COUNTDOWN TO SCHOOL KICKOFF

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Retail & wholesale advertising suggests the new school year kickoff is just days away with limited time remaining to make those last minute purchases of backpacks, binders, pens, pencils and all the various fresh new supplies. I know as child I loved the look and smell of those neatly arranged colorful crayons in my very own Crayola box. A new first day of school outfit always got my children excited for their first day on which they woke early and dressed without nagging, slipped their well stocked heavy backpacks on without complaint and traipsed happily off to the school bus in their spanking new sneakers.

By the end of the first week, enthusiasm began to diminish exponentially in the weeks that followed. The alarm rang too early, the backpacks were too heavy, the lunches “sucked” and the bus ride made them nauseous.

I believe one root to the declining attitude is routine, what kids often refer to as BORING.  7 AM alarm, bus, school, home, snack, homework, dinner, showers, bed. All to begin again the next day. So what can we parents and educators do as partners to keep the enthusiasm alive?While every day cannot be the first with all the fresh new supplies and the excitement of new teachers, we can try to help prevent the boredom associated with routine.

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Here are my 5 tips to happy school days.

  1. Set Goals. Ask your children to set 3 goals for themselves (one academic, one social and one athletic) to be achieved in the first quarter of the year (approx. 10 weeks). Mark the date of the end of the first quarter on your calendar, so they can see the end in site. These goals need to be realistic but challenging. While working toward straight A’s may be unrealistic, improving grades from the previous year in just one subject may be quite doable. Just as joining a social club may not fit every personality, finding one new friend may be just right for another. And while everyone is not athletically gifted, everyone can add one form of physical exercise to their daily activities. Think about these goals with your children and how each one might be achieved. Have them write these goals down, seal them in an envelope and tape the envelope to the inside of the their binders as a reminder. At the end of the quarter open that envelope. See how well they did and set new goals for the next quarter.
  2. Refresh supplies & save work.
    Every week or two, clean out those backpacks stuffed with loose papers, gum wrappers and broken pencils. Discard the unnecessary clutter. Replace those once beautiful crayons with a fresh box and those pencil stubs with new ones. Give your child a fresh clean folder to save favorite work and a special place to keep it.
  3. Change up the morning routine. At home try breakfast in bed, or special breakfast 4ibogkpbtday, a surprise sleep in a bit longer day and drive the kids to school. At school plan special days: pajama day, dress as book character day, inside out day, riddle days with solutions revealed at lunchtime.
  4. Change up the after school routine. Think about after school special treats: ice cream, bowling, skating, library visit, movies, etc. Make it a surprise or something to look forward to. Whatever will keep your child excited.
  5. Reward! Discuss what’s being done to help achieve those goals. Reward even the smallest steps forward. Reminder: There is nothing children want more than to please their parents and to be loved unconditionally. Recognize the challenge of achieving their goals and show them your pride in their efforts.

JAKE PULLMAN & THE MAGICAL TIMER

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With an organization plan set in place, and time management under control, Jake and I embark on my third and final element to success – focus time.

By now I have learned that reading is most fatiguing for Jake. And because it is slow and arduous, his attention drifts easily. While his parents are complaining of the number of hours spent on homework, I can see the number of hours lost fruitlessly staring at pages while his thoughts are somewhere else. What we need is a new plan, something I never run short of.

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Today when Jake I met I suggested we begin by reviewing the night’s reading assignment, quickly scanning the first 20 pages of Gary Paulsen’s novel Hatchet. Then while setting my stop watch, I asked Jake to read only until he felt his attention drift. After ten minutes, I saw his eyes lift from the book and follow a squirrel running through the yard.

“Stop,” I told him and slipped the book from his hands. When I saw he had read only seven pages, I knew there was room for improvement, but I was pleased, when checking, to find his comprehension was good.

“Okay, this is great,” I told him, but his raised eye brows spoke doubt of my encouragement. “No really, it’s really good. You can finish this assignment in only 20 more minutes if we break it up into two more reading segments. In between, you can have a snack, shoot some baskets, or play an active game, just no video games or texting.”

