A Primer on Smooth, Efficient Transitions

Triathletes know that races can be won or lost not just during the swim, bike, or run, but during the transitions in between. During my first triathlon, I had just completed the 12-mile bike when I entered the gate to the bike racks and ran my bike towards my row. Only one event to go! As I approached my spot, I saw my mom and my husband cheering for me by the sidelines. I smiled hugely, waved exuberantly, and… ran right past my spot. I finally caught on as my dismayed family started yelling at me to stop and turn around.

Not my best transition.

Transitions in teaching are just as important as they are in triathlons. More important, because student learning (and not just my bruised ego) depends upon them. Continue reading

Advertisements

Homework That Changes Lives

love homework.  But I didn’t always.  I used to hate homework.  I hated it as a student, and I hated it as a teacher.  I hated it for all the reasons it is now questioned by education researchers.  Homework at the elementary level is usually:

  • Busywork (for teachers and students)
  • If un-differentiated: too easy for some students, too hard for others
  • If differentiated: unbearably complicated and time-consuming for teachers
  • Stressful for families
  • Graded too slowly or infrequently to give students valuable feedback
  • A poor form of assessment
  • Something we (and I mean all of us: teachers and students and families) do only because we have to, or because we think we should, or because other people think we should.

I am also really skeptical of the idea that homework at the elementary level teaches study skills in and of itself.  Now, if you put into place a real system for programmatically teaching children to study at home and at school and use homework strategically to reinforce that system, well, ok then.  But usually, people expect that just by giving kids homework, they will learn study skills.  Instead, I think kids learn how to procrastinate, how to put up a good fight with their parents, and how to put as little effort into their work as possible in order to get it done quickly.

I tried all kinds of traditional homework systems: weekly packets, daily assignments, even differentiated homework that involved making different packets for several different groups of students (which, by the way, is insane).  And then I went to the Skillful Teacher, learned about effective effort, and decided there had to be a better way.

I asked myself, what if homework was really valuable?  Better yet, what if homework was life-changing?  What if it could teach students — prove to students — that with effective effort and time, they could achieve anything? Continue reading

The Best-Laid Plans

It’s true, the best laid plans of mice and teachers often go awry.  But in teaching, shoddy plans darn well guarantee disaster.  The end of the year comes, and there is so much left to do and so little time to do it!  New teachers, especially, trust me: you do not want to be that teacher who is frantically trying to fit two science units, a math unit, and, you know, the Pilgrims into the last three weeks of school.

In each of my 180 school days, I have about 4 hours of real instructional time.  That’s it.  It’s about 80% of what I think we really need.  But it’s what I’ve got.  So how do I get the most out of it?

My strategy is to plan at three levels: the curriculum plan for the whole year, long-range plans for every six weeks, and weekly lesson plans. Continue reading

Making Homework Choice Work: First Steps

Lots of people tell me they think homework choice is a great idea, but they’re wondering how to make it work in their classrooms.

In my classroom, we’re almost finished with our first week of homework choice. From where I stand (make that sit, totally exhausted) there are three keys to implementing the system successfully: Continue reading

Organization that Takes a Team

Thank goodness my school has tables instead of desks.  I remember my desk in elementary school.  Especially on the day when I was supposed to recite a poem, and I found it crumpled in the back, long forgotten.  Even if my classroom had desks, I’d still put them in clusters and prevent kids from putting anything inside them.

Silverware drawers are excellent school supply organizers.

Silverware drawers are excellent school supply organizers.

There are five tables in my room, and the kids at each table are a team that shares supplies.  We have the luxury of being able to provide school supplies for everyone, so no one is allowed to bring supplies from home.  We have what we need, and we’re all equal.  No one can argue they lost their favorite pencil because the pencils belong to all of us.

Every table organizes their supplies in a silverware drawer, which has a much lower profile than other classroom organizers I’ve seen.  The advantage: no one can hide behind a silverware drawer. Continue reading

The Paper Problem: Solved

It is downright scary how much paper is used in a third grade classroom.  I do my best to avoid unnecessary photocopying, but darn, those third graders do a lot of work!  And if you’re not careful, it piles up fast.

I don’t deserve any credit for the slick paperwork management system I’m about to share.  I just assembled pieces of it from colleagues wiser than me, and it has worked seamlessly in my room.

Here are its organization goals:

  1. Capture finished (often corrected) student work.
  2. Send the work home for parents to see.
  3. Get the best, most important work back so we can keep it for end-of-the-year portfolios.
  4. Store the portfolio work without requiring Mrs. Fox to do a whole lot of ANY filing.  (I hate filing!)

And its learning goal: help third graders pause and reflect on each week, taking the time to appreciate successes and challenges, set a goal for the following week, and share their learning with their families. Continue reading

Where to Begin

After writing my last post, I thought about what it’s like to organize a classroom you’ve inherited.  My first classroom.  And my second classroom.  And, yes — three summers in a row — my third classroom.

And I thought of how materials pile up over time, of all the times you throw something in the closet because you don’t have time to find a place to put it away.  You know you need to reorganize, but where to start?

So, for those who need to organize for the first time or reorganize after a long time, here’s some advice:

Take everything out of every closet, every drawer, every shelf and lay it out in the middle of the room. Wash all the empty spaces. Seriously. There are probably years worth of dust there, bits of glitter and hair… yuck. Throw out the garbage. Group your materials. THEN put things back in the places that make sense to you. Do this and you’ll know what you have, what you need, and where everything is.

— a. fox