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Monday, February 28, 2011

TAKS for the memories

(On) Tomorrow is the 4th grade Writing TAKS. This is the first of the TAKS tests that will be given this year, and 4th grade teachers across the state (including my wife) have been nervously anticipating the day.

This made me think that today might be a good day to have an INTERACTIVE MONDAY that asks, "Whaddya think about standardized tests?"

Go ahead, rant. Rave. Spew invectives all over the keyboards. But please share with us what you think of your state's current testing situation.

To see MY opinions, please revisit this old post -- Testivus.

Good night, and good luck, 4th graders.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Homework? More like NOwork.

I am going to come right out and admit that I still have not come up with a solution to the homework problem. I assign homework twice a week, and I ALWAYS have some kids that don't do it. They don't care that it lowers their grade. They don't care that their parents will be informed. They don't care that they won't get tickets that day. They don't care that they won't get any free time on Friday. They don't CARE, period.

I tell myself that I should just enforce those consequences and move on. Yet I always find myself angry at these kids and stressing over the fact that they're not doing what they were supposed to!

Latest example: I knew I was going to be out yesterday at a meeting, so I told the kids that the homework I was giving them on Tuesday would be due on Thursday morning when I returned. So they had TWO days to complete the homework instead of the usual one. The homework was 5 word problems. I also told the kids that anyone who did not turn in their homework would not be going on the field trip with us after TAKS. That is a pretty severe consequence!

This morning, I had 3 kids in my early class who didn't do the homework. One girl's excuse was that she left the homework in her desk. REALLY? You left it there two days in a row??

In the afternoon, I had 2 boys that did not do all of the problems, and 3 kids who didn't bring it at all.

I'd love to hear from veteran teachers and new teachers alike how you feel about this. Do you just not care and move on? Or do you hammer the kids until they do the HW? Or have you found that happy medium?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tips for the sluggish

Today I have a guest post from Lauren Bailey, who writes for
Lauren writes some tips for what to do with those kids who seem to think they're still in the pajamas and race car bed in the morning and those who act like every cafeteria lunch is laced with tryptophan.

Morning Drowsiness or Post-Lunch Blues? 4 Tips for Keeping Students Engaged throughout the Day

As annoying as it may be to come to terms with, it's generally true that kids have "peak" periods of productivity. In the morning, these droopy-eyed youngsters are still pining for bed. Right after lunch and recess, they've digested their sandwiches, have run around the playground, and are generally pretty non-receptive. As teachers, however, it's our job to make each one of our class periods as learning-friendly as the next, so we have to work around these dips in productivity, even as we ourselves fall victim to the post-lunch malaise. Here are some tips for energizing students to bring out the best in them no matter what time of the day it is.

1. Keep your own energy levels up.

While we may attribute our students' lack of energy to certain times of the day, and as such, become frustrated, let's not forget that we, too, are affected by the same periodic lulls. This can only serve to exacerbate the problem. As such, try your best to keep your own energy levels constant by getting a good night's rest, avoiding heavy lunches, and, if necessary, ingesting reasonable amounts of caffeine or mood-lifting snacks throughout the day.

2. Break up the monotony by approaching each class period differently.

Since you know that some classes will be "perkier" than others, approach each class based on their varying energy levels. For example, for those top-of-the-morning classes in which the kids are falling asleep at their desks, start the day off with something relatively easy and programmatic, to get them warmed up. Same goes with the class period immediately following lunch. For those classes that are right before lunch, as well as the very last class of the day, you'll find that kids may be more energetic in anticipation of a break or going home, but this energy is less sustained and more prone to impatience. Harness this energy by doing a bunch of fast exercises that don't require long periods of attention.

3. Start class with something fun.

For those slower, energy-lacking classes described above, it's important to start off the class with something fun, perhaps something that's exciting but only tangentially related to your subject matter. For example, if you teach math, think about telling some simple math-related jokes, or play a game in which math concepts are smuggled in without the students even knowing what hit them. Above all, start with something light-hearted and interesting to perk up their energy.

4. Don't beat yourself up if not all goes as planned.

Teachers, especially those new to the profession, are often a lot harder on themselves than they should be. Of course, keeping expectations high for yourself and your students is a key part of improving your students' learning and developing yourself professionally. But at the same time, know in advance that not all days will go as planned, some classes are just easier to teach than others, and each year will be a mix of geniuses and difficult kids. You won't be super-teacher for every student. All you can rely on is giving the best you have, one day and one class period at a time.

