Origami Behavior Management


As of Friday, I was determined to call one new student’s parents. As with most newcomers, he does not understand most of my lessons without L1 language support (i.e. translation). Everything I do is embedded with language supports, scaffolds, and adjustments so that comprehension is possible even for students with the most minimal amounts of English. I work hard to be informed about the various languages, cultural differences, and even body language differences with my students (like the South Asian students who say “yes” by making a motion most Westerners interpret as uncertainty or a nonchalant attitude, which has gotten some of my students in trouble with other teachers).

And I expect the relationship to go both ways; I expect them to work just as hard to be understood and to understand. I have routines in place where students help each other, especially the newcomers. As a result, my experience has been that typically they try harder to not draw much attention to themselves and, instead, find someone who will help them to understand.

Of course all children are different, and you can’t really hold one child up to expectations gained from experiences you’ve had with entirely different children. But this boy calls out to the other Chinese students, gets up and walks around, browses the library at inappropriate times, comes up to me when i am doing small group work, and typically does not even try to pay attention during lessons. He spent last Friday making origami stars most of the time. So, despite (or perhaps because of) all my experience working with newcomers, this was the first time I felt disrespected.

But I hate calling parents with bad news if I don’t have to even more than I hate being disrespected. So, I decided instead to give him a second chance, and started by making him my assistant. He is very quick to grasp math when I can teach the concepts first and then the English. So I decided that when he finishes early with the work, he would be an assistant teacher of sorts, helping the others. This required him to learn enough English to help the students along with their thinking, without giving up, exasperated by the less mathematically-inclined and just laughing at them or giving them the answers. So, while he still acts out, he is becoming more productive and is learning and trying out new English, in context, in the process. He still acts seemingly unaware of the rules, and he is still creating origami. But now he is giving them to me, rather than hiding them, and has agreed to teach the class how to do them. It’s a start, and it means not having to discuss behavior with a parent just a few weeks into the school year.

It’s not just paper that has to learn how to bend…!

Mistakes You Can Be Proud Of

Taking photos of students while they work is nothing new to the elementary world, and I even spent a year next to a talented teacher/photographer. So while I can’t claim to have a novel idea, I am thinking of bringing it into my classroom for the first time in a way that I hope will be meaningful to my students. I am taking photos of students demonstrating routines and behavior that I want to promote, as well as mistakes. Yes, Mistakes We Are Proud to Share and Learn From.

I always tell the students that we all make mistakes and it’s ok. But more than that, they are even better when we share them, because we can learn and maybe teach someone else so they don’t make the same mistake!

Here are examples. One is good practice, demonstrating how one student made the partial sums method work for him (putting HTO on the side and boxing it in was his idea), and the other shows what happens when another student didn’t line her numbers up properly, “disrespecting” place value.



These will be displayed in class on the same laundry rope I hang my math charts on. Since I can’t predict when mistakes will happen and be the kind you can visually represent in this way, I didn’t want to create a whole bulletin board for it that would take more time, planning, and explanation to my admin. But if you have the space and permission, this could be a great way to “celebrate” all the kinds of work our students do, show them *how* mistakes can teach, and even make those teachable moments that much more memorable.

Let’s face it. Mistakes happen. Might as well turn them into a positive learning experience!

ESL Teacher Challenge: Math

Your teaching will be assessed by your ability to teach your 4th grade class of beginner ELLs to read and solve problems such as this one. They need to know all the elements involved here by January. Most of your ELLs read at a first or second grade level.

Your approach? Reaction?

It’s one thing to scaffold and teach the language needed to solve “problems like this”, but we all know the language per problem varies, often greatly. There is no shortcut of key words, though they can help; often it’s all we can teach as clues the students can hold onto. But it isn’t enough. I’m curious about your process or experience teaching math word problems to beginners.

I will provide my own suggestions and experiences of actually doing this as the lessons for this approach. Welcome to the new Common Core standards, friends.


Behind the 8-ball, under the gun, and out of wind

Yes, idioms really do concentrate so much, don’t they? Well, it’s just about the second week of school and I’m already excited that we have two extra days off before October. Not because I hate my job or even because I miss all the time I had during the summer to spend with my new daughter, but because hopefully by October I will be caught up with September.

