Posts filed under ‘Teaching’

Review/Extension Activity: Sometimes, Always, or Never

When you get your kids to think and then they ask you to do it again, you know you have a winner.

This is a versatile activity that can be adapted for any setting, time frame, and group dynamic. It engages students in processing vocabulary and ideas, helping them get comfortable and familiar with new words without any memorization pressure. Preparation and setup can be as easy as you need it to be. Here is the basic idea with one simple variation:

Create a list of statements about the topic you wish to explore or review. The statements should be sometimes, always, or never true. For example, here are some of my statements from a lesson about quadrilaterals:

A rhombus is a square

A rectangle is a parallelogram

A parallelogram has a right angle

A quadrilateral has 4 acute angles

A quadrilateral has exactly 2 right angles

I played the game with intensive students individually or in pairs, so I did it as a board game: Take any follow-the-path game board and randomly label the spaces sometimes, always, and never. In turns, each player picks up a statement card, reads the statement, and decides whether it is sometimes, always, or never true. The player must PROVE or at least reasonably demonstrate their answer through logic or examples. Often, the student develops their answer through the process of proving it. They can sketch examples, look up a definition in a reference book, and discuss with others. Some of the students surprised me – and themselves! – with the insights this process brought out. Once the players are collectively satisfied with the answer, the player moves to the next unoccupied matching spot. The game can be adapted to different game boards or simply collecting cards. Adapt for levels of knowledge/memory by making different reference resources available (or not). When students are already familiar with the way this works, you can make it an independent center activity for groups or individuals. You can have students make up the statements and then pool them together. Making up statements for a S/A/N game center can be an “early finisher” activity.

Another way to play that limits it to more of a categorization exercise is to write just the words on the card instead of full statements. Make several copies of each. Then, students draw the cards and place them on a template that looks like this:

A ______________ is a _________________

This will result in many of the same permutations you might have created in the first place, but it’s easier to prepare and adds a fun randomness.

This activity works especially well with topics involving a lot of categorization or attributes. Try it in science:

An elephant is a mammal.

A bird can fly.

A reptile lives in the desert.

Or in social studies. Or even in grammar. I love metacognition!


May 19, 2013 at 1:36 pm Leave a comment

Friday Finds: Teachers Pay Teachers

Today’s “find” is not actually hard to find – in fact, it’s practically viral, at least in the teacher-blog-osphere. But this site is so valuable to teachers, parents, and even students that I have to share just in case anyone does not yet know about it. 

Teachers Pay Teachers is, in their words, “an open marketplace for educators where teachers buy, sell, and share original teaching resources.” Pardon the hyperbole, but to me this is a thing of unspeakable beauty. It’s a boon to both buyers, sellers, and even window shoppers.

For the buyer, TPT offers a clean, friendly interface and a vast selection of all types of materials, including graphics, lesson plans, worksheets, slideshows, interactive whiteboard lessons – you name it. The open market conditions drive sellers to create high quality, visually appealing materials and price them competitively. Because the materials are created by actual teachers, you will usually find them to be highly relevant to your actual students and teaching standards. Many sellers offer some items completely free, so you can personally evaluate their style before starting to buy – and when you find someone you especially like, you can add them to your “favorites” for easy tracking in the future.

What especially appeals to me is that many of the materials are specific. While many sellers create “packs” of full units or series of related items, you can also find materials for individual lessons or specific topics. I can’t be the only one whose library overflows with teaching materials I never use because I bought a whole book and only used one activity. Buying full sets and volumes is a budget drain, especially for teachers like me who move around a lot and don’t teach the same topics repeatedly to similar populations. On TPT, you can use search terms, tags, and previews to find the materials that are just right for your current need. The prices are right, the file goes straight to your computer, and you will no longer have to sift through piles of random materials in your file cabinet to find the ones you want.

As a seller, you benefit from the easy-to-use platform and built-in publicity of being part of such a large sharing community. If you’ve ever considered selling your teaching materials for profit, this is the perfect way to break into the market. I have not yet begun to digitize my collection, so instead of linking you to my snazzy TPT seller page, I am sharing this resource just for your own benefit. However, I look forward to this opportunity to share my ideas and creations with a wider audience.

We all work hard to create materials for our students and have long been generous in sharing with fellow teachers; here is the chance to reach a wider audience, make some money on it, and have access to other teachers’ creations, too! Here are a couple of my favorite sellers so far.

