Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels,
each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels,
and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Another Inspiring Video

As I said earlier, I think all the Tales from a Teacher's Heart videos are awesome.  Here's one from Season One featuring my work with one school.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Favorite Middle Level Resource Site

There are lots of resources out there, but just for middle level teachers, nothing beats  Middleweb.
 John Norton is a great guy, and his site is one of the most comprehensive for teachers.  If you need information on a topic related to middle schools, you'll probably find it here!  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Online Resources for Teaching

I started to compile my list of other great online resources for teaching, but I ran across this site  and decided not to reinvent the wheel!  As the author points out,

The possibilities for social media tools in the classroom are vast. In the hands of the right teacher, they can be used to engage students in creative ways, encourage collaboration and inspire discussion among even soft-spoken students. But we’ve already made our case for why teachers should consider using social media in their classrooms. What about the how?Even when people say they want to incorporate social media, they don’t always know the best ways to do so. It’s especially daunting when those efforts can affect the education of your students. To help, we’ve collected seven of the the best classroom tools for incorporating social media into your lesson plans.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Top 25 Websites for Teaching and Learning

This is another great resource from the ALA.  It's their list of the top 25 best websites for teaching and learning.  Here's their introductory description:

The "Top 25" Websites foster the qualities of innovation, creativity, active participation, and collaboration. They are free, Web-based sites that are user friendly and encourage a community of learners to explore and discover.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Visual Thesaurus

Another of my favorite resources is the Visual Thesaurus.  It's an excellent tool for students to see how words are related in a "living visual" format.  Words can't fully describe it (so take advantage of the limited free searches), but you are able to see how synonyms related, then by clicking those, you see other related words.  A great tool for any content area!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Having Trouble with Educational Jargon?

This is one of my favorite sites.  ASCD"s Lexicon of Learning is an online (free) searchable dictionary of common educational jargon explained in simple terms.  It's a great resource for new teachers, for communicating with parents, and for anytime you just wonder what something means!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Too Much to Do, Too Little Time?

Here's an article  JUGGLING MULTIPLE PRIORITIES: Time Management Strategies for Principals.    Lots of strategies plus recommended resources. For example, 

Take control of E-mail - Check e-mail at set times, not all the time. If you can, respond when you first read a message. Handle them all as a group---start with the first and move through them until complete. Use descriptive subject lines to identify the substance of a message. Keep messages short and be clear about what response may be needed.

For the full article, click here!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Help Me! I'm So Tired I Just Can't....

It's Friday, and you may have had one of those weeks.  We've been talking about helping students be more independent, and, at this point, you may think--Great.  Those sound good, but where am I going to find the time or energy to do them?  First, take a deep breath.  Next, remember that developing independent learners takes time.  It doesn't happen overnight.  Choose just one of the strategies I talked about this week and try it for a while.  Then, add another one when you are ready. 

I'm often asked, what was my biggest challenge as a teacher.  It wasn't my students, or the varying levels of students, or discipline, or paperwork, or even testing.  It was keeping myself motivated enough to deal with all those things, especially when I wasn't seeing immediate results.  One metaphor that helped me was to remember that my students were actually butterflies-in-the-making.  They were not butterflies yet.  Some were in a chrysalis, some were caterpillars...frankly, some of mine acted like worms!  But for each of them, on every day, I needed to remember that they were growing into butterflies.  My job was to remember they were going to be butterflies (not lose hope) and to be the net to catch them when they fell (provide strategies and support to help them try to fly again). 

But I'd also tell you that you are a butterfly-in-the-making.  There may be times you don't feel like you are making a difference.  You are.  There may be times you didn't do something as well as you would have liked.  Try again, it will be better the next time.  You may think no one appreciates your efforts.  You're wrong--someone does, they just aren't telling you, or they may not realize it yet.  Don't give up.  I am sure of one thing.  If you keep trying, believe the best, and translate that belief into actions that help your students, things will get better.  You make a difference...today and everyday!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Students Don't Know How to Ask Questions!

Part of independence for students is learning to ask their own questions.  Too often, however, we are the ones asking all the questions.  I like the meaning of this quote:  A teacher's purpose is not to create students in his own image, but to develop students who can create their own image.  ~Author Unknown   It reminds me of something my dad told me.  He said the purpose of education was to "teach students how to figure out what to do when they don't know what to do."  Isn't that true independence?  And a part of that is teaching students how to ask their own questions.  

