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Building up Expectations... A Requirement in Every Classroom

Almost a decade ago, I sat on a desk in my classroom talking to my student teacher on her last day.  She was sharing her fears about stepping into her own classroom, and I was trying my best to offer her every piece of advice I could muster.  The result of that conversation was my book, A Lesson Plan for Teachers, and eventually this blog.  My goal in writing both is the same now as it was in the very beginning.  I wanted to help new teachers and those who were struggling in their classrooms.  

And then I sat down to write the book.  While I did include all the topics I felt vital for establishing a highly effective secondary classroom, I also thought it was important to make one thing clear...

It all starts with expectations. And I started my book with that first topic.
Here is a related article I wrote on the topic... one that is still so relevant today!

Expect Excellence:
Teaching without Excuses from the students or from yourself

Why do you teach?  Really think about that question.  Why do YOU teach?  Think about all it means.  Why are you in that classroom?  Why do you get up each morning, put on your working face, and step into that tropical forest that could grow and flourish or wilt and wither all at your hand?  Assuming you are a teacher, and not just one of those among us that took the job for the 3-month vacation (like that really happens), you already know the answer to the question.  You are a teacher because, simply stated, you are. 

I started teaching as soon as I could speak.  Education was important to me, and I wanted everyone to know its importance.  Now, unlike so many of today’s students, I was raised with an appreciation of education, a great and mighty need for learning.  Even before I started reading at age 3, I forced my knowledge on others, even strangers.  It should be understood that I grew up in a time when strangers were not feared as they are today, and often times were welcomed into our homes, especially if they were carrying a Bible or a vacuum.  So, as each traveling salesman or missionary came to the door, I would fling open my book and begin my instruction.  In the beginning, my lessons were the verses I had memorized in Sunday school the week before, and Grandma would lean down to me and tell me the adults already had this knowledge and that I should run on and play.  With a few taps to my head, and laughs from the adults, I would move on to my other victims – an assortment of dolls and stuffed animals arranged neatly in rows across my bedroom floor.

Teaching is in me.  It is a need.  It is gut.  Plain and simple, I must be in a classroom, surrounded by minds that I can instruct.  I must be sharing with them, not just my time or my criticism or my resources, but my knowledge and my love of knowledge.  I am a teacher because I am.

I feel comfortable in my classroom.  Like no other place I have ever been, my classroom is my refuge.  It is the place where I feel like I need to be, as some refer to it – my calling.  Along with that idea, I consider myself a natural.  I don’t say this to be bragging, but it just comes easy to me.  It is what I do.  It is what I am meant to do.  Some will understand this, some will not, and some may someday just “get it,” but it is my firm belief that teaching must be a natural act.  It cannot be taught.  I imagine that any administrator, or college education professor, reading this text is jumping out of their skin right now.  Additionally, any parent reading may be thinking, “What kind of quack is this writer, thinking a teacher could control and teach my child without being taught to teach.”  So, explanation is needed.

A teacher is a teacher at heart.  You have it, or you don’t.  It is not that you should jump in without any schooling or preparation (which is illegal in the U.S. anyway), but your purpose in being there should be in you in the beginning.  My last student teacher comprehended this idea.  She was a natural.  She took the bat, stepped up to the plate, and swung with a free flowing follow-through that was, without a doubt, a homerun.  She felt the mood of the classes, saw the future of each student, and anticipated the rises and falls that may take place in a typical day.  There is no hesitation, no quandary, no question.  She was supposed to be there.  A teacher.  Does she still need to complete her student teaching and her college courses?  Absolutely.  She needs to learn methods and skills to practice with her students.  She needs to hear the ideas of others.  She needs to see the hope and dreams that others also have for the success of the children placed in our care.  She needs to learn.