This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, who writes on the topics of Best Colleges Online. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: blauren99

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Let's get our priorities straight

My colleague and friend has written an outstanding editorial piece for the Dallas Morning News, and I encourage everyone to check it out and weigh in.

A key point:

"It is all about priorities, and education just doesn’t seem to be that vital. The government will bail out the private-sector banks and huge corporations in the best interest of the economy and its citizens. Who will step in and help out our children, teachers and schools? Taxpayers will fund a $1.2 billion stadium to have the Cowboys in their back yard. But when it comes time to pay property taxes, many complain because they don’t even have a child in the school system."

Well done, Michael.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


As I posted about a few weeks ago, I've been trying a new method with word problems with my kids. One that has them focus more on the question first and only on the aspects of the problem that they really need. I've been pretty encouraged by how it's gone. Clearly, some of the kids are still a little tied to the old system, which makes me think that if I start the new method from day 1 next year, it will be even better.

Still, the kids this year are coming along pretty well. On Wednesday, I had a problem solving day. I gave each pair of kids a word problem that had extra information or some other trick in it, and had them work together to solve it on a big piece of paper. I found that the kids weren't quite as far along the slope as I had thought they were. Some of them weren't paying attention to the units or dividing when they should be multiplying, or making their tables all wrong. A lot of the extra information was being included in the "See" box, when it should be ignored. But we talked about things, and I think got a lot set right.

Then on Thursday, I presented them with "The Big One." I made up the biggest, longest, most complicated problem that I've given them all year. Here's what it said:

Billy and his 3 friends caught 18 worms on Saturday. Then they went to a restaurant and bought 5 hamburgers for a total of $10.50. Each boy ate 12 french fries. Each boy got 3 napkins. Then they saw 6 of their friends. How many french fries did Billy and his friends eat in all?

I set them loose on this bad boy, and I was very pleased to see most of them get it right. For the most part, the kids did not circle or include the extra information in the "see" box. Nobody got fooled by the napkin sentence. Even the kids who got it wrong, were close. They only counted 3 boys and forgot Billy, or they added the 6 friends who were seen at the end.

This gives me hope that maybe my kids ARE becoming better "math detectives" after all!

Now if I could just get them to learn their times tables!!!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy V-Day! How did you celebrate?

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! It hardly even seemed like a holiday today, since we were expressly forbidden to indulge in any semblance of a party or customary rituals. In fact, our principal came on the speaker this morning to announce that some kids had been spotted with chocolates and that she and the Assistant Principal would be coming around with a cart to collect the contraband goodies.

The Texas educational system is going downhill, but really, are we in 1970s West Germany now?? 10 minutes of passing out cards and Hershey's Kisses is going to make or break little Johnny's chances of passing the TAKS test in 2 months??

So we didn't do much. But I'd love to hear from the rest of you out there what (if anything) you did with your class. In this week's INTERACTIVE MONDAY, please share how your day was. You don't even have to limit it to the classroom. Did you do anything else special outside of school?

For instance, I surprised my wife with the flowers/wine/chicken parm that graces the top of this post. I had never made chicken parmesan before, but I CAN follow a recipe, and I gotta say, it was DAMN good!

Maybe tomorrow, I'll try 4-cheese lasagna with a trifle. How hard can it be?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

How I Met Your Word Problem

Over Christmas break, I had a bit of an epiphany. Not THE Epiphany, January 6, when the Wise Men visited the newborn Jesus, and the day that you are supposed to take down your Christmas tree (though my mother-in-law leaves her tree up year round). But a teaching epiphany all the same.

I came up with a game plan in my head for a better way to teach the kids to solve word problems. Thankfully, I did have a week or so to implement it before all these crazy inclement weather days started piling up (we're on our FIFTH today). The kids are taking to it somewhat slowly, but when they do, I think it's really effective.

It's also one of those things that I'm kind of kicking myself in the butt for never having thought of before. I have a nagging feeling that many of you reading this will say, "And just why the heck haven't you been doing it this way ALWAYS?? Duh!!" Nevertheless, I'll attempt to explain.

In Dallas, we have a problem solving model that we have to use. It's called See-Plan-Do-Reflect, or SPDR. The kids make a giant plus sign, +, and each quadrant has its own purpose. Let me write a typical word problem, and I'll try to explain the old way first, and then the new way.

Timmy has $13.00. He bought 32 apples in 4 crates. Each crate had the same number of apples. How many apples were in each crate?

Step number 1 remains the same, and always will. READ the problem. I can't stand it when kids just see 13, 32, and 4 and add them all. So they have to read it through once first.