One way to do that is to use a simple review game.  The detailed instructions and handout grid are here.  In a nutshell, what you do is put students in a small group and give them an envelope or bag that includes the question prompts.  Each student, in turn, pulls a card and asks a questions for the group, which then answers it.  It shifts the responsibility to students, but by providing them a starting point, it also provides scaffolding.  In my experience, just asking students to make up questions was too open-ended, so this is a good bridge.  

If you teach younger students, or students with special needs, or second language learners, you can easily adapt this.  Just make big cards with who, what, when, where, how, why, and which.  After you read a story, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, ask a student to come pick a card (put the cards upside down so they can't see what they are choosing).  Then, have each student create a question about the story using the starter word on the card.  They can turn to a partner and ask the question, or if you have a small group, they can ask the group.  

Simple, and effective.  My favorite kind of activity.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quit Bothering Me!

Have you ever felt like saying that to a student?  I had one student, that no matter what I did, he always came up to me with questions.  He was insecure, and needed extra reinforcement.  I believe part of our job is encouraging students, but sometimes, certain students take advantage of that.  So, here's a simple strategy to try.

Implement "Ask Three Before Me".  During small group time, or independent work time, if students have a question, they have to ask three students for help before they can ask me.  You may want to change the number, but it's important to give a concrete number, otherwise, you'll have students ask everyone else so they can delay doing their work.  By allowing them to only ask three students for help, they also need to become wiser about who they ask.  It doesn't take long for them to learn that asking their best friend doesn't always help. 

Then, if they come to me for help, it's more likely that their question is a valid one that only I can answer.  It's another way to decrease the number of "what are we supposed to do" questions that you get.  You might also have them write down who they asked so you can ensure they did ask others before you.  Just another way to save you some time and allow you to support the students who need it the most. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Students Don't Listen to Me!

Have you ever had students who didn't listen or pay attention to you?  When I was teaching, it was a huge problem.  I would ask my students to turn to page 22 in the book, and then I fielded 15 to 20 students asking me, "What page did you say?  Where are we supposed to be in the book?"  One day, Melissa, one of my students, stopped by my room on her way to lunch.  She commented that I looked pretty frustrated.  When I replied that I was, she said, "yeah, you were upset with us this morning."  I was tired, and wasn't thinking, so I replied, "I was.  Your class NEVER listens to me!"  She smiled and said, "That's because we know we don't have to.  You'll always repeat it if we ask."  Wow.  Out of the mouths of our students comes wisdom.  As I thought about what she said, I realized that by trying to "help" them by repeating instructions, I was actually teaching them not to listen to me.

The next day, I began a new strategy. For any directions, I wrote them on the board, stated them once, and anytime a student asked me again, I simply pointed to the board.  It took a few weeks, but they learned that they were expected to listen to me the first time.  The directions were always available on the board, so they did not have an excuse to skip whatever we were doing, but I wasn't going to explain basic information over and over again.  During the transition, I realized I had been wasting an enormous amount of time answering the same questions over and over again.  My instructional time increased about 20% with one simple change in my instruction.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Students Won't Do Anything on Their Own!

This is one of the most common complaints I hear.  And the question is, how do we create independent learners?  There are several answers to that question, and I'll be breaking that down with specific strategies over the week.  But let's start with something simple.  Have you ever had a student bring you work and ask, "Is this right?"  It is so tempting to simply answer the question.  But that teaches students to depend on us to tell them if it is correct.  My son used to do this all the time.  He just wanted to finish the work, and go skateboard.  My husband would tell him, "yes it's right" or "no, you need to redo it".  One day, I was helping him with his homework, and everytime he asked me if a question was correct, I would say, "What do you think?"  He replied, "that must mean it's wrong."  "Why do you think it's wrong?"  "Because you didn't tell me it was right."  Usually, the conversation ended with "You are being a TEACHER again!"  Yes, I was.  Because if we want students to learn to NOT depend on us, we have to insist upon it.

When a student asks us for validation of a correct answer, we need to turn it back on them.  What do you think?  Why?  I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm asking you why you think it's right or wrong.  Guide them through the thinking process.  Model it for everyone, and reinforce it over and over again with your whole class and individuals.  This is one of the best ways to teach them to reflect upon their work, and decide for themselves if it is correct.  Another benefit?  Over time, it cuts down on the number of times they ask you for validation.  The downside?  It takes time, patience, and perseverance to coach students to more independence.  And when they move to a new level of learning or something more rigorous, they will revert back to needing your perspective.  That is fine, but what you want to do is create an overall environment in which they depend less on you and more on themselves. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Strategies Leaders Can Use to Improve Rigor in Their Schools

This is a great resource for leaders that I wrote with Ron Williamson.  Check it out!  By the way, if you are a principal, the Principals' Partnership website is a great ongoing resource.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is Rigor for All Grades?

