Monday, December 20, 2010

The Purpose and the Audience

I have been reading a lot about how students work harder to create quality products if they have a purpose other than finishing an assignment and if their audience is someone other than their teacher. That is why students tend to put more time and effort into projects or products that will be shared with an audience on the web or in the school.

I had a chance to observe this in a 1st grade class I taught for two days last week. One little boy's math work and writing were hardly legible. He worked as quickly as possible, writing over mistakes and paying little attention to spacing his letters and words. After finishing his work on my second afternoon with his class, he was working on a drawing with merry crismas written at the top. He asked me how to spell Christmas. I told him where he needed to add an h and a t. I watched him stick the letters in and pause to look at it. Then he carefully erased the word and rewrote it neatly. I smiled as I thought about the quality of his work on a project of his choosing versus one I had assigned. I grinned even more when he handed his finished product, a Christmas card, to me on his way out the door.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Letting Them Think

I learned a lesson while teaching a math lesson on bar graphs yesterday. We were working through a page together and I was asking for responses to the questions in the book. Which food was the most popular? How many more boys than girls liked pizza? How many students were surveyed? Most students were struggling to stay focused, so I decided to follow advice I have read on others' blogs - ask open-ended questions. I said, "What can you tell be about this graph." Hands I hadn't seen raised in two days shot up, and all of the responses were good! The students were now looking at and interpreting the graphs by themselves and they were seeing things I had not noticed. It was great!

If I had my own class, my next step would be to let them use a website I discovered this week to create their own visualizations. At , they can see relationships among data points, compare a set of values, track rises and falls over time, see the parts of a whole, analyze a text, and see the world. What a way to learn!

Thank You, Teachers

Teachers do many things that make my job as a sub much easier. Here are just  a few:

Attendance/lunch count - This may seem easy until you realize all the places students may be before they settle in your classroom - breakfast, getting extra reading help, in the library, etc. The sub has no way of knowing who is really absent when the bell rings. The day gets off to a good start when this process is automatic. Some teachers use a pocket chart labeled with students' names. The cards in the pockets have hot lunch on one end and cold lunch on the other. The cards are backwards in the morning, and students turn the cards around with their choice on top. Some classrooms have magnetic name tags that students place under the lunch column of their choice. Some teachers have a SMART Board chart and students slide their names under the column headings. In these classes, students take care of the lunch count before heading off to other places. All of these methods take care of both attendance and lunch. Life is good!

SMART Board file access - All of the teachers I've subbed for have left all of the files I need to use open on their computers. That works great unless I accidentally close one and have no idea what path to follow to find it again. Last week, a teacher solved that problem for me. He put a folder labeled with the date on his computer desktop. It contained everything I needed that day. FANTASTIC! Since the folder contained copies of his original files, he didn't need to worry that I would accidentally save any changes.

Workbook key - One teacher took a blank math workbook and made a teacher's key. It is so much easier to use than the bulky teacher's manual that has small snapshots of the student workbook pages. It helps both the teacher and the sub.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bad Math

Over the last year, I have created a Diigo library bookmarking 200+ websites that I use and recommend to other teachers and parents.  I am especially interested in math tutorials and videos that students can use to supplement and expand on the math lessons in the classroom. The videos give struggling students the opportunity to explore difficult concepts and processes. They can stop and replay them. They can find varied explanations of the same thing, hopefully finding one that makes sense to them.

Most of the websites I bookmark come from blogs I follow. I always spend time exploring the content, trying out the games, and watching the videos before I create my bookmark. Today I discovered that I may need to make my investigation more thorough before accepting the information as useful and valid.

This morning, I found a collection of YouTube math tutorial videos made by a community of teachers. I watched several videos and was about to make a bookmark when I came across the Partial Products Algorithm video. I taught this method during my student teaching, so I took time to watch it. I was very disappointed.

The problem: 28 x 32
The explanation: multiply the ones, multiply the tens, add the 2 products
The final product: 616

I did write a comment asking them to recheck the math. I suggested they use all 4 partial products: 2 x 8, 2 x 20, 30 x 8, 30 x 20 = 16 + 40 + 240 + 600 = 896. I also mentioned that a quick estimation (30 x 30) should have indicated that the answer would be very close to 900.

Everybody makes mistakes, and quite a bit of our learning results from our mistakes. However, I think some form of quality control, such as peer review, should be performed before these videos are uploaded to the web.

Bad math is worse than no math at all. Now, I wonder if other websites I have recommended contain information that will confuse rather than clarify.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Browsers and the Web

The Google Chrome Team published an informative online book entitled 20 Things I Learned About Browsers and the Web. Read it here:


I helped 3rd graders write stories at yesterday. They had been on the website once before and were anxious to create more stories. The author selects pictures and adds text to create the cover and pages. A free account is required to save and publish the books. After they have been saved, but not yet published, books can be edited. This is nice because it is not necessary to finish in one session. Students can also invite someone to collaborate on a book via e-mail. Once a book is published, it can no longer be edited, but it can be deleted by the author. The author has a choice of keeping a book private and accessible only be e-mail invitation, or making it public.

