Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Most Powerful Thing in the Universe...

Words are the most powerful thing in the universe.

I started every year with the statement above and proceeded to back it up. Words start and stop wars, define the rules of a game, document citizenship, communicate the next incredible idea, start relationships, escalate fights, express emotions, etc.

So it's not surprising that teaching and learning vocabulary was central to my practice.

There are a lot things I got wrong as a teacher, but vocabulary is something I think I got right. I gave the words away for free but I knew I'd achieved something when my students saw that owning these words made them rich.

What started as play acting, as students practiced using the new words in classroom conversation (usually with fake British accents) eventually grew into regular use of the words. Students came to see them less as an academic add-on and more as tools to better communicate their thoughts and ideas.

So how did I do it?
  1. I started with the notion that the brain processes information best in smaller, more concentrated quantities. I gave the students eight words to learn each Monday. The words came from what we were reading that week so they immediately had some relevance to what the students would be experiencing.
  2. Each Monday students got the words and they spent half an hour looking up the definitions, writing sentences using the words in context, doing something physical with them be it a stretch, a skit, a dance, or a body sculpture, and doing something visual with them like drawing a representative picture or creating an acrostic poem. For homework they wrote a cohesive paragraph using all of the words. The notes they'd created during the day's vocabulary activities could be used to guide this process.
  3. Each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we started class doing something different with the words. Students created short skits in which they were engaged in conversations using the words, they played various games like bingo or jeopardy, created stretches to remind them of each word and "worked out" to the vocab, wrote songs, performed dances, drew murals, played Pictionary. Each day we had a new experience to make the words more and more a part of our working memories.
  4. On Friday students knew they would start class with their vocabulary quiz. They put all their notes away. I wrote all the words on the board. They wrote a paragraph (just like they did on Monday for homework) using all their words in context. They knew the paragraph had to make sense and that each sentence that used a word would have to contain context clues that showed me they knew what that word meant. The process took a while to learn, but after a month or so students really knew what to do. And they did it well. They owned those words!
  5. To test the effectiveness of this vocab program I gave one a more conventional "match the word to its definition" test each quarter using all of the words they had learned during that quarter. Very few students scored below 90 percent on those tests. The words stuck.
More important than adding these words to their mental vocabulary banks was the fact that my students eventually incorporated them effortlessly into their daily conversation and writing. On my year-end student evaluations, vocabulary was often the highest rated aspects of their experience in my classroom and when asked to explain why, they regularly wrote something like: "These words make me sound smart. I am smart because I can use these words."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

How do you "walk the walk?"

The philosophy and practices of Inspired Teaching come to life in classrooms in the Greater Washington area and beyond.

How do you "walk the walk" of an Inspired Teacher? Which qualities of an Inspired Teacher do you strive to bring to your teaching? Which activities have you adapted and applied to your classroom?

Post a comment to let us know.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Assessing How I Learn

What tools can you teach your students to use to assess the ways in which they learn, and how can these tools help them succeed in school?

Let's start with the premise that every child is born with an innate desire to learn. Now, consider the possibility that given the right environment and the right stimuli every child possesses at least one kind of intelligence in which they can excel.

Unfortunately, our schools are not traditionally designed to celebrate these ideas. We spend a lot more time focusing on what our students don't know how to do than on learning about where their true strengths lie.

If you really think about it, most of the assessment we do in the classroom is designed to help us figure out what our students don't know about a particular subject, topic, concept, etc. We learn a lot about their deficiencies, but their assets often remain hidden unless you happen to be teaching a subject in which they naturally excel. What if things were different?

What would happen if you knew what each of your students needed in order to excel?
If you knew each of your students' Learning Styles (their strongest and their weakest) you could group them and differentiate assignments accordingly. If you knew where each of your students fell on the spectrum of Multiple Intelligences you could provide them with projects that play to the ways in which they are smart and allow them to demonstrate their knowledge of certain topics in a mode that comes most naturally.

Consider some of these assessment tools and resources:

Learning Styles Online Questionnaire Gives you a quick print-out with your results and includes good descriptions of each of eight learning styles and the things learners can do to excel in their particular areas of strength.
Learning Styles Inventory Online but also can be printed as a hand-out.
Learning Styles Inventory Print from the online version, can easily be filled out by elementary and middle school students.
Find My Strengths An online Mulitiple Intelligences assessment.

What would happen if your students knew the learning style modifications they would have to make to best understand each concept you teach?
Teaching students about learning styles is definitely not in the standard curriculum, but the more students learn about the way their brains work, how they process and receive information, the better equipped they will be to take control of their own learning now and in the future. You can help them build this essential skill by making the process of assessing Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences transparent. Involve students in reviewing the data gathered from these tests and help them develop study and note-taking strategies that utilize their strengths and help to improve their weaknesses.

