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 four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. 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 am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

No Swimming: Classroom Management and Rules

Have you ever read something, and then weeks later found that the author had made a bigger impression than you first believed? Sometime ago, I read the story of a teacher whose first name I believe was Deborah. She has one classroom rule, just one, which she absolutely insists upon, a rule she resolutely refuses to negotiate. What is her one ironclad rule? No swimming during class. That's it. She says she was thinking of an Anatole France quote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Deborah's point is that it is counterproductive to make classroom rules out of everyday courteous behavior that applies whether in or out of school. Students, as reasonably socialized human beings, already know they are treat others with respect, keep their hands to themselves, etc etc etc. According to Deborah's imperfect analogy, the students are, or should be, the rich to whom such classroom rules apply. To illustrate her point, Deborah created a rule no one could break.

The very act of writing down and posting the rules of civilized behavior may invite rebellion. At the very least, it sends a subliminal message that the teacher expects these rules to be broken. As we know from Pygmalion effect research,students tend to rise (or fall) to expectations. The older the student, the more confidently the teacher can assume the student knows the norms of public behavior. After a cursory review, consequences should apply without the expectation of (sometimes numerous) second-chance warnings.

There is another kind of subliminal expectation, and because it is subliminal, it rarely rises to conscious realization. I first became aware of the power of these types of expectations while I was in Japan. There is a rule that shoes are to be removed whenever entering a home (and some other places, as well, the tip-off is usually plastic slippers in the entrance). In the twenty years I spent in Japan, I never saw anyone break this rule. I never heard anyone remind a child more than about three years old to “Take off your shoes” the way we routinely remind them to, “Say thank you.”

People do not often violate such “given” rules, or norms of behavior. I successfully used my observation of the power of “givens” with my own children. I established givens partly by modeling desired behavior and partly by sending non-verbal messages. In this way, I communicated to my kids, for example, that making a ruckus in public was unacceptable. Thus I never dealt with screaming kids in the grocery store, or anywhere else.

I tried to communicate certain so-called classroom rules the same way. For example, as a science teacher I mindfully and intentionally set up the room. I situated my desk so the back of my chair faced a wall and placing the chemical cabinet against that wall, so that chemical cabinet fairly screamed, “Off Limits!” Students do not like to go behind the teacher's desk. I wore my lab coat starting from the first day, and students “somehow” knew they would be doing real and serious science in my class. Similarly, this English teacher has her own ideas (such as the way she uses a seating chart) to non-verbally establish herself as the classroom manager.

Another problem with classroom rules is that rules, policies and routines are lumped together. Individual teachers may have different policies, but they generally share the same rules. A routine is not a rule; it is a procedure for efficiently accomplishing some repetitive task. The first day of class is the day to establish order from the outset by reviewing rules, communicating policies, and practicing routines. Classroom rules, policies and procedures are most effective in a climate of relational trust such as Dr. Pezz, who has no "rules," tries to establish.

...rules may not be necessary.
This may sound overly simple, but I tell my (high school) students that I only create rules if we need to have them. We only have them in my classes if students can’t respect one another and me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How to Write Effective Progress Reports

"Parents these days just don't care,” a colleague complained to me one day. “I sent home progress reports two weeks ago, and so far only one parent has come in." The problem may not be the parents; it may be the progress reports.

Writing progress reports four or more times per year is probably one of the most time consuming duties teachers have. Ideally, every student should get a progress report, those that are doing great as well as those not doing so great. However, sending a progress report to every student is not always practical. If the student is doing well, the parents would love to hear it. Teachers may genuinely appreciate the chance to praise high-achieving students, but let's be honest. The main reason for progress reports is to alert parents that their student is on track to receive a poor grade come report card time. In some schools, progress reports are even called "deficiency reports." Supposedly if parents are notified in a timely matter, they will take steps to correct the problem. Yet most teachers do not expect, nor see, any real results in terms of student achievement.

How do you write a progress report that gets results? The secret is to write reports that are SPECIFIC and OBJECTIVE. This following sample progress report is easy to fill out, gets results and can be readily adapted for regular notification to parents even outside of progress report “season.”

A typical progress report might read, "Johnny is not doing well in class," a statement that is neither specific nor objective. It is not specific because a parent cannot tell from this report exactly what the child's problem might be. More than likely the parent will find getting additional accurate information from the child quite difficult, if not impossible. Such a report is also not objective because it expresses a judgment. It is possible that the parent has different goals than the teacher or draws a different conclusion from the same circumstances.

I once had a child from special education mainstreamed into my class without my knowledge. From the parent's point of view, this boy was "doing well" if he got through a school day without a violent outburst. His mother told me, "You should have seen him last year. He has really come a long way." The parent did not particularly care whether the boy did his homework or paid attention.

