Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Horrors in the Classroom

Let’s face it; nothing is worse than having Halloween fall on a school teacher. I guess the trick is on all of us teachers! I have learned over the years not to fight the sugar rush too hard. Just like in martial arts, sometimes it is easier to fight by falling towards something than pulling away. With that said, I will suggest some ways to help keep sanity in your classroom.

English – Give students a topic about Halloween to write about like My Favorite Costume, The Scariest Costume, The Best Halloween Party, The Best Halloween Candy

Math – Use candy corn in a jar and have students brainstorm ways to find out how many are in the jar. The student with the closest number gets the candy at the end of the day.

Math – Have students use the newspaper ads to buy Halloween candy. Give them an imaginary amount to spend and see what they buy.

History – Have students research Halloween topics (Origin of Halloween, Witches, Ghosts, and Bats etc.) and write a report or draw a poster about their topic.

Art – Have students blow up orange balloons and make jack o’lantern faces on them. Display these around the room.

Science – Research and see how many calories and how much sugar are in different kinds of candies.

Hope some of these suggestions help! Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Look Beyond the Labels

Too many times I’ve seen a student labeled with a disability and the teacher teaches to the disability rather than to the student. Over the years I’ve taught low level students, students with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, mental disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, and traumatic brain injuries. I know the federal government has to have labels in order for funding for the schools but as a teacher, I refused to let the label be more important than the student’s needs.

For example, I taught a girl with a learning disability for 3 years. She was reading on a 3rd grade level and math on a 4th grade level by 11th grade. I was making a lot of progress with her and she had a future in pursuing the career she wanted by attending the vocational school. Federal law required that we reevaluate her every 3 years and the district decided that she needed to be retested. Poof! She suddenly became mentally disabled instead of learning disabled. This meant she was taken from my class and put in a class where the teacher did a lot more coloring and babysitting (I felt this teacher was getting burned out). The student’s self esteem plummeted and learning slowed tremendously. Next thing I know she is pregnant and then drops out of school. I really feel if I was able to continue to teach her that would never have happened. For years I felt guilty that I didn’t find some way to fight the system and I vowed from then on not to let labels dictate my teaching.

As teachers, we need to look beyond the labels and really look at what the student needs. If the student is a behavior problem, look at when and why the behavior occurs. Some teachers tend to get caught up in the day to day procedures and don’t take the time needed to analyze behaviors. If the students are not making passing grades, I looked at why. It might be because the student wasn’t studying (so a phone call home was necessary) or not turning in work (maybe a daily agenda is necessary) or the student really didn’t understand the concept (so reteaching is vital). I learned this “modify and adjust” during college but I wasn’t sure I was really doing it in my classroom. Once I made a conscious effort to do this, I noticed that my students were achieving more and the attitude in the classroom was more positive.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Classroom Climate

The climate of a classroom is extremely important. It is important to set the climate from the beginning. I always begin by letting the students know that I am the one in charge but I always try to do it in a matter of fact way and not like a tyrant. By explaining to them that I will treat them respectfully and expect them to treat me in the same way, I am setting up a respectful climate. I explain about how tone of voice and body language also shows respect. I also explain that we each have a certain job to do and mine is to teach. If I am dealing with behavior problems, they are keeping me from doing my job. Their job is to learn and if they are worried about how I will treat them, then I am keeping them from doing their job. I then explain their job description (which is actually my class rules). I also show them constantly that I will be consistent with following through with the expectations (giving consequences for their actions). I will also give a lot of praise and make phone calls for good behavior. Of course, the students do not believe this until I make my first phone calls! Since I had a paraprofessional in the room, we were also able to model respect to our peers.

I also explained that if there was a major conflict between students, I would ask one student to move away to a designated location in the room. This does not mean that student is in trouble but rather it gives space for both parties to calm down. I would ask each student to write down what they felt happened and describe how they were feeling. Meanwhile, I continued with the lesson. After both parties have finished, I collect the writings. I mean with each student separately and discuss their behavior and explain how we can’t change other people’s behaviors and only our own. This was very effective in dealing with major conflicts. In fact, it became quite cute because the kids would decide that the episode was not a major conflict so they didn’t need to do any writing! By handling it this way, both parties felt like they got their say and was treated with respect also. The main thing I asked for was for no profanity and no physical threats.

