I choose to assign homework, most often to give the students an opportunity to practice what was presented in class. The side benefits are responsiblity and pride in completing the assignment. When a student begins to connect the dots in how one concept is related to another, then ‘learning’ has taken place, and the hope is that the extrinsic motivation of grades moves to intrinsic for the love of learning, or at least, the recognition that there is now some piece of information in their brains that wasn’t there the day before.

   What are your reasons for assigning homework? What kinds of homework do you give? Do you choose not to assign homework? Why? Another option I offer my students is to practice the skills and concepts in different ways. I’ve created some math kits, complete with writing assignments, assessments, and a variety of individual, group, and whole class activities. You can view them on my website at Leave a comment and share your opinion about homework.

Beginnings and Endings

November 18, 2010

   Whether you teach on a 45-minute bell schedule or, like me, an 85-minute block schedule, there never seems to be enough time to squeeze in all that we think we need to put in front of our students. That’s why I believe it is important to teach from ‘bell to bell’, and a way to do this is through beginnings and endings.

   Bell Ringers, warm-ups, or daily problems, whatever you call it, the goal is the same: get the students on task as soon as possible to maximize class time and eliminate behavior issues. This could be one to five problems on the board in math that students need to solve on a warm-up sheet, a few vocabulary words that need to be matched to their definitions or have sentences written including them, an open-ended question from the previous night’s homework, or something totally new that leads into that day’s lesson.

   In yoga, we usually start in an easy seat, relax the body, connect with the breath, and close the eyes in an effort to quiet the mind, let go of worrisome thoughts (at least for the duration of the class), and be in a space that is more conducive to what yoga offers us. Having a beginning activity or learning experience that the students know they are expected to work on within the first few minutes of class, does the same thing. It sets the tone for the class period, it gets the socializing out of the way, and helps to redirect scattered attention from recess, lunch, PE, or Biology class. At the end of a yoga session, students rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose), which gives the body an opportunity to relax after other asana poses, for the student to receive the benefits of breaking through energetic blocks, and sends them out of class with a quiet, settled feeling that they ‘got what they came for’. Endings in the classroom offer much the same thing.

   At the end of the hour, there are also options to ‘wrap up’ class instead of students leaving with no chance to summarize what they’ve learned, or at the very least, what you’ve presented. I’ve used a  ‘ticket out the door’, where students write one question that confuses them on a sticky note or index card and hand it to me as they walk out the door to their next class (I’ve also done this with teachers during a training, and the feedback is invaluable). In years past, I’ve had a poster in the front of my room that starts off: Today in Math Class, and then lists several ways that they could continue that thought. “I learned”, “I was confused on”, “I helped someone with”, “I answered a question about”, “I need help on”, and other such sentence starters give the students an opportunity to summarize what they got out of class that day, or that hour. It is then your responsibility as the teacher to read those each afternoon and perhaps adjust your teaching the next day to answer questions or clarify meanings. I’ve done this as a whole class if many students were confused on the same concept, or individually if a student was absent or just didn’t understand the lesson. I’ve also skipped the written part and called on a handful of students to ask them to name one thing we did in class that day. I don’t allow them to say, “I don’t know”, but if they get stuck, I lead them with, “On the homework we reviewed . . . ” and then they have something to contribute.

   By ‘bookending’ your class with beginnings and endings, you’re also helping your students with routines and showing them that they did indeed do something in class that day. It gives you a chance to meet with students individually if needed during the ‘beginnings’, and it also offers you feedback on how the lesson was received by requiring students to complete some sort of ‘ending’. I have more tips about teaching on my web site Leave a comment if there is a ‘beginning’ or ‘ending’ that you’ve had success with.

Behavior Plans

November 11, 2010

   In elementary school, behavior plans will look, very often, different from those in high school. Behavior modification works for some, but not all, students. Earning a sticker or a piece of candy or extra time at recess is one thing, but when a student needs to earn credit for a class towards graduation, it raises the stakes a bit.

