Special File for Student Notes and Creations

Often teachers share with me that they get trinkets and drawings from their students. I know I get my fair share. All too often we sweep them aside to the edges of our teaching desks and end up throwing them away. A mentor of mine several years back told me about something I know have and call a “sunshine folder.” In this, you put special “gifts” from the kids and then when you are feeling down or just want a reminder that you “don’t suck” as a teacher, you can just pull the folder out and browse through it.

I am not sure exactly why, but it seems that all children love to draw. I have been given so many pictures through the years it could probably fill a landfill. Most of them are gone forever because I didn’t hang on to them. After my mentor’s suggestion, I started keeping all the photos and small stapled envelopes my kids give me and it is getting quite encouraging already. I never know what to do with these gifts and the students always give them to me at inopportune times. Having the sunshine folder helps me keep their sentiments until a time when I can properly enjoy them and it shows the students I care enough to file it and read it at a later time I’ve noticed in recent years the students have used more “realism” in portraying my bald head. The last on I got gave me wings like George Constanza on Seinfeld. I guess looking at the ongoing realism of these pictures from my students is a little bit like accepting that I am aging. All the more reason to keep these special items in a dedicated place.

In the recent past I had a not-so-great day of teaching. I was quite deflated. Everything seemed to have a “catch” attached to it and nothing was working, not even my printer. So, I sat down and pulled out my sunshine folder. As I read through so many messages of “You’re the best … You rock … You’re the best teacher ever …” I found myself feeling better and reminded once again of why I do this wonderful though often difficult job of teaching.


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Have You Modeled the Correct Behavior?

kids in a lineThis past week I experienced a relapse in my kids’ behavior. They were doing great for a few days then all of a sudden, BAM! They were out of the line, slapping each other, running, not putting their hands behind their backs, talking … shouting. I got bad comments from 3 grownups on campus and when I got the third I knew we were going to have to practice until they were blue in the face (figure of speech). Sometimes teachers forget to model the behavior they want to see in their students. I think this was one such occasion. I marched them to my door from the blacktop and out again about 10 times. Each time I repeated the things I wanted to see and each time, up until the last time, someone in line did not conform to the expectation.

The rest of the story is that they really line up well now. By showing them what I wanted and having them practice it over and over, the line problem was solved. I wish every challenge of student behavior would be solved this easily. Unfortunately, all teaching is a work in progress. Notwithstanding, when you feel like you are beating your head against a wall with your class and they just aren’t doing the expected behavior. It is wise to ask yourself, “Have you modeled the correct behavior?” I think 9 times out of 10, they will rise to your expectation if you get out there with them and SHOW them.


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Problem of the Day as Routine

teaching kidsI was so glad to hear that Common Core had less standards that the 1997 set in California. When you look at the pages of standards you have to teach in a year, it can produce anxiety. A reasonable response to that anxiety can be to schedule too much each day. It’s been said it’s better to aim at something and miss than to aim at nothing and hit your target. A problem of the day for math and language arts can seem miniscule but if done every day, you can get a lot done over a year. 185 standards covered in both ELA and math, that sounds good to me! I can feel anxiety lifting as I type it. If you go through them as a class, you have a different approach that isn’t possible all day long. Plus, the mind likes routines and chunks of information. All these things are the pros of doing a problem of the day.(…)
Read the rest of the article here.


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Great Lesson Basics – Mixing Methods

IAF_CL1_PX01192If you’re like me, you’ve been to hundreds of trainings, most claiming to be the greatest lesson method. Then, you learned they were good and bad but never universal. Have you ever sat down and tried to piece together the best of the best into something that works for you? Whether you have or not “knowingly” done so, that is the role of the teacher … to synthesize a lot of information, create, and innovate. I used to be a huge proponent of a method called “EDI.” In fact, my EDI posts get the most traffic of any posts here on the blog. I am proud to share EDI because plain and simple: it works! A few years later since my initial EDI training, I have created sort of a hybrid set of “great lesson basics” that work to foster student achievement. I am happy to share them here with you.

1. Learning Objective: I have to introduce what I am teaching and what the students are expected to do in order to be successful after the lesson.

2. Engagement: This is a step I invented. It is what people often call a “sponge activity.” It can be a story, a puppet show, a short video, a game, anything that gets the learner absorbed into the subject matter.

3. Importance: I have found time and time again that when the kids know the value of learning the lesson, they are more engaged and thus learn more and faster.

4. Steps: Everything in education can be broken down to steps. This is often easier said than done. Taking time with the steps is invaluable toward getting kids to meet the demands of the lesson.

