Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Wanna GREAT Year? Start Here!

I am no expert. So who am I to try to offer tips or tricks or any kind of advice to have a great school year?

I will be starting my 12th year of teaching and I have been all over on the "how much do you love your job" spectrum.  I have had the burning excitement for teaching that those first few years bring on.  I have looked at the school year and my growing family and fought back tears thinking "I can't both be a good parent and a good teacher," I have to find a way out. I have felt the spark of passion ignite from the idea for one project, and seen that grow continually into a passion for teaching over the last three years.

My 9th year teaching was the best ever.  Until my 10th year, it was amazing.  I thought "surely 11 won't be as good as 10...it can't be."  It was. 11 was simply awesome.

So...here are some of the things that have helped me have not just one great school year, but three in a row (and I have high expectations year 12 as well.)  ***Authors Note...these are all things I have tried doing in my classroom in the last 3 years, but I am still a work in progress and looking to improve in each of these areas every year.***

#1 Reflect on the last few years (or weeks or months...) and reflect HONESTLY.  

Seriously. If you're not willing to take a good hard, HONEST look at your classroom and your teaching, then don't even bother with this one.  Ask yourself some easy questions to get started... What did you like teaching last year? What didn't you like? Why? If you were a student in your own classroom would you be excited to come to your class? What do the students actually think? Can you find out? Are you willing to listen to what they have to say?

These are not always easy questions to answer...but they are a necessity if you are looking at improving your classroom and having a better year (or week, or month, quarter, or semester) than you did before.

Teaching truth... I have NEVER seen a student excited about a worksheet. Ever. Don't be blinded by the fact that you love your subject and you would like to do the activities, lessons, and assignments you hand out. This is why you gotta ask the kids! They'll be honest, and have some good ideas if you're willing to listen!

#2 Student engagement impacts everything in the classroom.

If you want to have a better school year it starts here. If student's aren't engaged in what they are learning, they're not really learning.  They're looking for anything that's going to capture their attention; a cell phone, classmate, fidget spinner, or anything that is more interesting that the lesson you have going.  Classroom management, building relationships, assessment, and pretty much anything else with school can be improved by students being actively engaged in your class.

I have been actively working to increase student engagement the last three years. They notice. My 7th and 8th graders know they're going to get to do fun, different, and challenging things in social studies. But even I have days that need improvement. My rule of thumb... if I'm bored, so are the students, those are the days I need to improve. I am challenging myself to BRING IT each and every day.

Teaching truth... students sitting on exercise balls instead of chairs working on a worksheet are still just working on a worksheet. It's not actively engaged in class.

#3 Start Simple...Your class can be more engaging with a few simple changes!

If engaging your students in class seems like a daunting task, start small.  Start with these simple tricks.

  • Start with you! If you are PUMPED for the lesson, they will be more likely to want to know why. Not feeling it? They don't care, so you better bring it anyway! 
  • Sticky Notes: Take that worksheet and instead of passing it out (and making copies) ask the question aloud, have students write their answer and initials on a sticky note and put it on the board under "#1" - - Or take those question on the worksheet and write each one on a different piece of construction paper. Students travel around with sticky notes answering the questions.

  • Get them up and moving!  Have students mix around the room, shout out a pairing task "someone with the same color of eyes," students pair up...ask the question, they discuss the answer and move on and repeat!
  • Jigsaw and discussion. Try a Gallery Walk with the question on a worksheet...each team gets one question, a piece of poster board, and 15 minutes to answer the question and create the poster. Hang posters around the room...students move from poster to poster. Speed dating is another great one!
  • Try a mini puzzle or challenge to start the day.  I love to use this one with my 8th graders to start our discussion on the Preamble to the Constitution. They LOVE trying to figure it out :) 

  • Stations... I use various stations many times throughout the year. Especially when I have a lot of content to present and I'm low on time.  I set up 5-6 different stations and have kids move through them. I always try to have the stations be interactive with a game or white board to write on or sorting to try to figure out...and then throw in a couple reading stations. 
  • White boards and markers. KIDS LOVE THEM. I don't know what it is about using an Expo marker on a dry-erase board, but kids go nuts over it. I love to review a previous days' information by passing out one board and marker to each team of students and having them rotate the writing responsibilities. Ask question...think/write time...countdown (with actions...get into it!) and BOOM. Answers up! So much fun!
Teaching Truth...Many of these activities are actually LESS WORK for you than going down to the office to make copies and grading worksheets!

Worksheet Challenge...try going ONE WEEK without giving your students a worksheet. See the difference, I promise your students will!

#4 Add Technology

I have talked before about the importance of adding technology into your classroom. If you won't start to integrate tech into your class, you are doing your kids a disservice. They WILL BE USING IT (and many already are) on a daily basis. Their jobs will depend on it. 

I am currently in love the the possibilities that QR codes can bring into the classroom. Scavenger hunts, gallery walks, student/peer feedback, etc... can be achieved with the use of a QR code. My kids can expect to see these many times throughout this school year. 

Teaching truth...if you're just taking scanned copies of your worksheets and having students complete them online, it's still just a boring worksheet, and the addition of the technology does very little.

#4 Don't be afraid to let your middle school (and high school) students cut, paste, and color!

Bust out the construction paper, colored pencils, crayons, and glue! As much as I am a proponent for using technology, I'm also a proponent for letting kids touch, make, and get sticky.  My 7th graders will create an interactive notebook that I call our H.I.T. Books. (Historians in Training).  These books are used throughout the year to collect and analyze historical evidence. Students have complete freedom with creating the pages of the book and even assess themselves on the rubric (I don't ever collect and grade it!) 

Teaching truth...your room will be messier. 

#5 Collaborate, Share, and Show off!

Some of my BEST stuff has come from other teachers who are not in my same building, city, or state! Find teachers who are doing cool things and sharing their stuff...and follow everything they do. This includes teachers of other subject areas and grade levels too.  Maybe something a 3rd grade teacher does in his/her classroom can be easily adapted to fit your MS classroom. Got a HS teacher friend who does cool stuff? Modify it slightly and you can work that in your classroom...(Shout out to Mr. Shutte, @coachshutte and Mr. Warsnak, @thewarsnak for giving me some Buzzworthy ideas for my classroom) 

Once you're done stealing and modifying what other teachers do, it's time to give it back. Share what's going on in your room. What worked well? How did your week of no worksheets go? What failed? Seriously every teacher is doing something awesome...have some confidence and share what you're doing!

Lastly...but possibly most importantly. Show off the cool things your students do! I once took a picture of a student who showed me a cool search trick on Google, and again for another student who showed me a less-messy way to eat a cupcake. Seriously. Kids want to know when they do something well...share it! 

Teaching truth...Kids LOVE it when you ask their permission to share their work, and their parents love it even more. Shoot an email or call home and ask if it's OK to share something that Johnny did in class!

Once again, I will say that I am a work in progress. I have days that aren't great and units that need major improvement. I don't always have every kids hooked and engaged in class.  These are just a few of the things that I am focused on because I know that it works. As I look to improve each and every day, I know that each year will keep getting better and better!

Happy School Year!

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