Getting to know our students is a key to being able to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student. The more we know about our students, the better we can fit our instruction to their levels, their interests, their background knowledge and their needs.
There are so many ways to get to know your students, but here are 10 I use every year:
1.) Have conversations with the students and their parents. Especially at the beginning of the year, it's important to start conversations and to listen when the kiddos and their parents tell you stories about their life or giving you little snipets of information. Sometimes these pieces of information will be the key to helping you know how to help your students succeed.
2.) Get to know your students' goals. This year I started out the year with my Long Term Goals Sheet, where I asked students to work with their parents and think about where they want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. It was a great way to get to know my students on a new and different level. Hearing their college and career aspirations made each of these students so much more real to me. Now the student who wants to fix computers is a "tech support helper" who I have introduced to code.org and the student who wants to travel to multiple countries is reading books about those countries and studying French on Duolingo.com. Knowing who the students want to be when they are an adult, even if they're only in 3rd grade now, allows me to break into their interest levels in a completely different way.
3.) Read their writing. The way that a student responds to a writing prompt says so much about the student. For example my students are currently writing narrative stories about a picture of a girl falling off of a swing. The stories I got range from a first person narrative where the main character helps a girl who falls off a swing and wins an instant friend; to a story where aliens were purposely breaking the swing each time the main character sits on it. In between, I also got a story where the main character's mother fell in love with the doctor who helped her and one story where the girl was pushed on purpose and the pusher got a large punishment. Reading each of these stories with my students helped me to better understand their background knowledge and their viewpoint as well as their writing ability. I often use my Genre Writing Journals as a way to give the entire class the same prompt.
4.) Ask students to visualize stories. Last year I demonstrated to my students how much background knowledge plays a part in the pictures they visualize. I read them two stories that I wrote, which were almost identical, about families that were having dinner. One story took place in Morocco where the family was eating couscous. The other story took place in New Mexico where the family was eating enchiladas. While I read each story, the students drew pictures of what they were visualizing. Then we looked at photographs of a family in Morocco eating couscous and a family in New Mexico eating enchiladas. The pictures the students drew of the family in New Mexico (where we live) were very close to photograph we looked at, but the ones they drew of the family in Morocco were not close at all. Background knowledge affects what we can visualize. So as often as possible let students draw pictures of the stories they read. How they visualize the story will sometimes surprise you, but will often give you good information about their own background.!
5.) Use turn and talks about their home life. Morning meetings are a great way to get to know your students. Often during morning meetings I will ask students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a topic, what they did over the weekend, their favorite food, the pets they own, a time they were scared, etc. etc. Then I let the students report out about what their friends told them. You get interesting information about both students this way, because what the person reporting hears as important is often something that relates to their own life!
6.) Allow time for Genius Projects or Passion Projects. Ask your students "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" Their answers will be telling enough, but then give the students time to plan out and work on genius projects. Watching them work on these projects will tell you a lot about their commitment, their work ethic and their interest level. Genius projects in my room often lead to new read alouds, writing prompts, math scenarios and science experiments because I know better what will connect to my students' learning.
7.) Find Vocabulary Connections. One of my favorite ways to get to know my kiddos background knowledge is to discuss vocabulary with them. When I ask them for a definition or sentence for a vocabulary word, their background knowledge comes spilling out. Hut is a great word for this. Most students will tell me "Oh, like Pizza Hut", a few will say "Like the little houses in Africa", but my favorite was the one student who told me you mean like "hut, hut, hut in football?". Background knowledge, it just spills out, doesn't it? You might want to use my vocabulary graphs as a basis for some of your vocabulary conversations, the connections students make are great.
8.) Challenge students to an activity that you think may frustrate them. Watching students be frustrated can be an eye opener. It's always interesting to me to see "smart" kids hit a brick wall with something new and difficult, while kids who struggle often spend a lot of time trying to get to the answer before they give up because they are used to the struggle. Not only do frustration triggers tell us a lot about students, but watching students handle those frustrations tell us a lot about students. Once we know where students get frustrated and how they handle frustrations, we can better help students manage frustrations. We will also know how and when to support students so that they can either avoid certain frustrations or deal better with frustrations when they happen.
9.) Monitor group work. Students often work differently in a group than they do independently. Some students will automatically lead, some will automatically follow, some are peacemakers and some will respond negatively to other students. As you walk around and monitor your groups you will see how students react to each other. Then, mix up the groups and watch again because students often respond differently to different group dynamics differently.
