Thursday, 30 July 2009

System 3: Keeping your books in order!

Keeping track of books and files in your classroom can be extremely tricky. In my first year I taught 580 different students and trying to keep an eye on where their papers went was fairly hard work, not least an aesthetically-ugly job.
I tried a few techniques for 'collecting in' exercfise books including utilising drawers at the back of the room for my Year 11 work and crates. The problem? Students pulled the tabs from the drawers and I didn't know which crate belonged to which class. I also didn't fancy having 21 crates for each different class. My classroom soon became a mess. See below:
I had the added problem that I would forget to collect in resources used in the lesson. For instance, there would be 30 seconds of lesson time left but glue sticks, worksheets, laminates AND books were still everywhere. How could I quickly collect things in and move to the next set of pupils without losing track of myself?
Two solutions became apparent.
1. Get a set of drawers near the door to be used for that day's classes. Period 1 resources were kept in drawer 1. Period 2, drawer 2. And so on. At the end of the lesson I then frantically pulled all the resources back in, threw them into the drawer, and then opened the next drawer down to find my new set of freshly prepared materials.
At the end of each day I would sort the materials back into the proper (now neater) system where they are held until next week.

2. Use paper for work and keep it in box files instead of having exercise books. This way I could keep everything together in a box file, it was quicker to collect in papers for the drawer system than it was to collect in books and it used way less paper than books. Most exercise books have blank pages at the end of the year and this avoids the problem.

Gradually my classroom came to look like this and my students (and I) found it a much more sane and calm place to work:

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

System 2: How to encourage students to be in your classroom on time!

Time is ridiculoulsy important to me. I love watches, and clocks, and I like being on-time. My students do not, they like to be late. They look at me like I am from another planet if I make a fuss about lateness. Yet I persist, because being on-time is both an important life skill and crucial for using learning time wisely.

Having a positive meaningful start to lessons encourages students to be there from the beginning. Being at the door and out in the corridor (if necessary) also encourages everyone inside. But although setting up a good classroom atmosphere will entice most students in punctually what can I do if students are not on time?

I use a lateness chart pinned to my wall to deal with this matter. Students know that if they need to enter after the classroom door has shut (the door is my signal for 'we are working now') then they must knock. When it is appropriate and they can enter they must 'sign-in' on the lateness log. Doing so serves two purposes; firstly it means that if I have taken the online register and the fire bell goes then I have a record of who is additionally in class to the web-register and, secondly, it means I can remember at the end of the lesson who I need to speak to.

This process works for students because it is quick, consistent and it doesn't mean that I am asking questions in front of everyone as students sometimes are embarrassed about the reasons they are late. There's very little argument about signing up as students know if they have a good reason then they can explain at the end (there are no automatic sanctions in my room for lateness). Also, it means students move straight to learning after the writing. This is my main goal, if they have already wasted time then I don't want them to waste anymore.

This year I had an additional complication to the system because I didn't have a classroom, so I invented 'clock-in' cards that work on the same principle but I hand them to the student when entering the classroom. It's slightly harder to keep track of (I'm partial to losing clock-in sheets under papers on the desk) but it's almost as good as the sign-up sheet.

At the end of the lesson I speak to students and decide on an appropriate consequence depending on their reason - maybe time off break, additional work or something else. I also make it clear that if the lateness persists (and I can check regularity as I keep completed lists in a file) there will be more serious consequences along my warning scale (which I will explain shortly!).

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Knowing when to take a break.....

Okay, so for the last 4 days I have been either in canterbury lecturing, ill, or moving house. DTT has been a little abandoned in that time as I tried manically to sort the rest of my life out. The good news is that it shall return this week, albeit intermittently, with Systems covering lateness as our beginning point.

In the meantime, bear with me!

-- Laura

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

System 1: How to help students enter your classroom ready for learning

Last week a primary teacher told me her method for students entering 'story-telling' time in the hall. She would take students to the hall, leave them in the corridor with an assisting adult and then she would go into the empty room. Ten seconds later ONE child was allowed to enter and she would silently motion for them to pick up a mat and sit down on it at the edge of the room. At 10 second intervals the remaining students came into the room and, seeing what the child in front had done, would do the same. Silence remained throughout and by the end the room was serene and calm, perfect for story-telling.

While impressed by the image of children in such a receptive learning state, I thought about how difficult this would be to manage with my particular brood of teenagers. I thought about how my students might fight in the corridor, or make burping noises to throw off the silence, or trip over each other just to break the peacefulness. But even though this method might not be right for my students, I agree that the way students enter the class is VITAL for setting the readiness to learn.

