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?

Drill and Kill at its Finest

So at some point in that secretive, allusive  “teacher school” we all attended, they dress the males in ABC ties and the females in jumpers and make us chant: Drill and Kill is Bad, Drill and Kill is Bad, Outdoor Recess Duty is Fun, Drill and Kill is bad…

Okay, so maybe your experience wasn’t exactly like that, but you get the idea.  Our professors uncovered the unyielding power of the meaningful, experiential education world, filled with self-discovery and connections to relevant material.  This leaves little educational value for the repetition of massive amounts of similar problems in an effort to work toward mastery.  Essentially, those math worksheets of 200 addition or multipcation problems make Piaget and Vygotsky turn in their graves.

Or does it?  Are there some things that can be mastered through rote experiences?

My district’s adoption of a “Balanced Literacy Framework” outlines a “Word Study” component that is based on a classroom “Word Wall” made up of high-frequency (often ruleless) words.  During a recent unit, I came across the challenge of teaching the word “beautiful.”  As the lesson-planning wheels started cranking in my head, out came Jim Carey’s “B-e-a-utiful” line from Bruce Almighty.  The more I ran “beautiful” through my mind, the more I thought about Taylor Mali’s popular video On What Teachers Make. Assuming you’ve seen it (or just clicked on it), you’ll remember his repetitive approach to spelling the phrase, “definitely beautiful.”

And so launched my Fifth Grade Definitely Beautiful Challenge.

Over the next few weeks, my students spent every “free” moment writing “definitely beautiful” on any small slip of paper they could find, adding their initials and homeroom on the back.

100_1593Basically, there were two parts to the challenge.  First, the individual challenge:  At the end of the competition, four slips would be drawn from the container (for which I had to eat 7.2 million cheeseballs) and the winners would all be invited to a Definitely Beautiful Pizza Party with a friend.  Putting it in fifth grader language: the more slips you fill out, the better your chances are to get pizza! For the group challenge, if my 69 kids were able to produce a total of 5,000 “definitely beautifuls,” their oh-so-masculine teacher (that’d be me) would dawn a pink tutu for a full day of school.  Over the next two weeks, the following transpired:

– notes from parents asking if they could participate!

– students choosing to sit in the autidorium part of our gym during indoor recess to definitely beautiful (yes, it became a verb)!

– contacts from parents saying that this contest should be extended because their student ceased fighting with a sibling while she definitely beautifuled (apparently a past-tense verb as well!) each evening!

– students writing “definitely beautiful” all over every paper they submitted, in an effort to show off their mad spelling skills!

– 5,815 definitely beautifuls (look, a noun!) appeared in the contest tub.100_1604

So alas, two colleagues drew the pizza party-winning names (much to the disappointment of some sore-handed non-winners).  And as promised, there I taught with my pink tutu, magical fly swatter wand, and my homemade Definitely Beautiful t-shirt.  I even busted out the tiara from my costume drawer in my curricularium at home.100_1598

Funny what things make it to YouTube, as well.

Well?  Have my students mastered the spellings of definitely and beautiful?  Ask them to find out.  Are there appropriate uses of drill and kill?  Ask them to find out.

Professional Organizations Update: I Caved

Last summer, I wrote about “Professional Organizations: Friends or Fees”.  Well, I caved.  During the fall, I took a one-hour graduate class about educational readings.  When the time came to find professional articles to read, I, admidingly, went to my principal and asked for copies of her professional journals.  And before I knew it, I was stretched out on my couch with a stack of ASCD’sEducational Leadership” magazines.

So when the time came to write my letter to Santa, I added “ASCD membership” to the list.  I figured it was easy for the elves to make in the workshop.  Low and behold, I was a good boy, and my girlfriend purchased a membership on my behalf.

February is a fairly edtechy month for me, as it brings Ohio’s eTech Conference.  Even better, my first Educational Leadership magazine (of my own!) is titled “Teaching Screenagers” and focuses on edtech issues!

Okay, so there is some value in professional organizations.  I certainly won’t let it replace my PLN on Twitter, but it definitely makes a lovely compliment to it.

Our Spinning World

Behold, a quick tip for helping students with geography.

In seventh grade social studies in Ohio, there is a significant amount of curricular energy spent helping students wrap their geographically self-centered minds around foreign lands.  Since a lot of what I did with geography was based on different activities with Google Earth, my students were accustomed to manipulating the controls to pan and zoom into different locations.

