Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Most of My Students Did More Homework than Assigned

I know this seems unlikely, but it was true for my entire teaching career. I can’t take credit, however. My master teacher taught me this simple, genius plan. I taught a few years in middle school, but most of the time, I taught in a public high school. I used this plan when teaching French, German or English.

I assigned homework Mondays through Thursdays. I never gave students homework on Fridays, weekends or over holidays. They had a semester project to complete. They completed them during these non-homework days.

Homework for the week was posted on my website each Thursday. I uploaded the assignments during my conference period, after designing the lesson plans for the next week (which I also did during my conference period each Thursday). The assignments for each day were also posted on the whiteboard in front of the room. Students were used to seeing their assignments in this location.

Students could complete as much or as little of an assignment as they wished. They were rewarded for doing more than assigned. The grading went this way: Zero=Did not attempt the assignment, Check Minus=Completed part of the assignment, or it was late, Check=Completed the assignment as assigned, Check Plus=Completed extra work, in addition to what was assigned, Plus=Completed double what was assigned.

Homework recorded this way was not graded for quality or accuracy. It was practice on vocabulary or grammar. The work was checked to see how much was completed, this was recorded, and the work remained in the students' notebooks. There, it was often used as a resource. We went over it while students still had their notebooks open to their completed homework. Then they put their notebooks away. We often had quizzes on these assignments. It was pointed out to students that those who did extra always did well on quizzes.

This was part of the incentive to do more than assigned, but there was more motivation. At the end of each grading period, I balanced the check marks, pluses and zeroes. If the student balanced into the positive, I raised his grade to the next level (usually just a plus mark). If, however, the student’s work ended up a minus, then I lowered the letter grade one notch (usually a minus sign).

Keeping track was easy. I used graph paper, one for each row. I put the students’ names on the left, and an abbreviation of the assignment at the top of each vertical column. Where they intersected, I placed the symbol earned. It was very visual. Students and I could see clearly when someone had a positive or negative pattern going.

At times, when going through the papers, I showed a student his pattern. It was hard to deny when zeroes or minus signs appeared. At other times, students encouraged each other. This was especially true of other students seated in the same row. They acted as a team and cheered each other on to improve. Competition can sometimes be a good thing.

Once students are used to this routine, they catch on to the “tricks”. Since they know their homework in advance, busy and clever students work ahead. They’re prepared with their completed work on the day it’s due. Often they do so with double the assignment finished. This makes up for a day when they’re swamped in another class and perhaps can’t finish everything in my class.

I can truthfully say most of my students did more homework than I assigned most of the time. It made all the difference in the scores on their routine quizzes, their chapter tests and their final grades. I’m sure those grades made a significant difference when they applied to college and for scholarships. All this from doing as much or as little homework as they liked.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Another Tip to Make Learning Easier

Although eating breakfast daily is important for health reasons, it’s also going to help you learn more, get better grades and even have a better shot at winning more free cash for college. What you eat at breakfast matters. A sugary cereal, breakfast bar or blender smoothie masquerading as healthy food just won’t work.

Each meal should contain different types of nutrients. Protein is an important one as it enhances concentration, learning and memory. In other words, eating protein makes it easier to understand what you’re learning in class and to remember it. How much protein you need varies by your age, body weight, gender and amount of exercise you get in a day.

One simple to prepare and easy to eat food is eggs. One egg will give you about 14% of your daily recommended amount of protein. They’re easiest to add to breakfast of all the different kinds of foods that contain protein (fish, lentils, chicken, black beans and others). You can even make them in advance. 

Here’s how:

1.   Decide how many days each week you want to add an egg to your breakfast and multiply that number by how many people will be eating them. The more eggs, the bigger the saucepan you need.
2.   Place them in a single layer in the pan. Put enough cold water into the pan to cover the eggs with one inch of water above them. (The greater the number of eggs, the more water needed.)
3.   Turn the heat up to high, and let the water come to a boil.
4.   Turn the heat off, and let the pan sit on the hot burner for ten to twelve minutes. (It’s okay to cook them longer. It just makes the yolk harder.)
5.   Use the lid to hold the eggs in the pan, and pour out the hot water (carefully) into the sink. Run cold water over the eggs to stop them from cooking.
6.   After they’ve cooled off, you can put them in a bowl and keep them in the refrigerator. (Eat them within five days.)
7.   Peel and eat one each morning along with your cereal or other breakfast foods.

