Monday, March 21, 2016

Building an Empire of Support: Professional Learning Network

"Do you have a PLN?" That question caught me off guard during a faculty meeting about a year ago. Uhm, I checked out Pinterest occasionally for ideas. TeachersPayTeachers was a constant source of inspiration and assistance, but besides the amazing teachers in my building I didn't really connect with other teachers at all. I didn't even know where to begin, but I figured it out! And now I'm going to help you figure it out, too, because my #PLN is amazing. I have never been so inspired or driven to reach each of my students in the best way possible. Before, I felt like I couldn't afford the extra time it would take to reach out to others, but now I feel like I can't afford not to reach out. The ideas I've discovered and the psychological support I've received after a long day at school are totally worth skipping a few minutes on Facebook reading about an old classmate's latest trip to Aspen.

So, where do you begin? Most of you probably already have accounts on many of the social media sites. I already had a facebook account, but I set up a page just for my education posts. Since I started seriously building my TeachersPayTeachers store about the same time I developed my PLN, I came up with a catchy name, too. Amy Sellars is a little generic and I thought people might remember me better if I branded myself as The Rowdy Kids in 3.  The facebook page was simple. I invited all of my facebook friends that I already know are teachers to like my Rowdy Kids page and I post anything education related to that page.

I had stalked Pinterest for a long time, but I finally dove in once I started creating products for TpT. I don't have a lot of followers on Pinterest. I really only use it to post my TpT products, but I have been able to pin zillions of great ideas from others. If you are a little introverted and aren't ready to start actually conversing with teachers you don't know, Pinterest is great for cyberstalking other teachers' ideas.

Lately I have become Twitter obsessed! I highly recommend you create a twitter handle solely for professional purposes. Don't follow your old boyfriend from high school or the neighbor down the street, unless one of them is an awesome teacher! I only follow teachers and education related companies on Twitter. Every single time I open that app, I am bombarded with amazing resources, blog links, ideas, quotes and website links related to education.  It is a little slice of professional development heaven, and I can access it while I'm waiting for my oil to be changed or in line at the grocery store.  Don't worry about how many people follow you. You aren't 15.  You don't need others' approval. Just make sure you are following great, inspirational people. Since you don't know any of these people in real life, you don't have to worry about unfollowing someone and hurting their feelings. For instance, I found one of the accounts I was following had a few good ideas, but she mostly complained about things that were wrong with education while offering no solutions. I want some positive energy from my PLN, so I just unfollowed her.

The very, best part of Twitter is something I didn't even know existed until about a month ago. Twitter Chats! Get this! There are groups of people out there that get together at the same time each week, and tweet about education topics. Someone is the moderator and posts the questions on their website ahead of time. I've even learned to use tweetdeck and schedule my responses ahead of time, so I don't miss anyone else's genius tweets. Incredible, right? There are all types of #educhats. My favorite is the #tptchat, but I'm constantly looking for new ones. There are elementary math chats, middle school ela chats, and anything else you can dream up. There is probably even a chat for educators in just your state, or the math curriculum you are using. You know that one peppy, super positive and creative teacher in your building. Well every single teacher on Twitter chats is one of those. I promise you the burned-out, negative Nancy that you dread getting caught in the copy room with is not spending her Sunday evening on Twitter.

I found building my PLN empire really wasn't that time consuming. I did stop spending as much time socially on Facebook, but quite frankly that old classmate goes to Aspen every year. Reading about it just makes me jealous. I'd rather head over to Twitter and become inspired by incredible teachers all over the planet.  Don't forget to be one of those incredible teachers, too. The next time you have a lesson that works out great, snap a pic of it with your smartphone and tweet it. Just make sure to get approval before you post any pics of students. Some schools don't care, but mine doesn't even like me to do it when you can't see the child's face. I learned that lesson the hard way! Don't feel too bad if someone doesn't like it right away. Rome wasn't built in a day and your empire won't be either. I promise if you tag @therowdykidsin3 in your tweet, I'll like it for you and retweet it. Share, share, share your awesomeness and learn, learn, learn from the awesomeness of others.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Mental Math and Money Madness

Am I the only teacher who cringes when I see a parent on facebook bashing Common Core math? My school didn't adopt Common Core standards, but we do teach a Singapore-based math curriculum so the concepts are very similar. Many of the Common Core standards were designed with Singapore-based math in mind. Why you ask? Because it works!

Buy, Sell, Save!

