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

The Ikea Epiphany

The day we brought Billy home was a deeply spiritual experience.

For the uninitiated, Billy is a bookcase.

We tenderly unboxed the pile of planks, and a leaflet fluttered out. There was not a single word in the book, yet I was able to read it fluently and derive great education and entertainment from it.

Don’t be sad. Get a happy friend with a pencil.


Small person, don’t climb Billy!

I had to exercise a few good comprehension skills, such as paying attention to items in sequence, but I didn’t have to go through any torturous processes of rereading, dictionary consulting, and re-rereading with alternative meanings. Never did I lose track of the point by the time I reached the end of a convoluted sentence. Wait, that’s because there were no sentences. Either way, it certainly exercised a different part of the brain than we’re used to.

If I was ever unsure or even mistaken in my understanding of the diagrams, nothing was lost. In case I missed the part where it said 

I was still covered because the square peg wouldn’t fit into the round hole even if  I did try it. You could force it with a power drill or something, but if you knew that everything was meant to work out then you just re-read, looked over your pieces, and tried again.

By the time Billy looked like the picture at the top of the post (I didn’t time it. Must have been under an hour, I think) I was only slightly sweaty but felt like this:

We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely ...

While I stood around admiring Billy and feeling accomplished, I thought, I wish my students could build all their own classroom furniture out of IKEA. Imagine the empowerment and ownership they would feel! And school furniture is bleeping expensive; what you lose in durability in some IKEA items you could probably make up for easily enough with the price difference, especially when you factor in that you’ve also gotten a neat extracurricular activity – not exactly wood shop, but certainly, say, life skills? Team building?

Having realized that my school is already furnished (though I still ponder pitching IKEA assembly as an extracurricular activity option when opportunities do arise for furniture replacement), my next thought was Can we get the IKEA people to write create instructions for tests and learning activities? I know it’s not for everyone; I’ve heard many people rant in frustration after meeting their Billies or Ørkdrüngs or whatever, but maybe those left-brainers could use the exercise anyway. My non-readers, poor readers, and interesting thinkers could certainly use the break. My understanding is that IKEA made a conscious decision to invest heaps of  energy into designing components that fit together and instructions that could be understood by anyone so they would be spared construction costs and customer service hassles in the long run. Assuming that they’re not looking to change careers anytime soon, it’s left to me – us – to apply these principles to our instructional design.

I can see this concept going great places. For starters, note that everything in the manuals is very simplified, language is kept to a minimum, and perhaps most importantly, each step shows what NOT to do in addition to the desired action. (disclaimer: Of course students should do plenty of reading and learn to follow written directions. However: 1. Not all students are capable of doing so – e.g. the young and/or the language/reading impaired, this post is dedicated in large part to them; 2. Sometimes getting clear, foolproof directions across is a greater priority than having a linguistically rich experience)

I wonder if I can market this to the formal test makers; we spent ages just reading directions the other week. Or, even better, the people who package science experiment kits. Me and that cute little Swedish guy with the pencil behind his ear, we’re going places!

May 8, 2012 at 4:05 am 1 comment

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

Friday Finds:

It started one embarrassing day when my resource student began to learn about factoring quadratic equations. Now, I teach elementary/middle school. In my day, you didn’t meet one of these until at least the middle of high school, and I don’t think I understood them until college – and even that was, ahem, x years ago. The textbook was no help. I excused the student from homework that night and went home with a headache.

Then I found Their “factoring hard quadratics” page here did more than just clarify the lesson – it introduced a graphic method that I’d never seen before but made the entire process simpler and more organized. The lesson included clear, step-by-step examples, and a quiz that went through the steps one at a time instead of just leaving you to figure out how to independently apply the new skill, as most web quizzes I’ve seen do.

I was so excited to bring the strategy to my student the next day, and we both shared the heady feeling of being able to easily and accurately do something that had been beyond us just yesterday.

The content is very thorough and covers topics relevant to middle school through college. It is geared to students but, as in my case, can be helpful to teachers too, especially in elementary grades where you need not be a math specialist to have math on your curriculum. Even if you are naturally good at math, it can help to see the steps clearly explained in a way that your students will understand. A clearer understanding of the math will help you teach it more clearly.

The site also includes a forum for users to submit questions. There’s a lot of homework help going on there, and it seems to be up-to-date and reasonably active, if not really buzzing (I guess math homework isn’t that viral).

All the content is free and organized decently. You can download the lessons on CD for a reasonable price. There are ads but all I have seen so far are appropriate and unobtrusive. I would feel very comfortable directing students to this site for extra help.

December 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm Leave a comment

Organization, Stability, Independence, and All Good Things

An elderly relative of mine passed away recently. She left many friends and admirers, and with good reason – there was a lot to admire about her. But the one memory that everyone shared was surprisingly mundane: She was the most organized person we knew.

I imagine most people don’t think of organization as the thing they’d most want to be remembered by. If you didn’t experience it, you might even think this is somewhat shallow and insulting. But anyone who visited this woman understands that the organization was in fact a remarkable way of communicating love, care, and trust. See, when you came over, you knew exactly what to expect. You knew that all your needs would be taken care of.  The food may have been simple, but it would be there, neatly packaged and labeled. In the bathroom, a towel rack labeled “for our guests.” In the games closet, everything boxed or binned with labels facing out. You didn’t have to ask for things because they were set up so you could find them easily – but that wasn’t cold, because you knew someone had taken the time and energy to set them up for you. You put them back because you knew how they went. You felt confident. That felt good, so you kept coming back. Everyone did – relatives, friends, relatives’ friends, friends’ friends’ friends… she was a popular person. If I had that many guests, I’d probably be going crazy trying to serve them all – but she had it set up so efficiently that everything practically ran itself, which freed her up to spend time with the people: listening, advising, encouraging.

People also remembered how she remembered everyone’s birthdays, anniversaries, and such. You feel loved and cared for when someone does that. I’m not sure if they realize that this was no feat of memory, but really the same organizational principles: Before the age of PDA’s, there was a calendar on the refrigerator, one on the desk, and a daily planner notebook. As soon as they were bought, the important dates were copied down from the book of dates. It was practically impossible to lose track of anything.

In listening to people reminisce about these things, I realized that the same principles can help us create classrooms that are havens for our students, and homes that are havens for our children. OK, at this stage of life and with my personality, this might be an unrealistic goal for my home. But certainly at school, where we need students from all sorts of backgrounds to feel secure and empowered to learn, perhaps this is the answer. It seems so basic now, but I have seen so many classrooms with unclear expectations in at least one major area – be it schedule, materials, or rules. In reflecting upon my relationship with this relative, I now realize the extent to which organization and predictability foster positive feelings and growth. Organization has always been one of my goals as a teacher, but I have just now clarified for myself – and hopefully for you, too – how deep it really can be.

My organizational goals for this week:

  • Explicitly review and clarify lesson routines with all students.
  • Post daily agendas in writing so everyone can be on the same page from the start
  • Chart behavior with [certain] students daily
  • Discuss sticking to schedule with the mainstream teachers so my students can benefit from more predictability in school at large
  • Trust students more to follow procedures instead of answering the same questions with the same answers repeatedly
  • (My materials are already very organized. Still thinking of how I can encourage students to respect that more!)

November 27, 2011 at 10:34 pm Leave a comment

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