Tips For Teachers

Documenting Classroom Management

How to Write Effective Progress Reports

Building Relational Trust

"Making Lessons Sizzle"

Marsha Ratzel: Taking My Students on a Classroom Tour

Marsha Ratzel on Teaching Math

David Ginsburg: Coach G's Teaching Tips

The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so for nearly one year. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I have been blocked for nearly two months this time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can retain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Infographics: Sometimes Too Good to be True

There are some really intriguing infographics on the website. However, teachers need to be careful about considering them as teaching tools. Many purported explanations are actually summaries, incomprehensible unless the students have already learned the information being presented. A great example is this infographic entitled “DNA Explained.” Take a look.

Explore more infographics like this one on the web's largest information design community - Visually.




It truly is a great summary of DNA and would make a wonderful final activity of a DNA unit.

Teachers should not be surprised. How could a video that lasts less than five minutes possibly “teach” a complicated topic like DNA? Believing it could is wishful thinking. Nevertheless, you may be able to find actual teaching tools you can use among the collection.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Flipping Classrooms: Back to the Future

Billed as the latest great thing in education, flipping is supposed to revolutionize classrooms by relegating routine information to video-watching homework, thus freeing up class time for more productive inquiry, discussion or other activities. However, experienced teachers know that flipping is not new, but very, very old. Teachers have always understood the value of their limited class time and have always expected students to prepare outside of class for the coming lesson. Maybe the new fascination with flipping is actually an admission that society, and therefore schools, at some point gave up expecting students to be responsible for their education.

What really happens in a flipped classroom? Again, what has always happened. The teacher moderated a productive class discussion with the five or so kids who actually read their literature passage or history chapter or whatever the night before.

A quarter century ago I ran a flipped classroom for ten years using cassette tapes. Who'd thunk I was on the leading edge of education? The thing is, I designed and implemented the system myself. Naturally, it worked wonderfully well. Nevertheless, we have all seen any number of worthwhile ideas, designed by one educator but poorly implemented by others, end up in a waste heap covered with derision. Whole language springs to mind.

As far as the idea of replacing homemade cassette tapes with homemade videos goes---well, why not? However, it has become too easy to post anything on the internet like this note-taking video. The creator says before she “flipped” her classroom, she spent hours teaching every new crop of students each year to take notes. With her videos, it only takes ten minutes now.

I looked at her note-taking video. I wouldn't recommend using it. Her routine amounts to an outline which is great, except it isn't actually an outline. I would rather simply teach outlining. Her routine is tedious, redundant and lacks logic. No wonder it takes her hours to teach it. Her printing is sloppy, and a poor model for students. And if a teacher is going to take the trouble to make a video (the basic idea of which is splendid), it should be a well-made video, not one with apologies. ("You should actually stay in the margins. Don't write outside the margins like I did.")

Of course, I support efforts to maximize the efficiency of instructional time. But let's not call “flipping” some fabulous new education technique. It is not. Great teachers have always “flipped.”

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Power of Self-Control for Children

Last month I wrote that the most powerful predictor of academic achievement is actually classroom behavior, and that one of the most effective ways parents can support their child's success at school is to train them to behave at home beginning while they are still babies. It is not true that babies are too young to learn how to behave. Parents teach babies all sorts of poor behavior, usually by rewarding bad behavior with food in a misplaced effort to redirect or quiet the baby. Parents also teach young children poor behavior by accepting incomplete obedience.

For example, I was visiting in the home with a 2 ½ year old child. The child picked up a pair of scissors. The father ordered the child to hand him the scissors. Upon the third repetition of the command, the child put the scissors down on the table. The father wisely picked up the scissors, put them back in the child's hand and ordered the child to hand him the scissors. The father did not accept the child's incomplete obedience by rationalizing that at least the child did not have the scissors anymore. No, the father made a reasonable request and accepted nothing less than complete obedience. The child will take the same attitude into school. Children who are allowed incomplete obedience will also take the attitude they have learned into school. It should be easy to see which child is likely to be more successful in school.

I am not advising that parents be tyrants. I am advising that parent say what they mean and mean what they say. Another word for this is consistency. Recently, I discovered that Pulitzer prize author Charles Duhigg says essentially the same thing in his 2012 book,“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”

At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline.