He welcomed the plan, but added, “My parents will never buy this.” They like many parents, want him sit until all his work is done.

I understood this concept. I was raised on it and have heard the same complaint from too many of my students. But if I could show the Pullmans that Jake would be done with his work at a reasonable hour following this plan, I was hopeful they’d buy into it as so many other parents have.

There’s something magical about working with a timer. It helps keep students focused and even when they drift, it’s only to check the timer, which with it’s diminishing count down, always reinforces the return to the task. With Jake it was no different. He was able to complete the reading with relative ease and maybe even some enjoyment.

As we continue to work together in the next few weeks, we’ll begin to adjust the timer upward until Jake reaches an age appropriate attention level. Because I like to encourage student decision making, in the future I ‘ll always ask Jake to decide the number of reading segments and number of minutes to set on the timer.  I’ve found the the beauty of this method is students like to challenge themselves increasing their focus time  without much if any encouragement from me. Here’s hoping Jake follows the pattern.

 

Note: All characters are fictitious and resemblance to anyone is purely coincidental. 

THE JAKE PULLMAN STORY CONTINUED

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CHAPTER 4 – Our First Session – Organization

I arrived 5 minutes early, excited to get started with Jake. The doorbell chime was followed by none of the chatter I heard on my initial evaluation visit, only silence. I waited and rang again. Still nothing. A bit disappointed, I reached for my cell phone and dialed Jake’s phone. Yes, he has his own cell phone. An issue I might have to address at a later time, but now I just needed to find him. I knew his parents were at work and the little brothers were not home either. Through the side glass door panel I could see Jake come through the basement doorway with his phone in hand and a warm smile on his face.

“Sorry,” he said pulling open the door. “I already finished my homework, so I was down the basement.” I knew this was code for playing video games but chose to reserve that conversation for a later time as well. I wanted to begin on a positive note.

“Great,” I told him. “Let’s get started then.” I suggested he bring along the backpack he was about to step over and headed toward the kitchen.

“Okay, but I told you I already did my homework,” his voice trailed behind me.

Glad he had picked up the bag without  further discussion, but I made another mental note. On the table were the same papers I’d pushed aside three weeks earlier with some additional junk mail, children’s drawings and old school work scattered about. No indication of a family dinner enjoyed there yet. Another note to self.

Like Mary Poppins with her bottomless satchel, I began slowly pulling out supplies while trying to maintain a casual conversation, but with each new item, Jake wanted to know, “What’s that for?” I just smiled and held up a hand encouraging him to wait while I kept the conversation going.

Finally, after sufficient enticement, I was ready to begin. I explained to Jake there are three essentials to building success, Organization, Time management, and Focus Time. Today the plan was to direct our attention to Organization.

Moving my supplies to the side, I asked Jake to show me his completed homework. He didn’t know I had already checked the online assignment board and was up to date with his progress. He pulled his broken zipper binder from his overstuffed backpack and began rummaging through a variety of miscellaneous papers stuffed haphazardly inside, all the time trying to assure me, or himself, what he was looking for was there. Finally, he paused remembering he’d left the homework paper inside his math book which was in his locker since the work was done at school.

“Uh huh, (silent note to self) and the vocabulary assignment?”
“Oh, I just saw that. Wait.” And he began rifling through the papers once again. “Yup, here it is!” He proudly held up the wrinkled, illegibly written paper with no name, date, assignment title, nothing.

“And how do you know that’s it?” I couldn’t help but ask. Remembering Jake’s struggle with penmanship from the writing sample he had written for my evaluation, I reserved comment on legibility until I was ready to focus on that.

“Cause I just did it.”

I slid a green two pocket folder in front of him and shared my favorite mantra: “Organization is the key to success. Say hello to this green folder. It’s going to be your new best friend, so take good care of it and take it with you wherever you go in school and back home again.” This was to be his homework folder. All handout assignments were to go inside the left pocket and finished work inside the right pocket. With some reluctance he accepted the idea and labeled each pocket, In and Out. Then he filed his vocabulary assignment on the right side and chose to keep the folder in the front pocket of his binder that he brought to every class and home every day.

Encouraged by his good decision making, my reward of praise was accepted with a broad proud grin on his face.