BEFORE, I would have them start at the very beginning and put every number they saw into the "See" box. They would wind up with something like this:

T -> $13.00
He bought 32 apples
There are 4 crates
How many apples were in each crate?

Then they draw the 4 operation signs off to the side and take a good look at the units in their box. If the units are the same (apples and apples) or the same TYPE of thing (dogs and cats, or boys and girls), they know they can only add or subtract and can eliminate the other two operations. If the units are different (apples and crates, or candy and bags), they can eliminate addition and subtraction.

In the "Plan" box, they would draw a picture. I've taught them to always circle the word "each" and to put a box around whatever unit comes after that word -- in this case, "crate." The box tells them what to draw. They need to draw 4 crates (they draw circles to keep it simple), and put the correct number of apples (tally marks) in each crate. If the sentence that said "each crate" already tells them the number of apples in each crate, they put that number or that many tally marks in each circle. If the question ASKS how many apples were in each crate, then they don't know the number yet, so they leave the circles empty and divide up the 32 tally marks.

In the "Do" box, they write the number sentence (32 / 4) and do any adding, subtracting, or any other operation they need to do.

Finally, in the "Reflect" box, they check their work by fact family if possible (ie, 8 X 4) and they write a sentence that answers the question. "There are 8 apples in each crate."

For some kids, this way has worked really well. For some kids, the "see" box takes forever because they are unsure how to decide if a number is important to the problem or not. So here's where I think my NEW way helps.

Same word problem. But now, after reading the problem, the very first thing I have the kids do is focus on the question. Instead of starting at the beginning, and putting all the numbers in the "see" box, they start at the question, and circle the unit that the question is asking them to count. This question starts with, "How many apples," so apples becomes the most important unit in the story.

As opposed to the old method, the kids now write the question first in the "see" box and then go back to the story to find instances that give a number with the target unit. In this problem, they would find 32 apples. Any sentences that also mention apples AND have the word "each" or "every" in them provide a brand new unit that is important. Since the question in this problem asked how many apples were in "each crate," crates are now important as well, so they need to add the 4 crates to the "see" box.

Their "see" box now looks like this:

How many apples are in each crate?
He bought 32 apples.
There are 4 crates.

The $13.00 never even comes into play because dollars are not asked for in the question, nor are they mentioned after "each" anywhere in the story.

The Plan, Do, and Reflect boxes remain pretty much the same as the old version, but the kids seem to have a much better grasp of how they are related now that they have keyed in on what the problem was really asking them to look for.

This is what caused me to have a long hard think about this and to have my "flux capacitor" moment in the first place. We had given a test where one of the questions talked about a kid having a bunch of books and wanting to make stacks. The question asked, "How many stacks can he make?" and a lot of the kids were writing answer sentences that said, "He can have 24 books," or "He can have 8 books in each stack." But the question asked for STACKS, not BOOKS!!

I am hoping that this new way will really help the kids focus on the unit in question, not just any unit in the story.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Commercial success

OK, today's INTERACTIVE MONDAY is a very simple one.

Which Super Bowl commercial(s) did you like the best? If you didn't watch the Super Bowl itself last night, you can always look them up on YouTube or go to a Yahoo site like this one.

Personally, I really enjoyed the Darth Vader Volkswagen commercial and the Audi "escape from old luxury" commercial. I also found the Kia commercial with everyone from mythological gods to aliens to ancient Mayans trying to steal it a winner.

Oh, and I totally enjoyed seeing Rosanne Barr get slammed on her butt by a giant log.

I will now turn it over to you!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Happy blog day, with snow!

Hey, if you missed it, don't feel bad. I even missed it myself! But a few days ago, Learn Me Good the blog turned 5 years old!

Yep, I started this thing on January 30th, 2006, and it's been going strong ever since. And just think, only a few days after, we've had crazy weather that has closed the school down! Including actual accumulated snowfall last night and this morning! Check out the snow angel I made in the front yard! If you look really closely, you'll see a smiley face. :)

In lieu of flowers or presents for the blog's birthday, please sign the guest book if you've never done so!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Nostradamus was right!

I've had a lot of free time on my hands, what with school being canceled for the past 3 days and already canceled for tomorrow. Let me tell you, this is UNPRECEDENTED for my district, which usually doesn't even close down for ONE day, regardless of the weather.

This unusual and scary activity got me thinking about apocalyptic prophesies, and I did a little research on the Mayans and Nostradamus. I gave up on the Mayans after awhile, because they seemed mostly obsessed with 2012. But I found some very interesting things while looking through Nostradamus's quattrains.