I also explained to the students that we would be learning things together so I might make mistakes right along with them. I might need their help because they might be better at something that I was. Once when I was trying to explain a concept to another student for the fourth time and we were both getting frustrated, another student volunteered to help out and let me move away from the situation. Thank goodness it worked and the concept made sense to the first student. If I had not had a climate of understanding and respect, this would never have happened. As a teacher, I had to get rid of any insecurities and inferiority complexes to allow learning to happen. This encourages the students to help each other in a positive way which prepares them for real life.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Student Job Description

Instead of having class rules, I use a student job description. I give them a salary for attending class (which is fake money!) and they use it to buy items and privileges. It is as close to the real world as I can get. I used to make paper money and found out that my high school kids were stealing, trading, and charging interest so I stopped the cash and went to an accounting sheet (isn’t society going “cashless” now too?). At the beginning of the week my students get an assignment sheet with their accounting sheet on the bottom. At the end of each day, they are given their pay (by me or a paraprofessional) written in red ink. At the end of the week I have them total up their pay and that carries over to the next week and is written on their new accounting sheet by an adult. Of course anything they bought or was fined for was deducted from their total. Sometimes I even gave bonuses (if I saw them being extra nice to someone or they got a 100 on a difficult assignment. The students really responded to this system and I used it for over 20 years. Each year I may have had to adjust the money amounts according to the schedule but the basics stayed the same. If you would like a FREE copy of my Student Job Description, just email me at and put “job description” in the subject area and I will send it to you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

If You Have Nothing Nice to Say, Say Nothing At All

This is one of the things that I continually tried to teach my students. They were so negative to everything and anything so we constantly said this in my classroom. They were allowed to tell me that also (in a nice tone of voice). Of course I explained I was exempt if I was scolding them about something! It only applied if we were talking about others. In the same way, I had to teach them how to accept compliments, which for a lot of people is a hard thing to do. After a month had passed I wrote each student’s name at the top of a piece of construction paper. Then we brainstormed positive adjectives and wrote them on the board. Everyone was given a paper and had to write, with a crayon or magic marker, one positive thing about that person whose name was at the top. Then after 2 minutes, the paper was passed to the next one. People even had to write something positive about themselves. After this was done, I laminated them and posted them around the classroom. At the end of the nine weeks, each student was given their paper to take home. I still have students who have their paper years later.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Raising My Voice in the Classroom

I have never been a screamer or a yeller in order to get order in my classroom. I usually get very quiet when I want the students’ attention and this works for me. Some teachers have used the light switch or a bell to do the same thing. I try to be calm when working with my students which model the behavior for them to use also. Even when I’m upset I have done this and explained my behavior also.

As I say this, I remember one incident when I took my students to the local zoo. Since I taught a special ed class, the only way we could afford to go is if we went with another class. This meant going with the Child Development class and the 3 year olds that they were involved with. Most of my students were 17 – 21 years of age so when we got to the zoo, we separated from the other huge class. When lunch time came, 4 of my boys said that they didn’t bring a lunch and wanted to go buy something from the concession stand so I let them go. I stayed at the picnic area with the rest of my students and waited for them to return, which they never did. After feeling frantic, I told the rest of the class that I was going to find them and they were to wait at the picnic table for me. I stomped through the zoo hunting for my 4 wayward boys. In my mind, I imagined them feeding children to the lions, harassing the monkeys, and getting into all sorts of trouble. Upon seeing me from a distance, they took one look at the furious look on my face, and turned away from me. I immediately bellowed for them to stop in their tracks! When I caught up with them, I was raising my voice and embarrassing all of us immensely. They followed me like little chicks (most of them were over 6 ft. tall and muscular) all the way back to the picnic table. After I finally calmed down, I realized that I was ruining it for all of us and talked to them about what happened. I should have first asked them what happened before lighting into them. Apparently they couldn’t handle the overstimulation of the small children and just wanted some quiet time so they ate their lunch at the concession stand. Since I never made it clear that they had to return after buying their food, they didn’t come back. I felt terrible! I explained that I yelled because I was worried about them and adults do that (even their parents!). About 10 minutes later, a person visiting the zoo with his child, called me to the side and told me that he had seen the boys eating lunch and they were perfect gentlemen. They didn’t smoke or use profanity or do any horse playing. Can you imagine how horrible I felt? Well, we lived through this experience and when it was time to go home, all of us were on good terms.