10.) Incorporate activities that are not "normal" school subjects. Recess, PE, art, music, computer skills, cooking, sewing, nature skills - anytime that I incorporate these things into my lessons I see a completely different side of my kids. Students who often struggle will come out of their shell during a cooking lesson or run faster in the race than anyone else. Students who are the top of the class often get frustrated or scared to try new things. These activities remind us to think about our students as a "whole person" instead of just as a student.
It’s the beginning of the school year, time to teach, right? Wrong! For many teachers the beginning of the year means sitting down with each student and assessing them to build their base line for those data walls. While studies show that assessments shouldn’t be done until 3 - 6 weeks into the school year, when students have regained whatever they lost during the “summer slide”, we all know that many administrator want these assessments need to be done by the 10th day of school.
Often we need to start assessing before we have even finished teaching procedures and routines, which means that the students who are not being assessed end up working on busy work in order to keep the class calm and quiet while we are assessing. So, how do we keep the other student engaged AND have a class that is quiet enough to do a quality assessment? Here are some ideas:
1. Whole class learning videos with graphic organizers – You know what science and social studies topics are coming up, start building up your students’ back ground knowledge by putting on a learning video about an upcoming topic. While students are watching, ask them to complete a graphic organizer – to keep them focused and quiet. You will get the ability to pull students one at a time for assessments, then when you start teaching this topic, students will have some background knowledge on the topic and you can show the video again, stopping to explain where necessary, without kids whining about wanting to see the end.
2. Autobiographies - Have students write an illustrated version of their life story. Tell them that spelling and grammar doesn’t matter – just try their best, but that you are looking to get to know as much as you can about them. This will make a great beginning of the year writing assessment, as well as a piece of writing that you can later use to help students practice revising and editing. Plus, you will get lots of information about your students that can help you form relationships and build in student led differentiation.
3. Board Games – You know all those games that you never get to pull out? Now’s the time to pull them out and teach kids how to play them. Take a minute to go over the rules of each game before you have kids play them, and then split them into groups to play games like Scrabble, Dominoes, Yahtzee and Battleship. Students will work on cooperation and problem solving while you get your assessments done. Extra bonus - later on in the year you can pull out these games for early finishers or to reuse with academic rules.
4. Math Projects to Review last year’s skills – Have students work on real life math projects – like my Ice Cream Shop project or Designing a Dream School. Choose a project that is just below your instructional level, so that they can do the entire project independently, building confidence and reviewing key math skills, while not boring students so that they get distracted.
5. Reference book scavenger hunt – Split kids into groups and have students to find information with the reference books in your classroom or library. Ask students to find the meaning of key vocabulary words using the dictionary, synonyms and antonyms using a thesaurus, bordering countries or states using the atlas and fun facts using the encyclopedia. The group that finds the most items wins a small prize (like a no homework pass), and the quietest group gets 10 extra points. This gets kids looking through reference materials they forget about, working with each other and you can pull kids one at a time for assessments.
6. Puzzles – Jigsaw and self correcting – Puzzles build critical thinking and problem solving skills. Having students work on any type of jigsaw or self correcting puzzle will get students using their noggen and staying focused, and hopefully quiet, while you are assessing.
7. Let the Kids be the experts – Most kids think that they are experts at something. While you are assessing, tell students that they will be teaching the class about something they are an expert at (can be anything, video games, dinosaurs, making a peanut butter sandwich, whatever!) and this is their time to create their lesson plans. When all of the assessments are done, take a day or two and let each kid teach the lesson they created. The kids will get a chance to be the teacher – every students’ dream, you will find out what kids are interested in and what they already know about, and how they are at public speaking. But best of all, students will be so busy planning their lesson, that they won’t have time to interrupt you while you are assessing their classmates.
8. Read & Review Classroom Library Books – Give students time to read several books from the class or school library. After students have read a book, let them rate and critique the books with my Book Review Bookmarks. Hang the bookmarks around the library so that students can make an “informed decision” the next time they choose a book.
9. Explore apps or websites to be used during the school year – All year long, we are in a rush for students to use this technology or that one for a specific project, but students rarely get a chance to just “fiddle around” with apps and websites. However, children (and adults for that matter) often find that they learn more about how to properly use an app or website by “fiddling with it”, so take this time to let students play around with apps and websites you’ll use later in the year. Students will be excited to “play on the computer” while you know they are really building background knowledge that will be used in future assignments. For more information on what apps or websites to use – check out my blog post –Technology Accounts to Create for Your Classroom.