Laura Candler is a pro, she has full books but here you can also access individual activities. Her activities and ideas are highly interactive while still being approachable for students who are hesitant to engage.

Rachel Lynette has many reading comprehension “task cards” for really quick practice. These have been great for my students who need a lot of repeated, targeted skill practice in short bursts.

You’ve already heard how much I love Angela Watson (The Cornerstone) but did I mention she is the queen of math games? They’re on TPT, too, and she is way up to date aligning them with Common Core. You’ll pay a bit more for the full game packs, but they’re worth it – they are engaging, they teach/practice what you need them to, they are very well designed, and the kits are very complete. You basically just need to print and go.

Just a small sample, browse around yourself and see just how much talent there is when teachers around the web gather together. Then come back and share – what is your favorite TPT find?

May 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm 2 comments

Part II: How the NYC DOE gets teachers to work for free (or cheap)

My previous post shared some of the frustrations the Department of Education puts us through to get services for students in need. Now it’s time to expose how the DOE unconscionably rips off the special ed teachers and related service professionals who actually provide these services on the front. I pointed you to this NBC report, but that only tells half the story: it only addresses the payments that were delayed, not those that were altogether denied, and it makes no mention of the obstacle course the DOE puts us through to get any payment at all – not to mention the payments that disappear altogether.

There are two stories here: The DOE’s internal problems of inefficiency, incompetence, and unfairness which cause ignorable inconveniences to ignorable little people like me, and their major mix-up this year that turned the entire population of independent SETSS providers on its ear. SETSS stands for Special Education Teacher Support Services, and independent contractors provide these services to students who do not receive them directly from DOE employees, usually because they attend a non-public school by choice. Since special education services are the school district’s responsibility regardless of school placement, the DOE is supposed to reimburse the providers for our work.

Our contract isn’t great, but there isn’t any room for negotiation. Because it’s up to the parents to find an independent provider for their children, the DOE simply doesn’t care if you don’t want to work on their terms. Let the parents go crazy trying to find someone who will sign on to it. Among the terms of the service:

  • You’re only paid for time when the student’s body is actually there with you. Spent 30 minutes traveling to his house only to wait for 15 minutes at the door until you realize nobody’s home and they forgot to tell you? Tough. What other professional would accept this? Every therapist I’ve ever visited requires 24-hour notice of cancellation in order to cancel the bill as well. Even an hour would be enough for me to save my travel and waiting time, and possibly even squeeze in a different client. How about the kid who got suspended and needed a week’s worth of home-based curriculum coordinated with all his teachers and communicated to him at home? Hours at my desk and on the phone. No body in school, no money.
  • You’re required to tend to all of the child’s special education needs, including attending IEP meetings, collaborating with general ed teachers, etc. Again, no pay for this time. We’re not even talking prep time, but actual in-person meetings mandated by the DOE about the student’s services. But you only get paid for “direct” teaching time.
  • Provide make-up sessions only during the same week, but not on the same day as a regular session. Most students are mandated to receive services 5 days a week, so there isn’t any day that isn’t the same as a regular session. So, that student for whom you killed an hour because they were absent with no prior notice? Forget about getting that hour back. No matter how much school work he missed during his absence, which will be harder for him to make up due to his special needs, you get your same one period a day to catch him up. If he was absent for a week, that’s a week’s worth of income you’ll just never see.

Well, it’s their game, so we play by their rules. I sign on the dotted line agreeing to the above terms (among others). I mail my signature in to the CSE (Committee on Special Education – the ones in charge of these forms) and, if all goes well, I get back an approval letter. Theoretically, I shouldn’t work with the student until I get the approval, but that could take a month – a month in which they’re supposed to get services, not slip ever farther behind their general ed peers. So I just sort of count on the approval coming. The approval letter says that at the end of each month, I should send an invoice together with a copy of the approval letter and expect payment within 6 weeks.