Consider some of these activities and resources:
Multiple Intelligences Activity Chart Lists activities ideal for each of eight intelligences.
Multiple Intelligences - How to Teach Anything 8 Ways Resources and information.
Student Learning Strengths Inventory An excellent lesson plan built around teaching students about their learning style.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tell Me Something

Learning how to create safe spaces for students to share their thoughts and feelings can be a challenge when you have so much else to accomplish in a class period. But there are some simple things you can do to make great strides in that direction.

Check-in Notes - Just before students leave class have them jot down on a piece of paper how they're feeling about the class, about their day, about the subject, about your teaching...whatever you choose to ask them. They can do this anonymously or with a name - and when you read through their comments you can get a sense of how they're doing.

Chills and Thrills - (one of my all time favorites!) At the start of class–especially when you can tell the students are coming in a little riled up–ask them to share a chill and a thrill. A thrill is something good going on in their world. A chill is something not-so-good. This simple exercise can do a lot to clear the air. I always made the sharing voluntary but usually got a good variety of students responding.

Assignments About Me - as often as possible try to relate assignments and projects to the lives of your students. This not only gives you a better idea of who they are and where their interests lie, it also makes any activity instantly more engaging for them. With a little thought you can make almost any project personal. If you want students to do a report on a famous person - make it a person they'd like become when they grow up. If you want students to demonstrate understanding of a particular math concept - have them write and solve a word problem about a situation in their own lives where they might need to use this kind of math.

Opportunities Outside Class - It's strange but true that the best time to get to know your students may very well be when they're not in your class. At a football game, after school, at lunch, during recess (if you have it), before school, between classes...these are some of the tiny opportunities you can seek to ask your students how they're doing, talk to them about their plans for the future, and get some insight into what they need to be successful in the present. Outside the context of your class students are often more likely to open up and the things they have to share can help both of you when class is in session!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why We're Here

The task of transforming education is not for the faint of heart. The slow process of change takes patience. The incredible hurdles along the way require unwavering commitment. But what gets education reformers up each day is an overwhelming passion for their work.

Today we're asking the Inspired Teaching staff:

What makes you passionate about your work with students, teachers, and schools?

Monday, October 6, 2008

An Apple a Day Keeps the Teacher in School

Miss Rainey never missed a day of school. This was lucky for her students since the substitutes at Proctor Elementary were notorious for their strict and unpredictable ways. But it was also lucky for them because her presence every day ensured an incredible learning experience that could not be replicated by anyone else.

Miss Rainey was my fifth grade teacher 21 years ago and when I think back on her amazing attendance record I realize that dedication to her job was only part of what kept her healthy and present every day. She was incredibly physically active, coaching both track and volley ball. She ate well and taught us to do the same. She kept her classroom lively and filled with creative projects - but impeccably clean at the same time. She never sat at her desk, instead she was constantly in motion throughout the classroom. Miss Rainey is still teaching today - by my count she's been at it for at least 40 years - and she still coaches both teams.

Fifth grade was a long time ago so I can't remember if her attendance record rubbed off on her students but I do know that I looked forward to her class every single day.

As teachers we are trained to think constantly about the well being of our students. We manage their academic progress but increasingly these days we take the time to nurture their social, emotional, and sometimes even physical development as well. And as exhausting as this whole-child approach to teaching may be, it makes sense when you consider that all these elements that make up a life are interconnected and dependent on one another to thrive.

So the way we take care of ourselves naturally sets an example for how our students might take care of themselves. For many of the young people in your class YOU may be the adult they most look up to. If you're running yourself ragged, calling a bag of chips and cup of coffee lunch, and teaching from a chair in front of the room because you're too exhausted to move about - it may be time to take a look in the mirror and change a few habits.

Just as in any relationship, you cannot be your best for another person if you're not being the best for yourself. And this is a tall order when you're feeling overwhelmed by all you have to do just to keep afloat of the papers to grade, the lessons to plan, the workshops to attend, the grade books to complete, and oh, the dreaded report cards that are always just around the corner. But believe you me - as overwhelming as all that seems right now, it's going to be impossible if you're too sick to get out of bed.

Flu season is just around the corner and the change in weather invites a whole host of viruses to a end-of-year party with your immune system. An endless parade of sick kids is about to begin its march through your classroom door. But you can keep yourself out of the fray with 3 healthy meals a day, a decent amount of sleep each night, and at least a half hour of exercise 3 times a week.

At first you'll feel like you're sacrificing so many important things to take the time to care for yourself. But once you establish a healthy routine you'll realize that the few hours you spend now will have exponential benefits if they earn you the "perfect attendance" award in June - not from your principal, but from your students who have experienced the gift of your presence every single day.