So, what is my method for getting students into my classroom calmly and effectively?

1. Model expectations - on the first day I keep my classroom door closed until I am ready to let students in. I then greet students at the door and allow them to enter one-by-one, looking each one in the eye and saying hello. Once in, I shut the door and explain that students are always welcome into my classroom when the door is open. At all other times they must knock and wait because in our classroom we are often concentrating on difficult issues and we might need to finish thinking about those before the door can be opened.

2. Only let students in when the classroom is ready - The reason I have the door rule is because I like my room to be set-up when students come in. Sometimes students can help set-up and on those days the door is open because I am ready for their help. Other days it is closed, and this means they must wait patiently. By having my classroom ready I can focus on behaviour management and saying positive things to my students as they enter.

3. Use names as soon as you can - I make a point of learning names on the first lesson of the year and I use them relentlessly. Say hello to students, notice new things they might have or enquire about something they are interested in (i.e. "Asher I missed PrisonBreak the other night, what happened..."). All of these things let students know you have seen them and help build relationships.

4. Starter activities - Always have something for students to do or think about as soon as they enter the room as it engages attention, starts learning and reduces the likelihood of misbehaviour.

Tomorrow: What to do when the door closes but the students are late? Systems for lateness is on its way....

Monday, 20 July 2009

Get Your Systems in Order....

Reading this post at 'Confessions of a Crazy French Teacher' I was struck by how often people say that they are bad at organisation and don't have good role models around them to copy from. When I first started teaching I focused on organisation above all else as I found that when lessons went poorly it was nearly always because of poor planning or my forgetting/losing/not-noticing something. By the end of my first year I had a whole series of systems that meant I could forget about classroom 'management' and focus entirely on learning.

So, what were they? (As miscalql8 put it recently, "I've had all the inspiration I can take, now I need practical!")

Over the next few weeks I will tell you, step-by-step. They're not going to be right for everyone. In fact, several systems changed when my classroom settings changed. But they will provide a starting point for building your own unique system.

As ever, if people have suggestions of things they would like covered please put in a comment or an email to

Starting tomorrow with "SYSTEM 1: Getting them in the door"

Friday, 17 July 2009

Don't forget your textbooks!

Try to avoid sprawling planning work across the summer. Setting aside specific weeks to plan works best. Some people do their planning at the beginning of summer to get it out of the way. Others, like me, leave it till the end and thrive on the presssure. However you choose to do it, you may still find yourself pondering on the content of courses over the summer and wanting to read up on the topics you are excited to teach next year. One of the best ways to do this is flick through textbooks and get familiar with their content - especially if you have new specifications or curriculums (as many of us do in the uk this year).

So, when leaving school today, remember to take a copy of each textbook with you or you may be left planning/thinking out of context.


DTT will continue for the next three weeks as I am working at TeachFirst Summer Institute. SI is one of the most exciting parts of my professional development and I look forward to sharing new tips with you all.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

On bad days, look at it from the other side

This has been a pretty tough week and I'm feeling a little bruised. When I get like this I remind myself of all the times kids have come into my classroom looking dejected from situations they face outside my classroom. Students are constantly dealing with their own traumas and personal tragedies. Some seem inane ('minhaz bought the same coat as me and now we look stupid') other are more serious ('"the macmillan nurse was late again today so I had to give mum her medication" is one I recently overhead fromt a student justifying his lateness to the receptionist. For those outside the UK, macmillan nurses care for patients with terminal cancer). How on earth does that student then go into their lesson and concentrate on geography?

In today's upset I pondered how I wanted to be treated by colleagues when I felt down. I realised that mostly I want the fact I'm not okay to be noticed but I didn't want a fuss. A sort of 'caring-business-as-usual' would be perfect. From my experience, students usually want the same thing too. A mouthed 'are you okay?' or quiet recognition of their being down can make all the difference to clear students' heads and allow them to continue with learning. Sometimes students might talk about what the problem is but very often they will get on with things in a resilient fashion. Several times students will say to me as they leave, 'thanks for that miss, I'll be okay tomorrow' - as if to let me know that the situation is transient.

Asking too many questions, interfering or telling students to 'cheer up' does not work however. All tend to be irritating, so avoid where possible.

That said, I do hope I cheer up tomorrow. It's the last day of term after all......