School started with a bang, and much changed, as usual. To address our school’s needs in light of the new common core standards, we have two foci: taking on curriculum mapping, and raising the level of questioning. You would think I’d have seen this coming since my friends’ schools have been doing that for about two years or so now. (I don’t say that to suggest my school is behind; there are areas in which we are ahead of the game, too). Regardless, it means that the school is trying to transform how children are taught to engage with a subject. So far it all sounds very positive. But, as with all initiatives, good or bad, it really comes down to how the staff is trained and how it is implemented. I think doing something like this is a massive undertaking in any elementary school, and even more so in a school with 200 teaching personalities and styles, and 2,000 students. I would say that many teachers I know do already engage the children at higher levels of inquiry, but now the curriculum will help support more of that.

But that isn’t why I feel so pressured and behind. Teaching ELLs, you aren’t just planning the regular curriculum with a few extra vocabulary words thrown in. You have to plan every step how you are going to do what needs to be done — are you going to partner up the three Chinese kids because they can share your one chinese-english dictionary and they can help each other? Or do you want to challenge them to befriend others, despite the frustrated looks it will cause and the required additional teaching required? P

lus, it was only a few days ago that it was decided how I would teach math. Since I have a bridge class, there had to be some figuring out of time management as well as subject — how would I teach two separate grades their math curriculum without totally dismantling the rest of their daily subject requirements? Also, for whatever reason, I feel very out of the loop. Apparently it was passed via hearsay that our bulletin boards needed to be finished by Friday. When did I find out? 3PM Friday.

Yes, whenever I think I have finally gotten into a certain swing of things, something comes along and changes the rhythm.

Those days in September…

I was getting ready for work, listening to local news radio as I always did then. At the time, I was working at Court TV, so I was still at home in Brooklyn when the news first broke that a plane had hit one of the Towers. A caller from the Bronx said she had seen a low-flying plane and I imagined a small prop plane. So I walked into my living room to turn on the TV and my eyes focused on the smoking, gaping hole.

“How weird it will be going to work and seeing that hole,” I said to my then-boyfriend.

Not long after– we all know the minutes now — we heard a loud BOOM from outside. And then, on TV, we saw the second plane hit. We looked at each other, realizing then, just how close we were. How real it was. Newscasters were already talking about terrorists and I texted a Pakistani coworker and friend, telling him to stay home, worried how Americans might react toward him. What they might do.

My brother still worked just blocks from the towers, and I hoped he was still a late-riser and still at home.

My mother, on vacation in south Jersey, was calling me, and although I could hear her voice on the phone, she couldn’t hear me. Her worry, her yelling for my dad, scared I was at work, still in my ears.

“Wow. It’ll be weird seeing two holes…”

Then they started to fall.

Dust and papers covered my neighborhood. The names of companies and people who I’d later see on missing posters covered the ground all around me in pieces. Faxes, spreadsheets. Important work details now reduced to scraps.

I can’t remember much after that. I don’t know if it was then or the next day when we trekked over to Union Square, the furthest point south in Manhattan you could go at that point. We read each of the signs of the missing, and watched the melting candles that covered every inch of that park. Everyone’s eyes swollen and bloodshot. People talk about the silence that hovered over us those days, but there were also a lot of very passionate debates happening — about revenge, about blowback and Americans’ myopia, about what it meant now to be American, about seeing history happening and wanting to make good choices; all of us trying to make sense of what had happened and what was coming.

It was in that park that I met a man from Grenada who spoke to me about listening to a friend’s radio station go silent when the US invaded in 1983, and the sadness I felt suddenly compounded with those felt around the world. He said, “I will never forget that feeling, and I’m feeling it again today.” I now saw myself experiencing a pain that other people in so many other countries had felt, were feeling, and were feeling daily, even. My own sense of place and purpose in the world had now begun to unravel and the urgency I had long felt for change grew stronger. In that moment, the images from TV of people crying for us from around the world took on new meaning for me. America no longer lived in a bubble, free from the horrors seen elsewhere. Far, far away had now come home.

I’m not much into navel-gazing historical moments such as this but it struck me as strange to me to think my daughter will be as distanced from 9/11 as I am from the events of Pearl Harbor. I will tell her my story and her father will tell her how he tried to go donate blood but so many had already donated, they actually turned him away. And I will tell her the story of the man from Grenada, too. May we never forget the feeling so many of us had in those days of being one with the rest of the world.