Now please do not think that I am one of those happy all the time teachers that create a glow through the building as they click through the halls with a bright smile or a pleasant word for everyone, but I do love being at my place.  It’s where I feel most “at home” and where I get my energy.  It is my sanctuary, but also my asylum, which is another reason I want to share my experiences and ideas to help others walk an easier path.  Moreover, I don’t just want to pass on my own ideas, but I will also divulge all the great secrets disclosed to me from all the incredible teachers I have met in my life.  After all, teaching is all about learning, and I like to learn from the best.  It’s like writing a cookbook without considering the input of Julia Child or Emeril or the newest ingredients of the Food Network’s Top Chef.  What works should be shared and passed on to help those that come after us.

So what does all this have to do with expecting excellence?  We must first expect it from ourselves.  Once we've accomplished that, setting high expectations for students will be easy! And the more direct answer was in the subheading...Teach without excuses from the students or from yourself.

Happy Teaching!

Performing in the Classroom: Effective Role-Play for Learning

"Nobody puts Baby in a corner!"
"If you build it, they will come."
"Show me the money!"
"Life is like a box of chocolates..."
"You can't handle the truth!"
"I see dead people!"
"Just keep swimming!"

As we all grew up watching movies, we dreamed of stepping into the roles that filled the screens.  Of course, I wanted to be Baby, dancing with Johnny and defying my parents to have the summer romance of a lifetime.  And no matter how much of an extrovert or introvert we are, we each have a tiny part of us that simply wants to control the stage.  

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

So how can we allow students the opportunity to star in our classroom?
Interactive lectures can be so much more engaging when the students are acting out the characters from history.  And keep in mind, History is relative.  The truth will never be known, so we can each contribute our theories on life in those times to help us better understand what may have been!

Here are some ideas for reenacting history in your Interactive Classroom:
  • Use Role Cards to have students step into history as you are covering specific topics.  Students can read this provided information to make sure they share the key facts for your course.
  • Utilize Plays or other Performance Scripts to allow students the opportunity to play leading roles in historic events.  These are best for larger topics where greater time can be afforded for preparation and rehearsal.
  • Assign Historic Figures to students, allowing them to research and create their interpretation of that significant person from history.  Be sure to check their information prior to performance.
  • Encourage project topic Presentations where students can perform their content in the manner of their choosing.  You may suggest Skits, Musical Performances, Talk Shows, or other interactive approaches for presenting the content.
  • Allow students to step into history by Projecting Scenes from history and encouraging each student to contribute their ideas on what it would have been like to live in that time.
  • Assign Caricatures and Meet & Greets where students can individually represent famous people and can circulate the classroom to meet others from their time period.
Encouraging activity is a great tool in the classroom, allowing students to live their content rather than simply hearing it presented to them on a daily basis.  What is better for reinforcement than to have actually experienced it for yourself?!

Need some interactive classroom resources to let the actors in your students play the roles of their lifetime?  Take a look at these favorites:
And one of my favorites for remembering the Chinese Dynasties for WHAP: You have to watch this! (These are not my students, but a number of variations can be found on Youtube.  Simply search WHAP Chinese Dynasties!)
Happy Teaching!

Groups in the Interactive Classroom: How to Assign the Groups!

As we try to make our classrooms more and more interactive, the great challenge can often be creating groups that can work well together.  While it is important to have mixed-ability groups, it is also important to keep them guessing and to keep them open to learning with and from every classmate in the room.

How do you create effective groups in the Interactive Classroom?

To create effective groups in your classroom, you have to keep one thing in mind: You are in charge, and what you say goes!  No group assignment is written in stone, and can be quickly and even informally changed at any moment in time.  It's your call. 

Another thing to consider is what type of group you want for each project.  Should they be strictly defined, or can they be randomly assigned?  I am a proponent of random assignment, and I happen to believe that in those random groupings, you will end up with mixed-ability sets.  And again, you can always revert back to rule number 1:  Mix them up after they are formed to get just that right interaction, whether it be for academic success or behavior control.

