Bad Words

Most years, during the First-Week-Here’s-How-I-Roll speeches, I write a list of words on the board.  It’s the Mr. Malany Bad Word List.  It goes without saying that certain four-letter words are banned in my classroom, but this list spells out a few additional naughty vocabulary words.  They include your “retards”, “shut ups”, “gays”, “sucks”, “screws”, “butts”, etc.  Basically, the you-shouldn’t-say-them-in-front-of-your-mother list.  I let them get their chuckle in, then from that point forward, we don’t hear them.  Every now and then a student may need a friendly reminder, and occasionally a deeper “here’s why” conversation, but for the most part, those words don’t enter my classroom.

This year I want to add to the list.  I’m not going to write these words on the board though…I just don’t want the kids to know them.  They’re teacher words.  I paid lots of money to go to college.  In fact, I spent a lot of time doing it.  And I worked hard doing it.  And I like to think that there are a few things I got out of college that I wouldn’t know otherwise:  teacher words.

In education, we seem to throw around buzz words to/at/in front of/near/around/toward students.  The more buzz words we throw, the better teachers we are, right?  And surely, the more syllables in the buzz words…well…we just have the ammo to put John Keating to shame!


So here is my list of words that originated as “teacher-only” words… my opinion, need to return there:

1.  objective

2.  assessment

3.  formative

4.  summative

5.  intervention

6.  differentiated instruction

7.  indicator

8.  standard

9.  benchmark

10.  learning target

11.  critical thinking

12.  divergent

13.  classroom management

14.  graphic organizer

15.  21st Century __________

16.  integrated

17.  data analysis

18.  scaffolding

19.  supplemental

Don’t get me wrong!  I’ll DO these things.  Oh, I’ll do these things constantly!  But can’t ten-year old kids DO without knowing they’re DOING something?  I know, I know…kids need to know learning targets so they have clear objectives to accomplish during a lesson…blah, blah blah.  I call that teaching.  Integrate it.  (Oooh look – a buzz word!)  Integrate it deeply into a conversation or a self-directed activity or a discovery lesson or a technology experience.

I don’t care how you use your fancy buzz words.  Just integrate them.  And don’t tell the kids you’re doing it!



So Long, Farewell!

This summer, as I did the What-To-Chuck Walk around my classroom, my eyes kept returning to an entire bookshelf filled with giant Merriam-Webster Dictionaries.

We’re not talking five or six of them.  We’re talking an entire class set.  The collection was one of those inherited things that another teacher offered to me, and I was too much of a naive, young, greedy teacher to turn them down.  They were still in near-perfect condition, each with a $22.99 sticker stuck to the front cover.



So I began the analysis: Do my students use them? Was in because of accessibility issues?  Could I put them anywhere else?  What else could I put there?  Would something else on that shelf serve the students better?

Then I remembered one of my students from the last school year: Ellie.  I think it was during our work on books for the Young Authors’ Conference.  I remember her words and actions specifically.  She was working at her table, located near the wall of computers in my room.  She must have still been drafting or editing.  Nearby, students were typing their drafts on GoogleDocs, preparing to copy and paste into StoryJumper for publication.

Ellie came across a difficult word to spell.  She asked her neighbors, to no avail.  Then she flipped on her lightbulb and exclaimed aloud, “Let’s look it up on GoogleDocs!”  Within seconds she was leaning over a friend’s keyboard, typing her best guess and waiting for for “The Red Squiggly Line.”  With a flash of the line and a quick right click, she had her correct spelling and was back to writing.

Meanwhile, four pieces of dust fell atop the dictionaries on the bookshelf.

So during that reflection, I had my answer.  I loaded up the dictionaries on a chair with wheels and scooted my way to the storage book room.  It was tough to stack perfectly good dictionaries (and their price tags!) on a dark shelf in the corner of the book room, knowing well that they would remain their until the end of time.  But alas, it is a different time.  Ellie, and all of my students, have coping mechanisms to assist them.  [Rest assure, I’m about to right-click on my spelling of “mechanisims” instead of heading to my bookshelf for a dictionary.]

Thanks for leading the way, Ellie!

Free School Supplies!

Nothing grabs a teacher’s attention faster than those three words…except maybe, “Two hour delay!”

I don’t work for Staples.  I promise.  But over the last few years, I’ve become very fond of the deals they provide for educators.  If you’re not familiar with them, cruise on over to this page for a quick overview.


One part of their great reward program for teachers that I take the most advantage of is their ink recycling program.  For every ink cartridge you take in (up to ten per month), Staples will cut you a check to use at Staples the next month for $2.00/cartridge.  If you’re a language arts teacher like me by heart, you’re grabbing a pencil and paper and in just a second you’ll realize that you can get $20.00 every month!