Here's one you may have never heard:

Round the day of the rodent,
the South will freeze;
Snake bearer returns,
while the children go untaught.

I KNOW!!! When I first read that, I immediately associated it with the 4 day inclement weather break we have been granted here in Dallas!

So I kept reading, to see what else the Big N had gotten correct.

Look at this one:

In the metal behemoth,
Steel and Cheese collide;
The man with two faces profits,
while the natives suffer.

Read into it what you will, but I happen to think that sounds an awful lot like the big Super Bowl festivities going on this weekend!

One last one, and this is going to blow your mind...

The aging warrior does not
go gently into the night;
Enemies remain, fires flare,

SWEET! There WILL be a Die Hard 5!!!!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A snow day, and another sneak peek

I am sitting at home today, enjoying a very rare inclement weather day off from DISD. Though some of my friends north of here may think that we have received a mere pittance of the white stuff, there was enough ice and wind to scare the big wigs and shut down school.

Note I am not complaining.

Instead, I thought I'd post another rough draft chapter from my work in progress -- Learn Me Gooder.

As always, feedback is appreciated...

Date: Tuesday, January 26, 2010

To: Fred Bommerson

From: Jack Woodson

Subject: Send in the clowns. And the cleanup crew

Hey man,

Yesterday, as we were coming back inside from recess, several of my girls were enthusiastically telling me that somebody had seen a clown outside, and that this clown had killed a kid. Our transitional conversation usually isn’t quite so morbid. Most of the time, it just ranges from, “Mr. Woodson, I forgot my jacket!” to, “Mr. Woodson, I forgot my sweater!” with the occasional, “Oh no! I left my book outside!” thrown in.

I pretty much ignored the killer clown comments, instead reminding the kids to, “be ninjas” as we walked down the hallway. That’s my code phrase for, “Knock off all that jibber jabber!”

Today at recess, before any of the teachers realized what was going on, a huge group of third graders (about 50 or 60) had gathered out in the far corner of the soccer field where there is a sewer grate. I had a feeling they weren’t holding a poetry slam, so I went out to the field and chased them all back onto the playground, only to hear about twenty confirmations that there was indeed a killer clown living down in the sewer.

Well, this clinches it. Someone has been watching Stephen King’s “It.” Ten years ago, I would have bet good money that no 8-year-old would ever have been allowed to watch a scary movie like that, but my first year of teaching quelled those thoughts. Now I know it’s not at all uncommon for these kids to watch High School Musical and Freddy vs. Jason in the same weekend.

Not only that, but I also have first hand proof that my kids are so brilliant that instead of running FROM a would-be homicidal circus freak, they would actually swarm CLOSER to it. Have I mentioned that I do NOT work at a Vanguard school?

Most of the kids seem (I hope!) to know that it’s just a big gag. But Joanne seems genuinely terrified. So much so that Miss Rooker had to take her out of class this afternoon and talk with her about it, trying to calm her fears.

I can only hope that next week, nobody comes to school talking about a red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury that can drive by itself.

Later in the day, there was another terrifying event. I don’t know if it was from the fear of Pennywise the Killer Clown or from a bad reaction to the fish sticks, but Wanda couldn’t keep her lunch down.

Around 1:30, I was stooped down by Charles’s desk, helping him with a math problem. All of a sudden, from the other side of the room, I heard the sound of 500 wet paper clips hitting the floor. Ah yes, someone had blown chunks.

I stood up and saw Wanda just staring at me with a stained shirt and glazed eyes. She looked like she was in a trance, just waiting to be told what to do. Had I shouted, “VOMIT!” she probably would have puked again. Had I screamed, “JUGGLE BOWLING PINS!!” she might have attempted it. Instead, I shouted, “GO TO THE BATHROOM!!”

Meanwhile, every other eyeball in the room was riveted to the brown puddle on the floor. My sarcastic inner voice came out, and I couldn’t help saying, “PLEASE! Keep staring at the throw up! Let’s all get a REALY good look at the vomit and make ourselves sick! Tomorrow, be sure to bring a camera, so you can take a picture!”

WHY??? Why do these kids STARE at throw up? Personally, MY reaction to someone vomiting is to get as far away as possible from that person and their hurlage. Not these kids, though.

Oooh, somebody got sick and made a disgusting mess?? Let’s stick our noses right in it and get the full sensory experience! Wow, there’s a murderous clown running around? Let’s go see if we can find it and catch its attention!

Hey, I think I’ve got some spoiled milk in the fridge, so I’m going to let you go now while I go smell and taste it!


Colm N Sense