Category Archives: Lessons

What it Takes

What does it take to be a teacher? Many know. Many think they know. I’m not above admitting that, seven years in, I’m still figuring it out. Here’s what I’ve learned this year:

Consistency is key. My students, like many others, need a lot of repetition to internalize ideas and concepts. That means they need the work in a given unit modeled for them in a certain way. Then they need to practice with guidance in that same way. Then they need to practice independently in that same way (and be held accountable when they don’t).

Here’s some real world application. We are coming to the end of a unit on 2-digit addition, which at times requires regrouping. There are several strategies to demonstrate two-digit addition, all of which require several steps. One of my big takeaways this year is just how difficult it is for my students to remember steps to math problems. That means lots and lots and LOTS of practice.

The language given to the students has to be consistent. The procedures and thought processes have to be, too (steps written on a chart help). When drawing pictures to represent numbers, I’m learning the placement of each ten and one has to be consistent, too, down to the number of ones I will allow in each column. When we all speak, write, and draw in a common language, everyone has a better chance to succeed.

Just throwing material at the class and hoping it sticks is a fool’s errand. Sadly, there are people who haven’t yet learned this.

Students want to be challenged, and even more so than they realize. Not until last year did my principal observe that my lessons were up to the “rigorous” standards we are expected to uphold. She also told me I need to push the students more and expect they could do more. I always felt I had high expectations, but this year I have really ratcheted them up.

They’re only in second grade, but a colleague and I began teaching our classes how to use outline templates to prepare to write an opinion piece. The outline is such that they have to look at abbreviations and remember what to do in each section. They have to remember that solid lines are meant for full sentences and dotted lines are for key words. Then, they have to transfer their work to paragraph form.

You’d be amazed at how they’re doing.

With all the consistency mentioned above – repetition, common language, practice – tomorrow the class will write their own outline about something they want, as independently as they have in the last two weeks. It’s exciting to see them using a tool that I probably didn’t know about until fifth grade. They love the structure and predictability of it, and they understand that their work is improving.

I know more than I knew, but there’s still more to know. Maybe once I was a brash, cocky, 24-year old know-it-all who rode into my school thinking my graduate studies and natural genius had me prepared to teach at a level yet to be seen. Nearly 7 years later, having been humbled many times by administrators and colleagues, but most importantly, by my students, I know that it’s on me to work my fanny off to make sure they’re receiving the full benefit of their education (and that I’m meeting the demands of my job).

While I’m happy to offer suggestions to others and share “what works,” I also am happy to take a colleague’s great idea and make it my own. I’m not beneath running across the hall or next door and saying, “I need help with this.” I’ve learned that teaching is an infinitely humbling experience, and there’s no room for cockiness. No matter how well things might be going at any given time, there often seems to be something that will come along and make me rethink, reassess, reevaluate and ultimately, regroup. It keeps me fresh, energized, and motivated.

Kids need to be challenged and stimulated, but they need to be able to do it without being chained to their seats and desks. I’ve always believed it is perfectly okay for students, without asking, to get up to access materials in the room, get a better view of the board or demonstration, stand while working, lay on the floor while working, whatever. Too often, kids think the classroom is the teacher’s, not theirs. I think it’s important to make it clear to them they don’t have to feel restricted to their designated spot.

To go with this, it’s okay with me that kids need breaks. I mean, hey, they’re seven. (Perhaps when my parents read this they can let me know if they think I could have sat the way kids are expected to now when I was that age.) Sometimes, my students put down their pencils and I say, “What’s up?” “I need to rest a little.” “Okay, no problem. Is a minute good? I’ll let you know when a minute’s up.” A minute later, if I say the minute’s passed and the child says they’re still not ready, I have no problem saying, “That’s fine, take another 30 seconds.” By then they’re ready to go again.

I do have a lovely little tool I like to bring out at least once every morning and afternoon, and I’m going to insist you go sign up (for free) so your class can benefit, too. There’s a brain break site called GoNoodle, and we love it. The kids get a movement/singing/dancing break through Zumba and other interactive videos. It’s always a highlight of their day. A few great things about GoNoodle: 1) the kids love it, 2) it’s very fun to watch them enjoying it, and 3) they get themselves right back to business after a break.

