Adventures in Guest Teaching

Info & Opinions, Fresh from the Trenches of Substitute Teaching

How to encourage persistence July 2, 2013

Sometimes, kids give up when a subject’s too hard.

Sometimes, we encourage that, even if we don’t mean to.

Several months ago, I read an NPR story which basically says that in the U.S., we compliment kids when they’re naturally good at something, whereas in some eastern cultures, children learn persistence is a mark of intelligence.

I believe it’s important to teach kids about metacognition, or the art of watching our own brains at work, so I sometimes share this story with students. Fourth-graders seem just about the right age for this, although it was also well received in a 3rd grade gifted class. Here’s the kid-friendly version:
3-d cube pic

Once upon a time, there was a man who wanted to be a teacher. So he graduated from high school and went to college. When you graduate from college, you get a bachelor’s degree. Then when you go to school some more to get a master’s degree or a doctorate, this is called grad school.

So this man was in grad school and he thought, “I’ve seen how we teach school in America, but I wonder how they teach school in other countries.” 

He got on a plane, flew over the ocean and went to Japan. One day he was sitting in a classroom of fourth-graders, just like you guys, and the teacher was teaching kids how to draw a 3-dimensional cube (at this point, I draw a 3-D cube on the board).

For some kids, it was easy. For other kids, it took a little longer, but they got it. But there was one boy who tried and tried but still just couldn’t get it.

The teacher made that boy go up to the board and stay there until he could figure out how to draw the cube.

The man started sweating, and worrying. He thought, “Oh no, this boy must be so embarrassed. What if he starts to cry, or the other kids make fun of him?”

But the boy didn’t cry.

He stood there and tried, and tried, and tried, and tried, and tried, until …. (hushed, dramatic pause…) he finally figured it out.

And guess what? All of the other kids started clapping for the boy, they were so proud that he did it!

So the man started to understand that in America, when we’re naturally good at something, sometimes our parents and our teachers say, “Good job!” or “You’re so smart, you figured that out right away!”

And that’s great! We all love to hear that, right?

But in Japan, you show you’re smart when you keep trying and trying at something that’s hard for you. That’s called persistence, or resilience.

So we all have things that we’re naturally good at ─ that’s one way we’re smart ─ and we all have things that we have to work really hard at. When we keep trying and trying until we get it, we show we’re smart that way too.

It always surprises me how kids respond to this story. It’s new information for them (just like it was for me the first time I read it), but it doesn’t go over their heads. Many times it motivates them to keep on trying.

I had one fourth-grade class in particular who took this to heart so much it nearly made me cry.

My day with this class started on a chaotic note.

I was subbing for a 4th-grade math/science teacher. His wife, a 5th-grad teacher, was supposed to drop off his lesson plans and worksheets. The kids were already streaming into the classroom when she arrived, breathlessly apologizing and explaining she’d had car trouble.

I’m pretty sure those math worksheets were duplicates of ones meant for her 5th-graders, because all the 4th-graders looked confused, saying they’d never done this kind of math before. I explained a few fundamentals and although they tried, I could see they were a little frustrated. It was at this point I shared the story about persistence.

After hearing the story, those kids kept trying and trying, and pretty soon, some of them got it. But what really yanked at my heart was this: Several kids actually asked to stay in at recess to work on it some more!

Anyone who’s ever subbed knows there are lots of discouraging moments, but this stands out as a keeper. Not all students respond this way, of course, but I figure that if it motivates just a few to keep trying, it’s worth it.

Here’s the link to the original NPR story, “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning,” (Alix Spiegel, Nov. 12, 2012).

What stories do you tell your classes? Please share your comments!


Flip-flop learning June 29, 2013

Just a heads-up, this post  has nothing to do with flipped classrooms where homework is done first. We’re literally talking about footwear here.

Old Navy has been blasting commercials about their $1 flip-flop day, so I thought this would be a good time to share a reading project we did with my nieces during a 10-day reading frenzy we called Cousin Camp.

OK, so substitute teachers are probably not going to buy armloads of flip-flops for their classes, at least not with what they pay subs around here. But this just might be fun if you tutor kiddos over the summer.

I already had alphabet beads on hand, so we came up with summer-themed phrases that would fit on flip-flops.

In this case, my niece strung together “She sells seashells by the sea shore.” (For spacers, any plain beads will do. We used some glow beads purchased so long ago I don’t remember where…maybe at Joann or our local Meijer store?)

The girls strung the beads on clear plastic cording, then I hot-glued them to the shoes. I would change both of these steps if we ever did this project again.

For one thing, it’s better for children to be as hands-on as possible with the project, instead of having to watch during the long, tedious glue gun process.

In addition, the hot glue was messy and didn’t land where I wanted it. I had to take extra cording and wrap (and glue) the bead strand around the flip-flop bands. This meant the glue blobs and cording that ended up underneath would rub their feet, so I cut foam pieces and glued them to the bottom of the bands.

If there is a next time, I’d simply have the girls string beads with a needle and thread. I’m sure they could handle this but of course, it depends on the child’s age, personality and abilities. Be sure to check the bead strand against the flip-flop bands to ensure it fits. You may have to add more spacers, or pick a phrase with fewer or shorter words, depending on your bead size.