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Support your students enthusiastically

Today is Sports Day. I hate Sports Day. And it's going to rain.

BUT - the bright side to events like this are the opportunity to see students shine, especially those who otherwise might not get the chance. In my second year of teaching several members of my form group joined the Handball Team. Given that it's a new sport in the UK joining the team was easy and these kids were not exactly 'sporty', but they were keen and worked hard. For several weeks they asked me to go watch their practice but I was unable to get there due to meetings.

After a month of preparation they had their first match. Like a proud parent I switched meetings and caught their eye as I joined them at the sideline. For the next 40 minutes I cheered, clapped and treated them like the superstars they were. Even though they were brutally defeated by a bigger, better team they never gave up - ever-propelled by crowd encouragement.

Attending games isn't easy with so many other priorities and that was my only handball foray that year. But making a concerted enthusiastic effort - even just once - will mean a big difference to your relationship with students.

I will keep repeating this as I stand with Year 9 in a crowded stand for the next 8 hours.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

An Aside....

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

-- Edwin Markham
Read this for the first time today. It reminded me of my mantra when I first began teaching: "Wear them out with your patience and thoughtfulness." Sometimes it's hard to remember, but I try. I really do.

Don't decide on the teacher you want to be, show the teacher that you already are

Try this thought experiment* - I promise it's worth it:

Think of your three best teachers at school. No cheating by only thinking of one or two, you need three. Think hard. Ready? Ok- now hold them in your mind as equally as you can.

I am willing to bet money on the fact that all three are quite different. One might be really strict and never smile, another one might be goofy or always take an interest in you personally. Maybe one teacher stood on tables and used crazy props, another one always used textbooks but made the pages sing with their subject.

The one thing all these teachers will have in common is that you believed, 100%, that those teachers were completely true to themselves. If they were crazy, then they fully commited to the jump-on-tables moments. Those teachers who never smiled, NEVER smiled. But, regardless of personality, all those teachers were likey to be committed to your learning and understanding you as a person. There is something about authenticity and genuine regard for us as students that we find compelling and it's what makes us love our teachers.

Yesterday new TeachFirsters were sharing their fears with me about the coming September. So many of them are afraid that they are not the 'right personality' for a successful teacher. I try to explain that while there are things teachers learn that help us 'become' a good teacher mostly it's about finding how YOU want to teach and modelling to the kids why it matters and that you believe in what you are doing right to your core.

* Experiment is taken from Parker Palmer's writing. I'm not sure exactly which article but I expect it is in "The Courage to Teach". I use this experiment a lot.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Making resolutions for next year....

We are heading into the last week of term here in London. My students are gone although those lower in the school remain until Friday. In the meantime I am moving from my old office into a classroom (hurray!) and am furiously planning for next year along with the new social science team.

Each year, like a child promising not to make their own kids tidy away when they grow up, I make promises to my September-self. Not too many as I don't want to fail, but I take them seriously and try to keep them going.

This year I have so many things I've learned I'm struggling to narrow the list. I'd also love to hear suggestions from others of their own successful resolutions. Here's what I have so far:

1. Only check emails twice during the day. Our school uses email a ridiculous amount. Given that I am supposed to be teaching and not sat at a computer I am super irritated when important, urgent messages are sent to me via email. I piloted checking emails twice over the last few weeks and it's worked brilliantly - especially once I let the admin staff and the rest of my teaching team know. Messages now get to me quicker, on foot or by phone.

2. Send one thank you card a week to an adult in the school. I am big on praising kids but I sometimes don't say thank you to staff as much as I should.

3. Starters. Starters. Starters. I really try to use a short engaing activity at the beginning of each lesson. It's so important for settling students and using the otherwise dead-time as they straggle into class. BUT without a classroom this year it has been tricky to be in the room before a class and set-up the starter properly. Now, with the new classroom, I have no excuses. Starters every time.

Two more spaces left.... Any suggestions?

Friday, 10 July 2009

Helping ill students who are off school to stay up-to-date

In the last few weeks many students have come down with bouts of mumps and swine flu. Dealing with students who are out of the classroom is difficult and requires careful preparation. Over the years I've had a number of students out of lesson for long-term illnesses such as liver damage or badly broken limbs.

On these occasions I send packages of work via the Head of Year. Packages includes collections of worksheets or a list of tasks to choose from. I develop these packs along with the Scheme of Work as an 'Emergency Measure' to be used if I am off for a long period of time (or, it turned out, for unexpected absences). As sick students receive lots of work from teachers I always put an upbeat message from the class attached to the top of the work. If I were ill I know I'd be more pleased to receive a personal message than a bunch of impersonal worksheets.

