Archive | May, 2014

Lessons & Freebies

polygonmanAdding new freebies and links to the Lessons & Freedbies page!  Take a peek.  Also adding new materials and units at the Making Education store on TeachersPayTeachers.

The resources I typically create tend be specific and hard to find math strands.  I have struggled to find particular items to use in my classroom and have gotten creative.  The most popular item is the Coordinate Plane Unit.  It is one of my favorite units to teach.  I can use the same lessons for all grades as it is easily differentiated according to student strengths.  This unit is chock full of clever devices that help students understand ideas and remember crucial vocabulary.  Students create a foldable on the first day they use throughout the unit.  coordinateplaneunitpreviewThe final assessment is a project plotting points and offering opportunity for the students to get creative.


Middle School Math Centers

center2Typically learning centers are geared toward elementary classrooms. However, it is a great way for teachers to design small group practice that is differentiated.  Furthermore, learning centers offer time for a teacher to work with a smaller group of students on a specific skill set.  This year, I am trying to adapt this practice to the middle school classroom for math. Here are my suggestions.

1.  With age comes greater independence and responsibility. It also involves a classroom used by many. So, instead of centers scattered around the room, I have created a simple crate of hanging folders. Each file is a different strand or skill set, additional crates can be used per grade.  In the folder are the instructions and any supplies. Students assigned to a particular strand collect their folder and return to their assigned table.

2.  Each hanging folder contains explicit instructions. I have designed the instructions to offer the student several opportunities to work at the center without repeating tasks. This way the center can last for multiple classes throughout the year. The directions begin with an “I Must.” Students complete all work on the “I Must” list first. After that, the student can begin the “I Can” portion of the activities. I have used this technique in the elementary school level and it provides some control over the desired activities to require of each student.  Games and less challenging activities follow in the “I Can” portion of the list.  I learned this technique during a professional development unit I took several years ago in another district. I wish I could credit the Learning Center guru who offered this tool, I love this and would love to offer credit.  Alas, I could not track down the originial resource.center3

3.  Teach and Practice procedures and expectations. Centers necessitate students following rules and working independently. This requires a known set of expected behaviors. Teach these explicitly at the beginning of the year. Model and practice. It might feel hokie, but once the students know the exact desired behavior they will be more likely to work toward that goal since it is not a moving target. Furthermore, students are aware of consequences and can never say they didn’t know. Model and practice the routines. Spend the first 4-6 weeks of the school year modeling and practicing the behaviors. Demonstrate specifically how to walk to the center, how to get out the folder, how to clean up afterwards, how to return items, turn in work samples. Do not leave any small detail out. Teach, model, and practice. This saves time in the long run.

4.  Have a set schedule and grouping. Sometimes this schedule is full blown daily spreadsheet color coded and minute. However, if you know which center the student needs to be working on you can better manage future lessons. Having a set schedule no matter how far in advance or how detailed gives the teacher the ability to plan for small group instruction. Which students work well together and need remediation on the same skill sets allows for better classroom management. If you are assigning centers to students without a plan, not only may you miss an opportunity to get them the exact remediation they need, but the students will sense this. A willy-nilly learning objective does not send the student the right message. If everyone has an intentional learning objective then each activity has a purpose and is meaningful.

5.  Hold students accountable. I require work to be turned in. I have a “Turn-it-In” basket for all center work.  There are no excuses or questions.  Each instruction for a center clearly state these expectations.  I grade, track, and keep that work. This is great for demonstrating weaknesses and progress monitoring. Games, sorts, and activities are typically required to be reviewed by an adult. Sometimes students take a snippet to show me, but more often than not, myself or another teacher will review any manipulative activity and check for accuracy. There is no reason to have students complete an activity if their performance is not at least monitored for comprehension.

6.  Keep the centers balanced between academic and fun. This is part of my math class. This is not a free-for-all indoor recess. However, the students are working independently and so the activities should be engaging. I plan a hands-on activity and a website for each center along with more academic work. Keep it in balance.

7.  Progress monitor.  Track the student’s progress on each skill by the work collected. We also do a progress monitoring assessment three times a year that allows me to progress monitor the students throughout the year more formally. For students in an RTI program, this allows the RTI team to monitor and move students among tiers as needed.

8.  Stay organized and digitized. I try to have the center materials copied and prepared physically in the folders to cover a marking period. Additionally, each center is filed digitally. Students can access the center online. If a certain worksheet or instructions have gone missing the students have access without me needing to stop working in my small group. Links are more easily accessed for some students when they have the instructions digitally and this may be a procedure you write in for all or certain students.

I love centers. It is a different way to approach a class curriculum. It is great for students as a remediation tool. No one wants to have all their electives taken away for math and reading remediation so the different set up helps them stay positive.center1


The Red Pen Dilemna: Does Grading with the Color Red Hurt?

redpensmallimageWhat are everyones’s thoughts on the red pen effect on students? Is there a real or simply perceived effect on how a student feels receiving their critique?  Does the color inhibit creativity simply by its jarring presence? Here is an article by Douglas Quenqua, highlighting the discussion and the research behind it.

For me, as a special education teacher I dislike grading work. The students already know they work twice has hard for sometimes half the grade. Then we rub their nose in it with a big red grade atop the paper. An even worse feeling for me, is when I have to mark every problem wrong on a page. I would shut-down too. It is no wonder by middle school they stop trying. they have seen big red screaming F’s for years by now.  So sometimes, I skip writing the number or letter grade and just ask them to see me for making corrections. We will work on the mistakes together, learn from them, and earn some points back. Is it fair?  Well  see my previous post, Fairness: and my Favorite Quote for Special Education.