Random assignments are the easiest to create, and can be fun and engaging in the process:
  • For creating pairs, I love to use "Find Someone Who" or Meet & Match activities.  Students are given matching cards or clues and they must find each other to start the activity.  This gives students some time to stretch their legs, while also encouraging them to think critically as they search for the right partner.
  • For larger groups, use fun matching activities.
    • Hand out markers as students enter the classroom and direct them to sit in matching groups by color.
    • Distribute Vocabulary Cards and have students match themselves by term, definition, and significance.
    • Review Geography as you match up groups by passing out city names and having students group by state.
    • Use Timeline Clues to match groups into categories by year or any other time frame.
    • Match Task Cards providing some students clues and others questions to form groups as they solve the clues or complete the tasks. 
    • Play games or complete Scavenger Hunts, matching students as they find the correct answers for given clues.
  • To keep things moving, use a Jigsaw Activity.  This is great for studying varied topics at once and allowing student groups to research and share the key content.
    • First assign students into groups of 5.  Do this by number, color, alphabet, or any other strategy. 
    • Allow students to work on an assigned task or to gather information on a specific topic within each group.
    • As student groups are finishing up the first task, reassign students through a different strategy.  One of my favorites to use at this point was 5 different stickers that I quietly placed on each student's hand as they worked.  I used to draw different colored smiley faces on their hands, which the high school students LOVED, but had some parents complain, so KNOW your students and parents first!
    • Have students jigsaw to their new groups where they can share out the information from their original groups' investigations and research.  This is great for requiring EVERY student's participation since the others in the groups are dependent on their contribution!
Finally, one of the most valuable group interactions in your class can be with Response Groups.  My rule of thumb is to either allow student choice in forming their groups, or set up groups where you are confident the personalities will match and work cooperatively in discussion.  Response groups allow students to work together in researching tough subjects and in reporting the information they gather out to the class, often sharing a consensus opinion or suggestion on the topic.  In the end, these response group activities can be very effective in building a cooperative classroom climate.
 My three favorite Response Group Activities are on topics that can bring students together to share events that are sometimes seen only in terms of facts, yet should include emotion in their discussion and curricular coverage:
And remember: Groups help students to engage in the content in a more interactive and collaborative way.  IF that is not happening in your assigned groups - Change Them! 

Happy Teaching!

Bellringers: Class Starters to Engage

What is a bellringer?  

If you ask 10 different teachers, you will get 10 different answers.  And then, if you ask 10 administrators or curriculum legislators, you will add even more definitions to the list.  Some see bellringers as a means for standardized test prep, while others see them as an opportunity to review previously taught content.  

My definition is a bit different:
Bellringers are the perfect tool to help students get a head start on each daily lesson.  More importantly, they serve many purposes that not only help the student, but also help the teacher:
  1. Acts as a classroom management tool, helping students shift from free time to learning time as the bell for class is ringing.
  2. Provides the classroom teacher a brief opportunity at the beginning of class to take attendance and ready the lesson materials.
  3. Introduces the lesson topic or starts student thinking in the direction required for the lesson objectives.
  4. Allows student input on the topic or on related themes that may enhance student understanding or learning.
  5. Helps to establish connections for the student with the content about to be taught.
  6. Gives students an opportunity to share opinions on core subjects or to reflect on controversial topics.
  7. Serves as a launching board for classroom discussion and introduction on the lesson topic.
Of course, bellringers are just one step in implementing effective engaging lessons for your students, but they can be incredibly valuable tools in helping students engage and appreciate the lessons you have to teach them.

Need a lesson plan template to help you organize your class lessons?  Here's my FREE Lesson Plan Template.

Happy Teaching!

And be sure to hop over to Classroom Freebies for even more great ideas!
Classroom Freebies Manic Monday

In Honor of Our Founding Fathers: Addressing Protests and Creating Resolutions

On September 17th, 1787, the Founding Fathers approved the proposed Constitution of the United States.  They worked diligently to address the wrongs protested by the American colonists that had started the Revolution, and they created a document that could continue to resolve issues that could arise in the future.

