Back to school hints and tips

A week or so before the new term starts

  • Look over your old plans and resources. Decide if there is anything you want to re-use or re-purpose.
  • If you know some of the groups you will have next year, map out some topics to carry you until the next break.
  • If you have any new groups, then just sketch out your plans. Draw up an outline of where you want to go with them but remember you will need flexibility to adapt to their needs.
  • Buy stationery. You will need folders, blank postcards, cheap pens, a grading pen. Make sure at least one of your folders can hold things that don’t have holes, for when you take in work.

The night before

  • Don’t do any work! Go out and watch a movie. Or go do something that will tire you out, to counteract new term nerves.
  • You have not forgotten how to teach. I promise!

The first day of classes

  • Have a fun activity that introduces students to you and to each other, that showcases what you like most about teaching. Games are good but any diverting or entertaining activity is great.
  • Have your students fill out their addresses on the back of the postcards. Say that you will send one or two a week with some good news.
  • If you are using any internet resources, only introduce the ones you need your students to use straight away. For example, I get my students signed up onto Edmodo in the first lesson but Showbie, ClassDojo, Wikispaces, epals, Kaizena etc, can wait until later in the week (or fortnight).

The rest of the first week

Share your plans with your students. Of course, you will want to modify the level of detail but there’s no harm in signposting your intentions and getting your students excited about the upcoming lessons.

The second week

  • Here’s the time you can go over your expectations about behaviour with your students. Unless they are kindergarteners, they already know how to behave in class (and you will have some idea about who has problems in this area).
  • Sign them up gradually for the other internet resources.
  • Recruit students to do some of your job for you. Maybe they could take the attendance register, greet visitors to the classroom, be in charge of visual displays… Be prepared to provide some training but the time you spend on startup is more than repaid later on in the year.

Making Homework Interesting

Full disclosure: I hate homework. I hate setting it. I hate grading it. I hate remembering to do all those things.

I don’t mind “read ahead” or “see this video” as homework and I don’t mind “ok, we didn’t all have enough time to finish this off so see what you can do at home with it” but they’re not homework-homework. They’re just lesson extensions.

With one of my classes, I am trialling something new. I stole the idea from @TeacherToolkit. At the start of the year, I handed out a sheet with some different homework tasks that will help me get feedback on how things are going for my students.


homework menu

I have a score sheet (displayed publicly), where I make a note of how many points they have. The points more-or-less correspond to how much effort I think my students would need to complete it. My competitive, gamer students (who tend to be the ones least engaged by homework), have all gone for the high-end tasks. My conscientious (but busy), students have gone for the lower points because they have a lot on. If they want to do 10 point tasks exclusively, that’s still valuable feedback about their understanding.

It is early days but it seems to be working well because the students have control over the amount of work they can expend on their homework, and there are no surprises. I am also getting a lot of great information about next steps for me and my teaching.

In fact, the experiment is going so well I want to introduce it to my other classes.

8 Ways to Support your Student Teacher

Here are some handy hints for anyone who has a student teacher in their classroom. I trained about ten years ago and have had a few students in the last couple of years.

  1. Focus on one or two things at a time. Let them know what your focus will be. I had a mentor who would only give feedback about the things that were going wrong. Even if I tightened up on the thing she mentioned the lesson before, she would move on to the next thing I was doing wrong. I had no idea what my strengths were.
  2. Try to space your feedback. After every lesson is probably excessive. Your student teacher needs time to think about (and even sleep on), what you have said before they can put it into practice.
  3. Remember to praise! Being a student teacher is emotionally taxing. If they are on the right track, let them know. ‘Praise sandwiches’ go down much better, (praise, criticism, praise), as long as you can find the bread.
  4. Show them how it’s done! I try to showcase the things that really make a difference for my classes. Some of the things we do as teachers are subtle, don’t be afraid to flag them up for the benefit of the student watching.
  5. Think about what makes your teaching good before you take the student on. My best ever mentor had thousands of tips and tricks to tell me about. He could break down his technique into handy chunks and tell me about each step. He also had great advice about the non-classroom side of teaching. I think there’s a little bit of his style in my teaching today.
  6. If you can, make them sit in on parent/teacher conferences. They don’t have to say anything, just listen. After all, they will need to know what to say when it is their turn.
  7. Ask the student teacher how they think a lesson went. People often have a very good idea of where they are going wrong already and just need your expertise for how to avoid it in future.
  8. and lastly: enjoy them. Having someone in your classroom who has fresh insight into the new educational literature can give you ideas and help invigorate your practice.