Each year, I label an old coffee container (I’m pretty sure they were God’s “On the Eighth Day” Gift to us!) as “INK” and stick it in the back of the room.  Throughout the year, students bring in used (and sometimes new (I have a “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell Policy”!)) ink cartridges and stick them in the container.

I take a little time at the beginning of the year to explain the  the program to the kids and try to take time to praise students who contribute to the Tub O’ Ink.  I also explain the program on my “Classroom Wishlist” page on the “For Parents” page of my classroom website.  Parents are happy to contribute…especially when it is no cost to them!

A few tips:

  • They count each individual cartridge, so if a printer has three sepearate color cartridges, they each count as one!
  • They accept toner cartridges from laser printers or copy machines!  Talk to your administrative assistants or tech. department about sending you empty cartridges.  Even small districts go through tons of those each year!
  • If I remember correctly, each check is good for two months, so you can stack two checks and have $40.00 to spend on a shopping spree school supply restock!
  • Once you get a teacher account, you don’t have to carry another shopper card.  Just give them your phone number at the register.

Staples also has great back to school specials for teachers.  Historically, they’ve had penny deals on certain supplies.  While the limit is typically two for common folk, teachers are given a limit of 25.  That’s right.  I get (25) 100-count packs of notebook paper, or (25) 10-pencil packs, or (25) pocket folders, or (25) single-subject spiral notebooks…for just 25 cents! Last year they started a “with minimum $5.00 purchase” rule.  (But if you use your ink rewards check…!)  This year, there appear to be more five cent deals than penny deals.  The deals change each week so check the flyers!

One last note.  Please take just a moment to tell Staples, “Thank you!”  It is great to feel both respected and honored by the business world.  The office supply market is extremely competitive.  Staples gets my vote!

Think, boys. Think!

Remember that line from “The Music Man“?

And remember the dark day when I yelled at my students for being too creative?

It came back to bite me.

After state testing finishes, all teachers, regardless of if we should or not, feel a weight off their shoulders.  Some teachers even remark, “Now I can start teaching!”

During the fifth grade intervention time, my awesome team of coworkers decided to spend the last few fragmented (assemblies, field trips, traditions…oh my!) weeks of school doing book groups.  We left the structure open – allowing each of us to choose a novel and a group of students based on our hearts – not data.  Gasp.

I had a group of hybrid ability-levels and interests.  I chose Jerry Spinelli’s, “Maniac Magee.”  If you’re not familiar with the story, it involves a runaway boy who deals with death, racial tension, and family.  It’s a great one-of-the-first-coming-of-age-books kids should read.

Long story, short: as we read the book each day, we discussed some of the more mature, underlying themes in the story.  One major issue, race, kept coming up.  With one African American student in my group, it was a very significant issue that needed dissected.  At one point in the story, we had a few “heavy hitter” racial-based paragraphs – the kind that put a lump in the teacher’s throat as he’s trying to read aloud.  When I finished the chapter for the day, the room was silent.  With ten or so minutes left during the intervention period, I asked the students to take out a sheet of paper and gave these instructions:

“Wow, that was some heavy stuff!  Why don’t you take a few minutes and write a reflection of how these paragraphs made you feel?”  Just a general reflection on the end of the chapter will be fine.”

I walked toward my desk.

“Huh?”  “What?”  “What are we supposed to write about?” “What do you mean?”

The questions erupted from the previously shell-shocked group.

As all good teachers do when students ask clarifying questions, I repeated the instructions, verbatim, only louder.

The students must have sensed the frustration in my voice and began to [attempt to] work.  I collected the papers at the end of the time, paper clipped them, and stuck them in my take-home bag to read that night.

As I sat down to read them that evening, I was excited to see how the chapter had impacted the students.  I was excited to hear from their hearts.  I was excited to see them freely write about their emotions, their depths, their values.  And here’s what I got:

“The main idea of this chapter was mainly about…”

“I know that this chapter was mainly about Maniac because in the story it said…”

“The chapter is mainly about Maniac.  I know this because…”

“The theme of the chapter is about feelings.”

“Maniac Magee is the main character in the story.  I know this because…”

For the second time that day, I got a lump in my throat.  I had failed my students.  They didn’t reflect.  They didn’t think.  They didn’t feel.  They performed.  And it was disgusting.

It was a bad day, make no mistake.  But hopefully, through the lesson that they taught me that morning, I can change how I teach – maybe even change why I teach – and provide for my future students what it is that I want them to receive: passion.

The Real “Bad Teacher”

Teaching in the 21st Century…and blogging about it, requires that we’re willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Many of us share the good with the hopes of allowing others to replicate our successes.  But we can also learn from the bad and the ugly.  Here’s mine:

We all have our low moments in teaching.  One of mine surfaced last spring, just before our state assessments.  First, let me say that my teaching philosophy juggles, 1) the authenticity of real teaching – meeting the students at their level and interests, and 2) preparing students for these tests.  If everything goes well and I have mastered the former of the two, the latter will fall into place.