Unfortunately, due to no fault of the students, we were unable to go on another field trip the rest of the year. The students believed that we didn’t go anymore because of the zoo incident. Since I taught most of the kids for 4 years, this incident stayed fresh in their mind! The next few years, whenever I planned a field trip and we talked about behavior, the kids would all say emphatically, “Remember the Zoo!” and their behavior was excellent on the trip. In fact, this was passed on for many years after even though none of the kids had been there at the zoo that day.

So that day will forever stay in my memories as “The Day I Raised My Voice!”

Monday, October 22, 2007

Using Newspapers in the Classroom

Our local paper has a “Newspapers in Education” program and I was able to get a set to use in my classroom. It was delivered every day all year long and it was a wonderful tool to use in my class. Here are some ways that I used it:

• Vocabulary: learning new words from the newspaper brought relevance to these lessons
• Math: using sale papers we were able to figure out percentages, unit prices, prepare budgets, write checks, using recipes
• Social Studies: learn places around our nation and the world, current events, discuss other cultures
• Science: new scientific developments always brought about lively discussions
• Social Skills: the advice columns were always great to discuss and debate
• Writing: Many times I would use a photo and have them write the article. For my low readers, they could work with a partner, read the article together, and then draw their own picture.
• Grammar: Did you ever notice how many grammatical errors there were in a newspaper?
• Daily Living Skills: Reading the classified ads for jobs, cars, housing

I’m sure there are many other ways to use the newspaper that I’ve left out, so if you think of one, will you please post it here so everyone can see it? Thanks!

Friday, October 19, 2007

2 Most Important People in the School Building

A lot of you might think the principal is one of them but it isn’t (but you need to get hired first)! I learned this very early in my career and it has helped more than you could ever imagine. The 2 most important people in the school building are the head janitor and the principal’s secretary. Both of them can either make your life great or miserable!

I always learned the janitor’s names and promised them that if I ever had a problem, I would come to them first before going over their head. Since our school was so big, the person who cleaned my room and me always got to be friendly. Little treats for this person go a long way. Then they would take extra care of my room and I would brag about this person to the head janitor. Believe me, this person appreciated the compliments better than the complaining. He always heard when his staff didn’t do right so he was glad to hear the good stuff. By doing this, whenever something was broke or wrong in my room, they came running! Usually it was taken care of immediately. I have seen many teachers look down upon some of our janitorial staff as if they were so much better than them. I also have seen teachers reminded that this was not true when the air condition didn’t work and no one was in a hurry to fix their problem. Always take care of the head janitor and their staff!

Also stay on the principal’s secretary’s good side! This person has watched my back and helped me when things got rough. Whenever I needed supplies or money or forms, this was the person who helped me take the short route instead of the long one. I always took time to let this person know how much I valued her friendship and tried to help her any way that I could (put things in mailboxes, take a message to someone, watch the office while she ran to the restroom etc.)

I hate to state a cliché but “You get more flies with honey than you do vinegar!”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Use of Peer Pressure

Using peer pressure has been an important tool in my class for behavior management. Here are ways that I have used it.
 No one leaves this room until all the trash is picked up. One student says,” But that isn’t my trash!” I don’t care whose trash it is, it needs to be picked up and no late passes will be given. Take it up with the person whose trash it is when you leave class. After that day, every class period, all the trash is picked up before the bell rings.
 If the whole class has their homework for the day, I will put a marble in the jar. When there are 27 marbles, we will watch a movie. Students start applying pressure on the ones who didn’t do their homework.
 Give points to the class for good behavior (Define what you consider good behavior beforehand). At the end of the quarter, the class who has the most points, will get a pizza party.
 If no one goes to time out this morning, then I will add 10 minutes to recess.
 If everyone makes a 90 or higher on the test, I will give everyone a piece of candy. If one person doesn’t make it, no one gets any candy. (Kids start encouraging each other to study and even help each other.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Useful Information for In and Out of the Classroom 10/12/07

Here are some more interesting sites that I’ve found. As a teacher, I feel we have to keep up to date concerning research in our field and current issues in the education system. I hope some of these inspire you, inform you, and even have you asking questions. If you have any sites you would like for me to check out, please let me know.