5. Guided Practice: Simply put, SHOW THEM HOW YOU DO IT. Use the steps and model over and over. I learned to play guitar by imitating Dave Sharp on the Alarm albums. I would move the needle back again and again until I knew every guitar riff. Kids are the same today with academics. Show them and then show them some more. Gradually release them to do it on their own.

6. Independent Practice: At this step they should be doing what they watched you do over and over. Make sure they can do it before you let them go on their own.

20120815-140604.jpg7. Small group intervention: There are usually going to be a group of kids who need extra guided practice. Take them to a side table which the whole group is working independently. Just repeat the steps of the lessons for as long as you have time or until they get it, whichever is first.

This is the lesson method I have developed through the years. I would really appreciate your comments of what you think of it, ie; how I might improve it. Thanks for being part of the Dynamite Lesson Plan professional learning community.


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Look at it Differently

When you face an UN-solveable riddle as a teacher, you might find a solution if you step back and look at it differently. Currently, I am dealing with a small yet tedious situation with a bookshelf. I moved it and now I don’t think its location is optimal for my students. I moved it where it is now to assist me in my lesson planning but in doing so through “tunnel vision” I failed to see how it would block a large area where I could present student work. I went over the placement again and again in my mind coming up empty on a win/win idea. Sometime today, I will sit down and sketch an aerial view of my classroom, in hopes of finding a better placement. Of course, i have left out the part about how heavy and obtrusive it is. I believe it can be used in an optimal way to serve both the teacher and students. As of yet though, I haven’t a clue how.

Making a schematic of the room is a way to look at the conundrum differently. I have used this approach to many teaching issues with positive results. This approach could mean many things: videoing yourself teaching, asking a colleagues perspective, a Principal. My drawing I will make at my kitchen table is a change of perspective. It is a way of viewing a problem “from a distance.” Sometimes looking at your situation differently is the secret to a dynamite lesson plan.


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A Teacher Should Strive to be Great Just as any Butcher, Baker, or Candlestick Maker

When the Secretary of Education, Jack O’Connell, visited our school, I was asked to do an EDI lesson. This is me teaching “cause and effect” with the board members, Sec. O’Connell, and other honored guests.

There is much being said about this article where a Judge in California has deemed teacher tenure “unconstitutional.” A few people have been kind enough to ask me what I think. I thought I’d blog my response to all that here rather than in a confining comment box on social media. Here is the news article I am responding to if you haven’t read it. Below is my reaction to the article:

Teacher tenure has been a popular issue in the media for about ten years. Unfortunately, most the people writing, talking, and making movies about it are jumping to conclusions and setting up a straw man fallacy. Like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger did, I believe in unions. In the 1950’s that may have pigeon-holed me as a communist. When I think of unions I think of the part of the constitution that reads basically this: “Each individual in endowed with … inalienable rights … the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I have seen teacher’s unions help people keep those rights. If we are to destroy unions, we destroy something good for humanity.

Please know that I feel, to become and stay a teacher, you must have a deep care for the development of young people. Those young people, namely students, should be the reason you teach. Because the profession has a “human” product and not a monetary one, I think there should be a way to get rid of bad teachers who under-perform consistently and don’t care about the human side. The first 2 years a teacher is evaluated and observed 3 times a year. After that, every other year once a year. If the teacher gets a substandard evaluation, they are re-evaluated the following year. In addition, a tenured teacher is not immune from discipline, at least not in the schools I have worked at.

I feel a teacher should strive to be great just as any butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Next year will be my 16th year in teaching and I have never viewed tenure as a “protection” for me to under-perform. I am always working hard to be the best teacher I can be for my students. Sure, there are under-performing teachers out there but there are also under-performing butchers, bakers and … well you get it. How we weed them out of teaching is a very good question.

Anyway, non-union people may disagree but that’s what I think. I think we should make working with kids a more attractive profession so there is more competition. Then, the best will be hired. As a teacher I don’t feel as if my profession is as respected as it once was in society. Some stuff I read these days, mostly from conservatives, is downright hateful and ignorant about teaching. Sometimes I think the confusion about what teachers do leads to hateful monolgues that wrongly vilify unions. Who knows what the future of teaching will hold. I know one thing for sure, society will always need teachers in one way or another with or without tenure. Don’t believe the hype, believe in our need for great teachers.


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Dealing With Fighting in Schools: Are we Helping Our Kids?


Walking home from school or playing on the playground as a kid, were you bullied? Flip that around now: were YOU the bully? As a public school teacher in an inner-city demographic, I deal with the issue of kids fighting M-F (not Sa-Su thank goodness). I can attest that it is a real issue for parents and teachers. I am a big proponent of teaching things outside academics that are so necessary as life skills like teaching music and conflict resolution for example. Unfortunately, even the democrats have become polarized on language and math only so it may be a few years.

