Last week I mentioned how I like to use the end of each school year to try new things and test out ideas that I might want to incorporate into my practice the following year. Whether these ideas relate to curriculum, instruction, the physical classroom environment, or management, the potential benefits of this approach are significant, and there's really no down side if the ideas prove not to bear fruit.

Sometimes, experimenting with a new idea involves stepping out of our comfort zone. This was definitely the case this past Monday and Tuesday when my students constructed the 3D models of their dream houses. In the days leading up to the construction, I don't think a school project had ever been on my mind as much as this one. I felt a combination of excitement, uncertainty, enthusiasm, and stress.

I knew the kids were incredibly motivated to start turning their 2D blueprints into 3D structures, yet a bunch of questions flooded my mind. Did I purchase enough foam core boards, flooring and wallpaper sheets, T-square rulers, and glue? Would the 3 hours each day that I allotted for the construction be enough? Would enough parent volunteers be able to join us to provide the students with the help they needed, especially with using the exacto knives to cut the walls for the kids? Had I bitten off a bit too much by trying to adapt a middle school project for a 4th grade class? 

Monday and Tuesday turned out to be two of the most interesting, exciting, draining, and satisfying days of my career. The project was, without a doubt, incredibly labor-intensive, and we were fortunate to have a large parent turnout to make the event a big success. We needed to go into overtime on Tuesday and finish after lunch, but every child completed a terrific dream house and felt great about what (s)he accomplished. The pride that showed in the kids' faces made all the uncertainty and stress leading up to the construction completely worth it. The children now have a durable model that they can keep for years. Perhaps a seed was planted with some of them, and they may grow up to pursue an interest in architecture or design. Even if that doesn't happen, I take heart in the fact that every student had the opportunity to apply a wide range of geometry knowledge in an engaging, authentic project that they will remember for a long time.

You can see more photos of student projects on my "Teaching the Whole Child" Facebook page.
I am a big believer in using the last few weeks of every school year to try new things and test out ideas that I might want to incorporate into my practice the following year. These ideas can relate to curriculum, instruction, the physical classroom environment, or management. The children enjoy a fresh approach at this time of the year, and there's really no downside to doing this. If the idea proves to be successful, I will implement it the following year, and if it doesn't, I won't.

My favorite example of this idea in action pertains to room arrangement. At the beginning of my career, my students sat at tables of 6-8, but I didn't like the fact that many children had their backs to their classmates. Plus, there wasn't much space for a rug area in the front of the room near the board. So, at the end of the year, I experimented with a "horseshoe" shape. I loved it so much that I have arranged the desks in this formation ever since.

This year my new focus is a geometry unit called the Dream House Project. Last summer, after I found out that I would be moving to 4th grade after many years teaching third, I researched different units and projects, and this was, by far, the most promising, engaging, and challenging. The only potential problem was that each version of the project that I found online was designed for 6th graders. The project brings together a host of geometry standards and calls for students to design the floor plans of their dream houses and build three-dimensional models.

Over the past two weeks, my students have been creating their blueprints, calculating the area of each room, determining the cost of their flooring, measuring angles, finding the perimeter of the entire house, and making many decisions about the backyard area. This coming Monday and Tuesday, with the assistance of several parent volunteers, we will build the models. The picture you see shows the model that one of the parent volunteers and I made as a sample. It took the two of us five hours to complete, and we learned a lot along the way. Without a doubt, this project is the most ambitious endeavor I have tried with students, and I am looking forward to seeing how everything turns out. 

Launching this project hasn't been easy or stress-free, but it has been exhilarating, and I have never seen children more excited about a project. Many have even chosen to come into the room during their lunchtime to select their flooring, wallpaper, and exterior. In the coming weeks I will update you on our progress.


