Seize the Chalk

Teacher inspiration, ideas, and pick-me-ups to keep you going strong

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Returning from Winter Break

Coming back from winter break is always difficult for me – report cards looming, assessments, getting to school in the dark and leaving in the dark, and, of course, missing my wife and children who I so rarely spend a fair chunk of quality time with when the year is in full-swing.  Yet, when I walk out to the playground to pick up the students, all of that melts away for a bit – the students are smiling, they have all sorts of stories to tell about the holidays, crazy things that have happened, trips, or just how they thought of me.

Of course, the students are always excited to show off their new clothes from the holidays.  One of my students had on this furry hat…floppy ears on the top.  As she gleefully looked at me, I commented on how fun the hat was.  At that point, she reached up to one of the pom-poms that hung from the side, squeezed it, and all of a sudden, the ears on the top flopped straight up and down.  I never would have imagined that!  Made my day.

What’s your best return-from-break story?  Share it with us here or in the comments!

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Attending a science training and ROCKING IT

There’s nothing better than a science training to make you feel like a giddy, anxious student again.  A question is asked, and now it’s your group’s task to figure it out.  You know you should know it…you completed elementary school years ago.  Yet the tasks are more rigorous than before, the stakes higher, and you have a pile of random materials that you have no idea what you’re supposed to do with.  You begin following the instructions meticulously, step by step.  You add some tape here, do some folds there.  You attach this dohicky to that thingamabob.  You switch on the light.  You’re not sure what you’re supposed to see, but the fear is receding and it’s starting to get fun.


You tweak your model and try again.  Slowly, a hypothesis surfaces.  You justify your opinion against your group mates’ competing ideas.  You make a few more adjustments.  The moment of truth arrives…

You see what you hoped you would see.  Hypothesis CONFIRMED.

You feel the satisfaction of, once again, showing the world that not only do you have the key to unearthing its secrets, but that you will soon teach others to do so, too.

Image from here

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Teachers’ year-round holiday garb

flickr_theuglysweatershop_rainbows-and-shamrocks-_cropped_cc-by-2-0Long before tacky holiday sweaters became the norm, teachers dominated this arena.  In many respects, we still do.  It doesn’t matter what holiday it is, I can assure you, one of us has something wearable to go with it.  First day of school vest with red schoolhouse and golden bell (that rings!), spiderweb earrings with spiders that light up, cornucopia dresses, Presidents Day ties, socks and cardigans with apples, school buses, rulers, and chalkboards…the funkiness goes on and on.

As a student, I always wondered if my teachers knew how preposterous some of their clothing choices were.  As a teacher, I think I’ve figured out their ploy – anything that gets students to focus on the teacher while teaching is an unmistakable teacher WIN.

So let’s wear those holiday, seasonal, or just plain teacher-y gems loud and proud, my friends, because if we can learn anything from Ms. Frizzle, it’s that learning-centered fashion never goes out of style.

Photo from here

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Teaching in the presence of giants

flickr_doodledemoon-justscketchy_shoulder-ride_cc-by-2-0There are those teachers whom everyone knows.  They are the rock-stars of the teacher world.  They may not believe it themselves, but they know everything, they know everyone, and they are simply magical to their students.  They always seem to know the right thing to say (both in seriousness and in jest), they encourage and inspire you to feel anything you want to do is possible, they push the envelope and do the impossible, and they come back and do it day after day after day, even when they know they could do something else, because they just love it so much.  They teach with humility and grace, doing the hard work and trying to cast the light on another to receive the credit.  When you’re around them, you think, “If only I could be half the teacher they are, that would be a life well lived.”

Sir Isaac Newton said,

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

To all of you – thank you.  You never cease to lift me onto your shoulders to get a better view.

Photo source here

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Why we shouldn’t fear failure

Surfing the blogosphere this past weekend, I came across a handful of posts from teachers that talk about failure.  I get it – I’m afraid, too.  With standardized tests looming straight ahead, we’re in the most stressful months of the year.  We’re running at full tilt, with no margin for error, doing whatever we can to make the last bits of difference.  Yet, will worrying about failure get us anywhere?  And really, is failure something to be feared?

