6 Reasons I'll Never Go Paperless

      As we move farther into the 21st century, education in general is embracing more technology and for very good reasons. Compiling, storing, and sharing educational data has reached levels that I could only dream about when I began my career. Communication is far-reaching and instantaneous. Content can be presented to students in multiple formats and can be interactive. Student data can be sorted and filtered to created custom lessons and learning groups. There is no question that technology supports education in very positive ways.
     Along with technology comes the question that accompanies many new opportunities, that is, “How far can I take this?”. Some see this question as an exciting challenge: Let’s see just how far technology can take us and how we can harness it to achieve our goals. It’s a great question and often leads to new discoveries and tools.
     We certainly have not answered this question yet and we may never discover the limitations to what technology can do for us. Some educators have chosen to pursue a “paperless classroom” as one extension of this question. Their goal is to present content, provide practice, assess learning, record grades, and communicate all of this digitally. 

     While it’s certainly an interesting challenge, I believe the pursuit of a paperless classroom is misguided at best and actually harmful to students at worst.
     1. Unless every student that you teach has access to a device and wi-fi in school and at home, it’s not going to work. Teachers must accommodate families without devices and internet connections by providing a hard copy of every homework assignment, newsletter, and note. And in the classroom, you need to have 1-to-1 devices. If not, you’ll have rotating groups, some of which will have to be using paper and pencil. You then have one foot in each camp, paper and paperless, trying to meet the needs to two opposing systems.
     2. It’s impersonal. Many students need interaction with their teacher rather than learning over an interface. While there are certainly excellent interactive programs available – I’ve used many – they still lack the personal, specific give-and-take that you can only get when a student is with his/her teacher or another student.
     3. It’s only as reliable as today’s internet connection. If you put all of your eggs into the technology basket, when technology fails, so do your lessons. Lack of IT support is a huge stressor in the classroom. Having to prepare a back-up plan for every lesson can significantly increase a teacher’s workload.
     4. Research shows that the physical act of writing makes more and better brain connections than typing does. The act of writing by hand is slower and allows the student to think about the topic more deeply, where typing can lead to mindless transcription.
     5. Research also points out that it is more difficult to develop “cognitive mapping” on e-readers. Some paperless proponents do not include hard copy books in their goal. Other teachers want to access all of their texts through devices. With no physical books to page through, students lose opportunities to go back and forth in the text to find words and sections and to see the structure of the reading.
     6. It’s unbalanced. Pursuing a classroom with only technology is just as unbalanced as pursuing a classroom with no technology. I hesitate to embrace extremes. Extremes in anything tend to discount at least half of the population involved. In a paperless classroom, you lose the opportunity to address the varied and wide-ranging needs of your students.
     I suggest to teachers who are struggling with the paperless question to pursue their goal through the other meaning of “paperless”: instead of “no paper”, try “less paper”. Your school system has probably already eliminated a great deal of paper by having a digital record-keeping system for attendance and grades. Assuming you have adequate devices, learning to use learning platforms such as Google Classroom can significantly reduce the papers required for practice and assessment. I hope, though, that teachers never lose sight of the power of the hand-printed word, the influence of holding a book in one’s hand, or the impact of a lesson personally taught by a teacher.
     What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Growing Grade By Grade
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Funny Kid Stories: Let's Hear Yours!

     Every teacher has a million of them: kid stories that are funny, endearing, sometimes embarrassing, and always great memories! All you have to do is share one in a group of teachers and they're off - one story follows another.