This isn’t the only way to add protein to your breakfast, but it’s the easiest way and very low cost. Don’t forget to add a wholesome (low sugar) cereal or oatmeal, a piece of fresh fruit and a glass of milk (if you're not lactose intolerant), and you have a complete breakfast. It may seem like a waste of time to eat breakfast each morning, but the brain needs food to function properly. So do you. 

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Monday, October 17, 2016

If You Want to Feel Good about Teaching

Give students an assessment test the first week of the school year. Grade it and file it away, don’t record the score. At the end of the school year, give them the same exam and grade it. Then hand them the copy of the exam they took the first week of school. Let them see how much they learned.

Then stand back and prepare for tears. Some of them will gush and look you straight in the face and choke out the words, “Thank you.” It’s hard to know the impact teaching makes. It’s hard when teaching English or math. You never really see how much they have learned and improved in one year.

It’s easier in a foreign language class. I have taught both English and foreign languages, German and French. But the best feeling I ever had teaching is when a student in an eighth grade English class looked at her two exams and realized how much she had learned. She became emotional and showed her gratitude on her face. She knew we had done that together. I helped her on her path to college and she was grateful.

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Life Is Amazing

Friday, October 14, 2016

Full Ride Colleges and Universities Still Exist – Yale

The cost of completing a college degree in the U.S. has continued to increase. Some colleges and universities offer enough financial support to make them practically free to attend. Most of these universities are private, and about two-thirds are liberal arts, according to a recent U.S. News and World Report survey. Half decide how much they provide a student by the financial need of the family (after looking at the FAFSA form). Others base their contribution on merit alone.

One place where a Full Ride is possible is Yale University, ranked number 3 (tied) in the nation by U.S. News. Yale is located in the city of New Haven, Connecticut. It was founded in 1701, making it one of the oldest universities in the country. The campus covers 343 acres. The current undergraduate population is 5,532 students. It’s a world renown university which provides a world class education.

The application deadline at Yale is January First. The early action deadline is November First. There’s an $80 fee to apply to the university. ACT or SAT test scores are due on March First. The acceptance rate is only 7%.

The cost of tuition and fees for a year at Yale is $47,960, (2016-2017). But with a Full Ride, this doesn’t matter. Most colleges that provide a Full Ride do so by combining student loans, scholarships, grants and a work-study program. The most important aspect of planning to go to any such university is to make sure that the amount of student loan required is zero, or close to it. The rest of the aid is free money. It never has to be paid back. It’s prudent to attend college somewhere that provides a suitable education without leaving the graduate with a mountain of student loan debt.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Do This for Better Grades and More Scholarship Money

One way for students to improve their chances of winning a Full Ride Scholarship to college is to do everything possible to remain alert in class. A simple way to do this is to eat breakfast every day. I found it easiest to prepare almost everything in advance. It begins with making a shopping list. Once the decision is made to eat breakfast daily, deciding on what to eat comes next.

Steel cut oatmeal provides many of the recommended nutrients for optimal brain function. Making it from scratch each day really isn’t practical. It takes too long to cook. There are two possible solutions. One saves time and money, the other saves much more time than money. Both are equally delicious and nutritious. Students and their parents just need to take an honest look at which works best for them.

To save the most time, go to the frozen section in your market, and find pre-cooked, frozen steel cut oatmeal. Be sure to read the label, you don’t want to see sugar there unless it’s a very small amount. Sugar short-circuits thinking, not a great idea for breakfast on a school day. Buy enough to cover all the people who will be eating breakfast for as many days as you wish to serve oatmeal in the week. Buy some berries, other fruit or chopped nuts to top the oatmeal each day. These can be fresh, canned or frozen. Just buy what you enjoy making sure they don’t contain added sugar.

The night before, lay out all the bowls and cutlery you’ll need in the morning. Prep berries or other fruit you wish to use to top your cooked oatmeal. Leave these in a container in the refrigerator. Put everything else in the place it will be needed for breakfast. This saves time and lets you enjoy your meal without rushing.

In the morning, follow the instructions on the box. For the brand I buy, the instructions are simple. I peel off the plastic surrounding the frozen oatmeal, place the oatmeal in the microwave safe bowl I want to use, cover it with a piece of waxed paper (or a microwave cover), and cook it on high for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Then I stir and finish cooking on high for another 1 minute 30 seconds.