K 12Online Conference 2007: This is a conference by educators for educators around the world interested in integrating emerging technologies into classroom practice. I listened and watched one of the sessions the other night and it was pretty interesting.

In the Mix: Sports Screeners: For grades 7-12. Designed to be used in a classroom or youth group setting, this activity will heighten youth awareness of physical activity and sports in film and television. This activity will encourage youth to become critical movie and TV viewers, by drawing attention to how physical activity and sports for youth is normalized (made to look acceptable) or glamorized in many films and on television.

The Virtual Vine: Early childhood, preschool through 2nd grade with themes and units, displays, literacy and math connections.

Memory Improvement Techniques: interesting techniques to try

US Geography Game: free game for students to practice geography skills

I hope everyone has a good weekend! I am going to my alma mater’s football game on Saturday (Furman vs. Citadel). Go Paladins!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why I Joined The Council for Exceptional Children

This is NOT an advertisement! I am going to talk about how joining a professional organization was an essential element of my career. I hear too many teachers say they don’t have the time or money to do this but all I can say is that you make time and have the money for things you want to do. This should be one of them. I can only talk about the professional organization that I have been a member of since the 1970s and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. It has made a huge difference in my career and the attitude I have towards the career that I have chosen and it can make a difference in your life too. This organization is not just for special educators and as we continue with NCLB, general educators will get a lot of benefit from this organization also.

Here is a list of how joining The Council for Exceptional Children has made a difference in my career:

1. Networking – I attend local, state, and national meetings where I have met lots of different people. The networking with others has led to many opportunities that would not have happened if I hadn’t made an effort to meet others in my field. It is so nice to talk to people who have experienced what I am going through and not to feel alone.
2. Publications – the publications are worth their weight in gold! I have used them for inspiration in my teaching, resources for classes that I have taken, opening discussion with other teachers, research to support grants that I have written, research to support actions used in my teacher evaluations, material to study for the National Board Exam.
3. Professional Development – attending state and national conventions are so rewarding that they are worth the time and money. I have learned new strategies, discussed current issues, debated legislative issues, and been recharged and energized when I returned to my classroom.
4. Legislative Updates – on the website, you can go to the Policy and Advocacy tab to see what the hot topics are as well as what is going on in Congress. There is also a Legislative Action Center that helps you send emails to your legislators about these hot topics. What an exciting and easy way to send letters!
5. Advocacy – I have been involved in the Child and Youth Action Network which enables me to stay abreast of current legislative issues. I have been asked to represent my state by going to Washington DC each year to visit legislators and tell them how it really is in the classroom!
6. Liability Insurance – it is a shame that this has to be something to feel good about but in this day and time, I’ve found out that some kids can just be mean and you can find yourself in situations you never expected. It was nice knowing that I had this $2 million professional liability insurance if I needed it.
7. Discounts – members get a discount on educational materials which is wonderful too! I tend to spend too much when they wave the “discount” flag in front of me!
8. Teacher Evaluations - Many teacher evaluations require a professional goal and joining a professional organization is one way to fulfill this requirement.
9. Career Growth – I started out as a student member in college, and then a professional member after graduation. For a long time I felt like I was “just” a teacher because there were a lot of Directors of Special Ed, Administrators, and University professors very active in this organization. They helped me realize the importance of my job and to help me grow in my career. I have held leadership positions in different organizations because of this growth which has been very fulfilling.

I encourage all teachers, on all levels, to join a professional organization, even if it is not this one. Of course I'm partial to this one, especially since I feel it is appropriate for all teachers. I still feel that teaching should not be stagnant and without growing professionally, we become burned out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Carnival of Education 10/10/07

Check out the the midway of the 140th Carnival of Education sponsored by Then Tempered Radical. If you don't know what a blog carnival is: Blog Carnivals typically collect together links pointing to blog articles on a particular topic. A Blog Carnival is like a magazine. I have really found a lot of fascinating information from these!

