Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Challenging Students Mentally

As a sub in different classrooms, I get the impression many students aren’t challenged hard enough or often enough.  The only reason I get that impression is because students are often so lazy!  And they have such an aversion to doing work or thinking, for goodness’ sake!  It seems like a foreign concept to some.

Of course, some kids are going to be lax about their learning no matter what, but I think a lot of cases are just that they are not in the habit of pushing themselves mentally.  They’re allowed to coast on minimal effort.  They could rise to the occasion if it were expected of them but often, unfortunately, it’s not.

It brings me to a larger point that reminds me of the Cold Call video.  I read around the net for opinions on the Cold Call, and a lot of people critique it because… well, it seems harsh to ask students to think on their feet.  Yet that’s the very reason I like it.

Typically, it’s the gifted classes I visit that seem to emphasize critical thinking and actually putting effort into schoolwork.  Challenging work and “higher-level thinking” are embraced there, and I think it’s simply because teachers in gifted classrooms explicitly make learning challenging on a regular basis, and they assure students that they’re smart enough to meet those challenges.  It’s how GT teachers are expected to teach their students.

So, what’s different about those gifted kids and non-GT kids?  A lot, probably… but not as much as some might think.  The capability might be higher for certain kids, but just the practice of pushing students mentally is something that should be in ALL classrooms.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence GT kids think they’re smart (almost to a fault, at times… on more than one occasion, I’ve subbed for GT classes and had a student absently ask a question aloud and was actually surprised I could answer it or offer help for their work... I assume they’re dubious about the intellectual capacity of people outside their classrooms), or ready to embrace vigorous work.  I think it’s a habit they’ve formed after being told they’re smart everyday by parents and teachers, and by being encouraged to do that kind of work because it’s expected of “smart” kids.  Over the years, it becomes second nature.

I pay attention in conversations with teachers, and I’ve heard so many GT teachers speak with elation over their students’ abilities.  It just seems to me that it has an affect on how they teach, and how their students work.

It’s definitely something I’d like to keep in mind when it comes to my own classroom, regardless of whether it’s GT or not.  I’m always looking for ways to encourage critical thinking.

I’ve been a personal witness to students’ grumbling when their asked to do something that requires a bit of thought, then struggling with their understanding, and then finally GETTING IT!  Honestly, it’s a thrill for me to get them to that point.  They began by doubting themselves but, with a little push, they were able to show they COULD do it and CAN use their brains.  I’m often surprised by the level of talent, creativity and downright intellect a kid can show, even if they’re not labeled “gifted.” Far be it from me to ever hold those minds back because I have low expectations.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How Often Do You Go Out to Recess?

A recent article in Instructor magazine asked this question.  They point out the trend of decreasing recess time in public schools:

Yet recess has been scaled back or cut altogether in a number of schools around the country. The trend can be traced back to the late eighties and was accelerated under No Child Left Behind. Districts under pressure to show academic progress began to squeeze as much instruction into the day as possible. Others eliminated recess because of concerns about safety, lack of supervision, and subpar playground equipment.

It’s something I’ve noticed since I began subbing.  When I was in elementary school, we went out to recess everyday, unless there were weather issues.  And we played during a 30-minute block.  Now that I think about it (I’d completely forgotten), but we also had morning recess before the bell rang.

In the district that I where I get the most work, recess has to get in where it fits in.  Usually, no one goes out each day, and certainly not for a half hour or in the mornings.  Even young elementary kids can only expect a few days of recess per week, for about 15-20 minutes.  Older kids may be relegated to only one day a week (glorious Fridays).  I’ve seen schools take away recess altogether to give classes more time to prepare for standardized tests.

I wonder how this affects students.  Do the ten or fifteen extra minutes in the classroom really benefit students, or would running outside and getting some fresh air be better?    I see the benefit of letting a restless class run around outside for a while and getting some exercise.  But I can also see how the 20-30 minute daily recess time really adds up as unusable instructional time.  Has less recess over the last ten or twenty years improved scores?  Where do you stand on this issue?

If you’re interested, the Instructor article mentions a lot of efforts to campaign for more recess, and to prevent recess from being removed altogether.  It’s an interesting debate.


image:  microsoft

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Word on Student Accountability:

I received an interesting phone call Friday afternoon that I thought I’d share.  I didn’t meet the teacher I’d subbed for on Thursday, but her phone call impressed me because it shows the effort she puts into professionalism.