That’s about the sum of what I’ve got for tonight. It’s been a good year so far, with lots of learning experiences (only a few of which are listed here). It’s the learning that helps me continually strive to improve.

Main Idea: The Details are In the Bag

In my school, one of the big pushes this year is helping students analyze what they read to understand main idea and details. In reflecting upon my past as a student, I can’t say I remember ever receiving explicit instruction in determining main idea and details, and that being able to analyze them came about as a result of experience as I grew.

Be that as it may, for students so young (like mine) and with so many challenges (English language learners, disabilities, texts above grade level and certainly way above theirs’), explicit teaching is necessary. But the skill is challenging to master independently, and so, non-traditional approaches to teaching it are necessary.

This all came about from a brief in-house PD I attended this week. We were presented with a variety of tools to help students conceptualize main idea and details. Included, of course, were the usual graphic organizers. They help, but they’re too abstract to start with. So I was happy to see a couple of new and concrete ideas that I could use to help my students begin to tackle this crucial literacy skill.

By far, my favorite idea was one that necessitated a hands-on approach. It was visual and helpful and served as an engaging entry – and subsequent anchor – for our work on main idea and details.

The premise is simple and it makes sense. A large zip-seal bag represents the main idea. Inside the bag are items with something in common. For my students, I showed them a bag with a marker, a highlighter, a dry erase marker, a pencil, a colored pencil, a Smencil, and a pen. They realized these are all writing utensils. So, why were all of those items – a.k.a. details – included in that one bag – a.k.a. main idea? Because the details all tell us about the main idea.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

From this very concrete representation, with my charges on board, I began to segue into something still somewhat concrete, but requiring a bit more thought and effort. We read a chapter out of our book and I emphasized that all the details in the chapter would relate back to specific main ideas. After reading, I started them off by telling them the main idea of the whole section: “Roots grow underground and do many things.” From here, we were able to pick apart the details of each paragraph and arrive together at a consensus as to what the main idea they supported was. A small bag represented each paragraph’s main idea, and we placed each bag inside the big one to show that all the information we read related back to one overarching main idea.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs' main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs’ main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

We’ll continue doing things like this, exploring other ways to understand how details work together to support main ideas. The hope is that with enough varied exposure to the concept, students will internalize the skill. That’s the…idea.



My Little Wordsmiths

This has probably been the most challenging start to a school year that I’ve had in my six-year career. Challenges are waiting on all sides: a new teacher evaluation system and its components, push-in and pull-out services in flux due to demands on the providing teachers’ time, failure by the city to provide supplies in a timely fashion, and for me, a class that doesn’t quite seem to be jelling behaviorally.

Despite it all, there is incremental academic progress. We can now round numbers to the nearest ten and hundred (at least with more consistency than there had been). We are better in our routines. And we are having discussions about books that are way way WAY above our reading levels (Common Core and the whole one-size-fits-all deal, amiright?)

The most exciting development in my class has, in actuality, come about due to those Common Core texts. As part of our new evaluation system, we were asked as to identify a couple of goals for ourselves. One of mine was to increase students’ vocabulary through reading “grade-level” and “rigorous” texts. So starting with our first book of the month selection, I began pre-teaching rich and wonderful vocabulary words, pinning them up in the room, using them in my speech, and encouraging my students to do the same, as well as in their writing.

I am definitely a word nerd. People often ask me what words mean and admonish me for, “always having to use SAT words.” So it is particularly splendid to hear and watch my little darlings expanding their vocabulary with some legit words.

