Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Total Confusion? What to Do When No One Gets It

One of the most frustrating moments in a teacher’s school day can strike without warning. In the midst of a carefully planned lesson, it is possible for even the very best teachers in a school to experience the sinking feeling that happens as soon as they realize that no one is getting it. No one understands the lesson. Students are not learning. Everyone is confused.

This is a very different situation from the scenario where only one or two students appear to be lost. In this larger fiasco, there is a great deal that has gone wrong and that needs to be dealt with immediately. Savvy teachers do all that they can possibly foresee to prevent this, but inevitably it happens to even the most prepared teachers.

One thing is for sure. This is not a situation that can be overlooked. Things need to be fixed and fast.

One of the first mistakes to avoid is to blame students. Blaming will only waste time. Instead, be creative and calm and diagnose the situation as carefully and as accurately as possible. Ask for your students’ help. Taking a teamwork approach to the problem will convince students that they are capable learners and that the situation is manageable. A teamwork approach will also encourage student ownership of the problem and motivate them to solve it with you.

Here are some further suggestions to help you cope once you realize that many students in your class are struggling with an assignment. While some of these can be implemented at once, some will require a bit more planning. Having a quick back up plan or a change to another part of the day’s lesson may be in order to allow you enough time to think through what you need to do before you involve students.

  • Offer a choice of assignments that can help students remediate their knowledge. A choice board with five or six different assignments can allow students extra practice without the stigma of feeling as if they failed.
  • Rotate every student through kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning assignments so that all students can use their preferred learning styles.
  • Provide more examples, models, and demonstrations so that all students know exactly what they are to do and learn.
  • Provide models or examples of the mistakes or missteps that are possible so that students can be aware of them and plan how to avoid them.
  • Build on what your students already know by showing them how new material relates to what they have already learned. Ask them to share those connections with small group teammates and then with the entire class.
  • Ask students to diagnose what they find difficult about the lesson. To obtain the specifics that you need, hand out small slips of paper or note cards and ask students to list the problems that they are having. This will usually be more productive than asking students to just share their complaints with the whole group.
  • Allow students to work with peers in mixed ability groups. Often being able to discuss the work with a peer is all that is needed for understanding.
  • Consider shortening the assignment so that the basics are covered, but frustrating extra work is not required.
  • Supply students with support materials such as word banks, graphic organizers, and outlines to make the content more accessible.
  • Handouts that help students translate parts of the lesson into their own words can be effective as students work through the material. If students have trouble articulating their learning, ask them to work together to express the ideas in other words.
  • Ask students to draw diagrams, sketch concepts, or make charts of various types to translate the material into meaningful bits of information.
  • Reteach small parts of the lesson while recording yourself using the video function on your cell phone. Post the video to your class website or to YouTube where students can access it from home. Try to keep these videos under five minutes and be sure that they are tightly focused on only small, manageable parts of the lesson.
  • Ask students to pause in their work and list three things that they are absolutely sure of. You can share this information easily by first putting students into groups of four or five. Hand each group a sheet of paper and ask one student to record one thing about the lesson that he or she is absolutely sure of. That student passes the paper to the next who repeats the exercise. After the sheet has gone around the group several times, not only will you have a good idea of what they do and do not know, but students will have had an opportunity to share their learning with their peers and to possibly fill in any gaps that they have.
  • Rethink the concepts that you expect your students to have as prior knowledge. Do they really have these concepts mastered? Check for the prerequisite concepts or skills if you notice students struggling.
  • Sometimes all that is necessary is more time to complete an assignment.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How to Help Students Adjust to School after Winter Break

For many students, returning to school from the long winter break is not an easy transition. Staying up late, sleeping in, unstructured time, family stresses, or holiday travel can all make it hard for students to return to school ready to work productively. You can expect to see students who are tired, cranky, and just not as cooperative as usual because their normal schedules have been disrupted.

Experienced teachers know helping students readjust to their school routines requires understanding, patience, and a solid plan to make that first day back as pleasant as possible for everyone involved. Here are a few brief suggestions to smooth the reentry process for your students.

  • If you have a class website or group email system so that you can contact your students, consider sending an upbeat message a day or two in advance of their return. Remind students about the materials that they will need to bring to class as well as other relevant information to make the transition back to school life easier.  
  • Think back to the first day of school and the techniques you used then to make your students feel welcomed into your class. After all, returning after a long break is really just a mini-first day of school. Adjust as needed, but consider incorporating some of those same techniques to let your students know that you are glad to see them. Take the time to reconnect with each student so that they know that they are a valued member of the class and that their well-being is important to you.
  • Have extra books, papers, pens, and other materials on hand for those students who lost the habits of organization during the break.
  • If your students are old enough to communicate well by writing, pass out small slips of paper or note cards and ask students to tell you about their holiday in one hundred words or less. You can gain some valuable insights into their time away from school with this brief activity.
  • Have students use a checklist to work through the normal class routines on the first day. This will not only remind them of what they need to do, but will also get them back into the habit of working in a purposeful manner. Delivering a flurry of verbal directions will only stress everyone out.
  • Plan activities that are pleasant, but fairly low-key.  Brief games, review activities, pair shares, small group discussions, and other similar strategies are ones that can gradually and successfully reintroduce students to class routines without creating more stress.
  • Photographing or videoing students on the first day of class in the new year is also a good way to celebrate the milestone together. Print on ordinary copy paper and display in the classroom or share on a class website or in a class newsletter. 
  • Take advantage of the time of year as you plan the day’s lessons. Ask students to make predictions about the year ahead or to share their new resolutions. You could even develop class resolutions such as setting a goal for homework completion, improved study habits, or making sure the room is tidy at the end of the day. 
  • Allow time for students to visit with each other and to catch up with each other’s personal news. While this can be done as a whole group activity, small groups really work best as students can engage meaningfully with each other. You could offer open-ended questions for everyone to discuss as conversation starters: What is your favorite memory of 2015? What do you want to do in 2016? If you could change the world in 2016, where would you begin?