I wouldn’t use the glue gun again, either. Instead, I’d find a good craft glue, such as The Ultimate, by Crafter’s Pick. While I haven’t used this myself, the description and reviews sound promising, and I see this is sold at stores such such as Hobby Lobby too. Not only will this be less messy, it sounds as if it will hold the bead in place upon contact, but not dry so quickly that you can’t adjust it. Note: I recommend gluing the middle spacer bead first, then working backward.

This is a fun, practical and manageable project, but if you have the time and some old flip-flops, I’d recommend practicing first.

As for the educational aspect, clearly a student won’t exhibit dramatic progress after one project.

My aim was simply to get reading on the kids’ radar, so the girls would start seeing fun reading opportunities everywhere they look, from cereal boxes to billboards to footwear. Sure, when someone asks what their shoes say, they’ll have the phrase memorized. But it’s still a visual reminder of the sounds “e” makes, different ways to spell the long “e” sound, and some consonant blends.

The flip-flop project was just one fun Cousin Camp activity to bolster the girls’ reading skills. We also wrote books and plays, did daily reading treasure hunts, music and TV contestant-style games, cooked, played with clay, made puppets and other crafts, and of course enjoyed lots of engaging books. I hope to post more about these activities over the summer.

Writing about this has got me wondering if this could be used to practice math facts, if I could find number beads. Hmmm….

What are your thoughts and ideas on this project? Please post your comments here!    


Getting 2nd Graders to Talk Out Math Challenges: The joy of ‘aha’ moments January 27, 2013

When a student’s face lights up with understanding, it’s pure joy. Especially for guest teachers, whose “aha” moments may be few and far between.

I’ve been privileged to glimpse a couple of these moments. It’s so great to see 2nd graders become more fluent in double-digit subtraction and regrouping, which can be challenging. In one of the 2nd grade classes, one little girl raised her hand and said, “Hey, this is a good math strategy!” Here’s the story:

Start with a quick sketch depicting the Ones and Tens as families who live next door to each other:

Subtraction regrouping families

Then point to the sketch while telling the story:

Once upon a time, there were two families who lived right next door to each other, the ONEs family and the TENs family. Both families loved eating apples and making treats from apples, such as caramel apples, apple dumplings, candy apples, all sorts of good things…mmm…

The ONEs family only had one apple tree. Sometimes the ONEs family members would go outside, look UP into their tree, and find out they didn’t have enough apples for everyone in the house. So they had to go next door and borrow some from the TENs family, who had lots of apple trees.

The TENs family was happy to share because they had lots of apples. In fact, they had so many apples that they collected baskets of apples. The TENs family always put 10 apples in each basket.

(Then hold up a drawing. OK, so it’s not picture perfect, it works!)

Drawing of 10 apples in a basket for subtraction apple story

When the TENs family talked about apples, they never talked about single apples, they always talked about BASKETS of apples. So the ONEs family had to learn the secret language of the TENs family so they could borrow apples. For example, when Mrs. Ones asked to borrow 1 from the TENs family, she knew she was borrowing one BASKET, which was really 10 apples. 

Now the stage is set and we go back to the ONEs and TENs house sketch and fill in a subtraction problem, such as 22 – 5.

So one day there were 5 people home at the ONEs house and they each wanted an apple. They went outside to their tree, looked UUUPPPPP into the tree, and saw there were only 2 apples. If there are 2 apples, can 5 people each have their own apple? (Students are shaking their heads no). So what do they have to do? They have to go next door and borrow from the TENs family, right? 

Remember, they are talking in the secret language of the TENs family. When they ask to borrow 1, how many apples are they really borrowing?

I hold up the basket picture and write the regrouped numbers in the roof of the house, e.g., 12 on the ONEs’ roof and 1 on the TENs’ roof. We continue with problems, getting slightly more complex as we go, e.g.   24 – 9;    30 – 11;  46 – 27;   etc.  Once students start catching on, throw in subtraction problems that don’t require borrowing or regrouping, such as 24 – 3 ;  20 – 0 ;  42 – 1 ; etc.

Be sure to talk it out, asking questions such as “how many people are in the ONEs house?” and “where do they look to find out how many apples are in their tree?” (UP!), “how many apples do they have?” and “do they have enough apples or do they need to borrow some?” The questions target when to borrow and regroup and when not to, along with where to find the starting point to solve the problem (the bottom number in the ones column).

The basket analogy reminds students that numbers in the tens column represent larger numbers and  to think through why they’re borrowing and regrouping. Seeing students talking  it out and quickly becoming versed in the strategy is heartwarming!

Of course, I understand that my role in students’ “aha” moments is small. Teachers invest so much time and effort in planting the seeds for such learning; my one-day role is doesn’t warrant major credit. Yet sometimes a fresh perspective is just what students need.

As a guest teacher, I’d love to hear from teachers and guest teachers on this.

  • Have you used similar stories that you’ve found successful?
  • Teachers, would you find it helpful for a guest teacher to use such stories in your classroom, if they shared a copy of the story with you?

All considerate, collaborative discussion is appreciated. Please share your thoughts!