   I have a particular student in my class that has many behaviors that hinder him from being successful in school. He has the ability to learn, is even somewhat charismatic because of his command of the English language. He is on meds for ADHD and ODD, and then on more to help him sleep. It isn’t unusual for him to swing from being pleasant and appropriate by working on class work and raising his hand and then waiting patiently while I come to him to answer his question, to, often without visible provocation, being disruptive and wanting to engage in discourse so that he can attempt to control and gain as much attention, especially of adults, as possible. Of course the rest of my students think this is great entertainment and a few of them even feed him encouragement, and while I direct my attention to their behavior in order to correct them, pandemonium has claimed my classroom. This is not to say that I don’t have classroom management skills, I do. But this comes down to extinguishing inappropriate behavior and rewarding replacement behavior.

   Offering a star every time a child raises his hand instead of calling out an answer or random comment, and then allowing the child to earn a reward once a certain number of stars have been accumulated, is kind of how life works. When we do what is ‘right’, then we earn consequences that we like, and if not, we get things like time out or our iPOD taken away. The same is true in adult life. When we exhibit a good work ethic, help others, and are progressive and innovative, our reward is a paycheck and a promotion. Enough paychecks, and we can get what we really want, like a car or a house. The idea is that by instilling this correct-behavior-equals-reward idea is that the motivation moves from an extrinsic stimuli (candy, stars, recess time) to intrinsic (feeling good when helping someone, realizing a sense of pride for a ‘job well done’ on an assignment/project).

   In order to help this particular student, as well as the rest of the students in my class who lose learning time when this child commands their attention, a behavior plan was made. We, as a team made up of his teachers, the administration, the parent, the student, and the school psychologist, devised a plan to help the student be more successful. Exact expectations were laid out for this student. Behaviors that were acceptable and those that were not, were discussed. The main behaviors exhibited by the student, the target behaviors, needed to be eliminated, but something has to take its place. Compare it to quitting smoking, and using the gum or the patch as a way to wean oneself off of cigarettes. Eventually, better health and ‘feeling good’ from not smoking will become the intrinsic motivator to not light up.

   This student will complete a certain number of math problems, and then raise his hand to have his work checked. Knowing he is doing the work correctly, and getting an ‘ok’ on his paper from the teacher will be an immediate reward for appropriate behavior. If he needs to wait a minute until the teacher is through helping another student, then he is to draw instead of turning around and chatting with other students. It gives him something to do, and he isn’t disturbing anyone else. However, the teacher must quickly get to him, because until the stimulus of doodling overpowers his wanting to draw attention to himself by pulling others off task, he needs to be asked to wait for very short amounts of time. Lengthening the amount of time he needs to wait is another part of the plan (to be instigated later). Praise from the teacher for appropriate behavior while waiting gives the student what he craves, attention, but in a positive way instead of engaging in arguments with teachers and disrupting the class.

  While most students will do what the teacher asks simply because the teacher asked them to do it, this particular student won’t. He gets more of a reward from manipulating the teacher and stalling the moving forward of class work and instruction than he does by complying. For this student, he needs complete directions, as well as a reason for why he is to follow the instructions, how long it will be before he receives ‘a break’ or a chance to do what he likes (draw, talk, argue), and what he can expect if he follows the rules. Especially with students like this, once a time is set (or a page number or set of questions), the teacher needs to adhere directly to the arrangement. This student will be looking for any reason to not trust, to prove that he is ‘right’ and the teacher is ‘wrong’, and that everyone in class needs to agree with him. He also has a hypersensitive definition of ‘fair’, so explaining the consequences for why he did not earn the reward, or why the consequences for his inappropriate behavior are what they are, needs to be carefully explained and thought out ahead of time.

   In order for any behavior plan to work, there must be buy-in from everyone involved. Allowing the student the opportunity to give input in something that will greatly affect him is a must. If the plan is followed, and everyone is consistent, then the more appropriate replacement behavior will become the norm instead of that which continues to inhibit the success of the student. The more subtle move is from extrinsic motivation, to intrinsic. Though it is a very large leap, with many mini-steps in between, to go from getting $20 from a parent for earning all A’s and B’s on a report card, to wanting to study for a test because the student enjoys the class, learning, and how he ‘feels’ when he realizes his knowledge his increased and can therefore interact with a wider range of people in what we all hope is a more appropriate manner, and thus the student ‘gets’ what he wants: attention, validation, kind words, recognition.

   There were several students that I worked with while completing my Master’s thesis on Problem Solving. I’m in the process of rewriting it to fit a wider range of behaviors. Until I have it available on my web site, you can visit and see other materials I’ve created for classroom use: Leave a comment if you’ve had success, or not, with student behavior plans.