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Ask the Mentor

Getting Ready for the School Year: Part II

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The Mentor
Coleen Armstrong taught secondary school for 31 years in Hamilton, Ohio. She hosted a TV talk-show that covered education issues from 1990-1999 and in 2002, co-authored Please Don’t Call My Mother: How Schools and Parents Can Work to Get Kids Back on Track. She has won state and national recognition as a teacher, including being named one of five finalists for the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1996. Armstrong’s recent book, The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me, is a 2007 first-place divisional winner for the Benjamin Franklin Award. A self-described “love letter” to new teachers, Armstrong’s book offers those just starting out a quick course in appreciating the most mundane tasks and coping with the greatest challenges.

Coleen Armstrong
Coleen Armstrong
—Photo by William A. Windom

I am a third-year teacher, and this will be my first time looping with my students. (I will be teaching 2nd grade.) How do I make the new school year different and challenging on a shoestring budget?

You and your students have a priceless perk––you already know and understand each other! You won’t lose the first few weeks to figuring out temperaments and personalities. Tell the kids that because you’re so blessed to be together again, they’ll be learning faster than most second graders. Then use the extra time for what used to be called enrichment: telling “stories” from history, relating scientific discoveries’ sometimes convoluted paths, and exploring what psychologists think they know about children. Too advanced for seven-year-olds? Not if you’re creative and concise, yet engaging. Soon you’ll keep trying to top yourself in terms of piquing their natural curiosity––thereby fostering lifelong learning. Wow! The sky is the limit––and it doesn’t cost a cent.

Getting Ready for the School Year, Part I
In her first installment, Coleen Armstrong answered questions from readers about preresearching students, handling gossip, accommodating ADD/ADHD students, and more. Read Part I.

I am a special ed teacher about to work a split schedule for the first time. How do I make sure I get what I need without seeming too demanding to my new principals?

The main thing you’ll need is a relatively painless way to organize and transport all of your “stuff.” This may involve having a wheeled cart waiting in the main office, a student assistant ready to help you unload your car and then navigate the crowded hallways, or perhaps both. Mentally walk through the process of getting from point A to point B, and you’ll figure out fast what will work best. Some travelers request a desk drawer in each room, but I found that just complicated things; whatever I needed was always in the other location. I did, however, grow exceedingly fond of plastic milk crates! And they fit nicely both in my trunk and on top of a cart.

I can’t think of anything else you’d ask for (except perhaps understanding if you’re held up by a train), so your list of needs will be short–-and you’ll only have to ask once. Most principals are well aware of the drain that traveling entails, so as long as you don’t try to turn the whole school upside down, they’ll be kind.

What are the most effective classroom rules for a junior high classroom?

The primary thing that comes to mind is treating everyone with politeness, something we can no longer take for granted within today’s “argument” culture, to borrow a term from Dr. Deborah Tannen. Of course you’ll encourage the use of “please” and “thank you” by modeling it yourself. And then you’ll require that all interruptions, snide remarks and mindless put-downs must be suffixed by “Sorry.” That part could take a while, but the use of that single word can move mountains and transform an entire class.

Years ago, I illustrated a lesson in communication by running a film clip from “Dances With Wolves,” where the Indians were all sitting in a teepee discussing what to do about the white man they’d spotted in their neighborhood. Each person who spoke began by first complimenting the person who spoke before him! It struck the class as so bizarre that I suggested we try it. We did and—such a miracle—it caught on! For the rest of the year, every time someone forgot his manners, someone else would say something kind about him before speaking.

Behaviors can change just that fast. Adolescents, even with all of their undisciplined exuberance, still crave a civilized atmosphere. And once you’ve got good manners nailed, everything else, including ethics, morality, integrity, and self-discipline, seems to fall into place.

I'm looping with 19 of my 1st graders and five new students (although, not new to the school) to 2nd grade. What's the best way to start, since it's less of a "get to know you" and more of a "welcome back"?

Since they’re so young and cute, it will be hard not to greet your returnees with delighted hugs. So go ahead! Give the five newbies welcoming grins and perhaps gentle shoulder squeezes. Then when everyone is seated, explain how lucky they are to be included in such a great class. You might start by letting each child bring everyone else up to speed on what’s happened over the summer. The new kids can introduce themselves and then do the same.

I believe such groups are truly made in heaven; you get to begin at square ten instead of square one. The newbies will adjust to the friendly atmosphere and accelerated pace within two days, and after two weeks hardly anyone, including you, will even remember who’s “old” and who’s “new.”

I am going to have a student teacher in my classroom for the first time this fall. What are some good ideas for building a great relationship between my colleague and my students?

Your own generosity of spirit is already apparent by the way you asked the question. Your acceptance and obvious good wishes for this young person will serve as an excellent model to your classes.

The student-teaching structure hasn’t changed much over the years; it still begins with a bit of observation, then evolves into taking over one class, then two, and so on. The mentor hangs around until he/she feels the S.T. is on solid ground, then leaves the room for longer and longer periods.

But there may be a better way. Encourage the S.T. to do some conferencing/checking of work with individual kids early on. They’ll bond faster. Try an occasional team-teaching approach that first week too, where you give the overview and then the S.T. takes on the specifics. I find that far less jarring for everyone than the next-week-they’re-all-yours approach. Gradualism makes the dual allegiance, which your students can and should feel, much more comfortable.

I sponsor a book club, but have trouble convincing children to read (they'd rather check for a movie version). What do you suggest?

I’m both a voracious reader and a huge film freak––but I agree that reading provides something extra that a movie cannot. Even “Gone With the Wind,” one of the best movies ever produced, left out two of Scarlett O’Hara’s children!

There’s a cliché among movie reviewers: “The book is better.” I recommend having that line printed on a huge poster, tacking it to your bulletin board, and pointing to it every time the subject comes up. Turn it into a mantra: “All together now...”

Also, you know how news anchors use “teasers”? “The substance under your kitchen sink that could kill you! Join us at 11:00!” Try a similar technique with tantalizing one-liners: “You won’t believe what happens between Jeff and the penguin in chapter six.” Or you might ask students to tell you where the differences lie. Will you need to read a few of these books yourself? Yes. Will the results be worth it? Yes.

I teach 6th grade history, literature, and language arts. How do I plan my lessons to be more student-centered, rather than teacher-directed, while also keeping time for daily conferences for students on their reading and writing?

What a great combination; the entire world is your lesson plan! Imagine reading a book like Johnny Tremain (literature), giving your class a (historical) perspective (who were the Sons of Liberty, anyway, and why are young people always so eager to implement political change?), along with a 1775 vocabulary list (language arts). Then (here’s where student-centered comes in) request a volunteer team to research the latest additions to Webster’s. Why do some words disappear and others endure? How do new ones (like “computer geek”) evolve? With a single unit, you’ve just covered a vast spectrum. You’ve led your students into another time and place, but you’ve also shown them how to see the connections between then and now.

I’m hoping that your mind is already avalanched with intertwined lesson possibilities that involve all three of your subject areas, where you create a zinger of an opening, and then offer a short but compelling independent study project. That “project” may involve a mere stroll across the room to check the Internet.

Halfway through every journey, you must hand over the baton. The key words here are "volunteer" and "team." Three kids working together will be more energetic than one working alone. Also, at least two volunteer efforts each quarter should be required of everyone, but they get to choose which ones.

Additional group assignments, like question-answer worksheets (everyone turns in a separate paper, but they’re allowed to pool their answers—and for extra fun, insist that everyone agrees before writing anything down) will give you time for conferencing. Maybe not daily, though.

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