Some of their favorites: superb, efficient, error, the idiom “dark day,” scribble, gasp, and overwhelmed. They are using them in unexpectedly accurate and creative ways. Some examples:

  • Upon showing me completed math work and me checking it, “Is it superb?” followed inevitably by, “Can you write superb?”
  • Upon noticing a mistake made my be, a peer, or themselves, calling out, “Oh, error!”
  • Upon me having to erase something I wrote because it was sloppy, “That’s scribble! Error!”
  • Upon noticing someone is upset or struggling, or just that the general mood in the room is not as chipper as we’d like, “This is a dark day.”
  • Upon searching for ways to describe the detectives in the book we’re reading, “They’re really efficient at solving problems.”
  • And just today, during the heat of a particularly aggravating series of moments during which all the math we’ve done for six weeks seemed to vanish into thin air and I pretty much lost it, “Mr. Ray, you’re overwhelmed.”
  • One more. As we lined up to leave today, it must have been obvious how exasperated I was. So one of my wittier boys said, “Mr. Ray, you look exhausted.” “I am,” I said. His reply? “And overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with anger.” How can I not smile? One of my colleagues heard it and cracked up.

It’s truly amazing to be a part of this. We’re talking about kids reading and writing 2 and 3 years behind grade-level. But they’ve added a repertoire of words to their vocabulary that they’re learning to use appropriately. It’s been slower to get them to use the words in their writing, but when I suggest it, they’re overwhelmed with excitement. They love it. One girl came up to me during reading today to show me that she found the word “gasped.” It was for her, like, The. Greatest. Thing. Ever. She even felt the need to shake my hand to congratulate herself.

Oh, and by the way, since everything now needs to be tested – because what better way to spend our time than with tests? – I am administering pre- and post-tests before and after we read the chapters from which these words are pulled. As I get the hang of teaching the words and making them commonplace, I am finding that most students know none of the words prior to me exposing them to the class, and that when I administer the post-test, most students know all or most of the new words.

A class of word nerds may be just what I need to keep myself afloat. That’d be superb.

Talking Turkey, Differentiation Style

There’s something about the November air that brings out the best in me when it comes to differentiating math. I love when inspiration strikes and my little gobblers all get to work on things that look the same but, upon close inspection, are very different.

It’s a rare bird of a day when I’m able to work with my entire class in math, reason being that 40 percent of them are 2nd graders and 60 percent are in 3rd. It’s even rarer when the lesson comes out of the oven perfectly cooked, but that’s what happened yesterday.

The basic premise was to have a bit of a review day. Sandy, election day, and a race to report cards’ due date have made this week confusing, discombobulating, and inconsistent to say the least. So, I really wanted to do something fun and educationally valuable to get kids back into some sort of flow. A colleague had placed a good idea on a silver platter for me: make some kind of turkey template and have the kids make turkeys.

Ah, but in our current situation, such frivolous activities are frowned upon. So I figured I’d make it into a math lesson. Kids would make the turkeys, oh yes. I decided each grade would use the turkeys to demonstrate their knowledge of what they’ve recently learned (or go ahead and get extra practice). The premise: write the concept on the bird, write examples on the feathers. FUN!

Second graders worked on showing numbers different ways. To differentiate, my most advanced second graders had to show more than two ways to write each number. They also had several examples with zeroes, which are often confusing.

This student, the most advanced, was required to write numbers in three different ways. I also love how some of his designs on his turkey involve math!

The more average performing second graders were able to choose one or two ways to represent numbers and they had fewer numbers with zeroes. They also found value in using base 10 blocks to continue to support their understanding.

This student wrote numbers only one way.

Over on the third grade side, students worked on regrouping. At the most basic level, one student added two-digit numbers. Even this presented her a challenge – she is expected to add three-digit numbers – but it also provided me the chance to reteach the concept to her. I’m proud to say after a few examples she was able to move on to three-digit addition and that’s why on the following turkey, you see two-digit and three-digit problems.

Note the two-digit plus two-digit problems on the right, and the more complex problems on other feathers.

This student’s enrichment required him to add numbers that totaled over 1,000, which is something I have not taught. I wish I had given him more examples like the one on the rightmost feather!

Gobble, gobble!

This was fun. It also gave me a great excuse to drag out all those amazing things kids never get to use anymore: buttons, feathers, sequins, and pipe cleaners! The kids couldn’t wait to get their birds up on the board. Here’s a fuzzy picture of the finished products…I’ll try to snap a better one and post it.