A better progress report might read, "Johnny isn't turning in his homework. He is disruptive in class." This report may seem to be both more specific and objective than the first one, but it actually gives very little useful information to the parent. If Johnny has turned in even one or two assignments, he will insist to his parents that he did so turn in his homework. If the parents come in at all, they will say, "But he says he has turned in his homework." The parent will likely have trouble dealing with the report of class disruption. The child will insist he has done nothing, or that the teacher doesn't like him. Parents need to know exactly what the child did that was disruptive in order to effectively discuss it with their child.

Some teachers are reluctant to be explicit because they do not want to drag out the heavy ammunition. They hope that a gentle, diplomatic hint will be enough, but it rarely is. I have read cumulative folders of troubled middle schoolers with copies of notes the first grade teacher wrote saying, "Sarah is working on socialization skills." Parents read that and think, "That's wonderful. Sarah is working on socialization skills. Very good." They often do not realize that the teacher is trying to say that Sarah is not getting along well with other children, or worse.

What can a teacher do to make sure progress reports get results?


Progress reports should be just one element of a well-thought-out classroom management plan, not an add-on. Some extra work in the first quarter will pay dividends the rest of the school year. Before the first day of school, write out your classroom policies, grading policies and consequences for misbehavior. Send these home with students with a tear-off slip at the bottom for parents to sign. Make the return of these signed slips the first homework assignment.

Ask the school to print three sets of class mailing labels for you. Or have the students address three envelopes to their parents. Or collect the email addresses of the parents as part of the contact information. There is really no point in sending a progress report home with the students; parents may never see them. Snail mail is only a little better, but it depends on who gets to the mailbox first.


Teachers have usually figured out the class dynamics within the first couple weeks of school. Document this knowledge by keeping a record of who has their materials, who turns in their homework, who pays attention, etc. Make an informal tally sheet for checking off observations. Keep an anecdotal record of specific offenses, either written down or dictated into a tape recorder. It may sound like a mammoth bookkeeping job, and one thing teachers do not need is more paperwork. I give each student two lines in my grade book, one for grades and one for my private data coding and reporting system. It can be difficult in the beginning to keep the grade book handy and quickly code your observations as they occur or immediately after class. With time and practice it gets easier.


After two or three weeks, give students with missing assignments an opportunity to make up the work. Offer tutorial sessions for students who are behind. Keep a record of who comes in and what they accomplish.


The progress report forms provided by most schools are inadequate. Design your own customized forms with fill-in blanks. Include the school's phone number and invite parents to make a conference appointment. If using email, it is a simple matter to attach the progress report to an email. Feel free to adapt the sample form below.


The key is to be objective and avoid passing judgment. Give parents enough information to make their own judgments. Use the sandwich approach for criticisms: something positive, something negative, something positive. Be as specific as possible:

"Johnny did not bring his textbook to 4 out of 15 class meetings." NOT "Johnny comes to class unprepared."

"Peter threw spit wads in class on three occasions." NOT "Peter is disruptive in class."

Use positive sentence constructions whenever possible:

"Sarah has turned in 5 out of 20 homework assignments." NOT "Sarah has failed to turn in 15 out of 20 assignments."

"Sean has passed 4 out of 6 pop quizzes." NOT “Sean has failed 2 out of 6 pop quizzes."

Refer to the policy letter you sent home at the beginning of the school year. Tell parents whether the signed slip was returned or not. Mention any special efforts to help the student and the student's response:

"Mary attended 2 tutoring sessions during lunch and made up 3 missing assignments."

Even if the progress report is positive, be specific. Show, don't tell. An opening such as "Johnny is a pleasure to have in class" should be followed by an example, "He pays attention and asks insightful questions." An illustrative anecdote is best. “Johnny invented a creative new way to model negative numbers with the Algebra Lab Gear.


The whole point of progress reports is to keep parents informed. Therefore mail them directly instead of sending them home with students. Or email them. Your school may have its own progress report policies. Many schools require the distribution of hard copy progress reports to be signed by parents and returned. Normally you can customize your progress reports while accommodating school policies.

The first time I sent out progress reports according to these guidelines, the reaction was swift and sure. The day after the reports arrived home, several students appeared in my room at lunch time, lunch bags in hand. "My dad says I have to eat lunch with you until I catch up on all my homework," said one. "Yeah, me too," said another. The students came because their parents had sent them, and they came every day until the zeros were gone. They took their new-found diligence into the regular class as well, and they were rightfully pleased when their quarter grades showed it.

Sample Progress Report (on school letterhead)

STUDENT'S NAME: ______________________________ SUBJECT: _______________

DATE:___________________ GRADE TO DATE: _________
____ out of ____homework assignments completed.