     One of my favorites:
     My 5th grade class was studying the Civil War. Students were preparing to visit the library to research a topic they'd chosen to write about. One little boy gathered his materials, then stopped by my desk for a question.
Student: Mrs. McFadyen, how do you spell Eelee?
Me: (obviously puzzled) Ummmm...I'm not sure about that word. Can you use it in a sentence?
Student: You know, that general's last name - Robert Eelee! (Robert E. Lee)
      What are some of your favorite kid stories? Let's share!
Growing Grade By Grade
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The Math Misconception That Hurts Our Students

     Math can sometimes seem like countless skill-based concepts that we must make sure children internalize. A misconception can really throw a kink into the works. I believe there is a math misconception that is never taught but is far too often “learned” by far too many children. This misconception can significantly impair their overall performance and damage their attitude toward math. This misconception could be stated as,
“Since we have to learn (memorize) basic math facts,
we have to do all math mentally.”
     What children seem to do is transfer the necessity for quick mental recall of basic facts to the entirety of math. The belief is, “I should be able to look at 3 x 5 = and instantly spit out the answer. Therefore, I should be able to look at 
and instantly spit out those answers, too.” Believing this is so damaging to children and their ability to grow mathematically.

     How do kids develop the “all math is mental math” misconception? This mistaken belief is born just about the time that children grasp the concepts of combining and taking apart. Well-meaning teachers and parents start to focus vast amounts of energy on learning (memorizing) basic addition and subtraction facts. As we move on in math, we add multiplication and division facts to the task. Children who struggle even a little bit with this task can start to fall behind in math and may never catch up. What’s worse, they may develop an “I’m not good at math” mindset or, worse, “I hate math” mindset.

    How does this “all math is mental math” misconception hurt students? Beside the frustration and negative attitude that can result, students also miss the importance of talking about and writing about their math. They think that the only good math is mental math, so why should I write it down? I’ve seen kids who thought writing down their math thinking was actually a weakness. This poor habit of not recording our mathematical thinking further hampers math growth. 
     I have seen so many children over the years begin to pull into a shell as the need for efficient recall of math facts hampers the rest of their math performance. All of the other essential math skills (rounding, predicting, estimating, drawing, analyzing, collaborating) that don’t require math facts seem not to matter. Every math lesson becomes a mathematical mine-field where the lucky ones who know their basic facts will shine and the unlucky ones who don’t may suffer acute embarrassment and chronic frustration. I was actually one of those unlucky students – it took me years to develop efficient recall. I never understood how my struggle fed right into the “all math must be done mentally” misconception until I became a teacher – a math teacher, of all things – and was able to recognize and verbalize the problem. 

     So basic math facts aren’t important? Don’t get me wrong. As a long-time math teacher, I am all about mastering basic math facts. They are vital tools for so much that we do in math. Along my journey as a math teacher, I discovered that there are infinitely better ways to teach the concepts and learn the facts than the way I was taught…and, to be honest, the way I taught early in my career, but that’s another blog post. 

     What can teachers do to correct this misconception? I wish that I could go back in time and directly teach what I have learned to my past students. What I can do is to take every tutoring, consulting, and mentoring opportunity to allay my students’ frustrations. My dialogue includes comments like these. Maybe you can think of others that would work.
Math is so much more than basic facts.
Basic facts are the only thing in math that needs quick recall.
Learning basic facts can take time. In the meantime, we can still do math successfully.
You can write about and talk about math without knowing the answers right away.
Arithmetic is simple computation. Math is solving problems using many math tools, not just basic facts.
Writing about math is what great mathematicians do.
If you know most of the answers right away, the math is too easy for you.
Math is meant to be worked through.
     I wonder if other teachers have experienced this misconception among their students. I’d love to hear how you correct it as you support your students.
Growing Grade By Grade
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15 Tips To Handle Religion In The Classroom

     Sooner or later, most teachers will have to deal with the diversity of religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, that their students and parents embrace in their lives. An overwhelming amount has been written about the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, what it means, and how it should play out in public schools. No matter what our own beliefs and interpretations, it is a public school teacher’s responsibility to keep church and state separate. At the same time, we want to appropriately address the questions and ideas growing children may have. In addition, public schools must accommodate, without supporting, specific religious practices that families observe.  On top of all that, some religious beliefs differ with curricular content.

