Blogging With Elementary Students

When I use technology in my classroom, it’s never just for the sake of using technology.  I use technology when it will do a better job of achieving my learning goals than traditional methods.  I have rigorous goals for my students and little time to achieve them.  So we use computers (and iPads, iPods, etc.) only when they give us a greater return on investment.

That brings me to one really smart investment: blogs.  Blogging is all about writing.  To write a blog well, you need to be organized, include details, think about your audience, develop your voice, and edit for conventions.  What makes blogging different from normal classroom writing?  When students write blogs, they can share their writing with the world.  Perhaps “the world” is limited to their parents, grandparents, and other family members.  Perhaps “the world” really is the world, as in, everyone in the world can see what they write.

Blogging is writing with the volume turned up to 11.  Students are more excited to write blog posts than practically anything else they write in the classroom.  And so, as their teacher, I love having them blog so I can take full advantage of that drive in order to teach them to write well. Continue reading

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 Strengths Mentality

I started reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman (high brow stuff, right?  I know you’re impressed).  It was witty and wildly imaginative, but man, was it giving me the most bizarre dreams.

So now I am sticking to the safer choice, Count Me In!  Including Learners with Special Needs in Mathematics Classrooms by Judy Storeygard (summary here).  (And my husband, who is, literally, tired of my sleepless nights, has told me I’m not allowed to read before bedtime.)

One point that resonated with me in Count Me In! is the way Judy describes the “deficit mentality” children and parents often face.  She shares the experiences of parents of special needs children whose parent-teacher conferences are dominated by discussions of their children’s needs, but never their strengths.  An autistic student, for instance, has many math-related skills.  He’s great at solving puzzles, building with legos, and remembering directions.  But, his teacher’s expectations of him in the math classroom are very low.  Frustrated with hearing about her child’s limitations, his parent asks, “How can his skills be used to build math knowledge?”

This reminded me of one of my first-ever parent conferences.  I’m gonna say it plain: the student was a pain in the butt. Continue reading

Mastering Math Facts (At Home)

I see parents as my partners in their children’s education.  The obvious reason is that parents are absolutely the most important people in their children’s lives.  They know their children better than anyone else, and they are an essential resource for information and problem solving.

And philosophically, I think it matters to kids when they see their parents and teachers working as a team, supporting them.  When I was a kid, my mom and my teachers were friends.  My mom was always involved — president of the PTA one year, making talent show sets the next — and school felt like an extension of home, a place where I belonged and was cared for.

There’s a practical component to this partnership, too. Continue reading

Making the First Move: Effective Parent Communication

Before I realized that I wanted (maybe needed?) to be a teacher, I worked in the national office of an AmeriCorps program as a “Special Projects Assistant” to the CEO.  It’s well known that I was, and continue to be, very special.  But what I learned was how to develop relationships.  Over time, I’d watch as the founders and staff would build relationships with donors and convince them — we’re talking individuals here, not even corporations — to give as much as a million dollars a year.  Certainly, people gave because they believed in the power of our organization to change the world.  But they also gave because they trusted the founders and the staff.  They gave because of their relationships, not just their beliefs. 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

Why Go it Alone?

Whenever I think of my homework in elementary school, I remember studying multiplication facts, alone, in my room.  I’m sure I was exhausted after a long day of school and frustrated by those stupid nines (no one taught me the nifty nines trick!), and I started crying.  But despite my tears, my mom told me I had to keep studying, probably feeling as many parents do that she needed to be hands-off when it came to homework.  So the argument goes: how else will children learn to work independently and develop study skills if not by doing homework?

Kids have all of middle school and high school to learn to work alone and develop study skills!  By insisting that children work alone on their homework after a long, full (exciting and stimulating) day of school, we’re setting them up for the kind of frustration I felt.  As teachers, we know how tired elementary students are at the end of the day, and not every home can provide the kind of structured, quiet atmosphere for study that we create in school. Continue reading