Singapore math teaches children the why and how of math. Kids memorize algorithms just as we did as kids, but they develop a much deeper number sense, too. The first year I taught Math In Focus was a mess. If you are in the middle of your first year, don't despair! The main reason I struggled was because I never developed a strong number sense myself. Math was my worst subject in school. I made my only C in elementary school in math. By the end of that first year teaching, I could add three and four digit numbers in my head! Mental math became my best friend. Trust me the concepts work! Now the worksheets some teachers send home with students are another story. Writing down something you work out in your head, is very difficult. Writing it down and leaving blanks for a student to understand and fill in later, is next to impossible.

Buy, Sell Save Game

I teach my students all of the strategies, but when I test them I allow the students to use any strategy that works for them. Practicing mental math strategies is a must! I am constantly trying to develop new ways to let them practice without filling out more of those crazy worksheets. Right now we are learning to add and subtract money mentally. I can't wait to share this new game with them after Spring Break! It includes 60 word problems. Students start with $30 and add or subtract as they draw word problem cards. The first one to save $100 wins the game! Check out Buy, Sell, Save! on TpT.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Crazy Parents and Burned Out Teachers

To maximize their learning potential, students need support from teachers and parents. Unfortunately, this parent-teacher relationship is vulnerable. More than two decades ago I was majoring in Advertising at the University of Alabama. One of the first lessons we were taught was to control the message. Teachers are able to influence the message to an extent through newsletters, emails, phone calls, and notes. Proactive teachers use all of these methods to help parents visualize what is happening every day in their classrooms. However, the bulk of the message is communicated to parents through their children. And we all know you can't ever control what a child is going to say.

As much as my early degree in Advertising has helped me understand the importance of communication, I have still sat in conferences dumbfounded at a parent's inaccurate perception of their student, me or my classroom. I have been fortunate to work in a school where the vast majority of parents give teachers the benefit of the doubt. At our open house night I always tell parents they can ask me anything. I say, "If you don't like something or don't understand why we do it that way, ask me. I can explain why it works best that way, or I may say that I see your point and can make adjustments." A few weeks ago I had a parent text me to ask if we were behind in math. Her friend's third grader at another school was learning concepts in math we hadn't addressed yet. I was thrilled that she asked. I would far rather have her ask me than start texting the rest of the parents in the class asking what they thought. I've spent a lot of time and energy building strong relationships with my parents. It isn't always perfect. Sometimes you have to have difficult conversations. Sometimes parents do not want to hear what you need to say. I've found in these circumstances it is imperative that the parents understand you truly love their child. Because I was a mother of school age children before I became a teacher, I've always felt parent communications was one of my strengths.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on the other side of the parent-teacher conference table. My son has recently entered high school. It is the first time since he was in second grade that I have not worked full time at his school. His teachers have always been my colleagues and we have had excellent relationships. I have independent children and I try to let them manage their own lives as much as possible. I knew he loved his new school and I knew he spent a good bit of time on homework every night. However his grades were not meeting expectations. One class in particular seemed to be giving him trouble. I called friends in the same class and asked about their experiences. I asked my son how the teacher ran his class, posted assignments, and provided feedback. I called a few friends with children in the same class to gauge their experiences. Almost all of the information I received reinforced the idea that the program my son was in held him to a very high standard, but was not holding the teachers to the same accountability. I emailed the teacher to ask for advice on helping my son. The teacher only replied after three weeks when I sent another email to an administrator. His reply was filled with excuses and a scathing description of my son's lack of effort in class. He offered no advice to help my son. My son is far from the perfect student, but I had never received that type of feedback from a teacher. Fortunately the administrator insisted we schedule a conference.

The teacher was no better in the conference. He was defensive and continued to insist it was all my son's fault. I could go into specific details, but it isn't important. At the end of the conference, not only had I still gained no insight into helping my son, but I was afraid I had made him a target. This teacher was clearly burned out, angry and giving minimal effort to reach his students. The administrator sent the teacher back to class and asked me to stay for a little longer. She didn't blindly defend her teacher as so many administrators have been know to do. She had emailed each of my son's teachers and asked their perception of his performance as a student. She also had a conference with his English teacher and provided a sample of his work to compare to another anonymous student's work. She pulled up his standardized test scores to help me determine if it was an ability issue. At the end of the conference I was sure of a few things.

