Tag Archives: teachers

Phonics Card Games

As readers of this blog know very well, games are great to incorporate in the classroom for many important, neuropsychological reasons.  To summarize, kids learn best when they are having fun.

So, we’ve talked about board games for reviewing phonics.

Card Games: Fun and Educational!

Card Games: Fun and Educational!

Today, I want to introduce a handful of card games to get in more of that all-important practice, without kids feeling drilled to death.

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Teachers: Who’s on Your Team?

This is a question for all the teachers out there.  Who’s on your team?  Other teachers?  Check.  The administration?  If you’re lucky.  Parents?  If you’re smart.  So…what about your students?

little monstersLook, I taught in the classroom for ten years, and I know how easy it is to slip into thinking about you and your students as Me versus Them.  Walk into the teacher’s lounge and you’re likely to get that feeling reinforced.  “Don’t let them get you down!” colleagues will say.  “You show them who’s boss.”  Now it’s Us against Them.  Teachers versus Students.

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In Defense of Pandering

I admit it; I pander.  Scooby Doo, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Power Puff Girls, Goosebumps, Baseball’s Biggest Bloopers, Rugrats, Captain Underpants, The Day My Butt Went Psycho, all have graced my bookshelves at one point or another.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid?  Yup.  Hunger Games?  Duh.  Percy Jackson?  Of course.  Divergent?  The day one of my middle schoolers told me she was reading it because her friend told her she had to read it.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

Yes, of course, I have the classics, the books kids should read, the timeless literature, the heart-wrenching drama.  But let’s face it: not every child is ready for The Secret Garden or Lord of the Flies.  And those books that we fell in love with when we were kids?  The Hardy Boys, Catcher in the Rye?  As dated as the slang that made them sparkle so long ago.

Reading teachers from kindergarten through college are faced with a dilemma:  give kids books we know they’ll enjoy, or give them what’s “good for them?”  Here are two things to consider.  1) A book a kid loves easily and immediately can serve as a gateway to the rest of the world of literature, especially for reluctant readers.  2) The best and most amazing book, introduced too soon, can inoculate against said book and all its ilk for the rest of a person’s life.

I mean, how many adults (and you may be one of them!) experience a visceral and violent reaction to Dickens because they were forced to read Great Expectations in high school?  “Ugh!”  They tell you.  “Dickens is the worst!  That language!  It makes no sense.  And it goes on and on.  I hate it.”  Admit that you are reading him for fun and they shudder.

A typical student's reaction to Dickens (http://truthiness43.blogspot.com/)

A typical student’s reaction to Dickens (http://truthiness43.blogspot.com/)

Look: Dickens is an amazing writer.  He writes with some of the most expressive and beautiful prose there is.  His descriptions are cinematic in their scope and grandeur, biting social satire and incredible human empathy.  And he is wordy as all get out and very, well, Victorian.  That cinematic imagery reads to most high school freshman like the teacher in a Charlie Brown special: mwah mwah mwah mwah, mwah mwah mwah mwah.  If you’re lucky, the top readers of the class enjoy the book, but the reluctant readers?  You’ve just proven to them again that reading sucks.

Reluctant readers already hate reading.  Why?  Because it is hard for them.  Anytime a student tells me a book is boring, I translate into “too hard for me to enjoy.”  Either the sheer act of decoding the words on the page is laborious enough to take away the brainpower necessary for comprehension, the vocabulary or syntax of the passage is unfamiliar and thereby erects a wall between the reader and the meaning of the text, or the reader has trouble visualizing what they read.  In any case, reading is too effortful to allow the student to get lost in the book.

Reluctant readers may not even know what they are missing.  A freshman girl one time lowered her voice conspiratorially and asked, “Be honest.  Do you actually enjoy reading?”  I was shocked that she didn’t get that enjoyment, nay, love, was the motivator for everything I was teaching her.  She was shocked that anyone actually liked this whole reading thing.