A few years ago, I was inspired by a TED Talk given by Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc., entitled "The Happy Secret to Better Work." Achor asserts in his talk that people in our society tend to believe that we should work hard in order to be happy, and he suggests that this way of thinking could be backwards. He argues that happiness makes us more productive, creative, and successful. In short, happiness should come first. At the end of his talk, Achor shares some ways that people can use to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and become happier. After watching the talk, I tried one of these ways with my students, and it had a wonderful effect on the children and the learning environment as a whole. I call it "The Happiness Project," and it has become a yearly tradition in my classroom.

Beginning this coming Monday, my students and I will kickoff this year's edition.
Achor makes the point that individuals who try this idea for 21 straight days can train themselves to think differently about their lives and actually re-wire their brains. The idea is to think of three things in your life for which you are grateful. So, for three weeks (fifteen consecutive school days) my students and I will do this. At the end of our daily, morning movement warm-up routine, I will give everyone about a minute of quiet "think" time. Then I will ask several volunteers to share their "gratitudes" with the class. During this daily gratitude activity the primary challenge will be to think of new things every day. By the end of our three-week endeavor, the hope is that students, over time, will realize just how many positive things they have in their lives, and as a result, the classroom environment will change, their overall perspective will expand, and we can all more easily find that positive mindset that is so critical for performing at our highest levels and producing our highest quality, most creative work.

I have seen wonderful results arise from this exercise over the past few years, and I'm very much looking forward to getting started with my fourth graders. I invite you and your students to join us in this endeavor. In the coming weeks, I will be sharing some of the "gratitudes" my students express on my Facebook page, and I invite you to do the same. I believe this type of professional collaboration to be highly valuable, and it would be great to learn from one another.

I'm writing this post about an hour before my University of Virginia Cavaliers take the court for their opening game in this year's NCAA basketball tournament. This has been a dream season for the Cavs, and their incredibly successful regular season pretty much come out of nowhere. In fact, the team only started receiving national attention about a month or two ago after flying under the radar for most of the season. I caught my first glimpse of the team a few weeks ago when we were hosting highly-rated Syracuse and pulled off an impressive upset win. As I watched the action, I was taken aback when the announcer mentioned the name of UVA's first-year guard, London Perrantes.     

London was a student in my third grade class ten years ago in Santa Monica, CA, and I was thrilled to discover that he had made it to the highest level of college basketball. I was even more excited that he was playing for my alma mater. Small world.

I was so impressed with London's poise and leadership that I wanted to contact him. After searching for him on Twitter, I actually found his father and sent him a message congratulating him on his son's terrific first year. He immediately responded by thanking me for encouraging his son to be a leader and nurturing the leadership potential I saw in him at the time.

This wonderful exchange of messages reminded me that teachers encourage children in a variety of ways all the time. We don't, however, always get to see the results of these efforts. We may, for example, have encouraged a struggling 4th grader to take school more seriously, yet have no idea that the same child became an A-student in high school. We plant seeds. That's what we do. Sometimes we see them grow into something special; other times we don't. In this case I was fortunate to see a former student blossom in a very public forum, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be a small contributing factor to that success.

My main point with this post is to encourage you to keep planting seeds with your students. Encourage them to be leaders, readers, writers, musicians, and painters. These efforts pay off. We may not always be able to observe the fruits of our labor, and that can be frustrating at times, but the effort is worth it. Be on the lookout for the positive traits and aptitudes your students show and find the time to acknowledge these assets privately. When enough people provide enough support and encouragement to children, great things can happen.
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Friday, 14 March 2014 00:54

Add Impact to Your Classroom Lessons

I recently read a fantastic book that I think has particular relevance for teachers, and I wanted to pass along this recommendation. Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick starts with the idea that every day people all over the world are trying to communicate their ideas to others and have them be remembered. These messages, for example, may be advertisements that companies send to consumers, corporate strategy that executives send to their employees, or lessons that teachers and parents present to children.

The authors make the point that some messages tend to "stick" with their audience while others don't. Subway's advertising campaign involving Jared, for example, resonated with the American public while its "7 Under 6" campaign was far less successful. To explain why some messages stick and others don't, the Heaths present six criteria of "stickiness." Specifically, they offer six qualities that messengers can use to make their messages more likely to be remembered and acted upon.

