Monday, September 1, 2014

What Makes a Parent Love a Teacher

Guest post by Jennifer Gonzalez

The note from Mrs. F. came home two weeks into the school year:
I’d like to talk with you about how we can make reading time more challenging for Ruby. When can we meet?

Although I knew my daughter was an advanced reader, I had accepted that it would always be up to me to ask for this kind of differentiation. The conversation had never been initiated by the teacher.

Thus began my year of absolutely loving Mrs. F.

I know a lot of teachers, and I know that a lot of their energy goes into things like setting up classrooms, finding new materials and activities, learning new technology, and downloading beautifully designed templates and worksheets. All of that is good and important: The more efficiently your class is run, the more hands-on your activities are, the more welcoming your classroom is, the better the year will be.

But all of that pales in comparison to this one thing. The thing you could do in a bare cinderblock room with no electricity and no more technology than a stick for writing in the dirt floor. The one thing a teacher can do that makes a bigger difference than all those other things combined:

Know my child.

That’s it. This knowledge can manifest itself in so many ways: You can know their academic skills, their allergies, their family, their moods, their quirks, any and all of these things. Just know my child, and a lot of other stuff just falls into place.

It Makes a Difference

My kids are currently in grades 2, 3, and 5. As a family, we have experienced a combined total of twenty different teachers, including preschool teachers and those who teach their “specials.” So far, what has made a few stand out far above the others is how well they get to know my child.

Do other parents feel the same way? When I ask my friends with kids what makes them really love certain teachers, their responses vary in some ways, but one element is always present; “know my child” is always at the core. Here are just a few examples:
From a mother of two: Some of my favorite teachers have been those who were interested in my children and made them feel important. The best one made me feel like my kids were the only kids in her class – she knew them so well – but every parent thought that. The kids wrote in journals every day and she'd read them all – every entry – by reading four or five a day – and respond to what the kids had written. To this day, those journals are among my most treasured keepsakes from their elementary years. 
From a mother of four: Over the years the teachers that stood out were the ones that really put forth the effort to get to know not only my kids but all their students. Those are the teachers my kids still talk about.
From a mother of three: I love it when a teacher "gets" my kid.
Putting in extra effort to really know your students also benefits the teacher. When I taught middle school, knowing my students well helped prevent a lot of behavior issues. If Melissa shared her recent family issues with me, I was gentler with her when she got off-task. If I learned that Joseph had a hard time reading in a crowded room, I could let him read in the hall, avoiding the problems that would have come from forcing him to remain in class.

Creating a System for Getting to Know Students 

Knowing your students on a deeper level doesn’t happen quickly, and it takes a bit of work. Many teachers use some kind of questionnaire at the beginning of the school year to help them learn more about students. As a parent, I look forward to completing these, because I assume the teacher will read every word. If the year moves along and I never see any evidence that they have, it’s kind of a letdown.

If you send those questionnaires out, do something with the information. One way to get systematic with this process is to maintain a chart of the “deep data” that makes each kid unique. By keeping everyone’s information in one living document, you’re more likely to learn that information well.

Click here to download a free customizable copy of the Deep Data at a Glance chart.

Once you've filled out the first round of facts, keep going. Put a shortcut to this document on your desktop and update it as you pick up more information about your students, because kids change and grow. Family configurations change. New passions develop. Who they are at the start of the year is not the same as who they are at the end.

Then, use the chart as a reference tool: Before surprising the class with a special treat, check out the “Food & Drink” column to remind yourself of special preferences. When shopping for new books for your class library, scan the “passions” column to remind yourself of the topics students are interested in. And regularly search for holes: With all the data in one place, you can keep students from fading into the woodwork. Using my chart below, I can see that I need to spend a little more time with Tim Christopher. 

Finally, you can use it to reconnect with students. If Jaylen and I haven’t had any non-academic interactions lately, I can study the chart in the morning, then later that day ask him what he’s been building in Minecraft lately, or how his dog Reggie is doing. He’ll probably be shocked that I know these things, but it will mean a whole lot to him. We all want to be seen.

So the next time you’re stressed because you haven’t posted to your class blog or changed your bulletin boards lately, choose to put your energy into making personal connections with your students. You will only have these children for this period of time, only this one chance to know them. So make it a priority.