Do you allow your students to Address Protests and Create Resolutions?
At the beginning of the school year, we expect that our students will need clearly stated ruled and expectations so they will abide as productive classroom citizens.  Yet, as the school year progresses, our students begin to test the classroom limits, and they often search for a chance to exert their own opinions and beliefs in the classroom settings.  To ignore this student need may lead to classroom management concerns, while creating opportunities for student expression may enhance student learning and cooperation.

How can you do this without losing classroom control?
  • Utilize assignments that provide student topic choice.
  • Introduce current events that open the door for discussion and the sharing of opinions.
  • Set the stage for student presentation and performance or role-playing.
  • Allow students to create their own resolutions for key historic events.
  • Organize response groups where students gain collective power and report shared ideas.
And all else fails, provide students an open forum in your classroom where they feel comfortable to share their concerns and their ideas.  What could be better than a weekly or monthly soap-box session in every Social Studies classroom?  Imagine the lessons they could learn.

Happy Teaching!

Trusting Sources in Your Classroom: Internet Reliability

With Columbus Day upon us, we face the reality that what is taught in our classrooms, or at least presented in our textbooks and other resources, is not always the truth, but instead folklore or misrepresentation of actual events.  In our modern technology-based classrooms, we have a new challenge: Steering students away from sources that are not reliable, and helping them to understand that what they read online is not always the truth of the matter!
In the past, History courses were taught with a silent understanding that the textbook, while not always accurate, was the truth to be told in our classroom instruction.  The words in the text became the standard, and for generations, students were given one-sided interpretations of historic events.  Now, we can check that information in a number of ways:
  1. Using Primary Sources to allow students to develop their own view on historic events or topics from history.
  2. Provide varied resources that illustrate the opposing views on history, allowing students the opportunity to see that historic events can be seen and recorded in a variety of ways, some with bias or set objectives.
  3. Teach students to test the information they have on hand for reliability.  In our modern tech-dependent world, this may be a valuable lesson, far beyond the value of our standard Social Studies lessons.
Here a a few tools to help with teaching this valuable lesson:
And once they learn this lesson, they may be one step closer to understanding that each historic event can never be truly understood as absolute truth.  After all, history is relative!

Visit the Classroom Freebies Manic Monday Blog for other great Free Resources and Helpful Information for your classroom!
Classroom Freebies Manic Monday
Happy Teaching!

I'm Off To Make the Donuts: Your Boring Curriculum Problems Solved

Every Social Studies certified teacher could be assigned a number of different courses in the Social Studies Department.  My first year of teaching was just that nightmare, with 6 different preps within 3 different courses.  I taught both honors and general (collab) courses in Government/Economics/Geography, World History, and U.S. History.  Who is equipped for all that?  After some initial adjustment, I was!  BUT, then came those topics I just hated.  I hated studying them myself, so having to teach them to my students was just torture.

What did I do?

Oh, yes!  I assigned student research and presentation projects!

Now I know better!

As my students presented their projects each year, I was tortured even further.  Not only was I enduring the topic I didn't love, but I was also being taught the content over and over by those who could not teach!  And rightfully so; they were not trained!  I was.  So, I did the only thing I could do:  I created my own resources and activities.

That was many years ago!  Since that time, I have created many resources, but I have also traveled the country to show others how they no longer need to reinvent the wheel (or the resources).  Thanks to the internet, and sites like TeachersPayTeachers, incredible, teacher and student-tested resources can be found to save you from the torture I suffered!

The lesson here: Do not be afraid to admit defeat, or a lack of interest, in some of the things you will be tasked to teach in your Social Studies classroom.  While we are all college educated, we are not, and never could be, knowledgeable on every topic in our department.  It's just not feasible (unless you are Sheldon Cooper!).

So, what is your least favorite topic?  Find mine here!

Happy Teaching!