Returned signed policy slip? ____Yes ____No

Passed ____ out of ____ quizzes.

Make up work: ____Completed ____Incomplete ____NA

Has participated in tutoring sessions? ____Yes ____No

Test Scores: ________

____Excellent ____Satisfactory ____Needs Improvement

____Well-mannered and courteous:

____ Unexcused Tardies ____Unexcused Absences


If desired, call xxx-xxxx to arrange a parent-teacher conference.

Date:__________ Teacher's Signature:____________________
I have read and understood this progress report.

Student's Signature:________________________

Parent's Signature: ________________________

Date: _______________

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Documenting Classroom Management

Education schools and professional development consultants have become fond of reward-based classroom management schemes. Most often these schemes rely on some sort of token economy, in which students earn or lose tokens based on their behavior. Later, students buy a reward with their accumulated tokens. In spite of the reams of research opposing extrinsic reward schemes, almost every teacher has a jar of marbles on their desk, or a rack of colored cards on the wall, or something.

The fact is token economies do work, at least in the short term. In some schools, getting through the day is all that matters anyway. Never mind loftier goals of helping students develop self discipline and satisfaction in their own learning, and countering the pervasive what's-in-it-for-me motivation. Problem is, extrinsic rewards lose force after just a few weeks. Furthermore, students have been known to turn the tables and begin blackmailing the teacher with threats to misbehave unless they get a reward. Then there is always the student who tests the scheme by creating a nothing-to-lose situation because any hope of reward has already been forfeited through misbehavior.

An even more vexing problem for teachers is the lack of administrative support. It is not fair, but administrators view a student in the office as a demonstration of teacher's lack classroom management skill. Calling parents is fraught with its own perils, especially since it is often a last resort. Teachers need a plan that answers all three concerns: promoting intrinsic motivation within students, securing administrative support, and avoiding calls of frustration to parents.

When teachers talk about making learning fun, they are hoping to tap into intrinsic motivation. Fun is only one type of intrinsic motivator, and possibly the least valuable, because it is easily converted into short attention spans, sound bites, and a desire for constantly new stimuli. There are other intrinsic motivators, deeper and more sustaining, such as those meeting the hierarchy of needs. Learning is accompanied by two drives, the drive to improve one's own knowledge and competency, and the drive to prove that competency to others. The first is intrinsic, and the one schools claim to promote. The second is extrinsic and the one schools actually promote through endless testing.

But I begin to digress. The point is classroom management should promote intrinsic rewards, in this case, disciplining of one's self.

First: Set Expectations

Instead of a long list of rules, most experts recommend focusing on the three most important to you, the teacher. Pick the three things that peeve you the most. It is not as if school were some other planet. Students (except the very youngest who may still be learning) already know the rules of socially acceptable and respectful behavior. The kid who disrupts because supposedly class is so boring sits quietly through an even more boring church sermon. The science teacher should probably be the only teacher with a list of rules longer than three because safety issues with equipment and supplies may be involved.

Second: Post Consequences

Think through your three most important rules and the consequences of infraction. Of course, natural consequences are the most effective, but school is not necessarily a natural situation. Be sure you choose consequences you have the will and the power to implement. Avoid decisions on the fly which students may consider open to negotiation. Of course, you will listen to students, but you will not be manipulated. You, the teacher, are the one with legal responsibility for students' safety and well-being. They are responsible for their behavior, not you.

Third: Follow Through Calmly assign consequences as soon as violations occur. Minimize warnings. For the most part, students were warned that first day when you detailed the rules and the consequences. Ignore the whining for second chances. Remember the three F's: Be fair, be firm, be friendly. You want to build a reputation for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Keep records of what you do.

The following is sample record-keeping form suitable for secondary students:


Student Name______________________ School Year _____________

Teacher _______________________________

This student's behavior has been disturbing the class. Specifically, the problem is:

As the classroom teacher, I have taken the following steps:

Step 1: LUNCHTIME DETENTION was assigned for __date____________. The
student (came) (on time) (late) (did not come). I discussed the problem with the student and reiterated future consequences.

Step 2: A SECOND LUNCHTIME DETENTION with written parent notification was held
_____date_______. I again discussed the problem with the student.

Step 3: A FORMAL TEACHER/STUDENT CONFERENCE was held on _____date_____.
I again discussed the problem with the student and warned that further misbehavior would result in an office referral. Student signed a memorandum of the meeting.

Step 4: PARENT PHONE CONTACT was made on ______date_______. I advised the parent of the problem and the steps taken thus far. The parent's support was requested.

Step 5: THE PROBLEM PERSISTS. Therefore, I am referring this student to the office.