I promise, it will be appreciated.

Jennifer Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence/English Language Arts. Before starting her website, Cult of Pedagogy, she taught middle school language arts for eight years and college-level education courses for four. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Would YOU Do with 10,000 Bonus Points?

Newly-Updated Freebie for You!

Who loves Scholastic Reading Club? I do! I do! I love how every month they send a new order form that's packed with great reading selections. I also love how they reward teachers with bonus points for their classroom. A few years ago they started offering a fabulous deal at the beginning of the school year where you could get thousands of bonus points with your first order.

Of course there was a catch - back then, your order had to be $200 or more. With an order that size, you could get 4,000 bonus points. Wow! I couldn't even begin to imagine what I could do with that many points! But I also wondered, "How in the world am I going to get an order that large? Lately I haven't even gotten many $20 orders!"

But I couldn't walk away from a deal that sweet, so I decided to give it a try. I explained the program to my students and put the challenge out to them. I told them that I would be able to use those bonus points to buy books and materials for our classroom, and I sent a letter to parents explaining our goal. Amazingly, we not only met that goal but we surpassed it by about $30! My class was thrilled when FOUR big boxes of books showed up a week later! It was exciting to hand out the books, and I loved spending those bonus points on books throughout the year. I was able to purchase dozens of sets of books for literature circles and for my reading workshop program.

Over the years I tweaked my system and turned it into a complete goal-setting program. I actually used the program as a way of teaching my class how to set goals and create action plans. Every year it worked better and better, and I began to tell other teachers about it.They system worked for them, too! Eventually I typed up detailed directions, complete with a customizable letter to parents, a star-themed poster for tracking our progress, and coupons.

Earn 10,000 Points in 2014
Fast forward to 2014.... This year's deal has a much higher minimum, but it also has greater potential rewards. With an order of $300 you can get 10,000 points! The system is basically the same, but it will take a little more persistence to reach the top goal. Don't give up because you can do it!

Just this month I updated my packet based on the new flyers that just came out from Scholastic Reading Club, so if you were using my system from last year, please download the new version. Even if you don't think you can reach a goal of $300, any size order will generate loads of additional points, so why not give it a try? You can download this freebie from my store. If you download it from TpT, I would really appreciate you taking a moment to rate it and leave a comment. Thanks!

By the way, if you used my system last year, I'd love to hear from you! Please leave a comment here on the blog or on TpT to let others know how it worked. Every year I am excited to read the success stories that teachers share with me.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Teaching Kids How to Have REAL Discussions

Do you remember the last time you and your friends had a great discussion? I’ll bet you didn’t take turns around the table with each person speaking for 30 seconds or a minute! Instead, it was probably a lively conversation with everyone listening to each other and responding to everyone's ideas. Although you didn't speak for the same amount of time, everyone was involved and participated actively. If group members disagreed with each other, they were polite and supported their own views with facts and relevant details. Everyone was energized by the discussion and came away with some new perspectives.

Now think about what happens in team discussions at school. One student dominates the discussion while others are too shy to share their own views. To prevent this from happening, we ask them to take turns around the team ... but those discussions don’t feel like real conversations. It’s obvious that team members aren't really listening to each other because they don’t link their ideas to what anyone else has said. Instead, it’s almost as if they’re simply waiting for their turn to talk. Because most kids don’t know how to disagree politely, either they all agree with each other or when they do disagree, someone's feelings are sure to be hurt. Watching these "discussions" is almost painful!

Learning to Link Ideas
As you know from your own discussions, a great conversationalist is someone who really listens to others and who demonstrates this by linking his or her ideas to those of others in the group.

This skill is so important that it's now stated in the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards for collaborative discussion at almost every grade level. But how do we teach that skill?

One way to link your response to someone else's idea is to use these steps:
  1. Name the person who shared the idea to which you are connecting.
  2. Mention a key idea, fact, or opinion the other person shared.
  3. Clearly state your own question, opinion, or idea.
For example, "Julie, I can see why you might say that Cindy is outgoing, but I thought she was shy because ...." or "Tom, I agree with you about ________, and another detail that supports your point is..."