     In a nutshell, the Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not sponsor or require religious practices, but may teach about religion. Even with specific rulings like these, I find that there are still many differing interpretations. Many administrators believe that local policies trump state policies, while state lawmakers believe they override local guidelines. Into the bargain, teachers can be, and are, held to a higher standard by some. “Teachers are always teachers”, they say and, if a child sees his/her teacher bow a head, they may feel “coerced” into following suit. It can seem like a confusing mess, but teachers in the trenches must still make it work.

     It’s a daunting task and often one that teachers aren’t aware they’ll be responsible for. It’s impossible to completely prepare for all possibilities, but I’ve gathered my best suggestions for dealing with religious differences in the public classroom.

Prepare Yourself

1. Be fully aware of this dichotomy:

Public schools may not sponsor any religious activity.

Students and their families have the right to express their religion in a variety of ways, including non-attendance and passing on particular content lessons.

2. Understand that “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion” are two very different things. Referring to any religion and/or its teachings or holy writings is not necessarily wrong. There are certainly religion classes and other lessons that may touch on aspects of religion. For example, we cannot teach about why Europeans came to the New World without at least mentioning freedom of religion.

3. Approach any discussion where some aspect of religion may be mentioned with the care and respect you would give to any talk on diversity. We’re all allowed to hold our own beliefs. Explain clearly that nothing is meant to make a judgement, you are simply stating facts and we are learning.

4. Be absolutely certain that you have a specific teaching standard or objective that you can point to in case you need to defend yourself. For years, I taught my students how to use a time line. I explained that in the western world, we use the birth of Christ as our “beginning marker”. One year, I was moving through the lesson when I noticed there was a truly uncomfortable silence across the room. Eyes were flicking back and forth. When I asked if everything was alright, one child volunteered, “You said Christ.” I realized then how sensitive a subject religion had become . At the time, teaching how to use a time line was basic curriculum ELA and math curriculum and you simply can’t do it without referring to the birth of Christ. I knew I could point to the curriculum if any questions were raised.
5. Adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about your own or your students’ religious beliefs or practices. Discussing any personal beliefs is best left alone, unless you are in a definitive religion class that requires such a skill. On the other hand, have my students enthusiastically shared with me events and activities from their churches, Sunday Schools, and Bible Schools? You bet they have and I have celebrated with them and congratulated them. Two important concepts here are: I did not initiate the conversation, and we teach the whole child. No teacher worth their tennis shoes would brusquely dismiss a child who is eagerly sharing something that they value. 

When Beliefs and Curriculum Collide

     What about when parents take exception to some content that you’re teaching? I’ve experienced these:

A parent shook her finger in my face and warned me, “You better never use the word ‘evolution’ in front of my child!”

I once used the phrase “millions of years” in a science class. Several students let me know the earth wasn’t that old.

A colleague let me know that her husband might send me an ugly email complaining about my use of the term “global warming”, which he didn’t think existed. My colleague had argued on my behalf, reminding her husband that I did not set the curriculum, I just taught it. He stated, “Well, she shouldn’t say it if it’s not true.”

Many of my colleagues have had parents say, “We do not believe in or condone witchcraft. Do not assign Harry Potter to our child.”

     You cannot change the curriculum to keep every parent happy. You have to teach your district’s curriculum, but there are ways that you can prepare ahead of time.

6. Be proactive, even before the school year starts. Find a way to ask about anything special that parents want you to know about their child. The school at which I spent most of my career developed a “Student Information Sheet” for back-to-school that included basic information, a place for medical information that we needed to know from the first, an “anything else you’d like us to know” section, and even a place to share their child’s interests and hobbies. When I met parents and gave them this form, I always pointed out the “anything else” section and encouraged them to include things such as behaviors, custody, or religious concerns. Consider bringing such an idea to your administration to be better prepared.

7. Consider revisiting your traditional holiday activities and opting for more global, inclusive activities. This is the big question for many public school teachers, especially in the lower grades: How does all of this play out during religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter? Especially at Christmas, so many academic and art activities are aimed at what has been done since we were all kids – wreath projects, math activities where you buy gifts, singing traditional songs, and of course, the Christmas party! Again, there is a fine, but definite, line between teaching about a religious holiday and actually celebrating it. If you focus on Christmas, the argument can be made that you’re promoting one religion over another.

