Free Writing

 

IMG_1683.JPGI started writing this blog post on September 30, and then (obviously) forgot about it.  I know that I wanted to talk about how I have been doing freewriting with my students.  One of the expectations in the common core is that students will be able to write for extended periods of time.  Because my students have learning disabilities and also because they don’t have a lot of stamina, we practice writing what comes to mind for a certain amount of time.  I use either a picture prompt or a text prompt, and they must write for the whole time and they must not talk (so they can focus on writing).  We started out by going for two minutes; and now we are up to four minutes.  We do this twice a week.  The pictures I’ve included here are examples of what the students can do, but I’ve noticed that their handwriting is improving; they also talk about how their hands “cramp” up, so I know they are really working those writing muscles.IMG_1685.JPGIMG_1680.JPG

Edmodo and Group Collaboration

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2 middle school students read and prepare to collaborate as a group using Edmodo.

Today one of my middle school literacy classes worked on continuing to read the story “The Ransom of Red Chief.”  While they did that they prepared to ask each other questions using Edmodo (a social media tool).  I’ve talked about this resource in a previous post, and it is a resource that I love to use, and my students also enjoy it a lot.  Click here to see the conversation that has been started about the character “Red Chief.”  As the teacher, it is important that I keep the conversation going, so I’ve prompted them with a question to help them continue the conversation the next time they are in class.  Today is the first time they have used this tool to collaborate, so I only expected 1 response from them so they can get used to this format.

What I like about Edmodo is that my students can talk to each other in a way that is familiar to them because it’s kind of like Facebook; but this is also a safe place for them because no one has our class code and can randomly insert themselves into the conversation or find my students.  This also is a good record of student progress and academic achievement.  My students all have learning disabilities, so I know it is tough for them to write, but just seeing that they’ve written semi-complete sentences and connected their comments to each other’s makes me feel like they are accomplishing some good work.  I was really proud of them today; they had good focus and they followed directions beautifully to get some real academic work done.

I also used the quiz feature in Edmodo today.  Teachers can create their own quizzes with multiple choice, short answer, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank questions.  They are easy to grade and the teacher can comment on each question while correcting the quizzes.  My 6th and 7th grade students particularly enjoyed the quiz–they ENJOYED it–a quiz!  Through Edmodo’s create a quiz feature, I was able to make a quick assessment to determine if they are ready to move on.  Even though I’ve been using Edmodo for a few years, this is the first time I’ve made and used a quiz.  I really like it, and I will continue to use it because it can make a great exit card and help me form the basis of my next lesson or to see what I need to review.  The quiz today was only 4 questions, but it was enough to inform my instruction for tomorrow’s class.

Using Nearpod For Safe Discussions

nearpod app for ipadUsing 1:1 iPads can be tricky with middle school students.  They want to access music and games, and otherwise multi-task while attempting to complete their class work.  In addition,  the type of students I work with will do everything in their power to avoid classwork; they also can be super anxious about talking out loud or contributing to a discussion.  We want to have classrooms be more real-life project-oriented to get students interested in learning, but the students I work with need intensive structure and support; they aren’t good at independent learning. I wanted to provide a fun way for students to interact and participate in a class discussion in a safe way.  Last school year I heard about an app called Nearpod, and I’ve found it to be really fun and engaging for my students.

Nearpod allows someone to create a “presentation,” and then allows others to see it on their own device and to interact.  Presentations can be created usingnearpod featuring creator's screen Nearpod or they can even be uploaded from Powerpoint or from your Google Drive.  I like building presentations in Keynote on my iPad and then uploading them to Nearpod to finish off because Nearpod doesn’t have as many building options as other presentation building tools.  Once the presentation is in Nearpod, the creator can add activities which include polls, open-ended questions, multiple choice questions, drawings, or quizzes.  The creator inserts opportunities for the users to answer questions and provide input.  It becomes an interactive presentation and discussion tool.  To set up, the creator logs into Nearpod and then shares a presentation; when that is done, the creator gets a code.  The code is what everyone else enters in order to access the presentation.  Each person creates a screen name to use when they log into the presentation.  The creator can see everyone’s names, and when activities are shared, the creator can see everyone’s responses.  The creator is the one who controls the presentation and shares it with the group.  My students are especially fond of “draw-it” scenarios because they love using the drawing or picture tools, and they love to see each other’s artwork when I share for the discussion.

So how can you use this tool?  This week I created a presentation on friendship since we’ve been discussing it in our social skills class.  What I did was create “tricky situations,” scenarios that we needed to discuss.  I would share a slide of a situation, then present an activity for student comment or response.  Once all responses were in, I would share them, and as I shared them across the ipad screens, we had our discussion.  Each student was actively engaged, and they felt safe to participate.  They created silly screen names and would laugh when I used those names instead of their real names:  “I like what Goldfish shared, he had a great suggestion for this situation.”  I like to use scenarios and have students respond to the scenario using Nearpod; they feel safer doing it this way rather than just speaking out in class.

Working With Low-skilled Writers

I’ve had to introduce writing this week slowly to help ease student anxiety. Literacy class can cause some significant behavior issues for students. I had a student call another by the wrong name which caused a major shouting incident brought on by anxiety. I guided both students in using calming strategies. My main function is as a teacher, so I’ve had some ideas to help students ease back into the routines of school and being productive.

A successful activity I tried this week was with some very low skilled middle school readers and writers. I bought some large foam dice at the dollar store and then put pieces of sentences on stickers on each side of the die. I had the students roll the dice and make sentences with the words and phrases that came up on each roll. Once a sentence was constructed, I had them move the dice around to reorganize the phrases into a slightly different sentence or to form a question. This activity showed me that they understand the parts of sentences and how sentences can be structured in different ways. They even read their sentences with different inflections to indicate when there were changes in meaning. One student was too anxious at first to try the activity, but once he saw the others engaging in it, and once he realized it was a low risk activity, he took his turn and had fun with the sentence dice. Some additional things I plan to do with this activity in the future will be to have students write the sentences they form; to leave out some of the dice and have the students complete the sentences from the parts that were rolled. In the future I can also change the stickers on the dice to indicate story starters, or topic ideas for brainstorming. I’d like to get these non-writers writing paragraphs within the next two weeks.

I’m also working with these students on learning to develop ideas by brainstorming. This is a step they all skip when they have to write. For an activity, I named a category and then had them list at least five ideas related to the category as a brainstorm. Then I’ve been having them write topic sentences to go with their categories. They are getting good at writing topic sentences, and they almost don’t need to ask me after every sentence if they have it right. It feels good to have students completing tasks and working toward completing some writing goals. The biggest thing I’ve had to do this week is help students feel safe enough to participate in the class activities. Because they all have such low skills, they need to feel like no one will make fun of them or be disappointed in their effort (effort that would be considered lacking if they were in a mainstream school).

While my middle schoolers are producing writing, they are far below grade level, so that writing can’t be compared to their same age peers. Will these students ever write at grade level? Doubtful. Will they move forward from where they are right now? Very likely.

Tips for Working with Tough Kids and Their Parents

As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students.  As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.”  We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.  

2The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do.  Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on.  Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold.  Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves.  Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.  

Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished.  These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be.  When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel.  You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you.  The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.

Relationship is key.  In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult.  A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.”  You have to show that kid that you can be trusted.  You have to be a safe person for the tough kids.  In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).”  Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want.  Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.  

Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students.  Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them).  If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important.  Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments.  I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble.  Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it.  Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students.  A case in point:  our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her.  Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past:  not on their side.

No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents.  Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart.