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.
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.
In this post I share an incredibly useful piece of teaching advice I learned from my friend and classroom management expert Angela Watson. (Check out her book The Cornerstone on amazon.) At the beginning of each school year, Watson tells her students that their actions and choices in the classroom influence her actions and choices as a teacher. In my experience, this announcement takes many children by surprise because they tend to think that all major class decisions are made by the teacher and that they really don't have a role in affecting those decisions. This approach to classroom management gives kids the incentive to show great judgment because the better judgment they show, the more responsibility they will have in determining the direction of the class.

For example, assume Katie and Allison wish to be desk partners. Using Watson's approach, we would let the kids give it a try. If they are able to focus on their work and use their time well, then they would be permitted to remain neighbors. In other words, we provide the opportunity, and the students have the incentive and the responsibility to make it work. Here's another example. Assume that students in my class work independently on all their class activities. One student, however, makes the suggestion that we should start working with partners during math time. Instead of saying no because we have never done this type of cooperative learning before, I would give it a shot to see how it goes, and their actions would determine the extent to which cooperative learning becomes a regular feature of classroom life.

For the past two years, during the first half hour of the first day of school, I have explicitly told my students that their actions and choices would influence mine. Pardon the pun, but this has become a "cornerstone" feature in my classroom, and the effect it has is immediate, positive, and lasting. Now, whenever my students have a suggestion about how our class should function, I (almost always) say yes and then give them the responsibility for making it work. Providing students with these opportunities is empowering and motivating.
Click here to download the PDF with all the printables for Build a Partnership with Parents.

The PDF includes the following items:

• Sample First Day Letter

• Sample Classroom Newsletter

• Newsletter Introducing Student-led Conferences

• What Should Be In My Portfolio? (2 versions)

• Student-led Conference Outline

• Post-Conference Reflections

• Family Reflections

• Student-led Conference Introduction Sheet: Habits of Mind and Habits of Character

• Student-led Conference Portfolio Options

• Student-led Conference Reflection Sheet
   As a general rule, I recommend that, as teachers, we try not to do things for children that they can do for themselves. Expecting students to do things for themselves develops independence and responsibility, and it furthers our efforts to develop self-directed learners. One example of this principle in action occurs each day when I walk with my students to the school cafeteria. When we arrive, I could easily grab our set of lunch cards and pass them out to the kids one at a time. Instead, I ask the first two students in line to get the cards and distribute them to their classmates. This may not seem like a big deal, but it encourages cooperation and promotes leadership, responsibility, and independence. When children do things like this throughout the day, these little moments add up to something substantial. Examples include cleaning the room thoroughly before they leave at the end of the day, carrying their own backpacks and other possessions to and from school, and managing their own supplies. Look for opportunities for your students to take on as much responsibility around the class as possible.
Saturday, 14 December 2013 20:44

Leading By Example (Teaching Tip #109)

    During my graduate training at UCLA, an instructor once remarked to our class that no matter what subject any of us went on to teach, we would all impact our students most powerfully with the examples that we set. He cautioned us not to lose sight of the fact that though we may teach science or English, more than anything else, we are teaching ourselves; we are teaching who and what we are. Years later, when students look back on the time spent in our rooms, they might not remember all the content. They will remember us.   
    As classroom teachers, we need to pay very careful attention to the example we set for our students. This doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect or that we should hold ourselves to some unrealistic standard. It does, however, mean that we make every effort to model for our students the qualities and behaviors that we promote. When leaders walk their talk, they accomplish a great deal more than they do with words alone. For example, in the beginning of every school year, one of my main objectives is to create an environment of trust in my classroom. What is the most effective way for me to do that? Is it to establish a rule that everybody must trust everybody else? No. It is to be trustworthy. I must make and keep promises to my students so their trust in me grows. I show them how to play the role of trusted team member by playing it myself. Talking at my students will not achieve the same results. Leaders understand the power of a strong example.          
    Constantly look for ways to model the principles and attitudes you hold dear. Let your actions do the talking. For instance, to show how much you value physical fitness, change into your tennis shoes occasionally and participate in a class PE activity. Say “Please” and “Thank you” every chance you get in order to encourage the development of proper manners. Demonstrate the high priority you place on literacy by bringing in a book during silent reading time and joining in with the group. Share stories about your golf game or some other hobby to show your students how you apply the spirit of continuous improvement to your own life. Kids remember examples.
An effective way to help students improve their ability to perform class routines is to use what educator Madeline Hunter calls “think-starters.” Imagine Randy has just handed me a paper with no name on it. If I said, “Put your name on it,” that would be a “think-stopper” because I am the one pointing out his mistake. On the other hand, if I asked him what he needed to do before handing me the paper, then I am helping Randy discover his own mistake. That would be a think-starter.

Asking him instead of telling him shifts the responsibility to Randy. Think-starters give students ownership of their behavior. By encouraging kids to reflect on their actions, think-starters help them internalize these habits and build their capacity for the future. While Randy may have forgotten to put his name on the paper this time, think-starters increase the likelihood that he will remember to do it next time.
Monday, 25 November 2013 03:56

The Home-School Connection

The Home-School Connection: A Complete Guide to Effective Parent Involvement

(This is an online course created for

Enroll NOW in The Home-School Connection

Course Description

Consistent parent involvement dramatically increases the likelihood that quality learning will occur. Parents play such a crucial role in their children’s academic, physical, social, and moral development that we, as teachers, make a huge mistake if we view them as anything other than indispensable collaborators. If we are committed to bringing the best out of our students, we need to build and maintain long-term relationships of loyalty, trust, and respect with their parents. Investing the time and effort to work closely with parents throughout the year maximizes our chances of helping students reach their incredible potential.