As the students were working, I thought about reading how publishing students' writings for a larger audience than their teacher or classmates motivates them to do their very best. I could see this was happening.

Today, I decided to give it a try and am now a published author. You can read about Max the monkey here: Also, check out some of the other stories by clicking on the Read tab.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Son/Daughter Hates Math

What came first, the chicken or the egg. Do students hate math because they have found little success with it, or do they find little success because they hate it? I think the lack of success brings about the negative feelings, which then lead to more failures. Whatever the reason, it becomes a vicious cycle of struggle, failure, and disdain for math.

Almost 20 years ago, I accepted my first mentoring job when a friend told me her son was failing algebra. Algebra was my favorite subject in school, so I started working with this young man. I hoped my  enthusiasm and encouragement would replace I can't with I can in his mind. He did start believing in his ability to master the subject and finished the course successfully. He now works with numbers daily as an actuary.

This week I had a similar experience, and I am anxious to begin the challenge of helping a young lady improve her math skills and her attitude about math. This time I have the internet to help me. Technology has made available unlimited tutorials, videos, examples, and practice problems. It also provides numerous ways for us to communicate remotely. I am sure one of my favorites will be to simultaneously edit a Google Doc. I am excited to put these new tools to work!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

How Many Years of College?

It's time for a little more humor from the classroom.

In my second year of subbing, a 3rd grader asked how long I had been teaching. I told him I had finished college just a little more than a year before, so I was starting my second year. Looking up at the gray in my hair, he exclaimed, "How many years do teachers have to go to college!"

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Yesterdae was a Relly Grate Dae

The title of this post is taken from The Motivation Breakthrough by Richard Lavoie. I was introduced to Mr. Lavoie's work when I watched his 1989 video, "How Difficult Can This Be? The F.A.T. City Workshop", in a special education course. Through this video, I experienced the Frustration, Anxiety, and Tension that students with learning disabilities experience daily. It was a remarkable experience! Since that time, I have learned much from Lavoie's articles, books, and videos.

Lavoie writes about a nine-year-old student who wrote daily journal entries for language arts. One day he excitedly rushed in and grabbed his journal. Lavoie framed that entry and it has hung on his office wall for over thirty years "as a constant reminder that special education is not about breakthroughs and miracles. Rather our mission is about small victories and plodding progress."

What words could have possibly had such an impact on Lavoie? The student wrote, "Yesterdae was a relly grate dae. I almost caght a ball."

If you have an interest in the development and education of students with learning disabilities, please take a few minutes to watch this YouTube video from the original F.A.T. City workshop. Several other videos are also on YouTube.

You can find more information on Mr. Lavoie's website

To Rick Lavoie - Thank you for inspiring me to continue to strive for those small victories and plodding progress with my students!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Who's Talking

I've seldom had trouble following dialog in books, so I didn't think much about it until a group of struggling 5th and 6th grade readers enlightened me about the difficulty they had following conversations in print. I asked one a question about which character was frightened. He replied, "It doesn't say." He pointed out the line of text. It read, "I am not following you into that house. It is haunted!" That line was contained in an extended two-way conversation, and only the first two lines contained dialog tags.

We stopped to talk about how the author uses a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. This helps the reader follow the conversation, yet allows it to flow without repetitive dialog tags. Several in the group commented that they had never realized that and always got confused when reading conversations. The book we were reading had two main characters and offered numerous examples of two-way conversations. The students reread several of them and found it much easier to follow.

I realized that day that there is more to concepts of print than what we teach beginning readers. Since that day, I have had several opportunities to help young readers improve their comprehension by teaching them how to follow dialog.

Monday, September 27, 2010

It’s Easy

I heard it again last week. “It’s easy!” A student was trying to encourage her classmate while they worked on a math problem. I have heard this countless times from teachers, students, and parents. I used to say it myself – until I talked to a wise friend about the impact those words have and why he always told his sons the task at hand was hard.

If the task is accomplished, because it was easy, there is no sense of self-satisfaction. I don’t pat myself on the back or feel good about my success when I complete an easy task.

If the task cannot be accomplished, a person feels like he must be really stupid. After all, he cannot even do something that is easy. How could he hope to do something hard?

When I heard it last week, I immediately looked at the struggling student. She responded to her friend by lowering her eyes and shrugging her shoulders. This is a response I have seen before. What I have not seen is the response the speaker hoped for – a renewed sense of determination to succeed.

“It’s easy!” Think about it before you say it again.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Ketchup Packet

I’ve read a lot lately about all the ways/places students receive information. This post will add one to that list.

I was reading with one of my summer kids – students I volunteer with in the summer. We read, “It took about as long as it takes a hummingbird’s wings to flap.” I wanted to know if he understood the meaning that this event took place very quickly, so I asked if he had ever seen a hummingbird. He replied that he had and added that hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards. I couldn’t resist finding out just how he knew that. He said he had read it on his ketchup packet in the lunchroom.