Now, take one of these kids who think reading is a total must do kind of thing and give them a book about something they love and already know about.  First of all, you’ve instantly given them internal motivation to read.  Secondly, you’ve given them a chance to use their domain-specific knowledge to support their comprehension.  Huh?  You are tapping into what they already know about, so that they can use that to help them understand the text.

I worked with a middle school boy whose mother told me, “I don’t care what grades he gets.  I just want him to choose to pick up a book now and again.”  We started brainstorming what wouldn’t be too terrible (forget the word “enjoyable”) for him to read.  He finally told his mom and me that if he had to waste his time reading, at least he wanted to learn something from it.  No fiction!  Our routine became simple: review and teach phonics and morphology and then Google something he was curious about and read it.  One day, we read a comparison of aluminum bats, carbon fiber bats and wooden bats.  Another, we read about Belgian Waffles and the special pearl sugar needed to make them come out just right (supremely entrepreneurial, he wanted to set up a competing shop near the Belgian Waffle booth at the farmer’s market).  A third, we read about the Corvette Z06 Carbon Limited Edition.

I never could have guessed his varied interests.  But once he was reading because he had a “need to know” as Maria Montessori called it, he naturally employed all the comprehension strategies of good readers: monitoring his comprehension, making predictions, checking out unknown vocabulary and unfamiliar syntax, visualizing, asking questions of the text and reading with the purpose of answering them.  Slowly, he started applying these skills to fiction.  One day he came in amazed and excited because he had found a fiction book he was actually enjoying: Alex Rider.  He told me it was the first time he had been able to picture what was happening in a story, and agreed that it made it much more fun.  Eventually, he even started to apply these strategies to assigned reading. Reading about what interested him became the gateway for him to learn to be interested in what he had to read.

fairies

One of Many Fairies Book Series

So, even though we all want our kids to love Treasure Island, or Anne of Green Gables right off the bat, we have a lot to gain from taking a deep breath, asking them what they want to read, and even offering them Captain Underpants or one of the endless Rainbow Magic Fairies Book Series.  After all, what we really want is for them to learn to love reading, not to learn that reading is a painful drag that grown-ups, inexplicably, make you do.

 

First Day (Aaaahhhh!) Jitters

I walked into Staples and saw them.  Signs plastered everywhere: Back to School Sale.  My stomach tightened, my palms sweat and my heart skipped a beat.  As much as I or any teacher loves teaching, there is always that inevitable dread that comes as August winds down and September looms.  If this is true for we adults, who have been through 1st days of school twenty, maybe thirty or more times (even brand-spanking new teachers have already gone through their own twelve first days plus four in college), just think of how it feels to the little ones we teach.  Even the kids who love school, thrive in an academic environment, miss the easily-found social time of recess and lunch, or feel soothed by the structure and predictability of a regular school day feel some level of apprehension facing that very first day all over again.  Just think what it is like for the kids who struggle academically, socially or attentionally.

So, what’s a sensitive, caring, emotionally savvy teacher to do?  The first and most important step in helping your kids (and, let’s be honest here, yourself) deal with the first day jitters is to acknowledge them.  My master teacher lo these many years ago started out the first class meeting the first day of school by saying, “I’ve been through 48 first days of school and you know what?  I still couldn’t sleep last night wondering about what it would be like this year.”  You could hear the kids sigh their collective relief.  You mean this is normal?  I’m supposed to feel this way?

I always planned my first week curriculum around these very human fears.  The first day, we read aloud Kevin Henke’s wonderfully charming Wemberly Worried.  Oy, what a worrier Wemberly is!  She’ll make your most anxious student look as calm as the Dalai Lama.  And Wemberly’s newest and biggest anxiety of all?  School!

The second day, I read Shel Silverstein’s poem, “What if?”  which ranges from “Whatif I’m dumb in school?” to “Whatif green hair grows on my chest?”  Needless to say, kids (and teachers!) love it.