  • Question: Can’t they just keep a database of which services they approve? Why do I need to make copies of your own approval letter to send back to you over and over again every month? *cue moans of dying trees*

Here’s where the fun starts. So far, it’s all been logical: I sign to their rules, do what they said, complete the invoices, copy the approval letter, and wait for the check in the mail. Instead of a check in the amount I’ve billed, here are some examples of what I (and others) received instead:

  • A check for 75% of the amount I billed. No explanation for the difference.
  • The exact same papers I sent in, stamped “Received,” with a note saying I haven’t sent them (I sent back the EXACT same set of papers again, just swapping the to and from addresses and re-paying the postage. This time they found nothing missing. *shrug*)
  • A message saying that my handwritten invoices are invalid because one date was corrected with white out
  • A message saying that my handwritten invoices are invalid because from now on all invoices must be typed
  • And finally, this year’s new zinger: A letter saying that I can’t bill for services until I sign into a series of websites with exactly the same information, and then communicate with a bunch of people to say I did so.

I oppose overlong blog posts on principle, so since my word count is again approaching 1,000, I’ll save the autopsy for the next post. Spoiler: I will never recover the missing 25% of that paycheck, but that didn’t bring me to tears as the rest of the frustration did. It only gets better.

February 6, 2013 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

Friday Finds: The Cornerstone

I went through one of the top teacher colleges available, but no one told me what to do when a kid asks to use the bathroom too much… until now.

I first encountered Angela Powell Watson when I accepted my first teaching job. While not very long ago in the scheme of history, that was before the explosion of teacher-blogging and internet resources. It was also before I had any clue about classroom management, having just (tentatively) signed up for my teacher training program. Ms. Powell’s Management Ideas for Teachers saved my day, and many other days throughout that long first year. On this simple site, Ms. Powell shared a wealth of wisdom that guided me in setting up my classroom, creating a behavior plan, and generally feeling ready to teach. I printed off reams of it and took it with me everywhere that summer, clicking through every link to mine all the depths.

So you can see why I was so excited when Ms. Powell, now Mrs. Watson, published The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable, which is basically a polished up, reorganized, printed-and-bound edition of that content, perhaps with some more packed in for good measure. With 471 pages, I certainly can’t imagine anything she’s left out.

The Cornerstone is not your classroom management college textbook; it wastes no time on theories and gets straight to business with practical, realistic, classroom-ready suggestions. It not only presents great ideas, it tells you exactly how to make them happen – there are charts, dialogues, examples, and even a smattering of pictures. This is the book for real people who teach real children. It covers an enormous range of situations, all of which occur much more often than anything I’ve ever read assigned in school. It goes through how to manage materials, behavior, lesson planning, time, and even fellow adults. A run through the table of contents made me want to devour the entire thing in one bite; not knowing where to look first, I realized that one couldn’t go wrong by simply marching from cover to cover – though if you have a specific challenge, you could certainly skip around. Just make sure to go back so you don’t miss any gems.

It is absolutely astounding how Angela seems to know exactly what to do in every situation. She really seems to have covered all bases of classroom management, and each of her ideas is beautiful in its simplicity. There is nothing here that is more of a drag to carry out than whatever you’re already doing. Her suggested responses are phrased with utter clarity and everything just makes SO MUCH SENSE. It would seem that you could have thought of it yourself instead of needing to buy a book… except you hadn’t, so you’ll be glad you did.

The ideas seem to be targeted mainly towards the elementary grades, as much of Angela’s earlier experience was in lower elementary, but just about everything is either already relevant or can be adapted to just about any age and ability. You might find much of it less relevant if you teach high school, but you will probably also find some parts useful anyway. What teacher doesn’t have heaps of resources to organize and documentation to keep track of, for instance?

As a former graphic design major, I can never review a book without commenting on aesthetics. The layout of this book is about as basic as it gets, but completely readable and well-organized. The pictures could use a little help, they’re pretty dark. But overall, though it’s hardly artful, the book is friendly enough to the eyes. Definitely above par for self-published works. On a related note, it has a very low ratio of typographical/editing errors, making it a smooth and professional read.

In addition to the book, The Cornerstone has a companion website which has replaced the former Ms. Powell’s. On it, Angela is amazingly generous with advice and resources. A lot of the original content is still there, as well as all the reproducible forms from the book. There are additional free resources that would have been too tangential to include in the book, such as a page of math games/center ideas. You can also find selected links to quality resources from other sites, like this. And of course, there’s a blog in which Angela continuously shares new insights and links.