Inverted globeI began each lesson, however, with a little trick.  Before class, I zoomed out to a world-view level and gave the globe a slow spin.  It was always a cool effect for when I finally pulled the Google Earth application to the front.  It gave it that national-nightly-news-corner-graphic-kind-of-feel.

Then, before I walked away and let the kids teach themselves, I’d give the “earth” a quick spin.  From a cognitive analysis, there is a lot of thinking that goes on for a student to bring a flying globe to a sudden stop, then to rotate, pan, and zoom to a perspective she or he is familiar with.  I loved watching the Social Studies Synapses firing in their brains or listening to the, “No, that’s the southern tip of the Persian Gulf!” heckles coming from the analyzing 12-year-old audience.

Sure, it’s nothing fancy.  But it is a step over Miss Bliss pulling down the wall maps and having Jessie point to Greece.

Click here to see what students see: Spinning Earth

Textbooks? Oh bother.

If you’re a loyal follower (or my mother), you’ll remember that I spent two years teaching seventh grade social studies.  During that time, I was given a ten-year-old textbook and supplemental materials to pass out to my students.  Not exactly knowing how the year was going to unfold, I mistakenly passed the books out to the students.  At the end of the year, I collected them – unused all year long.

They were old, boring, and full of boring stuff like…words.  <Insert snoring sounds here>  Seventh grade social studies in Ohio is all about world history.  The kids didn’t want to read words about them.  They wanted experiences.  Anyhow.

For Christmas, my parents gave me a copy of Time magazine’s “100 Events that Changed the World.” If you’re in a position where you’re charged with getting 21st century minds to wrap around ancient world history, PICK UP A COPY!  This paperback, glossy-covered, 122-page Time magazine on steroids is more than enough to guide learning  for all ancient civilizations.  It starts with “Man’s Prehistoric Breakthroughs”, moves through Minoans and Greeks, hits the Roman Empire, discusses The Renaissance and gets its Enlightenment on!  And that’s all before the “Modern Times” section!

So much of world history isn’t “What they did,” as much as it is “What they influenced.”  This magazine demonstrates outstanding segues from one civilization to another, touching on why it came to be and what we got from it.  Your lesson plans are done (kind of)!

We each have our own teaching styles.  We each balance printed and digital resources with our mind’s knowledge and past experiences.  If your repertoire is lacking some of the former, I’d at least check out a copy of this valuable tool.

Reflections for School Finance

As I continue my journey toward my Master’s in Education Leadership, last Wednesday began my school finance section of the adventure.  While this program has taken me through a few pretty disastrous courses, there have been some outstanding ones as well: Supervision and Leadership with Dan Major, School Law with Dr. Pat Pauken, and now, hopefully, School Finance with Dr. Paul Johnson.

Although the traditions of “syllabus night” held true (early dismissal!), we did begin with some reflective dialoge concerning where school finance issues stand today and why this is an incredible time to be taking the course in Ohio.  With a new governor (and friends) taking the lead, we’re likely to witness some major transformations in school finance approaches, procedures, and laws.  The challenge will be keeping a room of nine passionate individuals on an apolitical and productive approach to the topic.

Much like my law course, this class appears to be one taught by an individual who is downright passionate about the topic.  I’m sure he’s knowledgable and experienced as well, but it is the passion that is presented during each class session that really makes the experience worthwhile.  As an interesting pre-administrator reflection, I found one of his introductory comments absorbing.  While explaining his resume, including time as a building-level and district-level administrator, he explained that he has always just asked his staff members for two things: 1.  Teach kids in a way that they will learn. And if you’re not in a teaching position, support teachers so that they can teach in a way that kids will learn.  2.  Treat others well. While these are simple and broad expectations, they are also wholly encompassing.  Just something interesting to keep in mind as I prepare for a principalship.

Finally, I walked away from the first class with a few quotes that may bring a nod to your head or a smile to your face:

“School Finance is not a math class; it’s political science.”

“There are only two kinds of school districts in Ohio: those that are on the ballot and those that will be.”

“Don’t watch sausage or laws being made; You’ll lose your appetite for both.”

“The study of School Finance is like a Russian novel; It’s long and boring and in the end, everybody dies.”

I’m excited for the course!