Next, while unfurling a large, blank month-at-a-glance calendar, I reminded Jake of my mantra: Organization is the key to success. I wanted him to eventually hear those words in his sleep. With some guidance from me, he was able to fill in the calendar noting sports practices and games, appointments, tests and a long term projects. I noticed signs of writing fatigue – the stretching of fingers between adding new words to the calendar. Another mental note of something to address at the appropriate time, but not now. We chose a good place to hang and the calendar where he would see it every day and be able to add to it as new items arose.

“Great job!” I high-fived him, and his smile told me we were building the necessary bond to help make my plan successful. Jake was happy to take a short break before I introduced our final activity for the day. We played three rounds of Jenga, and although he was good, he was not yet able to beat the “Jenga champion of Bethesda.” I like to play fair and make students rise to a challenge, and I think Jake appreciated that too.

Last item for the day. I asked Jake if he’d mind helping me get some things from my car. Happy to help he followed me outside and together we dragged three large cardboard boxes up to his bedroom. The door was closed and he was reluctant to open it. I assured him I was ready for the worst, and it was a good thing I was. The room looked like a hurricane passed through with the windows left open! Clothes, papers, books, dishes encrusted with dried up pizza filled the floor. The bed was buried beneath an avalanche of clothes and sports equipment, and I wondered where he slept, but again reserved comment. Instead I asked him to repeat my mantra which  he instantly fed back to me through some laughter.

Organization is the key to success. Guess I got a ways to go.”

“Sure do, but that’s what I’m here for. We’ll begin at the door and you can do a little each day until everything is in order.” To start, all he had to do was separate the items into the three boxes. One was for items to keep in his room, another for the things that belonged elsewhere in the house, and the third was for trash. That seemed doable to him and we started the task together. Once we had a path down the center of the room, we looked back to study our progress. Once again I congratulated him. But now it was his job to get the rest cleared before I returned on Thursday (3 days later). He was fairly confident he could manage on his own and was even excited to surprise his mom when it was all done.

Finally, we returned to the kitchen, added RC, code for room cleaning to the calendar each day. I made some written notes including items to be addressed at later meetings (cell phone, video game time, family dinners, binder, backpack, written assignment headings, and handwriting) And I  packed up my materials while Jake packed up his and set the backpack beside the front door, ready to go the next morning.

It was a good day. We had made good progress and parted friends.

HOW TO INCREASE STUDENT ATTENTION SPAN

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How long can we expect a student stay focused?

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If your students start looking like the one above or like this, you know you have surpassed that student’s attention span.

Studies have shown that students stay focused anywhere from 5 – 30 minutes before their minds begin to wander. The usual 45 – 60 minute scheduled class period need not be considered too long if used effectively.

Tips for teachers to help students maintain focus and retain information.

  1. Prior to class write down your goals. What is it you want the students to come away with from this class period? (i.e. What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?)
  2. List key words on the board related to your discussion topic (i.e. roots, leaves, photosynthesis, flowers, pollen, ovules, fruit, seeds, pollination). Explain that students should write these terms in their notebooks as each one is introduced in the lecture and add important details as they are explained.
  3. Mark a check next to each term as you finish discussing it.
  4. Lecture for 10-20 minutes (adjust time depending upon student age and focusing ability)before pausing to get student responses. Ask questions to be sure students are grasping the content and have recorded enough details for their later reference (when preparing for a test).
  5. Take a 5 minute break. Students should be encouraged to get up, walk around, get something to drink, etc. As the teacher, you may even lead the class in a stretching exercise.
  6. If time allots repeat step 4.
  7. Leave time to summarize and ask questions to ensure you have reached your goal.  (i.e. Hold up a tomato, stalk of celery, a carrot, etc.  Call on different students to identify fruits or vegetables. Ask another to explain where plants get energy to produce food for growth? What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?)

While you might not complete the explanation of all the terms you have listed on the board, you will feel more confident that the students have remained focused and taken away the information you wanted to impart. There’s always tomorrow to continue.

Good luck! And please share your comments, questions and suggestions.

Next post: Thursday, October 22, 2015