     To address this, many schools have begun to downplay holiday celebrations in general and to search out more globally inclusive activities that don’t focus on religion. Schools have begun to call their seasonal holidays by names that sound less “religious”.  “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” have replaced “Merry Christmas”. December holidays are now “Winter Break” and  “Easter Vacation” has become “Spring Break”. In the classroom, consider using activities and projects that are more winter-oriented. If you have a party, simply request items by their generic names. Then you needn’t fret if a parent sends in cupcakes with a Santa on them.
8. Always be ready with an alternative activity.  Sometimes families will ask that their child not participate in a particular holiday activity or even a content lesson. This could take some coordination and collaboration on a school-wide scale, and is an excellent time to involve administration. If you know that a family has three children in your school and they don’t celebrate a particular holiday, work together to provide activities that don’t seem punitive. This is a time that your technology could really help. If you need to physically separate the students from the class by parent request, possibly a volunteer could come in to supervise the alternate activity. NOTE: Be very wary of accepting alternate activities from the parents who made the request. It could very easily become “teaching religion” in school. I did not show the video on creationism to my classes.

9. Change what you can and keep what you can’t. If parents object to a particular book, that’s an easy fix - choose another one. If they object to a particular term or concept, that’s tougher. I continued to use the term “global warming”, but also say “climate change”.  Again, as in tip #4, be absolutely certain that you are covered in the curriculum. If you have a parent really go toe-to-toe with you over a word or concept, do your best to remain calm and compassionate. I recommend that you share the situation with your administrator beforehand and make them aware that you may need assistance. Invite the parents to talk with you and listen to what they have to say. Explain very matter-of-factly what you’ll be saying to cover the curriculum. If they ask for an alternate assignment, you’ll be prepared. If they are still not satisfied, that will be the time to bring in administrative support.

10. When in doubt, ask. I’ve asked several times over the years if I could give a child a birthday, Christmas, or Easter memento. Parents are generally very appreciative of your effort. Always get administrative and parental approval on any activity or lesson that falls into even a gray area. Yes, it’s a pain, but cheaper than a lawsuit. Again, access what previous teachers have done in their classrooms.

On The Fly

     The suggestions and practices above work best when you know a particular topic will be discussed and you have time to prepare your comments. In real life we don’t always have that advantage. What do you do when a student asks a question or makes a comment that you’re not prepared to handle?

11. Don’t be afraid to take a pass on certain questions. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the headache. It’s OK to look puzzled and say, “I don’t know” or even frankly state, “That’s an interesting question and something you should probably discuss it at home with your parents.” A warm smile can show your student that you’re not displeased with him, just moving on.

12. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a student’s question or statement. There aren’t many times this is appropriate but I’ve had occasion to cut across a student’s statement, saying, “We’re not going to talk about that. We’ll save that for home talk.”

13. Become a master of changing the subject. I consider this strategy a little lame, but I’ve done it. As a teacher, you are responsible for the conversational content during lessons. There are times that looking at your watch and exclaiming, “Gosh, it’s time for lunch!” can really pull your fat out of the fire. This works much better for younger children, not so much for middle and high-schoolers. In that case…

14. When a question comes out of left field, redirect everyone’s attention to the task at hand. A student asked me once if I believed in a particular social topic. Since we were in the middle of independent math work, I replied, “I believe…we should get back to math and finish this assignment.”

15. Make a Question Box. Even the most seasoned, sensitive teachers can’t always foresee what questions and comments will come up during a school day. For those times that you’re pretty sure some zingers may come up, introduce the age-old Question Box ahead of time. You can filter inappropriate questions and plan your answers.
     I'd love to hear your experiences on this topic. Best wishes! 
Growing Grade By Grade
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Use Bloom Balls Like a Boss!