What I love about all of Angela’s work, besides the total practicality I already mentioned, is her positive outlook. Her focus is on making teaching and learning a pleasant, peaceful experience. I think a majority of teachers enter the profession for love of kids and learning, but we often get swept away in a storm of nitty-gritty that can potentially drag us down and suck the joy out of teaching. Angela Powell Watson’s mission is to bring back the joy through ironing out those kinks, and she does it admirably. She has even published another book, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, which specifically focuses on the mental/emotional aspect of loving to teach.

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Cornerstone to review. However, all opinions expressed are honest and unbiased; in fact, I am such a big fan of Ms. Powell/Watson that if I hadn’t been offered the review opportunity, I would have just bought the book myself!

May 11, 2012 at 12:51 am 3 comments

On the Other Side

So, I made a mistake. I do that pretty often, actually. But as I always say, mistakes are just another way of learning. The full story is for a different post; for now, let’s just say I let myself get into a situation where I had to read a book of a student’s choice in order to determine whether he’d actually read it or was just bluffing through his assignment. It was a very painful experience.

Now, I am a person who can appreciate diverse genres. But with all due respect to Matt Christopher, I no longer understand why kids are so into him. My past understanding was that the students liked sports, he writes prolifically about sports, so it’s a great match! But goodness, that was the dryest hundred-page kids’ novel I ever had to force myself to stay awake through. It was 90% play-by-play game descriptions – and all for a team that doesn’t even exist! They didn’t even use especially rich vocabulary; the thing read like a sportscast. The “deep” part of the plot occurred in brief dialogues between games. There was a bit of plot and character development, but on a much lower maturity level than the technical reading level of the book. Usually I’m more hard-pressed to find the opposite – mature content at a low reading level. But I digress, I didn’t come here to badmouth a popular author. Anyone who gets my kids reading deserves their publishing contract (though, arguably, the problem here was that the sports-fan student lost interest before finishing the reading)

About eighty pages in, I had a lightbulb moment. Here I was, reading about a topic I had no interest in, in a foreign language purporting to be English, and it was pure torture. I, the queen of context clues, still don’t know what a “buttonhook” is, and they must have done it twenty times in that book! Well, it’s some kind of football play, and not very important to the plot, but basically I skimmed through a lot of the action without fully grasping the finer points of what was going on, despite figuring out more than I ever wanted to know about football, because it just didn’t matter to me. And it suddenly hit me that this is what our students have to do DAILY.

That explains a lot.

Now, I still maintain that some things in life are boring and difficult, and it doesn’t hurt to get used to that. And I also know that there are ways we teachers can (and do! Well, most of us…) try to minimize the torture. But there’s nothing like switching sides for a real kicker.

I have always empathized with my students, but it does help to have the feeling driven home afresh every now and then. So, if you’re not a sports-lover, go ahead and pick up a Matt Christopher book. You might regret it, but you also might learn something!

And just so you don’t think I’m down on Matt Christopher because I don’t do football, I really enjoyed this book, also football themed:

January 20, 2012 at 2:04 am Leave a comment

Friday Finds: CEC SmartBrief

About a year after graduation, I felt like I was drying up.

For about six years, I had been immersed in a constantly-updated world of theory and research. I regularly interacted with others of my ilk who were also occupied full-time in improving their teaching practices through trial and information-gathering. I happily considered myself well-informed and felt mighty intelligent.

And then it was history. Out in the field, my education did serve me well, and I frequently referred to ideas I had read about during my college years. But one day I woke up and realized that the world was moving on without me, unless I would keep pace.

So I headed over to the CEC website, intending to join the preeminent organization for special educators, thus renewing my professional self-image and subscribing to their acclaimed journal, Teaching Exceptional Children. I left the website without a membership.


Because instead I signed up for the CEC SmartBrief. Now, I should probably still aspire to full membership one day. But for now, this service delivers relevant headlines to my email inbox daily – and free of charge. The articles it links to come from a wide range of sources, including both popular mainstream media as well as more focused, professional education publications. They cover the gamut of topics of interest to special educators, from technology to research to teaching ideas to politics. Each link is summarized in the email so you can easily decide which might be worth your time.

The one gripe I have is that it’s not quite selective enough. Some may like that they get so many articles to choose from, but I find the daily influx somewhat overwhelming. There is no option to choose specific areas of interest, and many topics recur frequently to the point of feeling redundant. But overall, it is definitely worth subscribing. I never receive any spammy promotional stuff from them, just the news briefs. And you can’t beat the price.