While I’m pouring my orange juice and getting out the toppings I want to use, the oatmeal rests for one minute. I sit down and drop berries, cut up peaches or apple slices and a few chopped nuts on top and enjoy. Notice, I did not sprinkle sugar on top. The fruit contains enough sweetness and added sugar is counterproductive to learning. Prep time is 5 minutes. Clean up after I eat is also 5 minutes.

To save both time and money, steel cut oatmeal can be bought in bulk at the market and prepared in advance. Look at the instructions on the package. Decide how many servings are needed for as many people and days as the oatmeal will be eaten in a week. Then prepare this number of servings in a very large pan, following the directions. After the oatmeal is cooked, let it cool. Then divide it into individual servings scooping it into plastic containers, or zip type bags. It’s also possible to wrap a big scoop of cooked and cooled oatmeal with waxed paper, and then place the wrapped oatmeal in a large freezer safe container or bag.

For serving homemade frozen oatmeal, place an unwrapped frozen serving in a microwave safe glass container or bowl and microwave. You’ll have to experiment to see how many minutes/seconds are necessary. Microwave power varies, and the size of the portion matters too. Experiment by following the instructions for the store bought frozen oatmeal, increase or decrease the time until you see what works for your situation.

If you want to get good grades so you have a better chance of winning a Full Ride Scholarship or grant to college, you have to do all the right things. Eating breakfast is one of those things. Steel cut oatmeal is one example of what you might select. It isn’t the only wholesome or nutritious meal you can have. There are many others. Find something you like, that’s easy to prepare and eat breakfast every day. You’ll feel better and your grades will improve.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Simple Way to Destress a Teacher’s Day

Teaching is like juggling while standing on a tightrope. Of course, some days it also feels like someone is throwing rocks at you while you're up there. You can't expect to help students earn good grades so they can win scholarships to college if you're frazzled. I found a simple way to destress my work day. It doesn’t cost money. It does, however, take stubborn will power to peel off a few minutes to do what works.

I decided to arrive at school one hour before the beginning of my first class. I brought my breakfast with me, so I could make this happen. The hardest parts were setting the alarm back and going to bed earlier. But, I’m glad I did. Upon arrival at school, I picked up my mail and unlocked my classroom door. I put everything away, locked up my purse and went back outside. I walked the campus for fifteen minutes. I planned a route away from where students and parents arrive each morning. After my walk, I had breakfast, went through my email and did anything else that needed to be done.

I always set up my classroom for the start of class the afternoon before. By doing so I missed the crowd in the parking lot. It also gave me enough time to do my walking the next morning. When students started to arrive, I was ready for them.

During the six minutes of passing period just before my conference period each day, I chatted with students and filed anything that needed filing. Once the campus was clear, I walked for another fifteen minutes. I used the same route as in the morning. It became a ritual and felt like meditation. At times a clerk from the office or another teacher joined me in my walk. This added a little social time to my otherwise jam packed work day. After my walk, I did all the things you do during your conference period. I was just in a better mood when I did them. I had more energy too.

I repeated the same procedure during my lunch break. After my walk instead of returning to my room to do paperwork or work on my computer, I went to the lunch room and joined my fellow teachers. I brought my own food, so I didn’t waste time standing in line. If I ever skipped one of these walks, my students noticed. I remember one of them saying, “You didn’t walk today, did you? You’re in a better mood when you do.” Exactly.

Walking is good for our health, of course, but it also reduces stress and adjusts our mood in a positive way. It may seem like a waste of time, but I found it helped me use time more effectively. My students appreciated my dedication to walking. It was a great example to them of putting first things first (Covey). Remember what you hear in the plane just before take-off, “When the oxygen mask drops, please put on your own before helping others.” Walking is a teacher’s oxygen mask. 

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Relieving Student Stress

Life can be pretty stressful at times. Assignments, deadlines, tests, siblings and even parents can cause students anxiety, stress and depression. None of this is intentional, but it happens anyway. Three simple activities can prevent or relieve these conditions.

First is exercise. Don’t roll your eyes. All experts agree, adding more movement to your day can help you relax, feel better and improve your grades. Stressed out students make lousy learners. Do the following and watch your stress level go down and your grades go up.