ACT recently released the report The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School. It is the latest in a series of reports documenting the need for increased rigor. However, this one focuses on a key point: rigor is NOT just for high school.  In fact, if we wait until high school to increase rigor for our students, we have failed.  The authors of the report are clear: "Our research shows that, under current conditions, the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school."

Most teachers I work with know this already. At the end of one of my workshops on rigor, a first grade teacher in Baltimore shared how she planned to increase rigor when her students read The Three Little Pigs. She said, "After we read the story, I usually mention something about the three types of houses, but now I'm going to have my students do some basic research about houses built of straw, wood, and brick."  Now that's the perfect formula for success: high expectations for students plus creative activities. 
How are you increasing rigor in your classroom?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Can Group Work Be Effective?

Excerpted from my book Classroom Instruction from A to Z:
Group work is one of the most effective ways to help students learn. It can increase student motivation and is an important life skill. When I was teaching, some of my students didn’t like to work in groups. They complained every day until I brought in a newspaper article that said the number one reason people were fired from their jobs was that they couldn’t get along with their coworkers. That was an eye-opener for my students.

Recently, I was talking with a project manager, and I asked him about the importance of teamwork. He pointed out that knowing how to work with other people is critical. “The more successful you are, the more important it is to influence, motivate, and work with others. If you think about successful people, working with people becomes your job; that is what you do.”

That’s pretty insightful. For people who have achieved high levels of success in the workplace, no matter what the setting, teamwork isn’t part of their job, it is their job. As a teacher, this reminds me that if I believe I should prepare my students for life after school, then I need to teach them to work together.

For rubrics for evaluating group work, click here!

Monday, March 7, 2011

An Inspiring Video

One of the features my publisher, Eye on Education produces is a set of inspirational stories and videos.  I think all the Tales from a Teacher's Heart videos are awesome.  Here's one based on my experience teaching. 
Season 2, Episode 1
Having A Vision
Told by Barbara R. Blackburn
When the state mandates that her students must pass an achievement test to be promoted to high school, Barbara Blackburn responds to the challenge. She creates a vision of a successful school year, and she makes that vision a reality with rigorous instruction, support, and motivation for each of her students.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Thorough Resource on Rigor

In 2009, The Hechinger Institute published a report, Understanding and Reporting on Academic Rigor. It includes a variety of perspectives, including a piece from me toward the back.  Check it out!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Come See Me in Illinois

March 16, I'll be just outside of Chicago to speak at the Connections Conference.  Check out my schedule here.  Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Which Rigor Book for Leaders Should I Get?

Rigorous Schools and Classrooms is for someone who needs background to understand what rigor is and needs a basic grounding in such topics as school culture and school change. Although this book is practical – it has 33 tools -- its emphasis is on concepts.

On the other hand, Rigor in Your Schools: A Toolkit for Leaders was written as a response to reader requests for more implementation tools. There are 97 tools in this book to help school leaders implement rigor in their schools. Although the red book contains a brief review of the concepts, its emphasis is on the tools.

Newer principals, Board Members, and anyone without much background, should go with the blue book, Rigorous Schools and Classrooms.  If you are experienced and want lots of implementation tools, go with the red one, the Toolkit.

Name It, Claim It, and Explain It

One of my favorite activities for leaders comes from Rigorous Schools and Classrooms (and it's also in my newest book).  As you visit throughout your school, use your phone or a camera to take pictures or video of best instructional practices.  Then, start each faculty meeting by showing the picture or video.  The teacher who is featured should name it, claim it as their own, and explain what they were doing.  It's a great way to promote best practices, shift the culture of your school, and start your meetings with an instructional focus.  This is always one of the most popular activities during my workshops with principals. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Leadership Resource...and Some Great Teaching Ideas

One of my favorite conferences is the High Schools that Work Conference from the Southern Regional Education Board.  They have posted several newsletters featuring aspects of last year's conference.  On the last page of Schools Break the Mold to Produce Graduates Ready for Success in College and Careers, you'll find an article about my work with Ron Williamson on Leadership for Rigor.