middle school

Discipline: training that perfects the mental faculties

Ten Skills Every Student Needs and You Probably Don’t Have Time to Teach
by National Hall of Fame Teacher Alan Haskvitz


After 40 years of teaching there comes a time when you want to just yell at the curriculum designers and textbook publishers that they have the cart before the horse. Teachers need to be allowed to spend more time teaching students how to learn and less on preparing for a test which measures nothing applicable in the real world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that every teacher would love to really teach students how to get ready for the challenges ahead of them and use the curriculum as a stepping stone to that goal. Over the years my students always were at the top in the State in terms of standardized testing. Indeed, some of them had perfect scores. The problem was I was teaching them how to take the test. Fortunately, I as able to shorten the material required for the course by removing those elements I though were essentially chaff so that I could teach them essential skills. Essentially, I started by teaching them how to discipline themselves. This worked so well that I still get letters from students, some decades after they were in my class, thanking me for teaching them for life. I have never gotten a letter thanking me for teaching them the Monroe Doctrine.

Here is the list and it far from complete, which are skills that need to be taught. Feel free to comment and add your own.

Learning how to Learn

Developing a love for learning is essential for any educator. It is the most important lesson a teacher can impart to a student and it is also the most difficult. A teacher may have to face a variety of hindrances from lack of parental care, nutritional and emotional problems, and even severe mental concerns. Regardless, there needs to be an effort and the best way is to become a facilitator by prodding, motivating, and providing a diverse array of learning materials to challenge the student to learn for themselves. Most often the textbook, frequently filled with data with little relevance to the student, is the main focus of instruction. And, perhaps, that is the way it must be if the goal is a test that measures improvement in the acquisition of this data. The teacher can feel confident as he or she has covered the material by sticking to the textbook. Motivational, hardly, but that is how teachers are frequently judged. There is another way to do this, but it is time consuming and requires a multitude of rubrics. Providing a variety of materials and having the students learn from them is an arduous task. However, once it is done a teacher can spend the rest of years modifying, adding, and individualizing lessons to meet the needs of the students. ReachEveryChild (cited below) provides a variety of sources for this free material and is an excellent place to start individualization.

The second part of learning how to learn based on whether the student is an auditory, visual or kinetic learner and how to use these to their advantage. It is impossible for a teacher to use all of these methods when presenting lessons, but a student can create their own lessons to help them acquire the knowledge. In my classes I have students create poems, songs, graphic organizers and the Cornell note taking system. In this way there is a variety of methods for them to learn. I insist they use my linking and three transfer method of learning as well. The linking method makes them link what they are learning to other things they have learned and create a “learning tree” of it that they add to throughout the year. The three transfer method is to have students read the material, take notes on it, and transfer that material to another mode such as notecards. I also recommend presenting the answer to a question and have them supply the question. This is an excellent test of finding out what they know. It can be used in all subjects.

What is Valid

If you have time, giving the student a variety of short articles to read and asking them to figure out what would be the best way to judge this material is very worthwhile. This process should also include a study of the various types of propaganda, how to evaluate a website for bias, and stereotyping. That is a lot to swallow and so it is best as part of a school-year long program. If you are teaching social studies an ideal unit could be the differences of opinion between the South and the North about slavery. Learning how to learn is not just about the acquisition of skills, but for the student to acquire the ability to judge the material. One of the best tools to get students to read is Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four. As the students read the article they keep track of the characters and reach various conclusions as the teacher hands them the next page. The lesson makes them detectives, but more importantly allows them to learn for life. Seldom are we giving all the answers, but we must make decisions by what we know and judge what is valid.

Speed Reading, not just reading.

It isn’t any secret that the first basic skill is reading. But not just reading, but speed reading. Close reading will follow much more quickly if students can learn how to read rapidly. Reading for facts and reading for pleasure can both be more enjoyable if a student acquires the ability to focus on several words at one time. I taught second graders how to read over a 1000 words per minute at their grade level. The usual improvement was always 200 to 400 words per minute more and this was for language arts and social studies materials. Interestingly the comprehension improves as the speed level doubles as the student concentrates on the material. It is a win-win, but it most be reinforced until it becomes a habit and it takes at least 30 days for it to become a habit. Be warned that some students are resistant to it and so online speed reading sites can help them challenge themselves at their own rate.