So maybe it has only a perceived effect in the student’s eye, but what the heck…it can’t hurt to be a little less glaring and harsh. Even when you know they haven’t tried. They once did try, and now they’ve just shut down.


Top 5 Steps to a Positive IEP Meeting

keystosuccessI recently attended an IEP meeting, which started off contentious, and did not balance out to a productive meeting at any time. I was there as a regular education teacher supporting another special education teacher. The parent came in perturbed, and was pretty hostile, and as far as I could tell it was unwarranted. In the moment, I sat very calmly, smiled, and repeated Zen thoughts over and over. Things like, “the opposite of my truth is also true,” or “I am the traffic.” Nevertheless, in those moments having productive key phrases is crucial. Keeping all statements and solutions focused onto fundamental elements is imperative to a meeting that produces solutions instead of arguments. Here are the top five crucial phrases and steps you should remember in a contentious meeting:

  1. Start the meeting long before the meeting begins. Call parents and make sure they agree with the time and that their needs will be met at the meeting. Do they need a translator? Are the bringing an advocate? Ask them what items they would like to discuss. The parents are part of the agenda making process too. Then send home drafts of all paperwork.
  2. Start the meeting off on the right foot. In some cases, as was the case at the meeting above, some parents come into a meeting with a set of attitudes and agendas. This may be their personality, challenges they face unrelated to the IEP, or past experiences with previous IEP teams have built walls and negative perspectives. Start with the agenda; offer a paper copy of the agenda. Discuss with the parent the paperwork you are giving them, how the meeting will work, and who will be in attendance. THEN….assure them that this should be a positive experience to benefit their child with a mutual goal of supporting their child. Keep it simple. Shorten your phrases and use language the parents are comfortable with, not educational jargon. “We are here to look for solutions and problem-solve together, this is a team event and we are all cheering for Little Frances.”
  3. Remind parents of the process and the framework the IEP holds. This is a dynamic document, nothing is written in stone. If at any time any member of the team decides this plan is not working for Little Frances than we as a team reconvene and rework ideas for better suited solutions.
  4. Don’t get sidetracked. If an issue comes up that is related to one class or a specific incident that is not central to the writing of the IEP document. Offer to put a pin in that issue saying, “We will set up a time and day to meet on that topic at the end of this session. That way we can focus on today’s agenda and give that issue its proper attention. Perhaps even we can get so & so (other teachers, administrators, student) involved in that meeting.”
  5. Parents are busy worrying and working to ensure their child is getting the best opportunities. They can be suspicious. Have a set of success stories ready to share about the student you are discussing. Not only do you want student successes and strengths to start off the meeting, but have handy the school’s particular successes. Understand what worked well in the past, which services were successful and have data to back up these stats. If a meeting turns sideways and you may feel like the parents are stuck on one problem or issue, take the lead and say, “Let’s remggsleddingsmallember that the collaborative setting and present accommodations allowed Frances to succeed in his social studies class. We saw a decrease in the number of teacher prompts for initiating and completing work, his quiz and test grades were within the class average, and during observations the frequency of inattentive behaviors went down from 5 incidents to 2 in a given 20 minute interval.” There’s data, its marking improvements. It demonstrates progress. AND it’s POSITIVE. This success is the foundation to build up from, borrow from, and apply to other areas of Francis’ services, accommodations, and goals. Keep the meeting on the path by rephrasing and marking the path on top of successes and not problems.

Specialty Centers vs. Common Core

imageFor those states encountering common core, it can seem constricting and definitely frustrating. In Virginia, we have the Virginia Standards of Learning, the predecessor or common core.  Nevertheless, whatever you call them they are telling us what to teach and when. How do schools make individualized attempts to reach their specific student clientele?

In some districts in Virginia they are beginning to see the need. Specialty centers are popping up. They are teaching the Standards of Learning, but with a high concentration of a “special interest.”  It’s a start. It is serving a particular population. However, this population is typically advantaged, already college bound, already succeeding academically. Those that are not, those student with a disability, those with behavior issues….they remain on our regular corn flake pathway. No specialty interest to inspire or grab hold of.   These students are bound by the standards and it is doing little to effect a change in their lives.

Here is a link to an article in the Huffington Post discussing 12 schools that are not regular corn flakes. Furthering the excitement,  a few are actually doing this for special populations. They reach a specific population and serve those needs.

How are schools and ideas like this going to grow and prosper in the world of common core? It probably is not going to happen. Perhaps promoting individualized successes of great schools will inspire and the good ideas will spread.  Perhaps parents and teachers will make requests to districts. Maybe students will come together?


Academic ability….the holy grail of intelligence. Exactly why we need new fundamental principles for our education system.

Wonderful TEDTalk. Extremely funny. Nonetheless, it is spot on for our need to be creative entities if we are going to prosper as a society. Our education system worldwide feeds the academic side of the brain. Our schools focus on the core contents and the arts are belittled.  What happens to the geniuses? They fall out of love with learning. They themselves are belittled. Many never reach any potential because our education system has told them they were incorrect.  Intelligence is not academic. There is no correctness in intelligence. We desperately need to revalue and rethink the commodities we are teaching. Instead of teaching children not to be creative, but be correct; we should be nurturing their talents and passions. Here is  a brilliant talk on the matter by Sir Ken Robinson brilliantly discusses. Well worth the watch. And he really is funny.

“Many highly brilliant creative people think they are not because the thing they think they were good at in school was not valued or was actually stigmatized. And I think we cannot afford to go on that way.”

Sir Ken Robinson: how schools kill creativity. TED2006


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