So if that is true, why is it I hear nearly all parents of kids involved in fights say they give their child permission to fight? (especially us dads) Of course, we invoke the “self-defense” clause of all that’s common sense about humanity … I would never argue with that. But, there is something they don’t know … something they don’t see. You might refer to it as “the fallen nature” if you are a Christian. Or, you might call it the law of the jungle if you’re an atheist. However you label the data, it’s there and it is kids beating the crud out of each other daily and blaming it on dear old mom and dad.

Last week there was a kid in my summer school class who pummeled another kid right in front of me. (incidentally, if you want to read a hilarious story about a similar student I had my first year, click here) This kid doing the pummeling was about 80 pounds give or take and the kid he was hitting was maybe 40, 45 tops I’d say. After going through all the steps and paperwork that we teachers must to in order to avoid being sued, I met with his dad and his dad said these exact words:

“I tell my son to defend himself because the school don’t do nothing.”

Poetry to this teachers’ ears (not). This isn’t an isolated case. I have even seen kids aggravate smaller kids until the small ones take a swing … then they move in fast for the, well in keeping with the idiom … the kill.

My school strives to be safe. It’s in the worst part of the High Desert. If any of you out there know Adelanto, it’s in “Old Adelanto.” I doubt many will see a picture in their head. It’s way off any tourist path. Still we keep it safe, and I know many other schools where they strive to do the same. Counsel your kids to NOT punch or hit, even in self-defense. Most the time, to avoid one parent suing the school, if any blows are thrown for any reason, both kids get suspended. There is a fine line between defending oneself and opening a can of whoop-ass. I wish more parents would have that discussion at the dinner table every night until their kids’ are 18. Let’s go beyond our animal urges and look at the psychology of what we tell our kids.


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A So-Called “Teacher Bill of Rights”

On Facebook this evening, I found this “teacher’s bill of rights.” This comment may sound rude but I hate blue-sky, irrational posts like this that complain on behalf of us teachers in the trenches. I would like this if it were meant as humor but I think they are being serious.
1891061_10152303771788708_1428955988_nI don’t need them to plead my case as a teacher. Here are my corresponding comments: #1 Is subjective. #2 Is subjective #3 Copy paper, pencils, and soap are provided (though I could use more pencils than 30 a month) #4 My school has fairly advanced technology #5 ok #6 Ridiculous. Highly subjective statement and completely impossible to grant to any teacher.#7 WTH are they talking about here? Colleagues evaluating us? Hopefully not some I know #8) Ha. Go into the business world. Teaching will always be a medium paid job, which is not bad. There is more security in teaching than most jobs of the same pay. #9) A dream, but a good one. #10) We get this already.

I agree with the direction of these rights but the way they aim to get there is bordering on absurd. “Think Big” they say out there in the world. I say, be the change you want to see. Little by little, you’ll affect big changes.


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Staying Healthy and Inspired as a Teacher

Those with careers in teaching are often under pressure. The administration wants the paperwork turned in on time and the parent wants accurate and full reporting of their children. Your own family wants and deserves your complete attention. Of course, as a teacher, this is your job so we shouldn’t whine too much about it. At the same time, it can feel overwhelming to have so many precise demands. It can affect you. A teacher’s mental and physical pressures should not be permitted to go on too long. The teacher must be a responsible professional and take care of her/his own needs first then the rest. This is a basic truth whether you teach English abroad or elementary school here at home.

There are certain basic “self-checks” you can do to remain sound of mind and body health in the classroom. Here are a few I do at yearly intervals:

  1. Check your blood pressure. Demands of kids and work can really raise this. If you don’t know already, a healthy blood pressure is below 120/80. If you neglect this, a heart attack or stroke could occur which would make you unable to be a great teacher.
  2. Plan your exercise routine. By that I mean, plan something you know you can do consistently and vigorously. For example, I really enjoy running outdoors but I seldom get to it. On the other hand, using my treadmill is much easier to be consistent at. If I choose the running plan, I will likely get no exercise whereas the treadmill is easy access and likely to get used. Vigorous exercise helps circulation and keeps you laughing through those challenging days.
  3. Get out of the house. If you are married, take your spouse out on a date. If you are single, go out and do something you love alone or with friends, good old fashioned “rest and relaxation.” You are “Mr. Riley” all week long, now go be you!
  4. Do your favorite pastime.

More than any tip, remember this: Those in education jobs are no good to your students, your school, or your own family when you are mentally or physically spent. Be responsible about taking care of yourself first and then the kids. Recharge your batteries. They will thank you for it!


