Personalized Learning Contracts

During the second nine weeks, I decided to experiment with my enrichment group in math.  Last year and this year, I have felt that sometimes I do not differentiate enough with Singapore Math and from my research, I felt like the use of learning contracts might fix this problem.

What I did was ask this group of students in Fifth Grade what interested them in math.  Overwhelmingly, the response was “geometry”.  So, at Conference Day, I ran the idea past the parents and they were very supportive.

With the one fourth grader that I chose, I assigned the topic of coding since I felt like he would enjoy learning the basics of this skill. I had worked a little on this last year with my class and they really liked it.

I created a contract for each child, discussed it with them, set a due date,  and then had them take it home and have their parents sign it too.

First, let me say that it was an enormous amount of work for me.  I had to research sites, decide on a plan, tweek the contracts (there are an enormous amount on line to choose from), create a rubric, and continue to follow-up with the students on a regular basis.

Secondly, I am not sure that the contracts worked with this group of students.  They were mostly excited that I excused them from the assigned homework in order for them to work on their plans.  The fourth grader actually did more work than my fifth graders did.

When it came to class presentations, with the exception of the fourth grader, the lessons were extremely weak and not very well planned.

The other thing that happened was that some of the other students were upset that they were not asked to participate, to the point that I had parents ask me if their child could join the groups.  My intention was to work with the students that easily understood the concepts taught in class and they could work on harder skills.  The whole process got very out of hand within a few weeks.

When I went in for my TLC, I was talking to Jon about everything and he gave me a much better idea.  Why not create a digital badge plan where every child could participate.  That way, all the students are given an opportunity to “enrich” their skills and they have to be self-motivated to complete the activities designed for each badge. When they finish each topic successfully, they earn a digital badge which will be displayed on their blogs.

This makes much more sense to me.  This way all students are able to participate, no exclusions.  More importantly, when the parents say their child needs more enrichment, I will have a plan in place, but it is up to the students to be motivated enough to work on the badges.




Lunch Time


Last year, when all of the teachers were asked if they wanted to be an “advisor” to a group of students, I ignored the offer.  I figured with my personality, which is very shy, I would not be a good fit for the job.  Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching students, I am not shy in front of them, and whenever I mention during class that I am very shy, the students don’t believe me. But the thought of a one-on-one or a small group encounter made me cringe.

During a parent/teacher/administrator conference the other day, I was urged, by the parent, to have  lunch with her child. The butterflies in my stomach went crazy.  The student that I was asked to have lunch with is extremely quiet in class and I hadn’t ever had a long conversation with her her about anything.  When I would speak to her when we were doing classwork, it was always me doing the talking, not her.

So, I decided to ask the student’s friend to join us for lunch on the chosen day.  I figured at least having another person present would make us more comfortable.

On the day of the lunch, I was really nervous.  Lunch time came and both girls got their lunches and came in to the room.  I shut the door and the conversation exploded!  The student that was the main focus burst into conversation. I heard about the games she likes to play, her love for cats, hamsters, and so on.  Both girls were talkative and I saw completely different children.  They were open, humorous, VERY entertaining, and VERY verbal.  They both were totally different people than what I “thought” they were like.  It was an eye-opening experience.

I did some research and found a couple of interesting blog posts about the topic of lunch with students.  One is from my new idol, Michael Linsin.  He states:

“It connects the less connected.

Most students, and even some teachers, assume that shy, less popular students choose to be the way they are. But the truth is, self-consciousness and social awkwardness preclude them from taking part in a natural or meaningful way. Deep down, in their sweetest dreams, they would love to be able to banter and joke with classmates appropriately, participate in class unabashedly, and be just one of the girls or boys.”

I could not agree more, especially since I was one of the shy students in school.  I always wanted to be able to raise my hand and contribute to the class discussion, but I could never find the nerve to do so. I would have loved for a teacher to get to know me.

I would like to make a suggestion to everyone.  Have lunch with one or two students that you really don’t know very well.  Don’t talk about the community of kindness, how to be a better school citizen or role- model, or anything else school related.  Just have lunch with them and let them lead the conversation.  I guarantee you that you will see an entirely different child than you see during class.

This was the best thing I’ve done with students in years!

Image Credit:



Parallel Universe

If anyone has ever watched “The Twilight Zone”, you know what I mean by the term parallel universe.  I feel that in one teaching universe I am a true 21st century teacher, but in the other universe I am stuck in 1978 (my first year teaching) and I keep jumping in and out of the time zones!

As I was trying to edit the 4th and 5th Grade Scope and Sequence, I was looking over the Common Core Standards for Florida and so many of the standards are the same as 1978.  Not  much has changed; however when I think about how to implement and teach the standards my 21st Century brain goes into overdrive.  It is no longer “good enough” to just teach.  We have to incorporate authentic learning experiences and assessments in order to be a GOOD teacher to our students.  This is really hard to do sometimes and the preparation takes hours!  I find that I spend at least twice as much time planning this year as I did even last year because I am trying to make my learning experiences “deeper and more meaningful”.  It is not good enough any longer to just teach the material, you have to have a whole treasure box of goodies for the students to learn from for each lesson.