Why I Love Teaching

I had only been teaching for 4 years and the first 3 were in elementary school. This had been my first year in high school and the students were not much younger than me. When I first graduated from college, I swore there was no way I would teach anything but elementary school students but you know the saying: never say never! I found out that I truly loved teaching high school students!

Teenagers know if you are being sincere (or real, as they would say) and they didn’t cut you any slack if you didn’t know what you are doing. It makes me think of those t-shirts that say: Show No Fear because that is what it is like. Luckily, I had my behavior plan carved in my brain because I knew it would work. I knew I was a good teacher so I had confidence but I admitted to the students that I was not afraid to learn things right along with them.

I called home often and showed them that I saw positive things about them. We worked on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. By asking their opinions and giving them choices, they felt more in control and didn’t give me half the problems they gave the other teachers. But the bottom line was that I really enjoyed teaching them.

Now, move four years later to graduation. I taught some of these kids for four years and I was as proud of them as if I was their parents. Right after the ceremony, I went to the celebration area to congratulate them when one of the boys gave me a long box with a red bow on it. Inside was a dozen long stem red roses. Shocked, I looked at his mom and dad, who smiled and told me that he had bought it with his own money. He had always wanted to learn to read and was told that it would never happen. Apparently, I didn’t hear the same story and taught him to read. This was his way of showing his appreciation.

Knowing that I was able to make a difference in this boy’s life, it inspired me to continue to teach. I realize that as teachers we cannot change everyone or fix everyone, but if we can help one child, isn’t it all worth it? I don’t regret becoming a teacher and don’t think I ever will.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

W-A-R Lesson Plans

No, these are not violent lesson plans! For me, WAR stands for - Well Thought Out, Appropriate, and Relevant. If my lesson plans met all 3 criteria, the lesson usually went very well. Of course, this wasn’t a guarantee but the odds were in my favor. (Don’t you hate it when you have this awesome lesson planned and it flops? That must be how the producers feel when a sitcom bombs on TV!

First, I use my Lesson Plan Template (if you are interested in getting this FREE template, please email me at and put Lesson Plan in the subject area). This helps me think about the lesson as a whole including an overview, standards, objectives, procedures, approximate time needed, prerequisite skills needed, materials and resources, accommodations for differentiated instruction, and student assessment. I put a lot of thought into this and write down every procedure I plan to follow. Without using this plan, I might have inadvertently missed important steps. Included in the procedures are 2 or 3 enrichment activities, which is essential in case you finish the main lesson ahead of time. If students have too much empty time, usually there are behavior problems so I like to work from bell to 5 min. before the bell. Of course I vary the activities so it is not boring but they keep the students engaged. I like using this to make sure I have all materials and resources ahead of time and I also have plenty of time to think of appropriate accommodations for diverse learners.

By using the standards and the overview, it helps me plan for appropriate and relevant lessons. I always ask myself about the purpose of the lesson. If I can’t come up with a relevant purpose, I feel it is just busy work and I don’t need to waste my time or the students’ time doing this lesson. If students feel that the lesson is relevant, they will put more time and energy into the learning process. I have had student teachers who have taught some lessons that were not age appropriate for my students, which could cause a lot of resentment and uncooperative behavior. If I have ever taught a lesson like this, I always give the students an appropriate reason for this type of lesson such as, I think it is a fun way to learn this concept or I want you to be able to teach this lesson to a much younger student so I’m modeling the lesson for you. This helps the students know that you aren’t talking down to them.

Organizing the lesson beforehand was a big key to success with my class so using this lesson template was important. I was able to edit the template to tailor it to fit my needs and the class’s needs which was also important. Also, I was able to turn this in during my evaluations and the administrators loved using it to help them evaluate me. I hope this can help you too!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Survey Students for More Success

Surveying my students on topics, strategies, assessment and lessons helped lead me to better teaching. Many times I would survey my students in different ways in order to enhance my lessons. Most students are very honest when they felt I valued their opinion and in turn tried very hard to take my questions serious. The students really enjoyed doing this and felt they had something vested in the lesson which made them pay attention to the process as well as the content. As a teacher, I felt that their input was very important to the success of my lessons.