Lest you (or your administrator) get too worried about “wasting” time on socio-emotional issues rather than “the real” (hah!) curriculum, I have my kids follow up, first by inventing their own What if‘s (connecting self to text, and making a great bulletin board to boot), and then by comparing and contrasting Wemberly Worried and What if? (connecting text to text, venn diagram and all).

Of course, these activities don’t take all the dread away from the beginning of school, and they sure don’t make up for having to get up early again, but they do help kids feel normal, even when their feelings are uncomfortable.  And that helps to set up the class for a really great year.

End-of-the-Year Blues

I can’t believe teachers are starting to talk about going back to school.  I’m only just recovering from the end of school.  I know what you are thinking as you nod your head in sympathy: the finals, the grading, the report cards.  But there’s one more thing to recover from that rarely gets mentioned.  That’s, well, the ending.

You all know the old joke: What are the three best things about teaching?  June, July and August.  Now, I love a good summer break as much as the next teacher.  But I’m also always left with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth: that of dissolving a community.

Every teacher I know spends a huge amount of time and energy building their incoming, often chaotic group of little ones into a cohesive, supportive community.  From getting to know you activities in September to on-going problem solving, sharing and group work throughout the year, the kids get to know each other, the teacher and themselves as part of this group.

Ask any third grader who is the artist in your class or who the writer and they’ll tell you without hesitation.  Ask a fourth grader which classmates think dogs rule and cats drool and which ones fervently defend their feline friends, and they’ll know.  Even Middle and High schoolers can tell you which of their classmates they text to get the homework assignments and which they text to get clarification on the math lesson.  That is all to say, these kids get to know each other; they become part of a community.

Now, ask any teacher about classroom behavior, and they will tell you that there is a clear and consistent cycle each year: you have to work hard on it in the Fall, get to relax into a solid routine in the Winter, and then have to refocus on it in late Spring.  Why, my colleagues and I bemoan in April, do we have to go over the rules for tether-ball now!  Did all my students really forget how to stand in line or share scissors over Spring Break?  After seven months of practice, how is that even possible?

Battle-weary teachers bandy theories about over the coffee machine: Spring Fever, beautiful weather outside, excitement for the summer.  But a few years ago I realized another factor was unraveling the hard-won structure in the classroom: anxiety about leaving behind the class they have become part of.

Around mid-May one year, I heard a piece on NPR about military spouses getting into squabbles right before deployment.  Psychologists explained that it is easier to take your leave of someone when you are angry or annoyed at them than when everything feels perfect.  The latter is just too sad.  So, unconsciously, we humans spend our last few precious days picking fights, building up the annoyance that will make good-bye feel a little less bitter.

My next morning was filled with a gazillion little aha moments.  Ben and Chris, best friends since October, arguing over whether Ben purposefully though the ball out of bounds.  Melanie and Sarah, not speaking to each other because Melanie had wanted to play on the grass and Sarah insisted on the jungle gym.  These kids aren’t crazy, I (finally) realized; they’re scared.

So for the first time, we circled up and talked about it.  Yes, we were super excited about summer.  Yes, it would be great to sleep in, have no homework, go to camp.  But, hey, we were also going to miss each other.  Although it seemed so appealing, it was hard to go from six hours a day surrounded by friends to a house with only parents and siblings, when you had to work to set up play dates instead of just running out to recess or lunch.

Kids shared what they would miss, who they appreciated, what they had learned from whom over the last nine months.

Now, I won’t pretend I morphed into Michelle Pfeiffer and all conflict magically disappeared as we faded to black in cinematic bliss.  But conflict did decrease, and as we continued to check in and revisit our ambivalence about the end of the year, a tenderness emerged.  Students (and their teacher) learned that we humans often feel contradictory emotions about the same subject at the same time.  So, even though it was harder to say goodbye when the time came, it was also sweeter and more real.  And as I blanch slightly walking by the Back to School signs at Staples, I also start to wonder who the little people are going to be who will make up my community this coming year.