Building on these ideas, I recently saw a colleague successfully had a student join his lesson via Skype even though this student was lying in hospital with his leg in pins! Another friend, who teaches French, had her students complete 'Get Well Soon Cards' using all French language and sent them along to their missing friend. In both cases the sick student felt cared for, included and was still learning. Brilliant.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

"Be Kind To Each Other"

Yesterday I received tragic news while I was in the middle of the school day. Thankfully, at the time, I wasn't teaching but I was amid moving classrooms. With textbooks strewn everywhere, all cupboards open and various keys laid across desks leaving my classroom didn't seem like much of an option but in shock I went into the corridor and burst into tears.

Superb colleagues rallied around to sweep up keys, lock cupboards and put textbooks away. They made tea, plied me with biscuits and took care of my responsibilities that were coming up in the next period. After I went back to my classroom one of my colleagues popped his head around the door and asked, "Ready for a hug yet?" This is no small gesture. I am not a touchy-feely person. I don't do hugs. But it was such a warm thing to do that it made a big difference to my day.

Dealing with other teachers when they hit their lows is a part of our job that isn't talked about much. We focus on the children, and that is right for the most part. But when someone is clearly distressed, and although it's very British, offering to make a cup of tea and lending an ear - if only for 5 minutes - is often the difference between a successful colleague and a burnt-out one.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

What makes a great plenary?

New TeachFirst teachers have landed at our school for alternative schools week. Trainee teachers are brilliant because they ask the 'bread and butter' questions that I sometimes forget I even know the answer to. My favourite yesterday was, "What makes a great plenary?"

I paused. Racking my brain I wondered what it was about the plenaries I routinely used that meant I had first thought they were useful. Here's what I decided:

1. Easy to pack away. Ideally it should be something students can do when they are already packed as this means they are settled and learning for the plenary and there is no last minute clean-up as you change classes.
2. Uses knowledge from the lesson
3. Memorable - try and keep it something that students will want to do rather than as something they 'have' to do before they leave
4. Something that you can refer to next lesson. This is the absolute ideal plenary, but if it prompts a question or gets them hooked ready for the next lesson then you will have an excited class next time. For instance, if you have students do an activity that consolidates their learning and then pose a question for next time they will leave excited about next time.

For some of my favourite plenaries see previous posts:
160 character sum-ups
The Skills Tree

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Random acts of kindness....

Last week my Sociology class were scheduled to study 'deviance'. Instead of focusing on crime, as per most literature, we focused on 'positive deviance' and extreme acts of kindness or bravery - e.g. Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. For action research the class split into groups and completed 'Random Acts of Kindness' focusing on things that would deliberately be out of the ordinary.

Here's what they did:
* Gave out free ice pops (it was 30 degrees that day)
* Passed out pin badges to passers by
* Gave thank you cards to bus drivers
* Offered free hugs
Students came back from their outings positively buzzing. Although they had found some resistance (particularly the ice-pop group) they hadn't realised how much fun it was to brighten the day of others. I also pushed them to speak to people of different generations, races and gender to their own - this brought about wonderful experiences. Often initally sceptical students realised that, eventually, they won over most people with their kindness.

RAK day is definitely something I would do again - perhaps in conjunction with other subjects. Could maths students offer free puzzles to people? English students writing poetry for passers-by? Surely the options are limitless?!

Monday, 6 July 2009

A Great Game: Human Protractor

My favourite 'energiser' game is Human Protractor taken from The Morning Meeting Book by Becthel & Krieke. Here's how it works.....

Get students standing and ask them to put their arms touching towards their toes. Explain that they must start raising their arms upwards in an arc as you (the teacher) counts to twenty. By the count of 10 their arms should be out in front of them and by 20 they should be reaching for the sky. Important bit: They must remember roughly where their arms are for each number.

With calibration done, now comes the fun! Start by shouting out numbers: e.g. "20" and have students reach for the sky! Then "2" and have them down low. I then add in the maths.... "20-5" followed by "2*6" to make it more complicated. To mix it up get other students to be leader or have a 'protractor-off' betweeen students. Within a short period you'll be amazed at how amused students are by this little game and how engaged they are with numeracy - a subject many find threatening.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Going on trips....! (End-of-year Series Part 7)

I am still seriously damaged from the amazing but shattering experience that was 24-hours in Paris. The students had a fantastic day - 34 degrees of heat belted down as we wandered along the Champs Elysee and cartwheeled under the Eiffel Tower. Apparently the students are going to 'tag' me with their photos (as they left on Monday I have added them as 'friends') so I will share soon.

