Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Real World Tips For Rookie Teachers

Twenty-one years ago I was in your position, energy bouncing off the walls, ideas swirling like gases from the beginning of the universe. But underneath it all was a mild case of panic, I got the contract now what? How do I not stick out as a rookie any more than I already do? Most important how do I not let the little things overwhelm all the good I'm actually doing?

From the fog of those anxious days came little tidbits of info spat out casually by a number of people during my training and two decades since. Each one was simple, yet so obvious. None of them are grand educational theories that are totally impractical for surviving and success during your rookie year. Instead, these are simple things, casual bits that will help you to keep your energy and enthusiasm up over the next ten months.

1- Get to know the school office staff. School secretaries/administrative assistants are the backbone of the school. They know everything that is going on in the building, especially how the principal likes things to be done. Take good care of them, find out their Starbucks drink, what type of afternoon candy they like, the names of their children.  Show them you appreciate the myriad of hats they must wear every day. In return, when you forget to turn in certain paperwork, AND YOU WILL, they will quietly remind you before the principal visits your door.

2- Introduce yourself to the custodial staff and ask them point blank what you can do to make their lives easier. In my experience they are no-nonsense types and will tell you the do's and don'ts. Staying on their good side usually means getting things fixed, moved, etc. much sooner.

3- Organize your computer filing system. Create folder for school year. Inside have folders for each subject, lesson plans, parent letters, field trips, continuing education, time sheet, etc.. Doing this now will make for quick file searching later on.  Do the same for saving various types of emails.

4- Keep in your desk several large zip-lock storage bags. In them put found pens, pencils, colored pencils, markers, crayons, paper clips, and dry erase markers in each bag. This will keep your desk drawers much neater.

5- Find a spot in your room well AWAY from your desk for the student tissue box and sanitizing soap. Limiting exposure to germs especially in your first year is critical to staying healthy.

6- Every week wipe down desks, chairs, door knobs and jams with anti-bacterial cleaner or wipes. Also, anytime a student falls ill during class and is sent home wipe down their desk. You'll be surprised at how much healthier the class and you will stay.

7- If you teach multiple subjects pick your favorite and make it the one you devote to placing your creative stamp on. In my case it was 8th grade American History. The other classes I stuck closer to the text with typical teacher modifications.

9- Chances are the previous teacher left all sorts of teaching material. Look all of it over and know where it is in case you use some of it later. At the end of the year toss out what you didn't use as chances are you'll never use it.

10- Do what you can to personalize your room within school policy. A sterile room that doesn't reflect your personality will drain you of energy especially during the second half of the year.  Don't feel bad if other teachers don't. Remember it's all about what works for you and your students.

11- Get to know the backgrounds of the veteran teachers around you. There is no greater knowledge source than that of your coworkers.  One of them you will find a strong professional connection and will likely become your unofficial mentor.

12- Stop by the local dollar store and pick up a set of micro screwdrivers for a buck. Next, visit a nearby optometrist and purchase a multi-pack of eyeglass screws (if you tell them you're stocking up for classroom emergency repairs they may just give them to you), as you will be repairing glasses and clear tape does NOT work.

13- If budget cuts have left maintenance staff shorthanded, spend the $10-$20 for an emergency tool kit.  I use mine (even with a great maintenance staff) several times a year.

Once The Year Begins
Thirteen- Stand at the doorway and greet each student. Try to be unique in your phrasing based upon something about them, be it a team jersey, type of shoes, anything.  Make sure to have on the board information on seating and any supplies they will need to have out.

14- Classroom rules. Unlike a few education "experts" who claim that rules aren't needed, you need to have a framework. In my case I have just one "respect everyone and everything". The positive message makes it very easy for students to follow and admit when they didn't live up to it.

15- Have a rotating classroom cleanup list posted. Assignments should change weekly. Giving the students responsibility for the physical appearance of the room does much to cut down on messy appearance, as well as wear and tear.

16- Laminate a student list to use as a lunch count sheet. I put mine on the podium with a marker each morning. Make one announcement to sign up, otherwise they have to mooch off another student. Remember, you'll be too busy handling all sorts of questions that matter.

