Thursday, December 29, 2011

Teach Thinking Skills to Increase Learning in Class and Life

The first days of school that year found me in a panic. I had all these great ideas and strategies, but most of my students couldn’t focus long enough to listen, couldn’t follow directions, couldn’t understand when to stop talking, or manage any of the basic learning skills I had come to expect in a new class. After going home deflated and exhausted several days in a row, I realized that there was no point in trying to teach content when the kids did not have the basic skills needed to learn.  Something had to happen.

That Something
That something was a strategy I learned in a BrainSMART class. It was in the curriculum Thinking for Reading by Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. I remember when I was going through the class I thought the skills would help far beyond reading. Fast-forward and I realized
NOW would be the perfect time to see how well the curriculum would work in an extreme setting. I frantically grabbed the curriculum set and held onto it as if it were my lifeline to sanity…which it did turn out to be. The curriculum came with a teacher’s manual, a class set of reproducibles, and a CD. I became quick friends with the copy machine (okay, it was really a love/hate relationship) and started making copies of the discussion pages. Just a note: this curriculum is for grades Pre-K through 3, however the concepts are valid for any age or grade.

Introducing the Curriculum
I introduced the curriculum to a previous class by teaching one skill a week for ten weeks. With this class, I ramped it up to two skills a week for five weeks. There was no time to lose! The first week the kids learned Practical Optimism with an adorable optimistic puppy. There is a recorded story about the puppy that taught the importance of optimism, and a set of corresponding coloring pages with discussion points. Listening to this story was literally the first time I had seen the entire class quiet and focused! After the story we discussed the importance of optimism and gave examples of optimistic behavior. It is very important as a teacher to model optimism for your students as well.

The Skills
This continued for five weeks. There is a story, discussion points, and coloring pages for each skill. We learned:

Practical Optimism
Understanding Space
Understanding Time
Focus – Selective Attention
Working Memory
Systematic Search
Systematic Planning
Appropriate Courage
Making Comparisons

These concepts became part of our daily language and discussion. I could see changes beginning slowly class wide. I was exceptionally rewarded one day when I saw a student who had a particularly difficult time keeping his hands and body to himself, stop himself from running into another student. He just froze himself in place and said, “Understanding Space!” then went on his own way leaving the other child alone. You would have to know the child to understand what a big deal that was for him to do. I almost cried! Another time a child started to yell out, then stopped and whispered, “Understanding Time.” She then sat quietly with her hand raised.

Here is a video of my current students sharing the thinking skills and saying how these skills apply to both life and reading.

These concepts are not internalized overnight, it is definitely a process. However, the process is worthwhile and can have a positive lifelong impact on a child. Teacher modeling and frequent discussion are essential. Once these skills began to be internalized by students, things became much better in class. I kept my sanity, learning took place, and we all survived!

(If you are interested in the curriculum I mentioned, it is called Thinking for Reading by Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. It is available on the BrainSMART website here: Scroll down to Thinking for Reading Primary Grades (PreK - 3rd)).
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Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Changing Kids' Lives One Quote At a Time

I don’t often do book reviews on my blog, but Steve Reifman’s new book Changing Kids’ Lives One Quote At a Time: 121 Inspirational Sayings to Build Character in Children is one I must share!

As the title implies, Mr. Reifman offers 121 inspirational sayings to share with your students.  He targets 13 “Habits of Character,” a list that includes Cooperation, Courage, Fairness, Honesty, Kindness, Patience, Perseverance, Positive Attitude, Pride, Respect, Responsibility, Self-discipline, and Service. The book spirals through the 13 character traits offering multiple opportunities to touch on and discuss each one. 

What makes the book so fabulous in my opinion is the practical strategies he offers for using the quotes to build character in students. He provides overall journal prompts, and possible discussion points for each quote. This is a book that can be used daily or several times a week.

My blog readers know how important I think it is to teach thinking skills. That is what this book does by teaching students to think deeply about character and its impact on their lives. Great job Mr. Reifman!

Both the paperback version and e-book version are now available on Steve's website, and they will soon be available at all major online bookstores. For more information, visit Steve Reifman’s website:

The Educational Pendulum and the Controlling District

English: The seconds pendulum, a pendulum with...Image via Wikipedia

Anyone who has been in education for very long is familiar with the dreaded pendulum. It goes something like this… Everyone MUST use centers!... (insert pendulum swing here)…No more centers, only direct instruction!... (insert pendulum swing here)…No direct instruction, everyone must now use stations! You get the idea. Stations are merely centers under a different name. I even heard of a teacher getting chastised for calling her stations “centers” because the children would view it as play if they were called centers. What? Other pendulum swings are phonics vs whole language, timed math facts vs none, the list goes on and on.

Classroom teachers watch the pendulum swing back and forth. We take the good from each pendulum swing and incorporate it into what we know works for our kids. Effective teachers use different strategies for different students, subjects, and situations. In my opinion, the danger lurks in the district or school where the teachers are forced to use the trend each pendulum swing presents at the exclusion of other strategies.  I have discovered through the twitterverse that those districts are actually out there.  They burn out good teachers and stifle creativity. Hopefully you are not in one. There has to be a balance. 

Allow teachers to do what they are trained to do in their own classroom without penalizing them if they aren’t on board 100% with the latest pendulum swing. Recognize that there is more than one way to achieve student success. Student success should be the key. Provide not only traditional professional development, but give teachers a platform to train each other! My district is fabulous about giving teachers the opportunity to train each other.  Support successful teachers and help train struggling ones. But don’t penalize successful teachers by forcing them to use every educational trend that comes along at the exclusion of all others.  Balance is the key. Rant finished.

Are you in an overbearing district? What do you think the solutions are?

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