Introducing the Strategies

When you begin teaching students to have real discussions in which they link their ideas to others, it's best to start with baby steps. Introduce the concept in a whole group setting by posing a question and asking volunteers to come forward and link arms to show how they are connecting their ideas to others. Model the three parts of a linked response described above.

Next, students can create paper chain links to model how speakers often have multiple discussion threads going at the same time. Finally, you can introduce older students to team "discussion webs" where their ideas are interconnected in complex ways.

During last week's Active Engagement Strategies for Success Webinar (Part Two), I explained how to implement several discussion strategies for linking ideas and why we need to teach these skills. To watch the entire webinar, visit the Active Engagement Strategies page on Teaching Resources. Click the play button below to watch the segment about how to foster great discussions.

Discussion Connections Mini Pack

You don't need to purchase anything to start teaching your students how to have real discussions, but the Discussion Connections Mini Pack offers some time-saving resources to make your job a little easier. It's a step-by-step guide for introducing discussion skills in the elementary classroom, and the basic concepts can be applied in middle school and high school classrooms, too. You'll find all the directions and printables needed, including discussion prompts to help students link their ideas. The pages below let you peek inside, or you can click here to preview the entire Discussion Connections Mini Pack.

Just to clarify, there's nothing wrong with having students take turns sharing ideas around the table, especially when they first work in cooperative learning teams. It's a great place to start! The problem comes in when we don't take our students to the next level and teach them how to have REAL discussions.

In order to have meaningful interactions in cooperative learning teams, literatures circles, and even in the lunchroom, kids need to understand that discussion involves LISTENING as well as talking. When we take time to connect our ideas, we show that we are listening to others and considering their viewpoints, rather than waiting for our turn to talk. Taking time to teach discussion strategies at the beginning of the year will reap dividends later, and those benefits will reach far beyond the classroom!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Celebrating 500,000 Facebook Likes!

500,000 Likes = $50 TpT Giveaway!

Holy moly! I noticed a few days ago that my Teaching Resources Facebook page was about to hit 500,000 likes! Sound like a good reason to celebrate, doesn't it?

Facebook is a terrific way for educators to connect and collaborate, and I love all the sharing that takes place on my page! The Wednesday Question Connection feature has really taken off, with dozens of people posting questions each week, and hundreds of teachers responding to them and offering advice when I share the questions on Facebook.

Because the success of my page is a result of the amazing teachers who take time to like, comment on, and share my posts, I decided to celebrate this accomplishment with a $50 TpT giveaway. To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form before Monday, September 1st, at 10 pm.

Teaching Resources -
Here, There, and Everywhere!

I realized those who follow me on Facebook might not be aware of my resources in other locations like my free virtual file cabinet on Teaching Resources, this blog, my TpT store, and on Pinterest. I have hundreds of freebies, teacher books, and ebooks and they are in a number of different places online. I set up the giveaway to encourage you to visit those other locations where you can find resources to help you get started this year.

How to Enter to Win the Gift Card
You can earn up to 8 entries by taking each action in the Rafflecopter, but the only mandatory entry is to like my Teaching Resources Facebook page - of course! By the way, you don't have to complete all the entries now. If you get sidetracked in my TpT store or on my website, you can always come back later to finish!

The contest for the $50 TpT gift card started when my page hit 500,000 likes at 9 pm on Monday, August 25th and it will end a week from that time at 9 pm EDT, Monday, September 1st.

If you enjoy the Teaching Resources Facebook page and my resources, please take a moment to share this contest with others. Thanks! Have a great school year!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Halting Back Talkers in Their Tracks!

Guest post by Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teaching

Note: This is the final post in the WBT's Classroom Transforming Rules series. To find all of the posts in the series, click here. To see Whole Brain Teaching in action, watch the videos on the WBT website.

Need a rule that stops back-talking students in their tracks?  Discover the golden signpost on the road to Teaching Heaven.

When my teaching colleagues and I developed Whole Brain Teaching’s classroom rules in 1999, our goal was to cover every classroom problem.
We wanted a couple of rules that were as specific as possible and one or two others that covered all varieties disruptive behavior. Thus, we have three rules that target specific classroom problems. As described in this series,
  • Rule 1:  “Follow directions quickly” addresses slow transitions.
  • Rule 2:  “Raise your hand for permission to speak,” targets kids who are spontaneously chatty.
  • Rule 3:  “Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat,” keeps classrooms from turning into playgrounds.
Unfortunately, these three rules don’t cover every classroom misbehavior. Rule 4 “Make smart choices” is marvelously general, addressing every decision a child (or adult!) can make. Rule 4 can be applied to any issue not covered by the first three rules.