Each week, I give my students a guiding quote, with daily optional challenges usually related to that quote.  One week, I quoted Michael Jordan, who said,

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

My students and I talked about this, and then looked at some famous failures (just Google it and click on image search).  What I wanted my students to realize is that failing is not something to be feared, as long as we keep trying.  (And frankly, when you hear about the failures of Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and so many others, you begin to think that you should be failing a lot more!)

As a teacher, I have my share of successes and failures.  Throughout each day, I am constantly adjusting my lessons, my seating, my management, you name it, to best support learning.  A number of these adjustments were brought on by a previous failure on my part to control for something, but I can’t let that get to me…there is too much important work to do, and too much good I still can do.

I’m going to leave you with a quote from John Wooden.  I’m not sure why quotes from basketball legends have taken over this post, but the quote speaks for itself, to basketball players, to us teachers, and to our students:

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.

So, what do you say?  Want to join me in failing a little this week?

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A sheet of construction paper and one tall tale

Every year around this time, I take a stack of 12×18 construction paper, distribute a piece to each of my students, and tell them that I have a secret.  I tell them that what they’re about to hear is pretty…crazy.  So crazy that I can barely believe it myself.  So crazy that people would think that I’m crazy if any of them heard about it.  The students giggle and laugh and look at me like I’ve really gone nuts.

flickr_arbron_professional_cc-by-2-0I tell them that I know this method…this ridiculous, crazy, silly method that somehow helps students learn.  I tell them that when I first learned of the idea, I thought it was crazy, too…but we tried it anyway.  And then…then, we realized that it actually worked.  (I’ve been at my school for a number of years now, and having past students mention that they saw their older sibling do this only adds to the effect).  So we make the folders.  We fold the construction paper precisely to ensure the transmission will occur properly…they don’t want to know what will happen if they fold it haphazardly…bad things, bad, bad things.

We then walk through the procedure:

1.  Place material to be learned into the folder.  The more red correcting pen marks on it, the better.  (These are the students’ marks, not mine).

2.  Right before going to bed, review the top page for one minute exactly.  No more, no less.  (If they get the timing off, again, potentially disastrous results).

3.  Close the folder and place it underneath one’s pillow, then go to sleep.  (If students have trouble sleeping with it underneath their pillow, it can go below the bed, on a nightstand, etc., but no more than five meters from one’s head).

Of course, they want to know what will happen if they don’t get the minute exactly right.  I reiterate how important reading for exactly one minute is…I don’t want any more students telling me of nightmares of being chased by a tertiary consumer, or becoming a crash-test-dummy in a classroom K’Nex vehicle experiment, or other stories derived from the material we’ve been learning.

By the end, the students are at a fever-pitch, asking questions, doubting the method (and my teaching in general, I am sure), but wondering whether what I say could possibly be true.  And yet, this evening I am positive that at least three quarters of my students are sleeping with their past assessments underneath their pillows.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking – it’s easy to get students to do silly things.  Some students live for silly things, but this is different.  I don’t have my students do silly things just for the sake of silly things; it’s all about learning here.  Students are a) reviewing class material without any competition from other distractions, b) reviewing content they likely need to revisit or refresh their memories upon (the more correcting marks, the better), c) they think about the content as they go to bed as well as when they wake, and d) they think it’s all silliness, which makes it fun, thereby increasing the chance of retention.  If anything, it gives them a central spot at home for their papers to go (one subject only), instead of instantly to the recycle bin, where there is no chance for later review.

So I know this whole process is a bit crazy, but here’s the thing…do you want to know what’s really crazy?  I’ve been doing this for so many years, I think it might actually work.

Do you do anything crazy to help your students learn?  Tell us in the comments or submit it here, and we may just feature it in a future post!

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What are you writing?

Child writingA short conversation with a third grader:

Me:  What are you writing?

Student:  A book.

Me:  About what?

Student:  I don’t really know.

Isn’t this where the greatest works begin?

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Seeing your students in their element


In elementary education, I spend a good chunk of my day with my students. I know what they’re good at, what they need support in, how they interact with others, and their general interests outside of school.  I feel I know my students fairly well.  And yet, with the mountains of data I collect, both formally and in my day-to-day observations, I really only know them through the teacher lens.  When they leave the classroom, they disappear into the afternoon, just like I do for them, only to magically return the next morning.

