Monday, April 30, 2012

Simon Says: Save Yourself

A middle school schedule can be quite demanding for students to say the least. In my district, the day begins unforgivingly early, and is filled with back-to-back hour long content rich classes. And Lunchtime? Let’s just say the kids have all mastered the art of “walk running” to the cafeteria, talking less, and chewing quickly.

With a middle school schedule, it’s impossible for kids to stay on their "A Game" all day.  And we know all too well that when children fall off their "A Game," in creeps unmotivated students disguised as A Classroom Full of Crickets or A Classroom Zoo.

When you realize your students have checked out, and you’ve exhausted all other efforts, there is really only one option left:

 Take a Break. But not just any break. Take a Brain Break!

What Are Brain Breaks?
A Brain Break is a purposeful time out from instruction. I use the word purposeful because Brain Breaks are strategically designed exercises to quickly alter the current state of your students. Brain Breaks refresh, refocus, and reenergize. And don’t worry about needing time and materials. Brain Breaks should only be a few minutes long and require little to no materials.

Why Should I Use Them?
There are 3 different categories and purposes behind Brain Break exercises:

1.     Calming Exercises: Relieve stress and prevent burn out
2.     Mental Exercises: Wake up and engage both sides of the brain, increase concentration and attention
3.     Physical Exercises: Stimulate the mind and body, increase oxygen flow

Let’s not forget the importance of Brain Breaks for teachers as well! They give teachers a chance to take a step back, wipe the sweat of their brow, sip their coffee, and prepare themselves to jump back into the chaos…er…class instruction. 

How Can I Use Them?
Here are some examples of my classroom Brain Breaks in action:

1.     Calming Exercises
o   Deep Breathing
Students stand next to their chairs and take slow, deep breaths. Students breathe in their nose and out their mouths while raising their arms up each time they inhale, and back down when they exhale.

2.     Mental Exercises
o   Right to Left Stretches
Standing with their arms out to the side, students reach their right hand down to touch their left shoe, and back up again. Repeat on the other side.
o   Nose Ear Touch
Right hand touches nose, left hand touches right ear. Continue to switch hands.
o   Air Writing
Students write their name in the air, first with their right hand, then left, then both simultaneously. Students can spell their names backwards for an additional challenge.  
o   The Monkey
Students simultaneously pat their head and rub their stomach with right and left hands, then switch hands. 
o   Knee March
Students slowly march in place. Then raise their right arm up with the left knee, and left arm up with the right knee.
o   Board Word
I’ll write a word on the board, and students have one minute to work with a partner and write as many words using those letters they can think of.
o   Tic-Tac-Toe
Students play 3 games of Tic-Tac-Toe with a person next to them.
o   Would You Rather
Students are given two options and must decide which they would rather be / do. Sometimes I try to incorporate these questions with the current instruction. For example, during the Ecology Unit, would you rather be a mouse or a cheetah in the food chain and why? Students take a minute to decide their answer and share. 

3.   Physical Exercises
o   Silent Bomb
Students sit on their desks (or in seats to save time) and play 2 minutes of Silent Bomb. A kosh is passed around the room and students are out of the game for dropping the kosh or talking.
o   Simon Says
This game is one of my personal favorites (hence my post title!) It gets the kids out of their seats, tunes them into following directions, and lets them move around.
o   Cotton-Eyed Joe
Yes, it’s true. I have this song handy in my classroom for an occasional song and dance Brain Break. Most kids know the accompanying dance to the song, while the others can follow along. And anyone who’s attended a middle school dance knows this song tends to be a crowd favorite. Let’s just say my students were prepared when the DJ selected this tune! 

Additional Pointer:
I find it easiest to write your favorite Brain Breaks on popsicle sticks or index cards to keep them accessible in your classroom. The more you do the Brain Break activities, the more students become independent with them. When students know the activities by heart, you can then select students to draw from the pile and lead that day’s Brain Break.