Write at Grade Level +

The first thing on teaching a student to write is to explain the types of writing based on the purpose. Taking notes while on the phone or writing a compare and contrast essay may be different in length, but the ingredients are the same. However, for longer works you need to teach the student to write at grade level. I have the students write a one page paper on their favorite vacation either real or imagined. Next, I have them underline all the one syllable words. After that they circle any word that they have not known since primary school. The Fry Formula is applied and the students record their writing scores. They is always silence as the students realize that they are writing at several grades below grade level. Now, that isn’t necessarily bad, but it does force them to expand their vocabulary and that is good. I always have a few Thesaurus books on hand and show them how to use them. The results are immediate and the students not only improve their writing, but improve their thinking and organizational skills as well as they strive to improve. My article (citation below) provides an in-depth look at this successful practice that has enabled my students to win numerous writing competitions.

Teach Them to be Journalist

This vital profession is based on training that every student needs. The ability to communicate, to judge facts, and to influence others with their work. There is no other profession that is so vital for students to learn from because it is essentially what they are going to do nearly every day of their life. A good journalist seeks out evidence and judges it. They write using the who, what, when, where, why, and how approach. They use the inverted triangle that helps them organize facts. Finally, it teaches them to be curious and ask questions and, very importantly, take good notes.

Teach Them to be Lawyers

Perhaps, oversimplifying, but lawyers earn them living by researching and providing evidence that their cause is correct. This requires an examination of evidence and organization. This is another valuable trait that can help students of all ages. For example, was George Washington was a good president? Can you prove it? Can you provide evidence that he was not so good? Some may call this critical thinking, but that type of thinking can not really be utilized until a student is able to have a variety of experiences that enable them to make a critical decision. Thus using the basic skills of an attorney in proving a point and providing evidence to that end are skills they are going to need to write essays persuasive and expository essays and in life.

Be Accountable

At the beginning of the school year I ask the students to look around the room and, without naming names, tell me how many other students they would hire to work for them based on the knowledge that they wanted good workers. After that I ask them to write that number down, fold the paper, and place it in a basket. I take out the numbers and place them on the board to come out with an average. In almost every case it is ten percent of the students or less. That means that the others already have a reputation of not being good workers. The reason for this is that many students simply do not hold themselves accountable. Immediate gratification, poor parenting, the need for quick teacher assessment with little assessment of the assessment, all help feed a “who cares” mentality. This results in large scale cheating with little fear of consequence. Research has overwhelming shown that rewards must be intrinsic to be a lasting value. If students are to be held accountable there must be a reward system that works and entices parent buy-in.
People Skills

We aren’t talking about cooperative learning, we are talking about the ability to get along with others regardless of differences. We are talking about good manners, social skills, negotiating skills, and the ability to work together to create a common goal. Skills as basic as how to talk to people on the phone, how to ask permission, or even showing remorse or concern are missing and yet vital for life.

Handling Emergencies
Handling emergencies is also seldom taught at school. Yes, fire drills are held, but what value are they to the student when a fire really occurs elsewhere? My students wrote and had published in the American Fire Journal the problems with school fire drills in the hopes of enlightening others. School administrators essentially ignored it because it wasn’t an area to be tested. Sad, because the issues the students brought up were important. For example, why does the fire extinguisher stay in the room during a fire drill? Why do the students stand up in rows when an explosion could knock them over? Who knows where the dangerous chemicals are? What do the various colored helmets that firemen wear mean? Needless to say, handling emergencies is a vital skill. Why doesn’t every student know CPR? How to stop bleeding? Or to identify a person having a “fit” and knowing how to act? Taking this a step further, how to teach students not to panic and to learn how to identify people should be taught. But, who has the time?