An excellent synonym for willpower is self control. Another one is conscientiousness. It should not be necessary to point out that conscientious, self-controlled schoolchildren behave well in school. Nor should we be surprised that classroom behavior robustly predicts present and future success.

Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

Roy Baumeister, author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,”has studied self-control extensively and offers some excellent tips for helping your child increase self-control. One of the most intriguing things Dr. Baumeister found was that a dose of glucose instantly improves self-control.

Our work on self-control (or self-regulation) centers on the idea that self-control relies on a limited energy source. A single act of self-control consumes this energy source, and later acts of self-control are impaired as a result. Findings in our lab on sexual restraint, aggression, intellectual reasoning, emotional coping, and thought suppression support this pattern. Moreover, recent work suggests that part of the energy source of self-control is glucose. Attempts at self-control deplete glucose that is needed for later attempts at self-control.

Therefore, as incredible as it may sound, the first thing parents need to do is make sure that kids get a good breakfast before they go to school. Then, find ways to let children practice using a little will power every day. Practicing makes willpower stronger in every area of life. Practice has at least two positive effects. First, practice creates habits. Good habits, by definition, do not require willpower. One way is to help children build habits through daily routines. As just one example among many, do not have a school night bedtime different from a weekend bedtime. Bedtime should be the same every night. Second, habits become a default response requiring less willpower to implement.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Surprising Secret to Academic Achievement

Over the years parents have often asked me how they can support their child's academic performance at home. Until very recently, I gave all the standard answers. However, after pondering many years of observations, I have concluded that if I could pick ONE THING parents can do to support success, it would be to insist their children behave at home. I see scholastic problems developing at a very young age, even in the high chair. As just one example among innumerable similar examples, I know just such a family with a baby in a high chair. The parents say they want the child to sit down in the high chair while they feed him. The baby wants to stand up in the high chair and turn around. Although the parents tell the baby to sit down, they do not insist on compliance. In fact, they will follow the baby to the back of the chair and give him a spoonful of food. Naturally, the food reward reinforces the very behavior they would like to extinguish. It all starts from lack of consistency. When parents issue a directive, they must accept only complete compliance, not something less. Otherwise children take this same attitude into school where it becomes the number one source of academic difficulties, manifested by attempts to lower the teacher's bar and find shortcuts which substitute for real learning.

The hard truth no one wants to accept is that the most fundamental difference between high achievers and low-achievers (barring physical challenges) is classroom behavior. Every teacher knows the “good” kids tend to do well, and the disruptive kids do not. Our society does not countenance such a bald idea, so teachers couch it in terms like “does his best, “participates well," “cooperates with others,” etc. If researchers were brave enough to ask the right question, behavior would probably surpass every other variable in predicting academic achievement, even to the extent of overcoming the negative impacts of poverty. And do not worry. A loving insistence on compliance with parental directives is not “controlling”or“authoritarian,”nor will it stunt your child's creativity or critical thinking skills.

Nevertheless, beyond saying what you mean and meaning what you say, all the good advice still applies:

Adequate nutrition and sleep.

Provide a special place to do homework.

Set a regular time for homework and remove distractions.

Make sure homework is completed.

Make sure your child has a special place to record homework assignments.

Have plenty of reading material at home and encourage recreational reading.

Show that you value reading.

Turn off the TV.

Limit or eliminate video-game playing and cell phone use.

Help your child learn to use the internet properly.

Involve your child in day-to-day problem solving while shopping or completing household tasks.

Monitor after-school activities such as music lesson or sports teams. If the child is not doing the homework, reduce after-school activities. Perhaps ask the teacher to send a report home evey home every Friday.

Focus on the child's personal progress and improvement, not on test scores. Test scores that are too high are worthless. It means the test was too easy. Teacher, parent and student learn nothing useful from such a score. Better to level up the test than shoot for high scores which can make everyone feel good, but nothing more.

Double check with the teacher before hiring a tutor. Especially in math, tutors typically teach tricks for getting answers on homework, but do very little to help the child learn the concepts or acquire number sense. Teaching the child tricks can undermine the teacher's effort to provide a quality education.

Establish routines

Establish rules. Every home needs reasonable rules that children know and can depend on. Have your child help you to set rules, then make sure that you enforce the rules consistently.

Make it clear to your child that he has to take responsibility for what he does, both at home and at school. For example, don't automatically defend your child if his teacher tells you that he is often late to class or is disruptive when he is in class. Ask for his side of the story. If a charge is true, let him take the consequences.