Want more information on Brain Breaks? Click here!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

No, I’m not referring to the Clint Eastwood Movie. This is something much more complicated than a 1960’s movie about gunslingers.  (You’re welcome Dad).

I’m talking about:

                                                                Bulletin Boards

The Good:
What a fantastic opportunity to show your creativity and pretend to be Martha Stewart. It’s your own personal wall mural, free to design in any fashion you desire. Highlight new vocabulary words, outline new themes and units, or display student work. The options are really quite endless. And regardless of how you create your bulletin board, it adds character, color, and visual stimulation to your Healthy Classroom Environment.

The Bad:
What a fantastic mural of education you have created. Surly your fellow staff members and students will compliment you on your creativity and artistic skills. They might even call you Martha. You step back, you admire, you enjoy, and you realize... you’re alone. Students and staff throw an occasional glance as they walk by. And during lessons, you appear to be attempting to land a plane in a tireless effort to refer students to the board as a reference tool. Sigh.

The Ugly:
Remind me again what is fantastic about bulletin boards? The planning, the finding time, the cutting, the gluing, the stapling, the taping, the printing, the rearranging. The standing on a chair to reach. The paper cuts. The, “Phew it’s finally finished! Oh great the unit is over, it needs to be changed again.” The contemplation of bribing your students with candy to do the work for you. (You know you’ve thought about it). 

While some of this post is sarcasm, let's be honest that there is a Good, a Bad, and an Ugly to creating bulletin boards.  

That is, until I stumbled upon the blog, Effortless Style and my heart skipped a beat. If blogs have halos, this blog is wearing one.

The specific post I found is a tutorial for a DIY No Sew Skirted Table (You’re welcome if you wanted to know how to do this as well). But what caught my eye was above the DIY Table –

A wall of clipboards.

Simple. Sophisticated. Seriously going to change your bulletin board creating life.

I love this idea as a classroom bulletin board and here’s why:

It is an absolute effortless method of displaying student work in your classroom.

Here is how I would use it:

Each student would have his or her own assigned clipboard. Since we know the benefits of allowing students to have control, students can decide where they want their clipboard placed, and what work they would like to proudly display. This is not based on grades – but based on student determined accomplishments.

I would have two separate clipboards for Group Display, controlled by the teacher. This is where I would display outstanding work students completed in groups. Particularly those activities that would be helpful to display as a reference; for example, a vocabulary word and definition alongside an image. This will also motivate students to work hard and cooperatively in groups to earn a spot on the wall. 

The Good:
This idea still allows you to create a visual that can display student work, or whatever it is that you desire. Not happy with the drab color of the boards? Place a background and boarder behind the boards. Or allow students to create decorative nametags to place above them. And don’t forget, the student work will add color and character as well.

Say Goodbye to the Bad and the Ugly:
There is no more channeling of your inner Martha Stewart, or incessant redesign now that your students are making the updates. And the occasional glances and ignores? I don’t think so. Students will enjoy visiting the board to see their own work and the work of their classmates. Don’t be surprised when you hear conversations around who is displaying what. Now when staff and even parents are in your room, they will be interested to see what the students were proud of and decided to share. And this time, when you step back and admire, your students will be standing there with you.

Truth be told, this cannot be the only bulletin board in your classroom. So while you may always experience the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I hope this has at least saved you a few paper cuts.

And be sure to check out Effortless Style!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Ever have those days where you drive into school… and don’t remember the drive?

Welcome to Autopilot: Acting without any self-awareness or engagement in your activity. Do we want our students on autopilot when following the routine and rules? Yes. During instruction and activities? Well, not so much.

If our students are on autopilot during instruction, they are simply going through the motions.  And there is nothing motivating about completing a predictable and simplistic task that requires an autopilot response. It’s time to take our students off cruise control, and switch them into high gear.

--> Pillar 5: Raise the Bar 

To promote higher achievement and keep students motivated, we need to:

1.     Establish Goals

One of the best ways to motivate students to reach higher and work harder is to set goals. Goals set purpose and give students that finish line to race towards.