(Previously published on the ClassDojo Thought Partners Blog)

Developing Higher Order Thinking Skills

Adolescence is an exciting time, neurologically speaking. Young people go from only being able to think concretely to being able to think in the abstract. This happens around the age of 12. The adolescent brain also develops forward-thinking skills and this process is not complete until the mid-twenties.

Here are five ways to help support this development in your classroom:-

  1. Tell middle schoolers about how their brains are developing. They can get the idea that they are stupid (and will always be stupid), just because they cannot visualise the concepts you are describing. Let them know abstract thinking appears on its own schedule. At graduation, one of my students said how much of a difference it made to her and I had forgotten I had even told the class about it. I always make a point to do it now.
  2. Give lots of puzzles and brain teasers. These are satisfying and give the brain a bit of a work out. Word play jokes and riddles can also work, even if they make your students groan. Anything that makes the brain think around corners and try different possibilities on for size.
  3. Have them pose questions instead of quizzing them yourself. This could be in terms of a list of things they want to know or making their own quizzes to stump their classmates. Being able to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter is a major life skill.
  4. Give opportunities for skepticism. If they are expected to find out information on the internet, they need to read it with a critical eye. Have activities where you deliberately give them links that are written by charlatans, and get them to work out if they trust the information they are reading and why.
  5. Reward students for effort. Give them higher level thinking activities even if they are not quite ready for them. In a physical workout, in order to get stronger you must do something that  is slightly too hard. It’s the same with thinking. Far too hard and students become demotivated, far too easy and they switch off. Slightly too hard is the sweet spot.

This can mean that they cannot do it. That’s the inherent risk in choosing something slightly out of their reach. This is why you reward them for trying. Even if they can do it, reward them for effort so that if next time it is actually too hard, they will still give it their best shot.

(published first as part of the ClassDojo Thought Partners blog in 2014)

Three Ways of Incorporating Educational Research Right Now

Teachers train their critical thinking skills every time they take a red pen to a piece of work. Maybe that’s why there is a resistance to implementing new teaching methods suggested at teacher training sessions. It is probably a tautology to say that ‘teachers are busy’ but it is true. Teachers learn how to teach in the crucible of a classroom and there just is no time to read all the educational research. Especially when what they have learned ‘works for them’.

Educational policies are so rarely evidence driven. John Hattie (my new academic crush), took millions of educational studies and put them on the same scale so they can be compared. The truth is, almost everything ‘works’. Some interventions have an incredible impact but teachers usually spend the most time discussing and implementing the interventions that make the least difference.

Here is a run-down of the top three things you can do in your classroom to make the most impact on learning

  1. Encourage mistakes. Failure is a natural part of learning. Students need to feel secure enough to try without needing to be perfect first time. I like to model this when I (inevitably) make mistakes in the classroom. I don’t try to hide my errors: I admit to them without embarrassment. It’s a culture shock for the students for sure but this is a real ‘show don’t tell’ type of thing.
  2. Give real feedback about performance of the task. Not just from the teacher to the student. But student to student, book to student, parent to student, student to teacher. I got the warm-and-fuzzies when my student wrote comments on each other’s wiki projects like “I love your explanations but I think you need more diagrams” for homework. The ‘emotions tree’ works well as a quick self-reflection for students at the end of a lesson.
  3. Encourage questions. Students need to ask questions of themselves and each other, not just pose or answer them for teachers. If a student asks me a meaty question, instead of getting stuck in and fielding it, I ask if anyone else knows or can start to work it out. Once, I listened to my class while they worked and made a note of their questions. Most of them were procedural (Do I put this here? What colour should this text be?) but they also asked each other things like “Is THIS the independent variable?” “Why on EARTH did our results come out like this?” It was bittersweet: of course I wanted to be the one to answer their questions but it was so great to hear them answer each other.