These qualities are: 1) simplicity, 2) unexpectedness, 3) concreteness, 4) credibility, 5) emotional, and 6) stories. Since reading this book, I have made an effort to incorporate these six qualities into my teaching, and the early results have been promising. In fact, the book inspired the "31st Student" idea that I recently shared with you. I'm also working on some new "sticky" classroom ideas that I hope to share with you in the near future.

In short, the book is a terrific read full of interesting examples that can serve as a catalyst for educators who are looking to add their impact to their instruction. You can find the book on amazon.
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Friday, 28 February 2014 01:00

A Wonderful Daily Opportunity

Every Friday as part of our morning routine, my students and I review the class mission statement we created during the first week of the school year. Because the document is a few paragraphs long, we read and discuss only a small part of it each week. This past Friday morning, we talked about the sentence: "We don’t pay attention only to our work, we also pay attention to everyone’s feelings."

As I was listening to the children share their ideas, examples, and interpretations with the rest of the group, something occurred to me, and I volunteered my thought at the conclusion of the activity. I told everyone that unlike people who go to work each day in their individual offices or cubicles and function independently for most or all of the day, we arrive in a classroom where we are constantly in the presence of other people.

Of course, this situation presents its share of challenges, but it also presents its share of opportunities. I emphasized that every day every one of us has a wonderful chance to make someone else's day better. Maybe we try to cheer up a friend who's having a rough start to his day. Maybe we offer assistance to a neighbor who is struggling with today's math work. Maybe we share part of our lunch with someone who left theirs at home. Regardless of the specific gesture we make, the point is that we consistently look out for one another and strive to contribute to the betterment of the group.

Discussions such as these have a powerful team-building effect and start our day on a positive note. They remind students of the potential we each have to impact the learning of others and also highlight the fact that even though succeeding academically is important, what's more important is that everyone feels comfortable in class, enjoys the learning process, and knows that others care about them.
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On Super Bowl Sunday, I shared a teaching tip inspired by the Seattle Seahawks' "12th Man" concept. In a nutshell, the fans in Seattle are so loud, have such a powerful presence in the stadium, and give the team such a formidable home-field advantage that it's almost as if the Seahawks have an extra player on the field - a 12th man.

I first saw the potential of applying the "12th Man" concept to the classroom a few weeks back while my 30 students were studying fractions. I wanted to call the children's attention to the fact that learning how to find a common denominator was an incredibly important skill to master because it would enable them to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators, find equivalent fractions, and make comparisons. In short, I wanted to make a big deal out of finding a common denominator.

Very dramatically, I announced that this skill is so important and will have such a powerful presence in our room in the coming weeks that it's almost as if (you guessed it) we have a 31st student among us. After hearing of the "12th Man" in Seattle, the kids immediately loved the idea of having a 31st student in our classroom and loved the connection between an academic concept and a real-life example from the world of sports. For the rest of our fractions study, every time we returned to the skill of finding a common denominator, the kids paid extra close attention to what I was teaching, and their proficiency with the skill was impressive.

That's what I was going for with the "31st Student" concept. I wanted a novel way to give special attention to one concept so that children would form an emotional connection with that concept and appreciate its significance. And that's what happened. I knew that finding a common denominator, though, would eventually run its course as a featured idea, and the novelty would wear off. So this past week, as the kids began to publish their California History Research Projects, I introduced our second "31st student" - professional publishing. At the time I announced our new "31st student," I also unveiled a special surprise - our new class flag modeled after the one hanging in Seattle during home games. Every day this past week, when it was time to begin our Writing Workshop period, we would wave the flag, and I would call their attention to the various aspects of professional publishing that I wanted everyone to remember throughout the week.