Being a Special Education Teacher and monitoring goals on IEP’s, I tend to take goal writing rather seriously. There are certain components goals must have; without these components, you are simply creating “fluff” that may look good on paper, but will not be motivating to your students. 

Make Your Goals:

a.     Attainable – Via the child’s current ability, and length of time allotted to achieve
b.     Clear – Focused, simplistic, easy to monitor and report, easy for students and parents to understand 
c.      A Flexible Discussion – Create and share goals with students, and adjust as necessary to ensure they are attainable and clear
d.     An Accomplishment – Encourage, acknowledge, and reward students when goals are achieved

 2.    Adjust Instruction Levels

We never want our students to become too comfortable with the expectations and requirements of their work. Comfort = Autopilot. If we continue to adapt our instruction to create activities that are a level slightly higher than student ability, our students will continue to have something to strive and work for. This also gives you an opportunity to differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of all of your students. 

 3.   Scaffold Instruction

If you intend on pushing your students to higher standards and expectations, be sure they have been prepared with the necessary skills to do so. Particularly, in regards to those students who may need a little extra time and support. So model your strategies and instruction while gradually giving your students more ownership and independence over the content. 

 4.   Provide Positive Feedback

If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.

Praise + Positive Feedback + Encouragement  
Confident Independent Motivated Learners!  

So this concludes my personal “5 Pillars of Motivation.”  I look forward to sharing with you my ideas and experiences that reflect these pillars, as we embark on the journey to encourage, inspire, and motivate the minds of our students!

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Classroom Zoo

Our worst fear as teachers = An out of control classroom. In a moment of vulnerability, let me confess my fear of A Classroom Zoo is due to one self imposed reason: A Classroom Zoo indiscreetly shouts, “Bored Students Gone Wild!” 

We know that when students are motivated, they are engaged, they are trying, and they are working. And when students are unmotivated, they become disinterested and seek entertainment. Which is why shouting to a friend across the room, incessantly starring out the window, humming song lyrics that aren’t playing, or sharpening a pencil 16 times in 4 minutes all seem to be appropriate behaviors. Too many instances of this at once, and you have yourself a Classroom Zoo.

So how can you keep students in line and to attention while also keeping them motivated?

--> Pillar 4: Give Students Control

So are you saying to Give Up Control to Gain Control? Exactly!

So take a deep breath, and prepare to loosen the reins (just a little!) 

1.     Give Students Choices

If you want students to be active contributors in your classroom, and avoid A Classroom Full of Crickets, then they must have some choice and involvement in their own learning. Would you speak up in a staff meeting when no one was addressing you or listening to what you had to say? Well maybe some of you would, but honestly, what would be the point? Give the students a reason to sit up and look alive because you are asking for input and they have some decisions to make. Show them your classroom allows for collaboration. Besides, no one enjoys responding to a list of barked orders, nor are they fun to dish out on a daily basis.  

The choices you give your students do not need to quake the ground of your classroom. Students can choose the order in which they complete their work, their method of presenting, or whether they want to work in groups or alone. You may be pleasantly surprised that when you allow a child to make choices about their learning, they use their strengths appropriately and produce better work that they will take ownership of.    

2.     Share The Power

For all the control freaks out there (myself included) not delegating and micro managing every aspect of your classroom may be a difficult transition. But you’ll find that as you do, even if the reigns are only loosened slightly, you’ll become more relaxed in the long run. Sharing the power with your students gives them the opportunity to take on responsibility and work with independence. So loosen your grip, and give your voice, and your feet a rest once in a while. Let students attempt to tackle a concept or assignment on their own through inquiry or working in groups. How nice it will be to take a step back, put some trust into your students, and watch them flourish!

And of course, don’t confuse giving students control with completely losing structure and consistency in your classroom. We know how essential our Healthy Classroom Environment is, so remember to loosen the reins, not let go!