First of all the original teacher wasn't holding up his end of the bargain, but my son clearly was not giving his best effort in any of his classes. He had never really had to study to maintain good grades, and it was obvious that he needed more help learning solid study skills. I had taken my experience with one teacher and projected it onto the entire program which was unfair to the other teachers. I had listened to other parents perceptions and somewhere along the way had mixed up their children's complaints with my own child's. I was amazed at how quickly I had become one of those parents. My child isn't perfect. I never claimed he was, but I had not given the teachers enough benefit of the doubt. This didn't do my child any good at all. Now I'm taking a more active role in helping my son transition to high school.  I will also be more understanding the next time I have a parent-teacher conference with one of those "crazy" parents. After all, if I can go from zero to crazy in no time at all... just about any parent can. If I want my students' parents to give me the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to have to do the same for them.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Declaring War on Math Anxiety!

Blank stares. Yesterday, I sat at my kidney shaped table with five students still struggling with long division and ten empty eyes stared back at me. Ten beautiful eyes that I've watched sparkle with curiosity and discovery this year. Ten eyes that were connected to five competent and bright brains. As a new teacher, those empty eyes would have frustrated me. I would have complained the students just weren't trying hard enough. After seven years in the classroom I know the truth. This is my fault. Somewhere along the path to mastering long division, I had slipped up and allowed these perfectly capable students to believe it was a concept too hard for them to grasp.

Anyone who has taught for very long and takes the time to truly connect to their students has seen this phenomena.  For some children when a problem is perceived as too difficult their brains simply shut down.  This is most evident to me in math. Specifically in math that requires multiple steps, such as long division.  Yesterday, one of my students who has mastered all of her multiplication facts could not tell me how many groups of 2 she could make from 4.  She was attempting to divide 47 by 2.  The multiple steps of Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Divide, Multiply, Subtract had her all discombobulated.  Once I started walking her through it and asked her what she would need to multiply by 2 to equal 4, she looked at me with those empty eyes.  Actually empty isn't the right description. Those pretty brown eyes were swimming with a mixture of fear, panic, and sadness. She has made great strides in math this year. She had begun to believe she is good in math and all of that confidence was crumbling in front of my eyes. I grabbed four markers because they were the closest objects to me, "Honey, divide these markers into two even groups." Yes, I call my students honey, honey bun, sweetie, darling, and the occasional sugar plum. I'm from south Alabama and these terms of endearment are as natural as the camelia trees blooming in January.

My student's hands trembled a little bit as she reached out for the markers. All of a sudden, those bright eyes flashed and looked up at me."Oh! It's 2. Like 2 x 2 = 4," she said before she dissolved into giggles. The other frustrated students around the table looked up from their work and started to giggle, too. Before I knew it they were all laughing out loud with her. What renders a bright student incapable of answering a question they could have answered without hesitation fifteen minutes before? 

I woke up before anyone in my house this morning and curled up on my sofa with a cup of tea determined to research the problem until I found out. I ran into a few roadblocks. First of all, it just took me three wordy paragraphs to explain the situation. I wasn't sure how to type that into a Google search. Most of my searches for students blanking or freezing brought up examples of children with serious attachment issues or autism. There are good articles on test anxiety. I assume it is related to this issue, but it isn't exactly the same. We were still in the explaining and teaching phase. I have children standing on the edge of a cliff, but I'm right beside them. I want to know how to walk children back from that ledge with my words and actions.The best information I found was in an article by Dr. Rick Nauert on He reports on a study from Stanford University School of Medicine that involved scanning the brains of 2nd and 3rd graders as they completed math problems. According to Dr. Nauert's article, "They discovered that those that felt panicky about doing math had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear, which cause decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving." This tell me that when one of my students looks at me with those blank eyes, I need to stop.  I've already lost them. Their problem-solving part of the brain has already gone to sleep. 

The study divided the students into two groups. One group claimed they felt panicky about doing math and the others didn't. Although the article didn't state it, I'm going to assume that those students who claimed they feel panicky about doing math would also claim they were bad in math. The interesting part of the study is that the children in both groups had similar IQs, reading and math abilities, working memory and generalized anxiety levels.  Math anxiety is real, folks, and it isn't related to ability. Isn't related to ability? Students who feel they are bad in math, may have just as much ability to tackle math as the "good math students?" Maybe I'm making too big of a leap but maybe there is no such thing as being bad in math.  After all, I know all of my students are capable of mastering third grade math. A few may take a little longer to grasp it, but they are all going to be able to do long division by the end of the year. Instead of spending hours on Pinterest and TPT looking for a better way to explain it, perhaps I need to spend more time looking for ways to ease that anxiety, so the problem solving center of their brains will be able to shine. Good thing we have an awesome school counselor and two of my dearest friends are phenomenal psychologists.  I have some phone calls to make. I'll keep you updated as my rowdy kids and I launch our war on math anxiety!

I highly recommend you read Dr. Nauert's entire article. It has excellent information.