Skills for life

Setting realistic goals, identifying propaganda and bias, budgeting time, operating a computer and touch typing, triage work assignments, handling money and investments, observation skills, where to find information and measure its accuracy, and learning how to listen can all be incorporated in the curriculum. Each of these carry lifelong importance and all can and have been taught within the curriculum if there is time. There are free units of study on almost all of these areas available. The teacher needs to be given the time and flexibility to personalize them for their class.

Before I get off my high horse I must add one more thing and that is for the student to learn how to be happy. My friend Larry Martz, an editor with Newsweek, wrote in his book Making Schools Better, about the small bite principle. This is a simple plan where small strides can result in large gains. An educator who just takes one of these ideas to heart could make a huge difference knowing well that it is at least as significant as anything on a standardized test.

Why Students Cheat

Making Schools Better

Car Rating Site

Government fuel economy site

How to Improve Student Writing

Student speed reading lessons
There are others

Using the Inverted Triangle

Fire Safety and Bulletin Boards: What is the Law?
By Alan Haskvitz
National Teachers Hall of Fame
For more free education news go to http://reacheverychild.com/blog/2014/not-so-secret-formula-improves-writing

Sadly, one of the great traditions of most classrooms are paper decorations. Sometimes, these are even hung from the ceilings as well as available walls. The reason that it is sad is for two reasons. First, it is probably against the law. Secondly, teachers have probably spent a great deal of their time and own money to decorate the bulletin boards. Making the classroom meet fire regulations does not mean it has to be without decoration if the teacher uses fire retardant materials that meet the fire code. With the emphasis on quality the postings l should relate to the current topic or items used throughout the year such as steps to writing an essay, classroom rules, or how to solve an equation postings. Again, unless the student has done the work on fire resistant paper it must fall within the fire regulations in terms of space allowed for such postings.

Another area of concern is upholstered furniture in the classroom. It is not recommended unless it has been treated. Open flames are also a concern. I have seen many classrooms where the teacher has tried ot make the room more user friendly and placed sofas so that the students could have a more home-like atmosphere to read or work. Unless these have been teated these may be illegal, according to the fire code.

One of my most popular blogs was a listing of how to decorate bulletin boards with photos from teachers around the country. You can still see many teachers who have posted them on sites such as Instagram or Pinterest. Take a long look at these and you can see how talented teachers, but also remind yourself that a bulletin board must be legal. I am not telling you to tear down your bulletin boards, I am providing you with the law and you need to check with your administrator to see if it is the same in your community.

I don’t want to be a kill-joy about this issue and some teachers have voiced their concerns:
But the reality is that safety is the overriding concern and there is still space allowed for decorations. This district uses 20 percent as a legal figure http://www.kimberly.edu/index.php/staff-resources/161-classroom-safety.html

Here are some sites that I recommend you or your administrator check. Please note this posting:
“Flammable material coverage. No more than 25% of any wall in a classroom shall be covered with a flammable material. In a corridor there may be only a 4 foot by 8 foot section of a corridor wall covered, with a 50 foot separation of wall space between each section.”

Making it Acceptable

Despite this there may be a way to make your classroom acceptable to the Fire Marshall. It is called fire-retardant chemicals or paper. Of course, you need to check with an administrator who needs to check with the fire officials, but it could make your bulletin boards compliant. Naturally there is a cost which, hopefully, the district should absorb. There are also variety of fire retardant paper that can be used.

Or you can try and make fire resistant paper yourself.I have not done this so you are on your own.

Fire Restrictions on Classrooms

A school district site with a listing of fire rules

This is a listing of rules for various states and includes rules on door locking.
Most of these links are printable.