After subbing for a few years, this is the very first phone call from a teacher that was not primarily to inquire about a job (although she did that, too).  This teacher called me because of the note I left her about her students.

Long story short, the behavior in the classroom was about average.  There were no huge issues, but they also didn’t receive a glowing review.

The one issue that did interest this teacher was a mention I gave about two boys who decided it would be fun to play in the restroom.  When I let their table go on a restroom break, those two boys took a long time coming back, and they happened to be escorted by another teacher.  Apparently, they had been making a game of throwing tons of wet paper towel wads into the trashcan, and teasing younger students who entered the restroom.

I was upset.  Not only had they done something wrong, but also another staff member had to get involved.  Because this happened after recess was over, the only leverage I had was to tell them that their teacher would be hearing about this in my note. 

It’s not much, but it’s one of the few things subs have as a resource.  And it hinges entirely upon the regular teacher’s commitment to holding students accountable for their behavior with a sub.  A lot of times, I don’t think my notes make much of a difference.  If I point out a student was disrespectful, or did something wrong, or didn’t do their work, I have no way of knowing if that student will actually be reprimanded and corrected by the teacher.  A lot of times, I know it’s an effort in futility to mention student behavior because the kids know the teachers don’t care.  But I do it anyway.

And this teacher did care.  She called me and informed me that she was so chagrined about those boys’ behavior that they are no longer allowed to go to the restroom at the same time, and they would be missing recess on Monday, and she was so happy that I took the time to leave her a detailed note and actually try to correct students.  And would I be available in two weeks to sub for her class again, by any chance?

I was a bit surprised, but impressed.  The incident warranted exactly what she did, in my opinion, but I really appreciated that she wanted me to know that she was holding her boys accountable.  Perhaps my giving a detailed note about behavior is what made her want to request me again.  I’ve heard some subs say that they always say they had a good day, no matter what, to make it appear that they can manage a class well.  I choose to be honest in notes, and leave teachers a real report about good and bad behavior.  I hope all teachers, like this one, make it clear students that the sub report does hold some weight.


image: microsoft

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Contest: Shed Light on Energy

Scholastic's "Shedding Light on Energy" contest offers students in grades 5-8 a chance to create a newspaper front page or newscast about energy in their daily life.  The link contains all of the contest details, including the entry form.

This would be a great assignment to wrap up a unit on energy or news media.  Projects can be submitted individually or in groups.

Students have until April 4 to create their news story, and one grand prize winner will receive $1,000!

Good luck!


image: microsoft

Monday, March 21, 2011

Encourage Students to Listen to Life (contest)

The Legacy Project's 11th Annual Essay Contest is underway, and students have until March 31 to submit a winning essay and be rewarded fabulous prizes.  From the site:

The Legacy Project's 11th annual Listen to a Life Essay Contest runs in partnership with Generations United in Washington, DC. The contest is an opportunity to develop important skills in areas that include interviewing, listening, writing, and technology. Young people have an opportunity for their work to be read and recognized by a wider audience. And the BIGGEST benefit of this contest has always been the important intergenerational connections it encourages, builds, and strengthens. It helps forge closer connections between young and old as they get to know each other in new, often unexpected ways.

To enter, a young person 8-18 years old interviews an older person over 50 years (cannot be a parent; they can be a grandparent, older friend, mentor, neighbor, nursing home resident, etc.) about their hopes and goals through their life, how they achieved goals and overcame obstacles, or how dreams may have changed along the way. What life advice can the older person share? The young person then writes a 300-word essay (maximum) based on the interview.

Prizes include a new computer and software, an IPod Nano and $25,000 in software for the winner's school!  

Essays can be submitted using the online entry form.  Visit the contest rules page for more details.

Good luck!


Friday, March 18, 2011

Challenge Teens to Create a PSA for an Issue

In my previous post about why I like contests, I mentioned that contests come in all forms and can, therefore, present unique challenges that delve into student interests.  This Teen Health and Wellness video challenge from Rosen Publishing is a good example of that.

It's a quarterly competition that asks teens to choose social issue they're passionate about, create a 2-minute video about the issue, an upload it to youtube.  This would be a great assignment for a health or media class.  