Free Resource: How to Preview a Book

The upcoming reading unit is designed to help students develop routines for being more studious readers. In my room, this means starting off the unit by setting end of year goals (post to follow). It also means providing tangible reminders of the necessary pre-reading activities in which one should engage in order to get ready to read.

I provide each of my students with a pocket-sized laminated card (on a fun, bright color) that leads them through the steps of previewing a book. This card becomes the first thing they take out of their book baggie each time they read. The hope is they eventually internalize its steps and mentally prepare for books consistently.

Feel free to save the image to your computer and use it for your own students!

A free resource for your students to develop independence and meaningful pre-reading habits.

Pumpkin Patch Adjectives

Here’s a rewritten chart based on the one I made with my students yesterday. We started by brainstorming some adjectives (and learning some new ones) to help us write descriptively about fall. Students then wrote in their journals about fall, focusing on using the adjectives on the chart – and any others they could think of that fit.

I have honestly never done something like this – so intricate and thematic a web. It’s so much more fun than the traditional ones, though! I definitely saw kids were a lot more invested. This chart will hang in our room and we will refer to it throughout the fall so we have a source of adjectives at the ready for all kinds of writing.

Here’s a fun way to present adjectives!

You will notice picture support included because my students are all English Language Learners. Also, the “cold family” words show a progression of decreasing temperature, rudimentarily symbolized by a jacket for “chilly” and a scarf, gloves, and hat for “freezing.” Fun!

Finding Meaning Through Projects and Themes

One of the unexpected pleasures of emerging from testing season with two months of time left is the fact that I’ve been encouraged to keep kids motivated through project-based learning.

What a breath of intoxicatingly fresh air. We know that creativity has less and less of a place in our elementary schools. The kids wear this knowledge on their sad little faces as they flop test prep packets onto the desk and fall asleep over highlighted pages of nothingness.

Our current literacy unit involves research. There are four groups in my class and each is responsible for a New York City landmark of their choice. I have three goals for the unit: 1) have students direct their own learning about the landmarks; 2) give them transferable skills; 3) keep them engaged and having fun.

So, while kids are doing research, they are also creating a mural. First, everyone in the class sketched their landmark, paying close attention to details. On a tri-fold board, I sketched general parameters for each image. Then, they each drew their picture on the board, creating a bit of a mosaic of New York City. Students used rulers and measurements to maintain neatness. They are also picking up some art skills as they mix the paints to create desired colors, learn effective ways to use a brush and paint small areas, and visualize how items must overlap in order to look the right way. Maybe most importantly, the mural involves a good amount of group work and cooperation that, for the moment, is more effective in art than in research.

Once the mural is finished, I will use it to extend our math unit, which is focused on multiplication and division. As an example, students will be asked to compute the number of windows in the Empire State Building on our mural (the windows are arrays, which is a current focus). They’ll be able to measure different elements on the mural and compute areas and perimeters. I’ll figure out a way to have them review fractions through the mural, too.

Until the mural is complete and ready for us to use it for math, we are working on multiplication and division in context, tying them to, what else, New York City? Word problems don’t say “Sally shared 21 cookies with 7 friends. How many did each friend get?” but they do say, “21 tourists got into 7 taxis. How many tourists got into each taxi?” They are motivated by the New York-centric theme and, if I do say so myself, I am seeing a nice output on their parts.

Given the license to go with projects, you better believe I’m going to drive with it. Students are getting their kicks and their concepts, and it’s phenomenal.

Another Case for Cell Phones in School

It’s 2012, so of course that means that one of the most ubiquitous tools at our students’ disposal is also one of the most reviled in NYC. Cell phones are simply not allowed in schools. There are too many people in positions of power who see them as texting, calling, and gaming devices as opposed to cameras, computers, and encyclopedias (ie. something that could enhance one’s education rather than take away from it like, I don’t know, test prep).

My kids are too young to have smartphones, but I’m a big boy so I get to have one. Today, it came in handy.

This year’s class got their first experiences using my set of digital cameras today. I thought I had one per customer, but as it turns out, I was two short. Nearly everyone was armed and ready to go on a scavenger hunt collecting pictures of arrays, but I had to improvise for the two who got shut out. So, one got my iPad and the other got my, you guessed it, phone.