It was just a couple weeks before the reading test.  As the only reading comprehension teacher for my 70 fifth graders, their reading scores would fall on my shoulders.  This particular day, I was working with an intervention group with a passage about the history of chocolate.  The students sat, reading the practice passage and responding to comprehension questions about cause and effect, main idea, theme, fact/opinion, etc.

I had worked with the students on constructed response questions a zillion times.  One way was to give the students past released test questions as well as the official rubric that was used to grade said questions.  The students had to assess a variety of responses to the question using the rubric.  Scaffolding on up, I then had them create rubrics for questions.  No passage, no responses…just questions and rubrics.  “What are they looking for?” I’d say.  It [earily] is really just a formula.  If the question is, “What is the main idea of this selection?  On your answer docuement, explain the main idea and use three supporting details from the selection to support your answer,” then the students get one point for their correct main idea, and one point for each correct supporting detail.  Congratulations: 4/4.

Side note: For the previous part of the year, we had worked on good writing form.  This included topic sentences, supporting details, and concluding sentences.

So back to the bad day.  The students began to read their responses out loud to the class:

“There are several important things to know when it…”

“Chocolate is very interesting for many reaso…”

“When learning about chocolate, it is…”

“No, no, no!” I cried, cutting off each student!  And then I said it:  “STOP BEING CREATIVE!  JUST GIVE THEM THE ANSWER THAT THEY WANT!

Silence rushed the room.  I fell back in my chair, shocked, disgusted at the teacher who had the audacity to borrow my mouth.

I dismissed my intervention group a few minutes early that day.  It was only 45 minutes into the school day.  I needed time to regroup.  I had a full day of interacting with kids in front of me, and I had just told a group of them to, “Stop being creative.”  I spent a few minutes sitting alone at my desk.  I looked in the mirror in my closet.  I got a drink of water.  And when my next class came in, I started over, doing that thing I love to do: teaching.

Did my mistake that day come back to bite me?  You betcha!

Good Peer Pressure, You Say?

As I move into my sixth year of teaching, I’m excited my Toolbox of Effective Teaching Phrases continues to grow!  Here’s one of my favorites:

As I have spent the first five years teaching fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, I’m well aware and probably overly-sensitive to the effect of peer pressure on my students.  But is it always a bad thing?

Every now and then, when there is that one concept that I just don’t have a good way to teach, I drop the following line:

“Listen carefully…you don’t want to be that guy or girl who writes ______________ on ______________!” Insert the commonly used wrong answer and assessment name, respectively.

There’s nothing that perks of sleepy ears or wandering minds faster than the threat of looking vulnerable in front of peers.  Make no mistake: this is one of those don’t-use-it-too-often-or-it-will-never-work concepts.  But every now and then, I throw it out in an attempt grab a few unengaged students and use the [positive] power of peer pressure to be heard.  Also, rest assure, I don’t publicly tease students for incorrect answers on assessment, but the thought of me doing so is enough to grab a few wandering minds every now and then.

Speech: Underused In the Classroom

Just a quick post about a rather underused OS X feature in the classroom:

Thinking back to the good ol’ days of MacOS 7.x (Yes, I’m old enough to remember…thank you very much!), what was the single greatest feature of Apple’s SimpleText application?  That’s right.  Its text-to-speech functionality (using MacInTalk or PlainTalk for the Apple historians in the room).

Boy, were those days fun, or what?  One could spend hours trying to get your Performa 5200 PowerPC to correctly pronounce your last name after several hundred attempts at spelling it phonetically.  And when no one was around, maybe, just maybe, you even had Ralph, Fred, Cellos, Kathy, Princess, or Bubbles whisper a few certain four-letter words at you.  Rebel, you were.

But alas, in my teenage mind, that was the extend of the functionality of SimpleText: digital swearing.

Then I became a teacher.

As my fifth graders work through the writing process, what’s the single phrase I use the most when Johnny tells me, “I’m finished.”?  Yup: “Have you reread what you wrote?”

So back to Johnny’s desk he goes to pretend to reread his work through the end of class.  Enter: Apple’s Speech System Preferences.  One of the great, updated features of Apple’s OS X is the ability to quickly highlight text on your screen, hold down your hotkey combination, and have a choir of voices read you your text (with eerily close voice inflections!) right back to you.


As I’ve been working on my grad school work, almost every abstract, journal, reflection, paper, or key assessment has had itself highlighted and read aloud before I print or submit.  Why not do that in the classroom with your students???

We all know that during the process of hearing your work being read back to you, you’ll catch gramatical mistakes, spelling mistakes, and better-phrasing opportunities.  Since a vast majority of my students’ work eventually makes it to a screen of some sort, why not make this a required step in the writing process?

Just a thought.

What self-check tech solutions have you used with your students?