Winners will have their videos posted on the Teen Health and Wellness site, a letter of recommendation, a gift card for Barnes & Noble, and a chance to win an IPod Shuffle!

Submissions are ongoing, and students can submit as many videos as they like!  The website even has a good example made by a teen.

Here is a flyer for the competition posted on the website:

Good luck!


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why I Like Contests

When I finally get my own classroom, one of the things I plan on including is a board or list of ongoing contests for students to enter.  Since starting this blog, I've come across dozens of contests from different companies and organizations, and I like to keep everyone informed about them just in case they know some kids who would like to enter.  In my own classroom, entering contests would be something I'd actively encourage my students to do.

There are all kinds of contests:  art, science, reading, inventing, writing.  Tons are available for kids of all ages, from preschool through high school.  Some requirements are simple, like draw a picture or write an opinion.  Others are more complex and would take weeks, or even months to complete.

There are a few reasons I love contests for kids:

  • They allow kids to identify and explore their own talents.  If a student likes artwork, tell them about an art contest.  If they have an interest in design and building things, there are several contests that could give them an opportunity to use their ingenuity.  If a student likes writing stories or poetry, there is an abundance of contests that would get them writing and publishing their work.  I wouldn't make contests a requirement, but I think it's a good idea for kids to start honing their craft, learning their areas of interests, and challenging themselves within the parameters of a unique assignment.  Contests make all that possible.
  • Entering and winning contests motivate kids.  I didn't really have teachers who pushed me to do contests, but I did enter a few here and there.  When I won, it was an incredible and unexpected feeling!  Students who exhibit a talent would love the thrill of winning something small like a free book or publication in a magazine, or something big like a huge grand prize reward, hundreds of dollars and cool prizes.  Kids love being praised for their work even on a small scale (within a classroom), so imagine the manifold reward of being recognized on a much bigger scale.
  • Contests help kids practice time management.  Contests always have deadlines.  Deadlines and other requirements have to be met in order for a student to win.  Just like their regular schoolwork, students would have to pace themselves and keep an eye on their progress to getting the task done.    Keeping up with contests and their schoolwork would help them balance their time.  It's a lesson many kids don't begin to learn unless they have many extracurricular activities, or they start applying for colleges and scholarships when they're in high school.
  • It gives them something to do.  Perhaps it's just me, but whenever a class I'm subbing is done with something, there will inevitably be a few kids who request time to draw.  I usually shoot this idea down because I'm sure most teachers don't allow it, but I'm now struck by student interest in drawing.  Most teachers would see "free drawing" as a waste of instructional time, or a reward, but what if student interest in drawing was directed at something productive, like a contest?  Art contests ask kids to think critically, imagine and design.  Educators know the benefits of visual arts in learning, and contests would give students a productive outlet for their creativity.  Same thing with writing or whatever else a contest may require.  If students are done with their work and need something to do, point them to a "contest list" with interesting things for them to choose from and work on.  I believe that is still "using class time wisely."

Speaking of contests, Scholastic Girls Reading Club is holding a contest for writing short stories about two of their popular series.  The contest rules offer all the details.  Prizes for the two contests include money for a shopping spree, art supplies and more.  The deadline is March 22.  Good luck!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Top 5 Worst Sub Stories

What are some of the stories you've heard about bad subs?

The isolating nature of substituting can make it hard to get to know other subs, so it's always interesting for me to hear about other subs' experiences.  The bad ones are really fascinating because it usually sounds to me like they had every intention of earning a poor reputation.  Like, they woke up that morning with a very clear purpose to end up on this list.  From teachers around different schools, I've heard the following stories about subs who have:

5.  Completely ignored lesson plans.  This one always baffles me because I'm one of those people who likes every moment planned out, and the classroom buzzing with productive activity.  "Down time," to me, is torture.  When a lesson falls short on time, or when I don't have a lesson plan, I make one up.  So, I don't understand why someone would willingly disregard plans a teacher has left.  What do they do all day?  What excuse can you have?  It's one thing to not get to an activity, or to be confused and not do something 100% correctly, but there's never any justification to just dismiss plans altogether.