Google Maps and a little understanding..

Just as i was picking up my kids for the first day of class, i was told that one of my new students, “Zhang”*, might need to be referred for special education testing because “he has been here since second grade but still doesn’t speak English”. I made a mental note to be aware of this teacher’s observation since it could mean so many different things.

When I was talking to the class later, they asked me what languages I speak. I told them English and Spanish, and I used to know Italian and Japanese. But I told them I love learning all languages and know a word or two in a few others, like Chinese.

I then noticed Zhang, turn to another Chinese student. I understood his tone of voice, body language which indicated derision, and I heard him say “ni hao”. So, I looked at him and, to his surprise, said, “Yes, Zhang, ‘ni hao’ is one of the phrases I know. As well as “xie xie”.

It was in that moment that I decided the issue of his not speaking English was likely not a reason for concern or testing. It appeared to be more about choice and perhaps anger and other emotions bound up in learning this new language when, it would seem, no one had bothered to learn his. I’m inferring a lot here, I know, but there were other indications. So I decided to get to know him better.

I asked another boy (who came to the US last year and told everyone his name was “Tom” but told me today he preferred his Chinese name, “Yao” when I asked), Wang, and Zhang to come to my desk. I pulled up Google maps and went to China. I asked where they were from. They seemed confused and since a lot of my students have come from Fuzhou, I asked if that’s where they were from. This got them talking and pointing and soon we were zooming into the map, looking at where they were each from. Yao was explaining to me how they were all from places near to each other, and by the water.

Not long after, Zhang started to talk to me, too. In English.

This is the kind of start to a school year I like.

(*no student names used on this blog are real)

A Toast to Fresh Starts

Few things are better than a fresh start. To come at something with new eyes, new lessons learned, and a chance to do things differently than before. It’s reinvigorating. And teachers get one every September; a chance to re-imagine everything from how you teach (to some extent), to how to decorate the room. The opportunities can be endless, if you look at the things you hope to do differently with an open mind. Not many professions offer that.

Tomorrow I return to the school I left in June to set up my classroom and start anew. To psych myself up, I spend weeks visualizing the space and how I want to do it differently, make it more efficient, and less of a drag on my psyche (nothing like massive amounts of paper to mar an otherwise good day), etc.

Ever year I have a different kind of class, not just different students, and this really demands that I be open to fresh starts (and some degree of chaos!). Some years it’s been filled with struggling long-term ELLs while other times it’s been filled with newcomers and students with significant gaps in their school history. This coming year, I am starting with nearly 30 students coming out of the bilingual classes, and it will, again, be a bridge class that combines two grades.

Some of what I plan to do differently incorporates what I found to be good practices from previous years as well as from learning from my mistakes or weaknesses, and books I am reading.

For one, rather than class rules, we will create class goals. I feel this allows for more positive discussions each day about whether we are meeting our goals and how to do so better, rather than checking who is following the rules.

Next, being an ESL class, there are two central items that determine it’s success: academic language acquisition and strong partner work. Students need time to talk but they need to know what language is useful to discuss in class. (I will soon post more on this for those who are looking for some guidance on how to do it). They also need to work well together so that sharing and re-teaching is beneficial and not random and haphazard with lots of reminders of how to be nice to each other. I feel projects that require partner work can make or break a class. So, as usual, I am planning daily partner work that incorporates academic language from day one. Set the standards really high and show the students what they are capable of from the get-go. My classes have always been very student-centered, with a lot of time for student talk, and choice, but it has not been as systematic and routinized as I’d like it to be so that it is, ideally, possible for prep teachers to be able to rely on that.

And finally, I’m going even more paperless than before. In addition to keeping my conference notes in google docs, I am going to use planbookedu for my schedule and plans (though I am such a furiously-write-ideas-in-the-margins kind of person, so typing will take getting used to for that). The only problem is I tend to plan on the train often, and it doesn’t have an iphone app, so I will have to do it elsewhere and then add it later. Also, depending on the home Internet access situation of my students, I may use
Engrade. Anyone have experience with that and elementary students?

So, while I am trying to delay the loss of summer, and the priceless time I have been allowed to spend with my new daughter, I am psyched. Ready to meet the new challenges. Re-imagining the mini-world I get to create with my students, and preparing myself mentally for what is always a bumpy, messy ride.