This is why I love seeing my students outside the classroom, in their domains, not mine.  Playing basketball in the street.  Carrying a younger sibling around after school.  Hanging out with friends at skate night.  Playing on a sports team.  Domains where they don’t have to be quiet if they don’t want to, where they don’t have to attend to my rules and procedures, places where they can just be themselves.

It makes me happy knowing that there are parts of my students’ lives, places that school can never, and will never affect.  Places where my struggling students are the superstars, where my reticent students are loud and a bit obnoxious, and where my followers are the leaders.  It is in these spaces that I can look at my students with new eyes and marvel at how little I know about what makes their lives complete.  And that is a good thing.

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The “reset” button at the end of the day

Reset buttonNo matter how well planned we are or how ready we feel, some days just seem to go how they wish to go.  Today wasn’t a bad day by any measure, but I knew deep down that things could have gone better.  Lessons could have been better structured, classroom management stricter, personal connections with students built up more.

Yet, no matter how we feel when the students leave the classroom at that final bell, we know that tomorrow is a new day.  A new sunrise, a new chance to warmly greet our colleagues and smile as we welcome our students, a new chance to be the amazing teachers we are and continually strive to be.

“He believed in himself, believed in his quixotic ambition, letting the failures of the previous day disappear as each new day dawned. Yesterday was not today. The past did not predict the future if he could learn from his mistakes.” ―Daniel Wallace, The Kings and Queens of Roam

Here’s to tomorrow, a freshly washed chalkboard, dark green and ready for the day’s new learnings to be formed upon it.

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Dr. Seuss’s Less Appreciated Legacy: Grit

Tomorrow, students across the nation will participate in National Read Across America Day in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday.  Striped hats will be worn, his books will be read aloud, his works posted on beautiful bulletin boards and featured on top of library bookcases.  Students will “drop everything and read” during school-wide D.E.A.R. sessions.  Undoubtedly, Seuss’s more popular passages will be quoted throughout the blogosphere, many from Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, and teachers (myself included) will use Seuss’s whimsy and rhyme as a springboard for students to become lifelong readers.

All of this is well and good, but to focus solely on reading this day would overlook one of Seuss’s greatest lessons: Dr. Seuss had grit.  To the casual reader, Seuss’s words could have come from the tip of many pens; all one would need is the ability to rhyme and a little imagination, or so it is thought.  Yet few go beyond the reading and enjoyment of Seuss’s works to see the tenacity that was the key to Seuss’s success.

A story attributed to Seuss and seen on writing sites around the web goes something like this:

Dr. Seuss was at a cocktail party where he met a brain surgeon.

“Oh, you’re that man who writes those children’s books,” the Doctor said. “Some Saturday, when I have a little extra time, I am going to write one of those.”

Dr. Seuss replied, “Ahh yes. And someday when I have a little free time, I’ll do brain surgery.”

Though I’m unable to verify the veracity of this exchange, it does make me wonder about and admire the writer behind those fantastical words.

Writing isn’t easy.  Anyone who has tried it knows this, as well as all of us who struggle in teaching it.  Instead of focusing solely on the enjoyment of reading for Dr. Seuss’s birthday, we should go deeper to look at Seuss himself, to look at the writer who toiled over those words and who persisted through his setbacks to achieve his goals.

“Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, ‘You can do better than this.'”  –Dr. Seuss (source)

As my students and I celebrate Dr. Seuss tomorrow, perhaps I’ll give them a little more background on Seuss than I typically do, telling them the story or quote above.  Perhaps I’ll tell them how his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected over twenty times before being published.  Perhaps we’ll pull out Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, (written posthumously by Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith), which describes the many notes and doodles Seuss left that he, even in his well-published later years, hadn’t yet figured out how to assemble into one of his great works.  Perhaps we’ll do some writing and/or Seussian-inspired drawing of our own.  And if a student struggles in this writing, or in reading, or math, or in science even, perhaps I’ll encourage them to do as Seuss would do.