I wonder how many adults have ever read a ketchup packet.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Take one distractible elementary student with heightened touch sensitivity and one set of sight word cards. Add one creative teacher who discovered how to mix the two together to totally engage the student in word practice.

I really enjoy the time I spend subbing as a teacher’s assistant because I get to learn from experienced teachers. That is how I found out about scratch-a-word.  To play, put down 3 sight word cards and use your finger to write one of them on the student’s back. The student says the word and also reads the other two words. I don’t know who enjoyed the activity more, the student or me!

There is nothing earth-shattering about this technique. In fact, it would only benefit a small percentage of students in a limited number of ways. The important lesson is that the teacher looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the individual student and adapted her technique to take advantage of the strengths to meet the needs of the student.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I Didn't Want Help!

While thinking about teachers being less helpful, I remembered the little boy who ignited my desire to teach. As a volunteer mentor, we read together for four years. Once when I supplied a word he was struggling with, he let me know I spoke too soon by growling, "I wanted to figure it out!" That day he and I developed a signal for help that I still use today. I asked him to glance up at me if he wanted help. Until he did, I would sit quietly and let him think. That simple change made a huge difference in our relationship, his reading, and his self-confidence.

I teach classmates to be less helpful by explaining that telling a friend a word only helps at the time, but giving him time to think may help him really learn the word. I also wave my hand around in the air and ask if any of them can think better when all they see around them are hands waving. Even young children get the message and stay still.

Giving students time to think 
– wait time – helps them use their skills and strategies to solve problems or decode  words. They realize they can figure things out for themselves  a prerequisite to higher-order thinking.  

Sunday, August 29, 2010

You Can't Give Up!

I always enjoyed Art Linkletter's Kids Say the Darndest Things, so I entitled my file of students' comments Students Say the Darndest Things. I decided to share some in my blog from time to time.

A first grader in the resource room wrote his spelling words on the whiteboard. I asked him to correct a letter he had written backwards. As he erased, he chanted, "You can't give up. You just have to keep trying."

He made my day!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Left Angles

I learned about left angles from a third grader. While identifying angles – acute, obtuse, and right – he was stumped by the picture of a right triangle. He said, "It isn't any of them." I asked him what it was and he replied, "It's a left angle." I looked back at all of the right triangles he had encountered in the lesson; their right angles were all on the right side. When faced with a right angle on the opposite side, he used his prior knowledge of opposites and decided it was a left angle. Because he could explain his thinking, I was able to clear up his confusion.

As I wrote this entry, I realized I had no idea why a 90 degree angle is called a right angle, so I googled it. According to Dr. Michel Smith, professor and chair of the Mathematics Department in Auburn University's College of Sciences and Mathematics, "The word "right" is used for this angle because the word has the meaning of "true" or "correct." When a carpenter is building a house and he positions a wall, he wants that wall to be correctly placed; to be "right" or "true." So when the wall is vertical then it is correctly placed or "true." A correctly placed "true" wall is perfectly vertical and so it makes a "right" angle with the ground. This is what a right angle or a 90 degree angle is."

I learned something new today! I think I will follow the advice in my prior post – teachers should be less helpful – by asking my students to find the origin of the term right angle for themselves.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Three Times Two - Three Two Times

Several years ago, I was talking with a student as we left an after-school mentoring program. He said, "I just can't get those times things." I asked him to explain those times things. He said, "Like 3 times 2." I asked if he knew what 3 two times was. He replied, "6." We went on - 5 three times - 15; 7 one time - 7; 1 nine times - 9, etc. He spouted answers all the way down the hall. He knew how to multiply; he just didn't know he knew because he didn't understand what 3 x 2, one number times another number, meant. The next week, he couldn't wait to tell me all the multiplication facts he knew. That day I discovered how important it is to find the root cause of a child's struggle to learn a concept. In this case, the cure was as simple as turning two words around. Now, I routinely turn those words around when talking about multiplication.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alphabet Letters - Fonts and Orientation

The idea for this blog entry came to me when my 4-year-old great niece identified an uppercase E as an M. I realized she was seeing an M turned on its side. I remembered reading that many children struggle with letter identification because some letters change their identity when rotated or flipped. A stapler is a stapler even when held upside down. A book is a book even when it is flipped over. However, a d is a b when it is flipped, and it is a p when it is rotated.

While thinking about how letters look to children, I remembered the group of 1st graders who helped me learn to make a k correctly last year. It was important to them that I learn how to make letters just right. My mind moved on to an letter identification assessment I had given using a page of handwritten letters. The kindergartner could not identify several letters and told me he had never seen them before. I finally saw the page through his eyes and discovered the troublesome ones had been written with more cursive curves. I decided to type the list using a grade school font. He didn't miss a single one.

I have often wondered if the font used in most children's books confuses children, especially the letters a and g. Until today, I thought that we should introduce children to both the letters we want them to write and the ones we want them to read. However, an idea in a blog caught my eye this morning. The recommendation was that teachers should be less helpful, meaning teachers should let kids do and discover more for themselves. Perhaps a great way for kids to discover fonts for themselves is by finding and sharing letters that look different.