17- Let the students get to know you as a person. Tell them from time to time a funny experience/story from your youth or something you saw over the weekend. I use them as rewards for working hard on an assignment. In doing so I'm teaching them what I consider to be one of the most important keys of life, laughing at one's own foibles.

18- Let parents know when their child has done something good. Whether it be in drop off or pickup line, or by phone or email.  You'll be surprised how quickly the parents will be offering assistance or support.

19- SMILE, SMILE, SMILE.  The old adage that teachers aren't suppose to smile until Christmas is pure baloney.  You can't expect your students to be in a good mood and positive if you don't show it yourself. I'm a self admitted grinning fool, and because of it I can get students to do difficult assignments with far less negativeness.

20- Don't try to grade everything! During my first year my wife only half joked that the only time she saw me was in a recliner grading papers. Near the end of the year as I was running on fumes the principal came to and all but ordered me to pick one concept to check for on each assignment. For math teachers that means grading only certain questions in different orders each day.

21- Condense your lesson plans. Find out what your principal wants to see and in how much detail. Chances are it's about 10% of the insanity you had to write during student teaching. Remember, you are going to be spending approximately 80 hours a week this year working, learn how to save time.

22- Get in regular exercise. I walk every morning with a fellow teacher for thirty minutes. Other teachers workout at a nearby gym. Besides the obvious general healthiness, exercise is a great stress release, and you will feel the pressure quite often during your rookie year.

23- Arriving and departing school each day must be balanced. Don't think that it is ok to arrive just before the students and leave right after the last bus each day is ok.  That is a recipe for chaos. If you stay late to prep after school for the next day you should come in at least 30 minutes before the students. If you're an early bird, stay after for 30-45 minutes, give your colleagues a chance to meet with you. Nothing is worse as a teacher then being harried. 

24- Each Monday morning right after pledge and announcements the class takes five minutes for the "Activities/Sports Report". This gives the students an opportunity to tell about their successes. For myself, I get precious info that I can use to engage them on an individual or group level.

25- Keep two journals, in the first record how each lesson went. What to add and remove for the next time the lesson is taught.  Keep it brief, no story-telling needed. The second is for at home, and it is a memory book for reflecting on the wonderful insanity of your first year. I didn't do this and it still haunts me.

26- Rest, relax, eat healthy, and have fun. Give one day on the weekend to yourself. Spend time with family and friends. Sleep in, and or take a nap. You'll be surprised at how much better an extra hour of rest each weekend does for the mind, body and soul. Spend the day doing anything but school work, go see a concert, play a sport, visit with the neighbors. Anything that doesn't have to do with classroom. Eat well balanced meals each day, and remember that coffee and soda pop are not food groups. Every evening give yourself a timeout. If you're a parent, enjoy your children. Listen to music, watch a television show. Taking a break will renew your focus.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Genius Hour/Time- End Of The Year Review

The school year is over, the room is packed up, and quiet reigns inside its walls. Nothing visible remains of the grand experiment that took place among the 49 sixth graders that came thru the door in two classes. But the silent echo in the memory of this teacher still resonates.  By implementing the Genius Hour concept into four twenty-minute blocks each week the aptly renamed Genius Time became the overwhelmingly favorite learning experience of a very intelligent, boisterous collection of students.

A year ago I was trying to figure how to keep such an active, sharp group focused on learning. They needed a change up each day in their routine that ignited and kept their interest.  Genius Time did all that, and in the process allowed for the blossoming of a few, shy students into confident learners.

"Failure is just a marker on the road to success"
During the year many of the students experienced the "brick wall". They saw this as failure.  The toughest lesson of Genius Time was getting them to understand that failure is ok, as long as they get up, dust themselves off and use that painful lesson as knowledge in their quest for success. One student tried endlessly to create music using GarageBand on an iPad. They just couldn't find the sweet spot of instruments coming together.  Then one day while listening to another student's musical composition, the disappointed student quietly sang a few words, then grabbed a piece of paper and began writing.  A few days later a complete set of lyrics that blended wonderfully with the music was being listened to by several classmates. This student found a potential gift in being a lyricist.