But wait!  The term “treasure box” was used by one of my professors back in 1978. Her words were, “Every teacher needs a treasure box full of goodies to rely on when teaching.”  Maybe things haven’t changed much, maybe it’s just semantics. The phrase “treasure box” has become the phrase “authentic learning experiences”.

However, I still feel like I am trapped.  As I look over the Ning and read about how certain teachers are pushing their desks away and letting their students sit on the floor, I cringe!  It’s not that I don’t think this is a great idea, it’s just that I can see my former principal, Virginia K. Greene (the scariest woman to ever live, may she rest in peace) sauntering into a classroom and seeing students sitting on the floor.  She would have given her famous disapproving look, and in her deep Southern accent say something like, “Why are you students on the floor?  Is there a problem with their desks?”

Andrea Hernandez and Karin Hallett, two members of our faculty, lead a very interesting “Coffee Talk” for parents the other day.  The topic was Fixed and Growth Mindset.  As I sat and listened, I saw myself in both groups.

I still have the fixed mindset of a 20th Century teacher, but the growth mindset of a 21st Century Teacher.

(I know that I am probably not using my example correctly with the definition of fixed and growth mindset, but I am trying to make a point which is that in order to grow as a teacher in the 21st Century, I need to get rid of my fixed mindset and concentrate on a growth mindset so that my abilities “can be developed through dedication and hard work” to quote the definition of growth mindset.

As I reflected for my teacher evaluation, I realized that this is my biggest problem.  I sometimes still believe and teach in the 20th Century ways (fixed mindset).  What I have realized is, sometimes that is good and there is nothing wrong with that as long as I try to incorporate the new ideas that are really good ones and relevant to my subject and students. (Dedication and hard work are needed to do this which are words in the definition of growth mindset).

On the other hand, I realized that I am a 21st century teacher, because I not only reflect, but I take to heart what I reflect. (Willingness to change.  Shows growth!)  In other words, out of all the things that I am asked to do as a teacher, reflection has been the most beneficial to me.  So, maybe the “new” educators have one thing right, maybe teachers AND students should reflect.

But once again, I am stuck in the 1970’s with another question haunting me, “How can I ever get my 4th and 5th Grade students to write a thoughtful and meaningful reflection?”  Definitely  a fixed mindset mentality.

Any thoughts?

Image Credit:…

Caught Being Kind

In Fourth and Fifth Grade, my colleague, Andrea Hernandez  has created jobs for the students which they have to apply for in order to be hired.   We have decided to have the students not only “hired” for her class, but also my class.  One such job is “kindness ambassador”.    We have been brainstorming what this job should entail. (Remember there is pay involved!)

I thought it might be a good idea for this student to take candid photos of students caught in the act of being kind and we could display the photos on a bulletin board.

This started me thinking so I decided to start documenting students being caught in the act.

I was amazed how many times during the day that the kids were being really nice and cooperative with each other, so much that I actually videoed the Fifth Graders playing a math game and emailed the video to the parents.  (The disturbing thing was, only one parent emailed me back with a “thank you”. )

The next day, I took pictures of the Fourth Grade working together researching questions about Florida preparaing for their skype call in Andrea’s class.  It was a great day.  All of them worked together, researched, wrote answers,  and talked about who would do what during the call.

I feel like we are making progress with the Community of Kindness with the students.  I know there is a lot of room for improvement, but it is getting better; however, please, let’s not forget that we are role models for the students.  If we walk past each other and don’t speak or if we are condescending to one another within earshot of the students then we are not doing our jobs as professionals and more than that as educators . How much effort does it take to say “good morning” or ask “how are you doing?”  I know I am guilty of being in a “zone” at times, but really we MUST be a community of kindness among ourselves first. We are ALL human beings with feelings no matter our age.

Maybe we should document our faculty being kind to one another too?  Just a thought…..

Homework Wars



Cross-posted toTeacher-Twenty-One

I want to put out my feelings about the so-called “homework wars”, but I want to base it from a mom’s point of view.

I want to express my feelings from the view point of a mom who has two children who are recent college graduates.  During my daughters’ middle school experiences, both at public school (Kim) and private (Lisa-here) there was an overwhelming amount of homework, to the point that my husband and I spoke to the teaching team at Mandarin Middle about it, which, by the way, did no good.

In high school, Kim attended Bolles and once again, the amount of homework was unbelievable.  Lisa attended Mandarin High and the load was not unbearable, but it was heavy.

Here’s my point.  The amount of homework was tremendous, but looking back on the situation, I am so grateful that the girls had homework.  It not only let us know what they were doing in school and reinforced skills,  but it prepared them for college.  There IS homework in college and A LOT of it!  The preparation that both my daughters had in middle and high school developed them into organized and capable college students and they both graduated with high honors.