I would survey my students on what topics they would like to study and try my best to integrate their requests into my lessons. When I taught students for more than one year, I had them offer topics for me to research over the summer. I actually learned a lot right along with the students, which thrilled them also! The students and I have learned how to juggle, photo matting and framing, worm compost, and crocheting as a sample of some of the topics suggested. I incorporated these topics in subject areas of English, Math, Science, and Social Studies.

Sometimes if I felt like I was losing the class, I would stop and regroup and ask the kids why they were not with me. Sometimes it was the weather, hormones, outside situations or other things that I had no control over. Sometimes there was a great discussion about things I could control that would lead me to a better way of teaching the information. I feel the classroom is a 2 way highway and I was always learning something new right along with the kids. I guess that is why I love teaching because I love learning.

I also talked to them about different assessments to give them that would be able to show they understood the concepts and content. It was amazing how excited they were about being given the opportunity to share their ideas on assessment even though I didn’t always use all of their suggestions.

I also had them evaluate the lesson (individual or units) in order to adjust and make them better the next time I used the lesson. When they got in the practice of evaluating the lessons afterwards, they actually watched for certain aspects during the lesson. It was actually fun to hear them debate the positives and negatives of the lesson.

Whenever I did these things, the next time I taught this lesson or a lesson like it, I would always feel that my teaching techniques improved and that is important. Teaching is not stagnant and should always be moving in a positive direction.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Speak Positively to Others

“If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”. If you were in any of my classes, you will have heard me say this over and over again. I really try to practice what I preach too and when I hear my students talk negatively, I interrupt them with this saying. I think this helps them learn social skills, as well as self control. As part of our class discussions, we talk how this concept differs from the concept of being honest. As a society, I feel that people get too much in the habit of being negative towards each other. This may start out as a joke or being cute and can end up being quite hurtful to the person on the receiving end. My husband and I have tried to never cut each other down in front of others, even in a joking manner which tends to shock other people. By doing this, I feel our marriage is much stronger and loving than it would have been if we acted otherwise. This same effect has happened in my classroom and by modeling and role playing, my students have learned that there are other ways to interact with each other in a positive way. I can tell that it has carried over into the homes when a parent told me my student said this at home. I was so proud of him which tells me that this can work for everyone.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Field Trips During the School Year

During the time when money is tight and school teachers are being strangled with regulations and expectations of higher test scores, I want to bring up the subject of field trips. I have just spent the past 4 days on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park when I realized again how much children learn outside of the "book learning". I have listened to them as they discover new things this week and it made feel nostalgic to the time when I was young and went on field trips.

First of all, here are some suggestions for paying for this trip. Of course, you can always have each child bring in their share. Or you can write grants to pay for the trips or find business sponsors to pay for the trip. There is also the site that might help you. One time, state senator David Thomas befriended our class and paid for everyone to go see the state legislature in action, then a trip to the zoo including lunch. It was a trip that my kids would remember forever.

A couple of years my administration would not let me take the kids on a field trip so instead I rallied the parents to help. I decided to take a Saturday trip to Carl Sandburg's home in Flat Rock, NC. I invited the parents and kids to meet me in a grocery store parking lot and follow us up there. My whole class attended.

Another year, the families and I met on a Saturday to go to Charlotte, NC to Discovery Place. The kids enjoyed it as well as the parents. On the way home, we grilled hot dogs for lunch.

Another year I wrote a grant about learning how to cut mats and frame pictures. This grant bought supplies and paid for a trip to the local art museum.

If you really want to go on a field trip, talk to lots of people about what you want to do. Someone might have a great idea how to fund it or suggest you talk to someone in particular. When the kids see that you are willing to go through all of this for them, it will really help them see that you care for them. I also used it for a behavior management tool because we never went until the spring. Any student who had been suspended during the year could not go (this was announced the first days of school) and usually that helped them control their behavior.