By the end of the course, you will be able to establish a strong home-school connection with parents. Specific topics include:

• keeping parents informed and involved in a variety of meaningful ways
• creating a favorable first impression with parents
• making the most of major events such as Back to School Night, Open House, Parent Conferences, & Student-led Conferences
• helping parents help their children at home.

Enroll NOW in The Home-School Connection

Endorsement Statements for the Course

"Great insight. Very informative."     - Vanessa Khani

"This course gives some excellent advice on the best way to make sure there is 2-way communication with the home. Really smart ideas coupled with practical suggestions. I highly recommend!"     - Marc Fienberg

Monday, 25 November 2013 03:49

Beyond Compliance

Beyond Compliance: A Progressive Approach to Classroom Management

(This is an online course created for

Enroll NOW in Beyond Compliance.

Course Description

Traditional classroom management approaches tend to focus on getting students to comply with rules through the use of extrinsic rewards and punishments. These coercive approaches produce, at best, short-term obedience and have the potential to thwart the development of many positive student behaviors and dispositions that we promote in our classrooms. This course presents an alternative classroom management approach rooted in intrinsic motivation and designed to create a learning environment in which children work hard, work together, and work with purpose.

By the end of the course, you will be able to implement a progressive approach to classroom management that fosters responsibility, nurtures intrinsic motivation, and brings out the best in students. Specific topics include:
• encouraging students to invest their hearts and minds in the class mission
• establishing a strong sense of purpose in your classroom so that students find meaning in their work, experience joy, and understand the many reasons why pursuing an education matters so much for their futures
• empowering students with lasting habits of mind and habits of character
• establishing the routines, procedures, and expectations necessary to create a classroom environment in which students consistently behave well and produce quality work
• seeking opportunities to engage and inspire students
• understanding the problems associated with the use of extrinsic motivation
• learning how to nurture the intrinsic motivation to learn and grow that all students possess.

Enroll NOW in Beyond Compliance.


Endorsement Statements for the Course

"I had the privilege of hearing Steve speak in person on this topic at a local conference and left wanting more! This class delivers! Very comprehensive and full of great methods and ideas. I encourage educators, facilitators, and administrators to take this course!"         
          - Sandra Bowers Courtois-Lawrence

"The information was delivered in an organized, applicable manor. great ideas for running a super classroom."          - Patrice Law Murphy

"I found Steve's course very informative. It gave me some insight on how to prepare for and support my son's education and I now have better insight about what to look for in my son's teachers. I also found that many of the tools discussed can be replicated (with some tweaking) in my home in order to create a family environment that will encourage positive behavior...for all of us!"          - Sandy King

"This course went well beyond my expectations! Fantastic insights into creative ways to motivate my students intrinsically. I never realized how simplistic and inadequate simply offering rewards was. There is really a lot of brilliant, insightful information in this course that I'm already using."          - Marc Fienberg

"Steve Reifman has captured the essence of accomplished teaching and how these important elements contribute to student learning. His sense of classroom structure, mutual respect and knowing your students enhance the learning environment. Steve's course, his books and his presentations are very practical and easily implemented for both novice and experienced educators. I highly recommend his course for educators at all teaching levels."          - Clara Carroll

"Steve Reifman has done the deep dive on what it takes to improve learning for young people. I particularly like the emphasis on techniques that apply not only to the four walls of the classroom but to the big classroom we call "Life". Kudos for the great work!"          - Chris Kahn

Recently I learned of a tremendously helpful tip that builds cooperation among students, increases class efficiency, and holds students accountable for heading their papers correctly. I am excited to share this idea with you in this Teaching Tip. The idea may seem a bit complicated at first, but once you implement it, you will never know how you got along without it.


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Let's imagine your students are about to start a math activity on lined paper. You want everyone to head their papers by putting their name and the date in the top right-hand corner and the title of the activity in the center of the top line. Any time we ask students to perform a task such as this, it's important to hold them accountable for doing it correctly, but it takes time to get around to everyone, time that would be better spent helping individual students or focusing on more important responsibilities. With this tip, students can now hold one another accountable quickly and effectively.

Here's how it works. I have 4 students at each table, and I assign them each a number, 1-4, so they can take turns performing this job. (I have a spinner on the board with four spaces, and I keep track of whose turn it is to perform this task by moving the spinner.) Let's say on this day, it is the #2's turn to do the job. As I am about to dismiss the class from the instructional lesson on the rug so that they can start working at their desks, I call up all the 2's and hand them a set of 4 index cards. The 2's then put a card on each of their tablemates' desks as everyone begins to head their papers. Once everyone at the table is done heading their paper, the 2's go around to check to see that all papers are headed correctly. If so, that person brings me back all the cards. If not, the leader politely reminds any student who hasn't yet finished this task to head the paper correctly and then brings me back all the cards. The kids love this system, and usually within about a minute or two, I have the cards from all the tables.

To make things even easier, each table has its own unique color of cards. On one card I write a circle, and the leader keeps the card with the circle. (Printing a circle on the card reminds me which student is acting as leader that day). This strategy can be used with any subject area. It works best when students are heading their papers, but it can also be applied to any situation where the kids are completing a routine task for which we need to hold them accountable, and we want to focus on more important matters. Any time the kids can accomplish a task on their own while building cooperation skills and improving class efficiency, that's a win-win for everybody.