I remember the feeling that homework was nonsense and I too, read  many articles about the “non-worth” of it and I agreed with it, at that time.

Today, as a teacher and a mom, I do see the relevance in it and I do think it is a necessity.  I HOPE my school does not bend to the thinking that homework should not be assigned.  I think that our job is to prepare the students for wherever they may go to school next.  Guaranteed, 99% of all schools still assign homework and probably a lot more than we do.



Tutorials for Parents

This week, my fourth graders were studying the skill, order of operations.  I have taught this skill many times in the past, but this year seemed especially challenging, so much so that after Monday’s class, I was ready to “call out sick” for a few days just to recuperate.  I felt like I was in the movie The Blackboard Jungle,  MJGDS version.  (Some of you are too young to remember this classic so take a look at the movie trailer.  If you need a good chuckle, this will provide one.)  I had students crying and yelling that they didn’t understand.  I had students pacing back and forth chanting, “I don’t get it!” over and over again almost like a yoga mantra.  And that was just a few things that went on during that class.

I decided that I needed to do something before the students went home and attempted to complete their homework and a blast of parental emails headed my way, so I made a quick tutorial on the app Showme and sent it to all of the parents and, voila, no complaints that night! (I actually got some thank you emails!)

I went back the next day, refreshed and ready to teach again and had a much better and productive class than the day before (Thank G-d).

The students are still struggling with the skill, but at least I know the parents understand it!

The Value of Tutorials as Assessments

As I searched and pondered for ways to use the iPad and not rely so much on textbooks, I finally gave in to the nudging of my past and present coaches to have the students create tutorials to prove their knowledge of the material that I have taught.  I don’t know why, but I am always very apprehensive to try new things, so I had to make myself do this.

Much to my surprise, I was the only anxious one.  The students didn’t complain or question the assignment at all.  They just did it and the results were amazing.

In Social Studies class, we began with a class discussion.  I asked the students to help me list the different topics that we had studied the first nine weeks.  Then I told them to choose one (or more if they were really motivated) and created a slideshow using Pixie to show their knowledge of the topic(s).  I assigned this as homework and I gave them approximately a week to complete the task.

The day they were due, the students shared their final products.  It was clear to me who had the best grasp of the topics and who lacked some understanding.  As the slideshows were critiqued, not one student was rude or mean to the students who made mistakes.  (Latitude and longitude were one of the skills and, as you can imagine, this confused some of the kids.)  At the end of the presentations the students all clapped and told each other that they had done a good job.

There was no test, but the amount of effort and knowledge of the topics was evident to me.

In Math, I had the students create a tutorial explaining multiplication with large numbers the “Singapore Way”. Once again, it was an eye-opener.  I had the students share their tutorials, but when they introduced the problem, I paused the video and had the class also solve the problem.  This gave them a little more reinforcement with the skill.  Most students did a great job, only one had given the wrong answer in their tutorial, but he immediately, saw his problem. Ironically, he is one of my “top” students. We also discussed what makes a good tutorial. The students who illustrated each step, realized that they had done a great job explaining the process.  The students who only gave the answers to each step realized that they needed to add more next time.

The most amazing thing about the tutorials was that the student’s personalities really shined through.  Two of my most reserved students did a terrific job with their projects.  Not only did they do a great job explaining the process of multiplying, but their sense of humor was very apparent, so much so that after the tutorials were over, the class begged to see them again because they were so enjoyable.

I really think that this is one of the best forms of assessment that I have ever used.  Not only did I SEE what the students know, but I “SAW into each student” which is something that doesn’t happen when I give a multiple choice test!

View tutorials: (and YES I know the word “digit” was misspelled, but the skill of multiplying is there!)



5th Grade Social Studies Pixie Project

Josh M.

Edible Globes

PicCollage-2After completing a geography unit which included the study of globes, continents, and oceans, it was time to have some fun!  Our amazing teaching assistant, Mrs. Shmunes, “cooked up” the idea of making edible globes.

We used popcorn balls (thank you to Ben D’s mom for supplying) for the globes, blue icing for water, twizzlers for the equator, and fruit roll ups for the continents.

After the above ingredients were assembled, the students could eat their projects. What a fun and educational day we had in Fourth Grade!




In math this week, we studied the “distributive property” which can be a little confusing to say the least.

In order to reinforce what was taught in class, the students played a game of “Memory”, which is also known a “Concentration”. (This really showed my age because none of the students, including our wonderful teaching assistant had ever heard of this game!)  The point of the game is to match two cards together that are examples of the same number sentence, one being an example of the distributive property. The twist is all of the cards are face down and players can only turn over two cards at a time trying to make a match.  Players have to memorize where the cards are which is a skill in itself.

After the first round of “Memory” the students could make up their own game using the cards.  It was great to see all of the students brainstorming and working so well together to come up with different ideas.


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