Once again, the novelty and sheer fun associated with the "31st Student" concept raised the level of attention that the kids paid to their publishing, and their books look absolutely beautiful. Once this project is behind us, I will search for our next "31st Student" and continue doing so for the remainder of the school year. Because this idea is so flexible, I can make our "31st Student" an academic concept, a habit of character, or any other valuable idea I want to emphasize, and I can keep the idea going for as long as we need before shifting to the next. I will also solicit ideas from the kids. Consider adding a "31st Student" flag or poster to your classroom if you're looking for a fun, simple way to highlight the importance of a single idea. 
 
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In my last post, I described how storytelling can be a wonderful classroom management strategy to use when attempting to address those inevitable situations when many children seem to be struggling with the same behavioral issue at the same time. When telling a story, the key is to feature a student who isn't involved in the incident(s) happening at the time, who experienced something similar in the past, and who overcame that difficulty using an approach that others can emulate. That way, everyone can relate to and benefit from the story's messages, yet nobody feels as if they are being singled out, put on the spot, or made to feel guilty about something they just got caught doing. This approach is non-threatening, and kids can listen to our stories with some emotional detachment.

In this post I share an example of how I have used storytelling with my own students. Recently, a few children were having difficulty taking responsibility for their actions on the playground. When situations occurred, they tended to deny their involvement or shift the blame to others. When I found out what was happening, I immediately thought of one boy in class who wasn't involved in these incidents, but who demonstrated the type of honesty and responsibility that I wanted the other children to develop. We'll call this child Tim, and with his permission I told the following story to my class as part of our morning circle time. 
 
I started the story by telling everyone that throughout the year, we will all have our ups and downs, and there will be times when we're simply not performing at our best. It could be happening in class, on the playground, or elsewhere. When we're in the middle of one of these rough patches, there are certain things we can do to move through it and come out stronger than we were before. I then said that someone in this class went through one of these difficult times a while back, and he handled everything so well that I wanted to share his story with you today. So, I asked his permission to do so, and he gave it to me. That student is Tim. Instantly, the kids are curious, and because the story features someone they know, I have their full attention.

Here's the story. At Tim's parent conference, I told him and his mother that after an outstanding third grade year, he was off to a bit of a rough start this year. His work wasn't quite as good as it was the year before, his writing tended to be very messy, and he wasn't showing the same level of self-discipline in class. After he heard me say these things to his mother, Tim had a few choices. His first option was to deny. He could have said, "No, Mom, this isn't true. My work is fine. I'm doing as well as I did last year, and I'm not really sure what my teacher is talking about." Tim didn't do that.

Second, he could have deflected. He could have said, "Yeah, Mom, it's true. I'm not doing as well as I did in third grade, but it's because my neighbors keep distracting me. Every time I try to do my work, someone keeps talking to me or preventing me from focusing. Plus, a whole bunch of other kids are struggling, too." Tim didn't do that either.

Instead, Tim made a different choice. After I described the situation, he stopped and thought for a moment. Then, he said, "You know what, it's true. I haven't been doing as well as I could have, and I'm going to make a change. I'm going to start working harder, being neater, and showing more self-discipline." The next day, Tim responded like a champion. There was an immediate improvement with his work and behavior that has lasted to this day.

I concluded my story by making a big deal about how impressed I was with Tim's honesty and responsibility and how much respect I gained for him after seeing how admirably he handled himself during the conference. The class listened intently to this entire story, and the ones who were involved in our recent incidents learned some valuable lessons from Tim's story without being singled out or put on the spot.

As teachers, we can't go back and change any of our students' negative behavior. All we can do is focus on decreasing the likelihood that such behavior will recur. Our goal is to increase our students' future capacity by imparting valuable lessons that will resonate with them. Storytelling is a terrific way to help us do that.
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No matter how well-behaved any of our classes might be, inevitably there will be times during the year when many children seem to be going through a rough stretch all at once. Having a bunch of students experience a bump in the road at the same time should not be taken as a reflection of our management skills. It simply means that our students are human. As teachers, we can't predict or control when these ups and downs will occur, but we can control how we respond to them.

Over the years, I have learned that when significant numbers of kids are having trouble focusing on their work in class or finding themselves getting into an unusually high number of arguments on the playground, the most effective response is often storytelling.