     Teachers are always looking for activities that meet specific curriculum requirements, integrate two or more  subjects, if possible, can be differentiated, promote higher-level thinking, and hey – it’s great if they’re fun, too! My awesome student teacher introduced me to Bloom Balls.

     If you’ve never tried Bloom Balls, it’s time you did. A Bloom Ball is a project during which students complete activities that take them through all the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, from knowledge to synthesis. Bloom Balls can be used in any subject area and work beautifully with a rubric. They are great independent work and promote collaboration if students work in pairs or small groups – and certainly when putting them together!  By their very nature, Bloom Balls incorporate art with whatever subject matter you are covering. They make a tremendously attractive splash when completed and displayed.

     The basic unit of the Bloom Ball is a pentagon inside a circle. Each Bloom Ball will need 12 of these. The content activities go on the pentagon. When cut out, the circle creates little tabs that are folded up and stapled or glued. 
     To prepare for the project, you’ll need to have twelve (one for each pentagon) activities or tasks for students to complete. Very simple tasks for younger children might be to draw or cut and glue a directed picture with a sentence. A science task might be to define and diagram terms and concepts for a Forces and Motion unit. Novel studies are great places for Bloom Balls – students can answer questions, make summaries, draw conclusions, and illustrate their perception of a class novel. Imagine how attractive biographies would be when transferred to a Bloom Ball.


     Using Bloom’s Taxonomy (preferably revised), map out the tasks , twelve total, that you want students to complete. Try to make a healthy mix, focusing on what your students can successfully accomplish, what they enjoy, and where you want them to end up. The over-arching goal would be to have students perform at the higher-levels of the taxonomy, but you have the freedom to choose based on your students.

     Prepare a document, Smart Board presentation, or other way to share the tasks with students. I suggest you also provide a rubric to help lead students through the project. It will help them learn the most possible, create a better product, and of course, earn a better grade.

     I strongly recommend that you make this an in-class project instead of at-home, though you will know best about your students. Especially for the first project, teacher guidance is needed.

     Form your groups. We put students in pairs for the best balance.

     Make 12 copies of the pentagon per group. 

     Once you have your tasks, introduce your students to the project and rubric. Point out that they have a defined space in which to work. Doing a rough draft on other paper is a good idea before transferring onto expensive copies. Interesting note: The tabs that will be glued/stapled are also excellent places for little “extras”. My students enjoyed adding an extra word or definition, a tiny sketch, or just coloring the tabs.

     Develop a schedule for the completion of the entire project, then show students how to pace it out. We often  completed one pentagon per day, focusing on our prior learning. 

     As students complete their pentagons, make sure they put their names on the sheet, outside the circle. Have them keep the sheets together, uncut, until time to put them together. Have students compare their work to the rubric and make necessary adjustments.

     When all pentagons are complete, it’s time to construct your Bloom Ball.


Instruct students to carefully cut out each circle. They should write their names on the back of each circle. 

Have students fold each of the flaps UP. It is important that they go slowly and carefully here, making sharp creases. They should have 12 shapes, like little “mini-trays”, that look like this:
When you have all twelve circles cut, creased, and folded, separate them into two stacks. The order generally does not matter – we’re making a sphere – but you can decide that.

     Each group of six circles will make half of the sphere. Take one circle and place it down on the table, picture side up. This is the center. Lay the remaining five circles around this center. You’ll see that the tabs of the five outer circles match the tabs of the center circle. I told my students, “The guy in the center is high-fiving his five friends.” Carefully staple these tabs together. 

Now, the outer five guys are going to high-five each other. Staple these tabs together. You now have a bowl-shape, or half circle, or hemi-sphere. You can even wear it on your head!

Follow the same procedure for the other six circles. 

When you have both bowls complete, you’ll see where the tabs of each one meet. Staple these together. You’re done!
     There are many sources of Bloom Ball templates and projects for different subjects on Teachers Pay Teachers, some free, some paid. Challenge yourself to do this project with your class. I'd love to know how it works for you!

Growing Grade By Grade
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