Date: ____________ Time: ___________

Teacher Signature: _____________________

Features of the Classroom Management Form

All students received a detailed explanation of the due process the first day of school. I hold my detentions in my room at the very beginning of the lunch period BEFORE getting their lunch. They must come empty-handed. Lunch is prime social time that most students do not want to miss. Lunch time detention avoids many of the problems inherent with office-administered after-school detentions. I have students stand at casual attention, not leaning on anything for ten, only ten, silent minutes. If they utter a single word, even so much as “Is it time yet?,” they get another five minutes. Another word and they get detention the next day. Thus detention is never any more than fifteen minutes long.

I send a note home (by mail, not with the student) any time a student is assigned a second detention for the same problem. Students appreciate that the first time is “just between the two of us. Neither your parents nor the school need ever know.” I do not wait for issues to escalate before bringing the parents on board. Parents' number one complaint is that the teacher never informed them or did not inform them early “when we could have done something about it at home” whether they would have done anything or not. If I get around to step 4, the call to parents, it is not a cold call. They received a heads-up at step 2. Furthermore, the call is not made out of frustration, but part of an orderly due process.

I never assign more than two detentions. If you actually ever have to refer a student to the office, you have a complete record of the steps you took. You have documented a calm, competent approach that demonstrates you did not resort to office referral out of frustration. Make sure you do not send your only copy with the student. I start the file with the first detention and make a copy if and when I get to Step 4. The method I have outlined has worked well for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually had to send a student to the office. In fact, I rarely assigned even a second detention to any student.

Feel free to adapt the form to your own situation and personality.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Animals Smarter Than We Think

In a departure from the usual topics of a blog devoted to education, I would like to draw your attention to the fascinating title article in the August 16, 2010 issue of Time magazine, What Animals Think: New science reveals they're smarter than we realized. I feel quite confident that anyone who has ever loved and been loved by a dog, a cat or a horse never doubted the surprising cognitive and emotional intelligence of animals. Time drew a similar conclusion back in 1993.

My childhood dog, an Australian shepherd proud of the beautiful “feathers” festooning his legs and underbelly, hid behind the couch for an entire day in apparent humiliation after I trimmed those feathers. We were about to depart for my summer job at a YMCA camp and I wanted to spare him the discomfort of the inevitable burrs that would permanently lodge in his fur after his first romp through the monkey flowers.

Monkey flower oil is like super glue. I worried that perhaps he had forgotten the lesson of the previous summer. He had spent the entire first night trying to pull them out, keeping me and my cabin mates awake with his futile gnashing of teeth. With the dawn, I finally had enough light to cut the burrs out of his fur. He stayed out of the monkey flowers for the rest of that summer. Or maybe he was indignant that I though he forgot his lesson.

The first two weeks of camp were reserved by a program for developmentally delayed adults. Camp staff watched in amazement as that dog recognized, respected and then overcame every single camper's fear of dogs, or at least fear of this particular dog. In the first week of his first summer at camp, with no training whatsoever (in those days no one knew dogs could be trained for this), he became adept at warning me when a camper was about to have a seizure. Eventually he died, gray, arthritic and senile, at the age of seventeen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Unlearning to Read

From the July 8, 2010 issue of the Economist, comes an intriguing story about learning to read. According to Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist at the French medical-research agency, INSERM, learning to reading involves forcing the brain to unlearn an earlier pre-wired fundamental survival skill, the ability to recognize an object and its mirror image as identical. Dr. Dehaene believes learning to read also means sacrificing some facial recognition ability.

His studies suggest that one small area of the brain’s visual system is particularly activated by the written word. Dr Dehaene calls this the visual word form area (VWFA). Researchers debate the extent to which this area is specialised for word recognition, since it also responds to pictures. But Dr Dehaene thinks the VWFA evolved for object recognition and is requisitioned for word recognition. Unfortunately, it has one property that, though valuable when recognising objects, is not helpful for reading: more than other parts of the visual system it is activated both by an object and by that object’s mirror image.

Dr. Dehaene's theories shed new light on dyslexia.

It was thought that only dyslexic children were prone to confusing “b” and “d”, and “p” and “q”, and occasionally writing their names back-to-front, but Dr Dehaene has found that all children make this error.

If Dr. Dehaene is right, dyslexia is a consequence of normality, not an aberration. It is reading that is distinctly “abnormal.” The wonder may be that so many of us successfully learn to read.

(Dehaene) suggests the error happens because when learning to read children first have to unlearn that older survival skill. If he is right, then in adults the VWFA should be insensitive to which of two mirror images it is viewing when it comes to pictures, but sensitive to that distinction when viewing words and letters. This is indeed the case.

Dr. Dehaene's results could point to new reading instruction methods.