Taking students on trips is always memorable and usually a positive experience. In the last 3 years I have dragged students to the cinema, Oxford University, World Aids Day festivals, the local council chamber, elderly people activities centres, Tesco, theme parks, Model UN Conference, drug policy brainstorming sessions and KPMG to mention just a few. Some of these required a fair amount of organisation but many were invites I had for activities out of school and I asked if I could bring along students as an extra. For example, the drugs policy sessions was an invite when I was passing my PSHE qualification. They were thrilled at the suggestion of including students. A few permission slips and risk assessments later and 3 students came along to a posh evening on the HMS Belfast at London Bridge.

Trips are also a brilliant bonding tool - giving you and the students something to talk about and reminisce about. Each year when I talk to new TeachFirst teachers they tell me about the places they visited with students and how it helped build relationships with difficult students. Even if you're sceptical or unsure, jump in and try a trip!

A few tips:
1. Always get permission slips and ensure all school paperwork is filled in. A no-brainer but having been on two trips that went very wrong (bus crashes both times) I was so relieved that I had slips for everyone and can't imagine how much more stressful things would be if I was worried a parent would be angry about their child being out.

2. Be careful - but not too careful - of cover implications
Having time out for trips can be tricky if you have classes to cover but don't use this an excuse not to run any trips. I got around this by using free periods, keeping trips short - sometimes only two hours (including travel) - and I would run into breaks/after-school if required. Quite a few of these trips were after-school events too.

3. Give really clear instructions so pupils know what to expect
For instance- when I take students to see West End plays I explain that if a character is musing out loud a question they are NOT expecting an answer and that is NOT your cue to shout out. Indeed, making a point about not shouting out is key all round. Last time I went I took 18 year-olds and skipped this part only to find one of my students on their feet shouting "You go girl!" when a character in the play was asked out on a date.

4. Brief the people you are visiting
I rarely do museum or 'school-trip' activities as I try to get students seeing the 'real world'. Somtimes our East London school reality is different to the reality of the places where we are going so a word in the ear of our hosts is often appreciated so they know what to expect. People who work n the city are often terrified of 'youths' so this helps calm them down too!

5. Always let teachers know in advance if students will miss lessons
And make 'catch-up' work a condition of them being allowed on any trips with you in the future.

6. Stick to time schedules
Be as rigid with time as you can. Famously I left a student behind because he was late for a trip (there were actually good reasons for this, not just my mean-ness) but it meant I have never had a student turn up for a trip late again saving huge headaches. Even yesterday I turned up at school at 3.20am to find a full fleet of tired students and parents raring to go!

7. Take lots of photos
I don't do this enough but I'm learning.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Go on Trips! (End of Year Series - Pt. 6)

I will not be able to blog tomorrow as I leave - at 3.30am! - with my Year 13s for a day trip to Paris. We have earned it.

Enjoy your day,

End-of-Year Letter Writing - (End of Year Series Pt.5)

Korean students customarily write gratitude letters to their teachers at the end of each year. Tonnes of research by Seligman also shows how writing gratitude letters increases our well-being. But long before knowing this I used end-of-year letters as a way of expressing my gratitude to students and gathering their thoughts on our year together. Their honesty in these letters helped me plan new schemes of work and develop as a teacher; hopefully my letters to them helped complete our year in a positive way.

On my last lesson with each class I write a letter for the whole class. You can download examples here and here. The structure is similar for each group but the middle part talks specifically about the class. I mention as many individual students as possible to create a positive story about our journey throughout the year.

After the 'grand reading' I invite each student to write a letter in return. Some students find this hard so there are prompt questions inviting responses but most students ignore these and write whatever they choose. Once the letters are done students are free to choose how we spend the rest of the lesson. (NB: I will try to find some examples and scan them in so you can see the type of thing students write).

Sceptics may worry that at the end of the year (and I usually do this on the very last day) students are too hyped. Not true. Almost every class takes their task super-seriously and writes in silence. For many classes it is the first time I've managed to get them completely quiet all year.
But, if you're still not convinced, below is one of my most favourite pictures ever taken in my classroom. This is a small group I work a lot with and they brought food to celebrate the end of term but just look where their concentration is - even at the end of term!