When telling a story, the key is to feature a student who isn't involved in the incident(s) happening at the time, who experienced something similar in the past, and who overcame that difficulty using an approach that others can emulate. That way, everyone can relate to and benefit from the story's messages, yet nobody feels as if they are being singled out, put on the spot, or made to feel guilty about something they just got caught doing. This approach is non-threatening, and kids can listen to our stories with some emotional detachment.

As the kids listen to me, they will naturally put themselves in the shoes of the featured student, think through the given situation, and absorb the lessons that I am embedding in the story. The storytelling approach is far more effective than lecturing, rewarding, or punishing. Next week I will present a story I once told my class in response to an issue some students were having taking responsibility for their actions.
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Friday, 31 January 2014 00:35

A Super Bowl-Themed Teaching Tip (Tip #112)

Typically, the Teaching Tips I share on this site feature information and strategies that I have used with my students for many years. Every now and then, however, I like to present new ideas that I'm currently in the process of developing and that are still a bit raw. In these cases I welcome your feedback, and perhaps we can collaborate to strengthen the original idea. This past Tuesday I had a brainstorm, and since this idea happened to connect to the world of professional football, I thought this would be the perfect week to post it.

Broncos fans, please don't be alarmed. I come in peace. Though this tip does refer to an aspect of the Seattle Seahawks franchise, I am not promoting one team over the other. (In fact, Peyton Manning is one of my favorite players of all time.) If you follow professional football, you may know that over the past couple seasons Seattle has had the best home record in the NFL, and a huge part of this home-field advantage stems from the fact that Seahawk fans are incredibly loud during the games and make it very difficult for the visiting players to communicate with one another. Because of the advantage the fans provide, the crowd has been dubbed the "12th man." In other words, the fans are so important to the team's success and have such a strong presence, it's almost as if the Seahawks are fielding 12 players versus the other team's 11. There's even a "12th man" flag that flies over the field during the games.

Back to last Tuesday. My students had just started learning how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. In order to do this, of course, they need to find a common denominator. We were about to close out the day's lesson and head to recess. We had about three minutes left in the period. As I was working through one last problem on the board, I told them that finding a common denominator is also a helpful strategy when comparing and ordering fractions. Being new to teaching fourth grade this year, it dawned on me that this single skill of finding a common denominator has multiple uses and is an indispensable asset for young math students to possess. I wanted to make a big deal about just how important this skill was. I wanted to give it extra attention. A light bulb went off in my mind, and I stopped the lesson. Immediately, my mind traveled to Seattle, and I thought about the 12th man. Quickly, I told my kids a story about the meaning of the 12th man to the Seattle Seahawks organization, and I decided that our class needed its own version.

I then declared, dramatically, that the ability to find a common denominator is so valuable and will have such a strong presence in our classroom in the coming weeks that it's almost like having another person with us. That strategy is, you guessed it, our 31st student. The kids immediately liked this idea. My goal in establishing the "31st student" was to get kids' attention and call their attention to an important idea, and that's what it did. I learned a few years ago from my friend Jeff Haebig that emotions drive attention, and attention drives learning. The concept of the "31st student" created an emotional connection with my students and caused them to pay more attention to this week's math lessons. Of course, the kids still need to practice and master the ability to find a common denominator, but the stage had been set for that learning, and enthusiasm increased because of the novelty of the "31st student" concept.

After school that day, I realized that the "31st student" idea has the potential to help us all year because every few weeks we can change it to keep it fresh and focused on our current learning. Once our study of fractions concludes, I can pick another core academic skill to be our new 31st student. I could also make kindness, honesty, or another habit of character our 31st student anytime the need arises. The concept is flexible enough to meet a variety of needs that may present themselves over the remainder of the school year. We can even have a designated place on the wall to post that week's 31st student as a visual reminder.

I will keep you updated as the "31st student" idea grows. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. In the meantime, I need to find a website where I can purchase our "31" classroom flag.
 
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