Another student who has regularly struggled with academic motivation wanted from the very beginning to create a cookbook of family recipes based on her proud East African ethnicity.  No matter how distracted she was during ancient history time, nothing could pull her focus from working on her recipes.  During the annual Specials Fair night in May, she beaming as she showed her family the results of her efforts.

Other original efforts included a video on how to wax skis/snowboards for different snow conditions, a gluten-free cookbook for teens, a board game involving sports trivia, and a passionate presentation on zoology.  It's topics like the ones above that makes Genius Hour/Time so valuable to students. Without this opportunity they never would have explored (with possibly one or two exceptions) that topic. Instead it would have stayed a fleeting curiosity.

Looking back I can honestly say that this is one of the very few concepts/ideas in education that is truly new. Most everything else we educators heater or attend seminars about is just tweaked and renamed  with new graphics. Genius Hour/Time is the epitome of student centered and lead education.  The best part is it opens doors , some unexpected that can ignite a lifetime passion.

As one student who explored science fiction movies put it to me, "I felt like Jody Foster in Contact, going thru the wormhole and coming back smarter, but with more questions to be answered."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lessons Learned II: Genius Hour/Time After One Trimester

Let's start with the obvious, Genius Time (Google 20% Time in the Classroom) is a success.  The goals of engaging a bright, high energy class and keeping them going when their projects hit a rough patch has been reached, but not without some anxious moments by students and myself. The key has been to coach everyone at both the class and individual level.  Regular reminders to all that nothing worthy is ever easy, and real world examples of people that have overcome adversity in two minute stories re-energizes the students.

Recognize the technology limitations-
Several of the students wanted to create "Apps", and had found websites that offered easy creation tools.  However, an overwhelming majority didn't support iPads.  Secondly, some were fee-based, while others wanted too much student information.  

A few students had ideas for creating a knowledge library (for example, scientific animal groupings) using some type of presentation app.  The problem is that multiple classes use the iPads and the students wanted secrecy.  Secondly, Google Docs presentation app doesn't yet work on iPads thus forcing the kids to use Keynote, which fine but most do not have Keynote at home, thus once the file is saved as a PowerPoint file it can't be saved back into Keynote. Most students shifted into writing everything into a simple document, with assembly into a slideshow only when research is completed.

Overcoming the "This is too tough" mentality-
Sadly, a few students either by internal or external reasons have never completed a project truly on their own at any level.  Because of this, they have developed a quick try then abandon mentality.  These few students require my time every day, keeping them focused on the single step in front of them, the big picture is too overwhelming.  After two weeks I had them go back through each day's work.  For the first time some were able to see what they and they alone had created.  

Eliminating the Scam Artists-
A small grouping of mostly boys in each class quickly tried to game the system by shifting into an idea that required the least amount of work with the highest level of entertainment. They discovered that "GarageBand" fit their plan perfectly.  They could create something musical with little effort.  After a few weeks of individual regular conferences I set into place a GarageBand requirement that all music creation required lyrics.  Next year, I'm leaning toward GarageBand being available only to those students as add-on instrumentation but only after a piece has been created using a traditional instrument.

Facilitator Organization-
Even though the Social Studies class is virtually paperless, after a month I realized that physical documentation was critical.  For each student I created a facilitator/conference sheet where I take notes and student initials.  All 48 are kept in a binder for easy, organized access.  The students know that what they said is followed up on, it's a cross between the flexibility of ownership and following one's plan.

Final Thoughts-
Overall, the 20 minute a day Genius Time has gone about as well as I could have honestly expected.  The students are engaged and enthusiastic, to the point that the most popular question I get asked at the beginning of class is, Will there be Genius Time today?  There have been a few mushroom clouds along the way including an update to the iPads that wiped out a couple of unsaved/backed up projects.  But, in value to the students it's been a positive and worthwhile learning experience so far.