Sign up here.

January 6, 2012 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s a SMARTboard?

Student Using an Interactive Whiteboard

“My daughter tells me they got to play on a smartboard in her class. What’s going on?”
“The school my friend teaches in got SMARTboards two years ago! How does my principal expect me to teach without one?”
“My son’s PTA is trying to raise $30,000 to install smartboards in every class. $30,000?! What for?”

For the technically uninclined  reader, a SMARTboard (or rather, an interactive whiteboard – SMARTboard is just the most well-known branding) is a large touch screen that hooks up to a computer. It can be used to project and interact with any computer program as well as specialized programs, such as SMART Notebook, which are designed to work well with the touch screen in the educational context.

Will the SMARTboard revolutionize education?
It certainly seems to have changed the game, but looks aren’t everything. In my opinion, there are two main benefits to the SMARTboard, and it is up to the grant writers to assess the cost-benefit ratio:

1. It can make it easier for teachers to plan interactive activities.
I deliberately used the word “easier” rather than “possible.” Even most of the best lessons I see teachers do on their SMARTboards could have been (and were) done in years past with paper and fun-tack. The difference is that the old way required more preparation and didn’t look as snazzy (which actually didn’t bother anyone until the bar was raised). Also, if you wanted to share materials, you had to take turns, sometimes physically rummaging in your colleagues’ files instead of downloading a carbon copy off their website.  However, besides saving the teachers a great deal of time and expense, providing this medium is valuable because it increases the likelihood of teachers actually using clever techniques. Face it – we’ve always been able to share interesting pictures and documents with our students, but when it required thinking of it days in advance, going to the central library to sign out a slide, hooking up the carousel projector, and… you know, I actually don’t know what else was involved in ye olden days, because when I was in school my teachers just didn’t do that very often. I wonder why.

2. It lets kids get their hands on technology in a collaborative, supervised way.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in a wired world. Hey, this is a blog. Our kids are only going to make it if they can function in this environment. Many won’t get to practice at home, and even those who do might not learn to harness their powers effectively without careful guidance. Huddling around a desktop or laptop is not the best classroom management solution. Maybe an interactive whiteboard is.

What about the coolness factor?
OK, I confess. I think the SMARTboard is one really cool invention. But coolness wears off fast. Don’t count on expensive toys to hold kids’ attention for more than a few weeks, at most. That is the job of effective teaching combined with available tools and materials.

You touch it! It’s kinesthetic! Isn’t that great?
I’m all for multisensory learning. But sorry, this isn’t it. It does involve a little more movement and hands-on interaction than most typical teaching activities, but as I’ve already stated, that can almost always be achieved with low-tech measures as well. What’s more, I believe that computer screens are actually quite un-tactile. Sliding a finger across a screen provides less feedback than actually picking up an object and moving it. It doesn’t provide any more texture for writing than a pencil on paper. And, most importantly, it’s a distracting decoy that can take away from true multisensory learning: In bygone years, I brought in boxes of different shapes and sizes and a sack of marbles to demonstrate the concept of volume. Now, there’s a nifty slideshow simulation. Doing things yourself can be replaced with watching an internet video of someone who already did it. Instead of planning in advance and bringing in specimens of what I’m teaching about, I can download a whole bunch of pictures that look great but FEEL the same as the rest of the touch screen. So no, “touch screen” is NOT the same as “tactile/sensory.”

The bottom line (OK, several lines):

  • Technology has a lot to offer, but  it’s only as good as the person at the controls. For teachers who can deliver a well-designed lesson without a SMARTboard, and are willing to learn new techniques, they will probably enhance their teaching and streamline their preparation. But there is no substitute for good teaching.
  • Limited resources should be allocated effectively by screening which teachers are most likely to benefit from this tool. It would likely be wasted on an experienced teacher who is doing well in his or her subject area and isn’t adept at mastering new technology. On the flipside, it might be most beneficial in a class with a large proportion of students with special needs, where it could be used adaptivelyto compensate for the limitations of traditional methods.
  • Principals would be well advised to invest in staff development and training to ensure that they get the most out of their SMARTboards. Without training, many teachers might view them as simply very expensive projection screens, or worse, just more wires to trip on.

December 28, 2011 at 1:51 am Leave a comment

Older Posts


Follow me on Twitter