Work with your child to develop a reasonable, consistent schedule of jobs to do around the house. List them on a calendar. Younger children can help set the table or put away their toys and clothes. Older children can help prepare meals and clean up afterwards.

Show your child how to break a job down into small steps, then to do the job one step at a time. This works for everything—getting dressed, cleaning a room or doing a big homework assignment.

Make your child responsible for getting ready to go to school each morning—getting up on time, making sure that he has everything he needs for the school day and so forth. If necessary, make a checklist to help him remember what he has to do.

Monitor what your child does after school, in the evenings and on weekends. If you can't be there when your child gets home, give her the responsibility of checking in with you by phone to discuss her plans.

PBS has some suggestions for parents.

No matter how hard you try, your child may struggle academically at some point in his school career. Here are some strategies to help you both cope when the going gets tough.

Let your kids get frustrated. When kids are having a hard time with homework or a school-related subject, they often explode with anger. And parents wonder “What did I do wrong?” “You didn’t necessarily do anything,” advises Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “Sometimes when kids feel misunderstood at school or frustrated by a subject, they get angry or provoke the parent — as a way of making you feel as helpless or angry as they feel. It’s almost like your child is saying, ‘would you hold my hopelessness for a while?’ Or ‘I need you to feel what I am going through, so I am going to make you angry.’”

Take a break. If your child says “I can’t do it!” and throws the pencil down, take a little break. Maybe she needs to rant and blow off a little steam. Come back in five minutes and start fresh. (Those five minutes could save you an hour of struggle.) This also gives a child a chance to “save face” and start over, without even discussing the previous difficulty or outburst.

Don’t always try to have a rational conversation. When kids get very upset about school, the upset may get in the way of their being rational. So wait it out instead of arguing or grilling children about the situation. Once they cool down, you might be able to talk it through.

Let your child make his own mistakes. It’s hard not to correct a child’s homework, but most teachers ask you not to take over unless your child asks for your help or the teacher requests it. Teachers generally want to know what the child understands, not what the parent understands about the material.

Put a time limit on the work. Most teachers will not expect younger kids to work longer than a half-hour on homework from any particular subject, but ask your teacher for a time limit. If your child struggles (while actively trying) and exceeds the limit, write the teacher a note explaining that was all that could get done.

Contact the school. If homework or a project is turning into a dreaded battle, talk with the school. Do not wait for your next conference. It is obviously time for some new insights and new strategies.

Help your child learn how to organize himself. This is a life-long skill that can be taught, but it can be challenging to do so. However you can help your child discover the organizational tricks that will work for him by sharing some of your own. “It’s very difficult to teach children to be organized if it is not in their nature (or yours),” says guidance counselor Linda Lendman, M.S.W. “Encourage your child to label everything. Develop strategies, like the ‘must-do list’ before you leave school (put math book in backpack). Schedule a weekly ‘clean out the backpack and clean off your desk’ time so papers don’t build up. Be patient, and try not to place blame.”

Recognize that school work will never be conflict-free. No one ever raised a child without a homework battle. “There is no conflict-free homework strategy for most kids,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “At times, kids will find it fun and fascinating. Other times, it may be something they just have to do, and you have to help them find the structure for getting it done.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Issue is NOT Algebra 2—The Issue is First-Grade Math

A novelist writing for Harpers believes students should not be required to study Algebra 2. The fact that students "are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritates them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can't understand." is not an argument against Algebra 2. It is an argument against the ineffective math foundations instruction occurring in the primary grades.

I mentor two first-year teachers. One just gave her second graders a page of double-digit subtraction with regrouping, and all of them scored 100%. She concluded her students already "understand" subtraction. I replied, "The only thing you learned from that is they all memorized the step-by-step procedure and can execute it. You have no idea if they understand the math." We often teach non-math shortcuts and call it math. As an article from the New Yorker points out, "These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether."

Our school system continually tells students who are successful with non-math that they are good at math, and then wonder why these same students struggle with real math. The situation is even worse for students who never mastered the non-math in the first place.