Warnings about upholstered furniture in classrooms and more

From North Carolina

Here is a list of ways to get most out of legal bulletin board space

Apps that protect students for schools and parents
by Alan Haskvitz

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse depending on its usage. The problem is that teachers/parents can’t always be there when the decision between the good and evil sites and messages are being utilized. With that in mind here are a list of some of those sites that provide this service. Some have a charge and others are free. The partial list below provides insights into what is available, but is no means complete. However, these might be a good starting point. Prices range from free to over $12 a month, depending on the type of coverage you want for your family. Always check to see if these sites cover both cell phone, tablet, and home use. Some sites can use GPS tracking and other services such as blocking of callers. Take your time reviewing each of these and always check the contract carefully. Teachers should also ask the technology department what blockers they use. Remember that students may be able to access the school server with their cell phones which can eat up bandwidth, especially if they are downloading large files. Please note that this list is just for information and is not meant to convey our approval and that prices can vary.

Covenant Eyes
Internet Accountability  tracks websites you visit on your computers, smart phones, and tablets, and sends them in an easy-to-read report to someone you trust.

Amber Safety
To provide parents with state-of-the-art, easy-to-use tools that help them protect their kids from threats online, at home, at school or anywhere they might go.

Phone Sheriff
PhoneSheriff allows the blocking of certain functions of the phone or tablet at certain times of each day. “For example you can tell the software to lock the phone or tablet every night at 8:00 pm until 8:00 am or whatever hours you choose. On smartphones you can choose to lock the entire phone or you can lock just the ability to make calls while the other functions of the phone remain operable.”

Open DNS
OpenDNS has parental controls that empower parents to manage Web access across every device that accesses the Internet on your home network. This includes phones and computers that your kids’ friends bring into the house and more.

App Certain
This service is free and includes features such as a remote curfew mode as well as an analysis of apps.

Norton Family Parental Control
This is a $50 service that enables you to check what kids are doing online, sets limits of computer time, and can monitor mobile devise activity and more. Check for a free version. http://us.norton.com/norton-family-premier/

K-9 Browser
K9 Web Protection is a free Internet filter and parental control software for your home Windows or Mac computer. K9 puts YOU in control of the Internet so you can protect your kids. . http://www1.k9webprotection.com/

Mobile Watchdog
Mobile Watchdog monitors cell phone activity on Android devices — text messaging, application use, and browsing use. The app may be capable of sending usage emails.

This site has several packages and a variety of safety features. It monitors contacts with friends, pictures and posts on social networks.

For more free materials go to http://reacheverychild.com/blog/2014/prevention-apps-provide-help-when-you-cant-be-there

Middle School Brains: Teaching the Distracted

by Alan Haskvitz


Middle School help sites


The middle school years are very interesting in that students are making that difficult transition into adulthood while still being confined and confused by their minds and bodies. These easily distracted students are all the more difficult to reach because their brains are allegedly going through a brain spurt and they are also dealing with the onslaught of puberty.

Despite the physical and metal challenges the research does provide some insights and recommendations that can help clarify the teacher’s challenge.

There appears evidence that teenager’s who exercise their synapses more keep what they have learned better. Any teacher or parent who has dealt with a middle schooler clearly knows that their brain is not only a work in progress, but one that at times to appear to be regressing.

An interesting study by Dr. Judith Rapoport found that there was a fresh growth in the brain for girls at age 11 and boys a year later. Of note is the possibility that students have a more difficult time learning new languages after this development has taken place, which is prior to high school. In other words, middle school would be a better time for a second language program to be instituted.

As for emotions, middle school age students in a study done at McLean Hospital, reacted strongly to facial emotions instead of using a more mature, reasoned reaction. In other words, these young teens might be quicker to anger when exposed to stimuli that older students would ignore.

Since the prefrontal cortex, the area that deals with moods and control, is the the last region of the brain to mature, usually around age 18, those things that the student does most are the ones that are going to stay with him or her longest. So teachers are going to be competing for brain space with music, sports, and whatever else is rattling around in the teenager’s brain. Thus it is important to eliminate distractions in the classroom as a way to improve retention of data. Equally important is the need for teachers to retain the middle schooler’s attention by using the senses and emotions and asking thought provoking questions. Encouraging the students to use a variety of ways to solve a problem also helps build memory.