1.   You already walk between classes. This adds up to 25 minutes each day. If you don’t walk to school, have your parents drop you off a ten minute walk from school. Now you’re up to 35 minutes of walking five days each week. If you ride the bus, start walking to the bus stop ten minutes earlier than normal. Walk back and forth between there and home until you’re at the stop at your regular time.

2.   Sign up for a sport. This can be at school or with the parks program where you live. It doesn’t matter. Find something you enjoy, which will not take hours of practice each day. If you aren’t into sports, your school or parks program may offer dance. Either will relieve stress and look good on college applications.

3.   Remember Jumping Jacks and Jump Rope? They’re easy, simple and you don’t have to go to a gym to do them. They increase your heart rate, build stamina and bone density (you’ll be grateful later in life) and relieve stress. Start small, do five daily. After a week, make it ten. The third week, up the number of Jumping Jacks to twenty. That’s enough. For Jump Rope, also start small. Just jump for three minutes daily the first week, five the next, then ten. You don’t need to do more than ten minutes daily. If you have a medical condition, please check with your doctor before doing this or any new exercise.

Second is Meditation. Lots of experts and organizations preach meditating. They explain the health benefits, which are real, but the best thing about meditation is it teaches you how to relax. You don’t have to sit cross legged and chant. Just find a comfortable sitting position somewhere quiet. Sit relaxed and quiet and concentrate on your breathing. If you find that hard to do, repeat something simple either out loud or silently. Try “I am”. It’s easy. Do this each morning and each afternoon or evening for about five minutes. Once you get the hang of it, increase the time to ten minutes each session. You’ll find it pretty simple to slip into this relaxed state when you’re in a stressful situation, like just before a big test.

The third activity that will help you relax, decompress and avoid or relieve stress is the hardest one. It isn’t tough or complicated, but it sure is hard to convince students to do it. You probably need to get more sleep. Unless you’re getting about 9 ½ to 10 hours of sleep each night, you’re making life difficult for yourself. You’ll feel better. Your stress level will drop and your grades will increase. Figure out what time you need to get up to get ready for school and eat breakfast, then count backwards nine hours. If you’re already going to sleep then, move it back one more hour. 

If you don’t believe me and the thousands of doctors who say these activities will reduce or eliminate stress, try them for a month and prove us wrong.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Stress Free Testing

A professor in one of my college French classes was on loan from the Sorbonne. He was great, but caused so much fear during testing, I didn’t do as well as I could. I remembered him when I began teaching. I knew I didn’t want to recreate the testing experience I had endured. There’s a mountain of vocabulary words and grammar to learn and test in a foreign language class. But nowhere is it written it has to be done in one sitting.

Several times each week, I gave my students a little quiz. They were little physically, (we used old printer paper ripped into four pieces) and short (only five questions, with a bonus at times). Since they were small, frequent and only worth five points (a chapter test was 100 points), they were low stress. Students prepared for them daily because they knew they were coming.

If they blew a quiz, it wasn’t devastating to their grade because it wasn’t weighted heavily. Again, this lowered stress. If a student was absent the day before, I required him to take the quiz anyway. This way, when someone was out, he looked online or called a classmate and found out the homework. Students were usually prepared for the quiz despite being absent.

By giving these vocabulary and grammar quizzes frequently, students studied throughout the chapter, instead of waiting until the day before a test. This meant they were better prepared and only needed to review the night before in order to do well. Stress was reduced, and they were better able to perform during a test.

It’s easier for a teacher to record lots of little quizzes than it is to remediate when students do poorly on big tests.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Pre-Holiday Classroom Management Activity

The day before a holiday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Break, Easter Break, even a pseudo-holiday like Halloween, is usually just this side of insane. Students don’t want to work. There’s candy everywhere. Gifts are being given. Focus is lost. Just keeping the lid on seems overwhelming; unless you have an educationally sound, kid-approved lesson that keeps them interested, occupied and engaged. Decades ago I created such a lesson. Kids loved it. I loved it. It‘s easy, academic and fun! The bonus of this lesson, it helped with student retention in foreign language classes.