10. Fast fact practice – Two months off means most students have forgotten their math facts – well not forgotten, but they certainly aren’t as fast as they were in May. Use this time to let students practice their math facts with dice and card games, or laminate math fact quizzes and let them use a dry erase marker to race each other or a timer.
How do you keep the other students engaged while you complete your assessments?
Even after 12 years of teaching, two of which were spent teaching only technology, I still forget some of these basics at the beginning of the year. So, I thought this list might be helpful if you are looking to add more technology to your day.
1.) Model EVERYTHING: I always forget exactly how much needs to be modeled until I start a new school year. At the beginning of the school year, you often need start with “This is a computer. This is the mouse and here is how you click and double click.” Don’t assume they know anything, because someone won’t. It won’t hurt those who do know to sit through one modeled lesson on how to access information, where to click etc. If you have access to a projector, it is nice to be able to show information on a projector. If you don’t, sit everyone around your computer and do it this way. (I’ve done this multiple times!)
2.) Take time to play with new technology yourself: A colleague of mine and I were talking the other day about those lessons where you set up the projector, ready to model a new technology and then the technology that you thought looked so simple does not work the way you had planned. I’ve done it, she’s done it, we’ve all done. Besides the fact that it is a waste of time, it is actually a good example to the kids that we are learning right along with them, lol! However, if you want to prevent this fate, the best thing to do is play around A LOT with whatever new technology you are trying to implement BEFORE you actually implement it.
3.) Teach basic steps – logging in, saving etc.: While you are modeling, be sure to take time to model how students are to log in, how they are to save their work, how they will open it up again next time etc. etc. If you are starting a new interactive website (LiveBinders, Storybird, EduBlogs etc.), give them their first time on the website to practice logging in. I always give students 2 days to create anything, and make it clear to them that if they have an issue logging in, they are to let me know on the FIRST day, so that we can fix the problem BEFORE there is an issue.
4.) Decide on password pattern and keep it the same: While you are modeling, go ahead and decide on a password pattern. Teaching students that passwords are their own and are private is important. However, in a classroom, I generally keep everyone’s password in a specific pattern (ie. msrakiJoseph123), so that when they forget what their password is, I’ll know what their password is. I also have them use the same password for everything,so that they don’t have 10 thousand things to remember. I do this for students below 6th grade. After 6th grade, you should begin to talk about the importance of having different passwords for different websites, but truly if they can’t log in to a site, they can’t do their work, and it becomes an issue of what skill you want to teach at this time. If you have an issue of students logging into each other’s sites “on accident”, an easy way to prevent that is to put a name into the password – first, middle, last, doesn’t matter, no one types someone else’s name on accident. If you have an issue of students logging into each other’s sites on purpose, then it is time to change passwords to include something like a student number or code word that is individual to that student.
5.) Don’t overwhelm yourself – or your students – choose one new thing at a time: There are so many amazing websites, apps and programs out there, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Generally, when this happens, people do one of two things. 1.) Some people put their hands up and try nothing. 2.) Some people try to do everything at once and then wear themselves and their students out. Choose one cool new thing to try, do it and do it well. Once you, AND YOUR STUDENTS, have the hang of it, try something else. Build your technology base a little at a time, and you’ll be amazed at all your students can do at the end of the school year.
6.) Create cheat sheets: Write out the steps students your students will need to do in order to use their new technology. Use screen shots (print screen and then CTRL V) to help students visualize what they are supposed to do. Here is a link to a cheat sheet I made for my students to help them start their EduBlogs.
7.) Remember that not all students come with the same background knowledge: Just like with math and reading, each student will come to you with a different amount of background knowledge regarding technology. Some students have been playing on the computer and iPad since they were 3 and they know exactly how to do things. Other students may come from a home where kids aren’t allowed to touch the computer. The amount of exposure, and the type of exposure that students have before they come to you will impact how quickly they will pick up new technologies. Give a technology survey, like the one included in my Beginning of the Year Forms, at the beginning of the year – ask students if what devices, how many devices and what kind of devices they have at home (computer, iPad, iPod, Kindle etc.), ask students how often they are allowed to use these devices. This information will tell you a lot about who will need help in those initial days of a new technology.