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Focus on Three Things (or less) Today

tumblr_m8z4yltfxY1qiph2fo1_500If you are a high achiever who has 110 things on her/his to-do list today, this post may not be for you.  If you want to be a high achiever but get overwhelmed at times, this might be more suited to you. I was talking to a new friend, Justin, the other day through emails about how we can get over indulgent in work and actually be less effective.  That conversation made me think up a challenge post to my readers:  I want to tell you to focus on only three things today. You decide what they should be.  You’ll be tempted to focus on more, but limit yourself.

As a teacher, I tend to get bogged down in all the demands from the district and parents.  Sometimes, it can sap my energies.  The professional solution is to focus my energies with an almost tunnel vision on no more than 3 things.  I can still do other things, but my success for the day will be determined on whether I got those three things accomplished.  For example, tomorrow my 3 are: 1) Multiple meaning words, 2) Finalize my parent conferences calendar, and 3) Teach the final 2 math concepts we’ll be testing next week.  There are many other things I could/should be worried about, but these three are the most important.  I will name the day a success when these three things are done.

It is the regular attention to goals that makes me feel like a great teacher.  I wasn’t born great and I do not remain great just because of what I have done.  My puritan upbringing cringes at calling myself “great,” but I am simply referring to the data that says: I set goals and achieve them.  To me, for any occupation or endeavor in life, that is success.


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What to Focus on After the State Test

3IsAfter the CST in most districts there are still around 30 days or so of instruction. When so much of the emphasis is on test prep and standards based instruction, then comes the question to ALL teachers after the standards test: “What now.” There are many things to teach once the CST is over for the year. Regular, district curriculum is still required and of course a balance of these things is in order throughout the year. Having said that, as academic instruction continues it can be a good idea to something like a field trip to the public library. This is a great way to get the kids a tour of “academia.” While most searching these days is done on the internet, the library remains an incredible resource the kids should know about. There are so many other things you can teach and do with your class after the CST.

Teaching kids music has a proven effect of increased academic performance. Get some Disney music or other choir based music and teach them to sing. You don’t have to be great at it yourself. Some of the old songs like “Davey Crockett” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” have historical content that you can teach across the curriculum with history. If you have access to musical instruments, take some time to expose them to those. Art or course has value. One type I like to explore with my kids each year is “rip art.” The kids come up with truly talented work when we try it. As you work more art, music, sports, etc. (stuff outside of Language arts and Math) I think you will find ways to embed the academic standards into these areas. Life included academics but that is not all there is to life. Teach them about jobs and nutrition, all the while bringing in what you have taught them in the content standards. The Sky’s the limit. I think it’s a great idea to continue imparting eclectic knowledge after the standards test. It can even be helpful and inspiring to try subjects outside the daily grind of what we think of as CST preparation. In time, I hope teachers will be encouraged to teach and be tested more on topics outside of standardized testing. Now for your input: What do you teach after the test?


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When I Was Huge in Teaching

teaching_2007I use that adjective with my tongue firmly in my cheek. On a physical level I’m 5’8″ 170 lbs. I don’t think huge is quite the word to describe my countenance. On a professional level, I’m happy to see growth in my students each year. There are no bestselling books on my resume. The point is, I felt huge one day in teaching. Have you ever done something you were so proud of it felt like walking on clouds? That’s what this day was for me. I’ve never been famous either. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise. Nonetheless, on one fateful day several years ago I was asked by my Principal to do an EDI lesson for some noteworthy and unmistakeably “huge” guests. That’s not ironic because as you will see in the other photo, O’Connell and Herb are both about 6’4″. They are hulking guys. This picture is me teaching a lesson to my class for a Daily Press reporter, the Adelanto School Board, many Principals in the district, the Superintendent of San Bernardino County Herb Fischer, and the Secretary of Education for the State of California, Jack O’Connell. It was standing room only!(…)
Read the rest of the article here.


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A Neighboring Teacher’s Noisy Class

This post was published first on Damien at the Speed of Life. It doesn’t happen that often and in fact hasn’t happened in a long time but as a teacher, I cringe when I hear another teacher lose control of their class. I’ve been in this line of work since 1997 so I completely understand … Continue reading A Neighboring Teacher’s Noisy Class

Inspiring Videos by Pausch and Farrell

This post contains 2 very motivating videos that can certainly apply to teachers as well as other professions and people in general. I was pleased several years ago when our district Superintendent chose to play Randy Pausch’s Last lecture for the welcome back meeting. His messages of inspiration are incredible and ingenious. Even though I’d heard … Continue reading Inspiring Videos by Pausch and Farrell

Back to the Old Drawing Board

   Someone asked me if I agreed it takes about 5 years for a teacher to feel comfortable with her/his craft. I responded by saying it’s taken me 3 years in Santa Ana and 13 in Adelanto to get here today where I am yet again rearranging the furniture and tweaking my behavior program. I … Continue reading Back to the Old Drawing Board