The steps to follow:

1. Completely erase the entire white board. You'll want the space.

2. Number the entire board from 1 to 35. Place holiday appropriate symbols, like pumpkins, around each number.

3. Put a large assortment of dry erase pens at the front of the room. The more color variety the better.

4. After school, the day before a holiday, have each student in your most advanced class go to the board and draw a culturally appropriate picture next to a number. If your class is smaller than 35, they'll need to draw more than one. Be sure to explain to the class the night before they need to come up with three or four ideas for their drawings. Most students are eager, although the shy need some encouragement. After this has become a tradition in your classes, you'll overhear students commenting they look forward to being in the class that gets to draw the pictures. Never let an underclassman participate in putting the pictures on the board.

5. Check each picture as they finish drawing. A few may need a little help so their drawings are clear, and some can be too obscure. You may need to edit, as students can be a bit gross at time. One Thanksgiving students drew a very vivid picture of a turkey being beheaded. I erased that one. Remember, all day students are going to see these pictures. You want to understand them, so you can give hints if necessary. My favorite was The Twilight Zone Marathon. It became a tradition in my program which was passed down each year from class to class.

6. Before the first class arrives the next morning, place a stack of German (French, Spanish, Chinese)/English dictionaries on the first desk of each row. I always had enough dictionaries so students could work in groups of two. Three doesn't work. Working alone is tough.

7. Students should look up what they see on the board, and write the German (French, etc.) on their own papers. Don’t let them put two student names on one paper. This never works. Trust me on this.

8. They must write the definite article and the noun. If there's an adjective, like in a drawing of black cat, they must include the adjective with the correct ending. This allows you to preview grammar not yet taught. Students are very receptive to this, and ask for help. It’s a contest. They want to win.

 9. Buy a small bag of individually wrapped candy and give a piece to each member of the first team finished. Be sure to check the work. Sometimes they make errors, of course. Don’t be too picky. Perfection is't the goal.

 10. After the first group finishes, and as each group finishes, they'll help their classmates. You’ll find they don’t give them the answers, but give them hints instead, especially in grammar.  

11. Collect work as it’s finished and the rest at the end of the period. Grading is subjective. First year classes typically have a few students who finish by the end of the class period. Most, however, finish about half of the pictures. Second year will complete more. The majority complete about two-thirds of the pictures. Most third year students finish them all, as do AP/IB/fourth year students.

12. There are several goals in this lesson. Students learn the correct way to use the dictionary. They learn the symbols and abbreviations. It removes the mind-numbing boredom of a typical dictionary lesson, and replaces it with fun. Students learn vocabulary that’s both meaningful, and is usually more advanced than where they are in the curriculum. This they do without complaint. You're able to foreshadow grammar, so when it arrives later in the school year, you’re able to point back to what they discovered at Halloween or Thanksgiving. Finally, it keeps students focused, doing an academic lesson without arguing at a time where students are going nuts in other classes. I had four decades of happy “day before’s” while colleagues were losing their minds.

If you don't teach a foreign language class, adapt this lesson to your subject matter. Remember to keep it relaxed and fun, but academic.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Full Ride Colleges and Universities Still Exist – Harvard

While the cost of obtaining a college degree in the U.S. has continued to climb, some colleges and universities offer enough financial support to make them virtually free to attend. Most of these institutions are private, and about two-thirds are liberal arts, according to a recent U.S. News and World Report survey. Half base how much they provide a student by the financial need of the family (as determined by the FAFSA form). The others base their contribution on merit alone.

One university where a Full Ride is possible is Harvard University, ranked number 2 in the nation by U.S. News. Harvard is located in an urban setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1636, making it the oldest university in the country. The campus covers 5076 acres. The current undergraduate student population is 6,699. It’s a world renown university which provides a world class education.

The application deadline at Harvard is January first. The deadline for early action is November first. ACT or SAT scores are due on the sixth of March. The fee to apply is $75. The acceptance rate is only 6%, but no worthy applicant should be scared away. The average freshman retention rate is a whopping 97%.

The cost of tuition and fees for a year at Harvard is $47,074, (2016-2017). But with a Full Ride, this doesn’t matter. Most colleges that provide a Full Ride do so by combining student loans, scholarships, grants and a work-study program. The most important aspect of planning to go to any such university is to make sure that the amount of student loan required is zero, or close to it. The rest of the aid is free money. It never has to be paid back. It’s prudent to attend college somewhere that provides a suitable education without leaving the graduate with a mountain of student loan debt.

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