8.) Be prepared to go over the steps again, and again, and again: You’ve modeled, you written out the steps, you’ve made the cheat sheet, and still you will be asked “What am I supposed to do again?” Don’t lose it, just know that technology is a skill like everything else, and you’ll have to go over it multiple times before you students have it down.
9.) Think about the end product – how will they save? Where will they put it? Before you set students out to create a project, begin with the end in mind. Will they need to save? How and where will they save? Will they need to publish? How and where will they publish? Showing students these skills ahead of time will save you a lot of product when everyone is finishing their projects (at the same time) and they don’t know what to do.
10.) Share the success stories: One of the best parts about using technology is how easy it is to share, so be sure to share student work. E-mail it to the parents, post it on your blog, share it with your class on Edmodo. Students can also add their work to an Online Portfolio, and have a compilation of their work at the end of the year. Show your students how to share their own work and watch how they begin to create new, interesting projects, even after the assignment has ended.
What tips help you make technology integration successful in your classroom? Please feel free to add more tips in the comments, so that we can all learn from each other.
It's back to school season and Pinterest is blowing up with all of the cute classroom set ups and decorations. While I love Pinterest for finding innovative ideas and management tools, I kind of resent Pinterest too. As both a parent and a teacher, Pinterest ups the pressure to be "cute".
I noticed this as a parent a few years ago. With the advancement of sites like Pinterest, the level of expectation as a parent has increased. Suddenly you're supposed to take monthly pictures of your kids with cute little signs and have perfectly organized birthday parties and knit your child the perfect Halloween costume. At first you do might do it to see if you can or as a way to show off on Facebook to your friends. But then slowly, it seeps itself into our society that it's a requirement. That somehow in order to be a good mom, I have to make a 4 tiered birthday cake out of cupcakes because if I don't then my child will be deeply disappointed and scarred for life. Seriously? My kids are happy with cake and ice cream because it has a lot of sugar in it. They don't care how fancy it is. But we've trained ourselves to think they care.
Now if baking fancy things is your specialty, great! Share that gift with your kids if you'd like. I personally love to experiment in the kitchen and get an especial kick out of making something from scratch that I had to buy prepared before (cheese sauces, bread, pasta, granola bars, etc.) and I love sharing this with my kiddos. But I don't knit or sew. I don't make fancy halloween costumes. I don't plan over the top birthday parties. I don't use Pinterest to decorate my kids' rooms. And guess what? My kids are fine. They are healthy and happy and they know that mom loves them. There's no need to get into this "I can do everything on Pinterest" mode in order to prove you're a good parent.
The same is true as a teacher. Themes in particular seem to have taken over the world of Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers in the past few years. Teachers, especially in elementary, seem to think that they have to have a cute, color coordinated theme in order to teach their students. There suddenly have to be multiple, professional level bulletin boards and all of the baskets in your library center have to match or the kids just will not learn. Today I even saw a post in a teacher's forum on Facebook that said "I feel so bad. I'm a first year teacher and I can't afford to do a theme in my classroom." Seriously? This will be my 12th year of teaching and I have NEVER done a theme. EVER. My books are in mismatched baskets, labeled by genre, but not matching colored labels. I have no beautiful colored duct tape on my teacher's desk. My bulletin boards are neat and organized, but not fancy. And guess what guys? My kids learn, a lot, every single year.
And none of my students have ever said "Mrs. Raki, why isn't your room pretty?" Why? Because the kids don't care. They could care less what theme you've chosen. They care whether you care about them. They care about how you treat them. They care about the activities you do. They don't care what color your book baskets are.
Of course there are a lot of teachers who LOVE doing classroom themes and that's fine for them, just like knitting a Halloween costume for your kids is fine for those parents who just love to knit. My worry is the pressure that this puts on other teachers, who don't love it and especially teachers who are on a budget. Teachers already don't make enough money. We spend way too much of our own money already on books, storage, curriculum, and other things that help directly impact our instruction. Adding cute themes and bulletin boards requires teachers to spend more money and more time on things that aren't helping us do our job better. They're often just a way to "keep up with the Jones'" that is disguised as "necessary".
In addition to the pressure having a "cute" classroom puts on teachers, it is also a time drain. There is always so much to do and so little time as a teacher. More and more is being added to our plates every day, taking away from the time we have with our families and our personal lives. Designing super cute classrooms is something you can take off of your plate and still be a great teacher!
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