Here are some additional strategies that work with young teenagers. Develop integrated lessons that have a multitude of possible answers. Connect what is being taught to the student’s personal life and making lessons relevant. Understand that stress is treated differentially be males and females. Males seem to enjoy the challenge and females tend to show negative results in similar situations. Games and other competitive strategies should be used, but not overused.

Here are eight steps to creating middle school related lessons based on experience and brain based publications:

First, research from the federal government indicates that students remember material best when it is given in small amounts and repeated at later intervals.

Secondly, listening to music has never proven to improve study skills or memory. Indeed, research has shown that the brain cannot multitask. It can listen to music for a second and switch back to reading, but not at the same time. Although I have heard of some Gregorian chants having a positive effect, the research seems to indicate that using music in the classroom and at home while studying does not appear to have a positive impact on learning.

Third, active learning where the student participates in the process either by presenting or taking part in an activity is highly favored by most teenagers. But be aware the peer pressure is very dominate at this time. Thus having a teen working with those who are not motivated or do not honor work can reflect poorly on a child’s likelihood for success. Peer pressure is of more value to a teenager than a teacher or parent on the whole. That is why it is so important to check on their friends both in person and online.

Next, I use a form of teaching called linking. This means that any new information presented to a child must be linked to previously learned material before it can be considered mastered. I use a drill called three transfers which requires that the student use the information in three different ways. For example, any new fact can be made into a poem, put on a card, used as a mnemonic devise, told to a parent, by part of an art work, or written in code beside being used in their notes.

Drill and kill have been downplayed as good learning tools, but I disagree. They can be very comforting for some students when used within reason. Teens enjoy showing mastery of a subject and if that requires them to memorize a fair amount of information the challenge can be very invigorating. My students feel quite pleased with themselves when they know the 50 states and capitals and like to quiz each other on them. They feel a sense of accomplishment with such concrete forms of learning. However, this is not the best way to learn for those who have not developed the ability to control their concentration patterns. For those a more active approach is better such as creating songs and drawing large maps and labeling them.

Fifth, providing lessons and activities that require problem solving and critical thinking can provide for a better way to individualize and differentiate learning as it provides different styles of learners the opportunity to acquire knowledge. An active classroom is best and the use of a variety of methods is best. However, the recently published book by Daniel Willingham indicated that the brain was not really good at thinking without a substantial knowledge base. This book is a must read for teachers whether or not you agree with what he writes in Why Don’t Students Like School.

Sixth, students need to learn how to study. This requires routines and help in establishing organizational methods. In my class the first thing the students learn is how to study, organize, and develop study methods that best suit them. It is like coaching. You start with the basics.

Seventh, a student needs to understand the essence and importance of metacognition. In other words, knowing about knowing. The strategies for solving problems, evaluating how well that solution works, and having the stamina to complete the task are the basis of education and intellectual growth. A teacher who helps students develop the tools necessary to learn and apply what was learned has truly impacted the future. Especially, when those skills are broad and extend outside the reach of one subject area, which is domain general. Thus the middle school student needs to know both how to learn and how to evaluate if he or she has learned and how to correct weaknesses. That is why teachers who stress end of term or mid-term test over more frequent testing may be allowing to much time to pass between the evaluation of learning and the correction of errors.

Finally, perhaps the greatest need in teaching middle schoolers is “under-explaining.”The rise of the 64 count crayon coloring box from the basic eight and 16 reflects an interesting reflection on decision making for students. With fewer colors students learned how to use tints, tones, and shades of colors as well as mix new ones. With the advent of larger boxes of colors that need became one of choice and creativity pretty much was nipped. Like the small box of crayons, the simpler the assignment details the more the student can show what they have learned and be creative and personalize the learning more. Every teacher has heard the refrain, “How many sentences, words, pages, paragraphs?” This is essentially a request by the student to limit his or her thinking. That is why I recommend that assignments be more general with an an objective that can display the student’s acquired knowledge can be used correctly to identify what they know and offer the teacher an insight into what the pupil needs to learn.