There they were, traipsing about the halls, looking for arrays. Flashbulbs popped here, flashbulbs popped there. A girl held an iPad up and snapped away. And there was my cell phone user, happily capturing arrays all over the building.

Without a cell phone, she would have been excluded from the activity. That’s the way some would prefer us to have it, but it’s not the way I prefer to operate.

Without a cell phone, at least one of my students would not have been able to participate in our array scavenger hunt today. Instead, she was able to complete the same task as her peers.

Orange You Glad You Turned Down the Cookie?

“No, thank you,” she said as I offered a cookie.

“No, thank you,” she said as I offered a munchkin.

“Yes!” she said as I offered my carrots.

Here was a 9-year old turning down the sugary sweet snacks in favor of the infinitely healthier ones.

To understand the significance is to consider the evolution this student has undergone since telling me early in the year, “I can’t eat too much sugar. The doctor says I won’t be able to breathe.”

When I heard that, I made a mental note that the baking and candy around the holidays would have to take a backseat this year because a child who was beginning to understand the level of her unhealthiness was trying to make a change.

Foolishly, I did bring in cupcakes once after this, and after telling me she’d keep half for her mom, she couldn’t resist finishing it all while I got her a bag to store the leftover piece. I felt immense sadness. She looked like the cat who swallowed the canary and was clearly embarrassed by her choice.

Since then, though, any treats provided by other teachers have gone into a bag and brought home for others. The amazing resolve this student has shown has been quite impressive and quite inspirational.

Yesterday, when I needed the kids to snack on something during the test break so they’d get a jolt of energy, she turned her nose up at the unhealthy options. But she sure did gobble those carrots.

I sent a note home commending her efforts and telling mom and dad that I was so inspired that I would bring in a healthy snack – a vegetable or fruit – for the whole class today. I didn’t have a chance to get to the store for baby carrots, so I’ll bring in some orange slices instead.

It takes a special kid to understand the consequences of unhealthy eating and refuse to indulge, especially when it’s not the cool thing to do. With today’s oranges, I hope I am sending a positive message to all the kids and hope I’ll remember this lesson in the future.


Lessons from the Golf Course

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I’ve never done this before.”

“There’s a lot to remember.”

The words of a frustrated third grader struggling to grasp the finer points of geometry? Or the words of an ambitious retiree playing golf for the first time?

If you guessed “golfer,” you’re right!

Last week, my dad and I invited my mother – who never graduated past miniature golf – to join us for a round of pitch-and-putt. It was a challenge to her: honor your longstanding interest in learning how to play golf. She accepted, and the ensuing round was loaded with many instances of instruction being broken down and a student giving her all for personal improvement.

I started with the most basic points about the swing: keep your head down and keep your feet planted. Stand with your feet shoulder length apart and stand at a comfortable distance from the ball. I watched the first swing of my mother’s life and tried not to cringe as the club head slammed violently into the grass, kicking up a patch of dirt and propelling it a foot forward. And I said, “That’s all right. Do it again.”

On the first tee, she struck the ball and it dribbled oh, maybe 10 feet to the side. A great shot? Certainly not. A great start for a novice? Surely. My dad and I were sufficiently impressed and offered praise (no doubt motivating our newcomer to see a positive in what the casual observer would consider failure.)

As certain flaws in the swing became apparent – lifting of the head, stepping off to to the side with the lead foot, lining up of the club in the proper direction, swinging a putter on the green with far too much force – we differentiated our instruction. Focusing on each area of need while continuing to encourage meant that by the final holes, shots were getting some air and going straight into the fairway. There was a marked improvement from the first tee to the last, and no doubt the data (aka the scorecard) would agree!

It just shows you that when a student says, “I can’t” and shows needs, we need to assess and instruct to help them improve. We need to help them maintain a positive attitude and a belief in their abilities. We need to convince them that what starts off as a difficult concept will become easier with dedication and assistance.

Even a trip to the sand trap couldn't dampen my mother's enthusiasm to improve her golf game. Fore!