4.  Talked on the phone, watched a movie, or otherwise engaged in another activity besides monitoring the class.  I have heard about a woman who had her laptop in class and sat watching DVDs on it while the class was testing.  I've also seen, with my own eyes, a guy on the phone when his kindergarten class was running around making a mess in the room.  The only thing I can understand doing is reading a book or something while the class is silently reading, which one teacher actually encourages me in her plans to do  (I guess it has something to do with modeling), but I still feel odd about doing it.

3.  Left campus for lunch and never returned.  I worked in the office once and this happened with another sub.  They didn't know if something had happened to them on the road or what.  Turns out the lady just made a break for it.

2.  Hit a student.  This was related to me by a special education teacher, who told me about the previous year when a sub repeatedly hit a student who was throwing a fit.  Not cool.

1.  Played tag in the classroom.  This is my new favorite bad sub story.  Heard it just today by a teacher who begged me to sub for her next week, saying she liked having me in her room and her previous sub the other day had allowed her class (who was well-behaved with me, by the way) to play tag inside the classroom.  One student hurt himself when he ran into and flipped over a desk.  The room looked like a tornado had blown through it.  The sub also allowed them to go to recess for about two hours just because (see #5).  The teacher was of course horrified, and of course I agreed to sub for her.  I like tag as much as the next person, but inside the classroom?  Come on, people!


Thursday, March 10, 2011

One of The Sweetest Things About Teaching...

I don't think of myself as being particularly sentimental, but it really melts my heart when kids make stuff for me at work.  Student artwork is really the sweetest thing.  You know kids never really have money, and so their little offerings of cut up paper, crayon and marker are their most sincere, humble tokens of appreciation.

Over the last couple of years, I've collected paper flowers, colored hearts, various animals doodled on notebook paper, and lots of "I Love You, Ms. C!" notes.  Designs, pictures and notes that are cutely decorated and usually pretty simple (and, to my amusement, often misspelled).   Little girls make things like this all the time.  Most elementary classrooms I visit have tons of this stuff near the teacher's area, which shows I'm not the only one who values student gifts.  Nice to know you can touch a student just by getting to know them for one day.  Since I've started, I've probably collected dozens of things here and there.

And I've saved every last one.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Random Substitute-ism:

Ever lose your lesson plans?  What I mean is, do you ever physically have them in your hands one moment, and then suddenly realize you have no idea where they are?

This probably doesn't happen very often to regular teachers, but I bet it does to subs.  It happens to me quite often, which shows how easily I misplace things.

Most subs probably like to keep the lesson plans handy.   Subs, you understand, have mere moments to familiarize themselves with the day's schedule and lessons.  We refer to it every few minutes to get details on the lesson, to anticipate what happens next, and to generally feel safer knowing we have easy access to it.  Kauai Mark was right when he called the physical copy of plans a "security blanket" for subs.

I move around the room a lot.  I walk around, check on students, stop in certain areas.  Sometimes, the lesson plan is in my hand.  And then, suddenly, I realize it's not there anymore.  And I have to find ways to backtrack and look for it without calling attention to the fact that I have no idea where it is.  I guess I could simply ask, "Hey, has anyone seen the lesson plan?" but that doesn't seem very professional, does it?  I don't want to alarm the students or get them off-task.

Plus, you only really need to know where it is so you can know what's happening next.  For instance, the students may be working on math and you know you need to start the science lesson soon, but you forgot how long exactly they have to finish the math.  Should they be wrapping up now, or in ten minutes?   And what time is lunch again?  Where is that plan?

Usually, what happens is I stop by a student's desk and leave it near them, or I stopped to help someone fix the pencil sharpener and left the plan on a counter or desk, or a million other things.  I've left plans on top of overheads, on bookshelves and in chairs.  I can usually spot it quickly when I walk once or twice around the room nonchalantly.

Today, I almost completely lost the darn thing, though.  I was talking to students and I accidentally placed the plan in the pile of math worksheets I'd just stacked up neatly and was paper-clipping together.  The plan was tucked away halfway inside the stack without me noticing, and I went for about ten minutes without it, which must be a record for me.  It was sheer providence that I happened to notice it in the stack of worksheets!  The funny thing is that the students are never aware of any of this.  At least, I don't think so...


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Celebrating Dr. Seuss' Birthday

Tomorrow is Dr. Seuss' birthday.  You can celebrate with your class with a Dr. Seuss read-aloud, and making the cute coloring bookmarks I found on Raymond Geddes' site.

Happy reading!