So, why do we need Rule 5, “Keep your dear teacher happy?” Rule 5 addresses your most challenging students … the ones who will quarrel with you about Rules 1-4! (Click here to download all the free rule posters.)
  • Children who dawdle along, can claim they are following directions quickly.  
  • Chatty students can claim they weren’t speaking to anyone.  
  • Your most challenging kids can even deny they are out of their seat … when they are standing in the middle of the classroom!  “I’m not out of my seat.  I’m just getting my pencil sharpened.”  
Of course, your most resistant spirits can argue that all their choices are smart, no matter how obviously foolish.

So, what’s a beleaguered teacher to do? You need one rule that can’t be disputed. In 15 years in thousands of classrooms, we’ve never had a child convince their instructor that their disruptive behavior made the teacher happy! Rule 5 is the argument stopper, the backtalk squelcher, the golden signpost to Teaching Heaven.

If a parent or administrator is troubled by the rule, explain, “I know Rule 5, ‘Keep your dear teacher happy’ sounds like it is about me, but that’s not the case. My only happiness is seeing my students learn.”

Here’s a two-step procedure to establish Rule 5, "Keep your dear teacher happy."

Step One
For a minute or so, five times a day, rehearse the five classroom rules. You call out the rule number; your students rapidly reply with the rule and the matching gesture. After several weeks, place special emphasis on Rule 5. During rehearsals and at random times during the day, call out “Rule 5!” Students respond, “Keep your dear teacher happy!” while framing their smiling faces with their fingers.

As an explanation of the rule, say something like the following to your kids, “It doesn't take presents, or anything material, to keep me happy. I only want one thing, one thing in all the universe, and that’s seeing you learn. Your growth as students fills my heart with happiness.”

Step Two
Once students can instantly respond with the rule and gesture, when you call out “Rule 5,” you’re ready for implementation.

Pick a lively student, Sarah, and say, “I’m going to pretend like I’m teaching and then I’ll say to you, Sarah please pay attention.  I want you to say back, with real attitude in your tone of voice “I am paying attention!”

This will be wonderfully shocking to your class … a student gets to backtalk you!  And so, the little skit is played.  When Sarah backtalks, you exclaim, “Great job Sarah!  That was a wonderful example of breaking Rule 5! Class, give her a 10 finger woo!!”  Your kids extend their wiggling fingers toward Sarah and exclaim, “Woo!”  (More fun than applause.)

Then say, “This time when Sarah backtalks, I'll call out Rule 5. I want you to respond using our gesture and quickly say, ‘Keep your dear teacher happy!”

Follow this routine once or twice until the class instantly implements the Rule 5 callback.

For several days, and whenever necessary thereafter, practice the routine just described. We've found that the key to stopping challenging behavior is to practice the class response … before disruption occurs!

The only problem we've discovered with implementing Rule 5 is that students implement it too eagerly! Kids will start calling out “Rule 5!” whenever they hear the slightest amount of guff. When this occurs say, with a broad, honest grin, “I appreciate how quickly you are using Rule 5 … but believe me, I will let you know when I think it’s necessary.”  Oh happy day … your kids have your back at the faintest whisper of ornery behavior!!!

If you don’t have challenging kids, then Rules 1-4 will be all you’ll need. Of course, if your classroom has no disruptions, then you’re already in Teaching Heaven!

 To download the free classroom rule posters described in this article, click here or on the Rule 4 poster image above.

For more information on Rule 5 and WBT’s other classroom rules, look at Chapter 7 in “Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids” on

Chris Biffle
Director, Whole Brain Teachers of America
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Chris Biffle, a college philosophy professor for 40 years, is the author of seven books (McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins) on critical thinking, reading and writing. He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last 15 years, Chris has been lead presenter at over 100 Whole Brain Teaching conferences, attended by 20,000+ educators. Thousands of instructors across the United States and around the world base their teaching methods on his free ebooks available at
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