Our biggest problem is that our elementary math teachers understand only non-math themselves, as Liping Ma documented in her now famous book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. A review of the literature shows that our elementary teachers lack what Ms. Ma calls “a profound understanding of mathematical foundations.” The first step needs to be the development of skilled math teachers at the critical elementary level.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

BTW High Regard Correlates with High Achievement

Peter Gow argues that the one feature we commonly dismiss with an airy “by the way” is the one feature all the school systems we admire share---high regard for the teaching profession.

"If you have an entire nation that regards education--and learning--as respectable, as an end in itself and whose practitioners are doing something not just noble and worthy but truly valued (and compensated to reflect that), it's not a big surprise when students in that society perform well in school; they're doing what their whole society--from parents to peers to adults in all stations and walks of life--believes is important, something that really matters. No wonder so many other nations out-score the great mass of American students, living as ours do in a society where anti-intellectualism is a long understood cultural trend."

I bolded this quote because it implies that education reform can never be more than band-aid fads until the whole society reforms. It has been one of my recurring themes.

Our society does not really believe our kids can achieve ( In fact, our society, at its depths, disdains high achievers, no matter high much we say we want to raise achievement. Tamara Fisher has documented the lack of regard, nay ridicule, high achievers suffer from their classmates.

The US could create uniformly high quality schools for ALL children if we wanted to. But we do not want to. The US could nationalize the tax base (as Japan did), but we will not because wealthy parents complain that they will not finance the education of poor kids. There are a number of other steps we could take, but each one becomes a silly partisan political football in the US. It took decades for society to create the education system we have whether we like it or not. Society must find the will---and NOW.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Relationship Between Memorized Facts and Online Research

In China, many people believe that the Tiananmen incident is a fabrication perpetrated by Western governments in order to discredit the Chinese government. Exhibit A: Last year the people of Hong Kong objected to the new history booklet, The China Model, for among other offenses, failing to mention either Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution. The people suffer from a lack of access to information, so they do not know anything.

Those with free access to information suffer from inundation. It can be difficult to separate the valid from the specious, so they also end up knowing nothing. A case in point is the issue of illegal immigrants. Hardly anyone knows anything about it, and they will not sit still for real information. They would rather cherish their misinformation because it feeds their own political beliefs.*

Meanwhile, educators lament the tendency of students to conduct “research” using the internet, and draw completely erroneous conclusions because they lack online research skills.

The problem I see is that education often swings to extremes. In the past, there was an emphasis on memorizing facts: math facts, historical dates, science info, etc. The backlash maintained that students do not need to learn facts, that a proper education means teaching students how and where to find the facts the need. Facts-No Facts is yet another example of a polarizing false dichotomy that has resulted in the lamentable situation where many students are not learning facts, nor how to find facts. The most useful approach amalgamates the poles. Students need a treasury of pre-learned facts they can sift through to find relevant search terms for online research.

*For example, many people are certain that illegal immigrants can receive Social Security benefits even though they have paid nothing into the program and pay no income tax. Let's break that down into three parts:
1. Illegal immigrants can receive Social Security benefits---False. Anyone without a valid social security number cannot receive benefits. Such people do not even have a record on file with the Social Security Administration from which benefits could calculated.
2. Illegal immigrants have paid nothing into the US Social Security system---False. Nearly all illegal immigrants have jobs. That was the whole point of coming to the US illegally in the first place. Many work several jobs at a time. Their employers prepare W-2 forms using a false social security number usually provided by OMG, the employer. The employer also withholds the Social Security and Medicare contributions and sends the money to the IRS on a quarterly basis. Since the illegal immigrant can never collect Social Security Benefits, their contribution help fund the benefits of US citizens.
3. Illegal immigrants pay no income tax---False. The IRS uses your social security number as your IRS account number. If you do not have a valid social security number, the IRS will assign you an account number, called an ITIN. (However, be aware there are many reasons besides being illegal why a person might need an ITIN. Do not jump to conclusions). First, the illegal immigrant pays a flat tax of 7% comprised of FICA which they will never collect in the form of benefits. Second, they pay higher income taxes than most US citizens, because without a valid social security number, they do not qualify for many tax credits, the biggest one being the earned income credit (EIC). Third, they usually end up paying the IRS a hefty balance due because the same employer who gave them the false social security number also filled out the W-4 for them, and withheld only the most minimal income tax.

If you do not believe any of the foregoing, print it out, take it to the nearest neighborhood tax preparer, and ask them. Most have received ITIN training and prepared tax returns for illegal immigrants.