Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What Parents Should Know About Teachers

Ideally, parents and teachers are allies, teaming up to help students succeed. However, things go wrong when there are hidden, often unrealistic, expectations. As a parent and a teacher, I have glimpsed both sides, and everyone’s expectations would be much more realistic if they knew a little more about the other. This week, I am writing parallel posts, what parents should know about teachers and what teachers should know about parents.

It’s because they are crazy busy
The most important thing that parents should know about teachers is that they are busy, like super freaky busy. The actual teaching is a very small part of a teacher’s day, eclipsed by classroom discipline, record keeping, lesson preparation, and grading.

Be your child’s advocate
If your child can’t see the board, doesn’t understand the assignment, or still has last week’s homework in her backpack, it’s not because the teacher doesn’t care, it is because he is crazy busy. The teacher wishes he could give each student individual attention, but when he can’t, send an email. Better yet, encourage your student to talk to the teacher before class.

Make manageable requests
If your child needs special attention, try to make it something the teacher can do quickly, because the teacher is crazy busy. Appropriate request: move the child to the front of the class, send home an extra copy of the textbook, reply to an email asking about a low test grade. Inappropriate request: give one-on-one tutoring after school every Monday, call the parent with a behavior report every day, type up the notes from the board since the child didn’t write them down.

They don’t stop working at 3:00
Save the “Must be nice to only work half the day” jokes. I would regularly plan lessons and grade until 10:00 most nights and grade research papers for most of Spring Break. Like most teachers, I either had a summer job, taught summer school, or took care of my own kids during summer, so it’s not like I was lounging around for three months a year.

Don’t go to Hawaii during a school week
Because the teacher would have to write up a special set of instructions and assignments just for your child and process all of the makeup work late just for your child. And the teacher is crazy busy. And because you’re spoiling your kid.

Doing your child’s homework is worse than you think
Teachers really do use homework to gauge the student’s progress, and when the parent does the homework, it really cheats the student. The teacher believes that the student is ready to move on to more complex concepts. When a student does not know how to do something, he needs explanation either from the teacher or the parent, which is one of the reasons I created my Essay Engine program so that kids could get appropriate help writing essays. But when the parent just writes the essay herself, that robs the student of a learning experience and wastes the teacher’s time. I once had a student turn in an essay that was full of words she did not know. The next time I saw her mom, I told how great it was that her daughter was writing at a 9th grade level! It was all she could do not to mention her master’s degree in French lit.

Save your peppermint bark
Making a batch of your favorite homemade desert seems like a great holiday gift, but when 17 other families have the same idea, it's enough sugar to send a teacher into diabetic shock. The best gifts are either a card with a heart-felt message inside or a Starbucks’ gift card. Don’t you people know that caffeine greases the wheels of academia? Unless you are a Tiger Mom; they give super good gifts because they don’t mess around.

Realize that teachers are happy to work hard for the kids
Just about every teacher I know went into education because they have a heart for kids. Though they make mistakes, they honestly are doing their best for the greatest number of students that they can. The veterans have seen enough “D” students go on to run companies and seen enough class clowns go on to be well-known public figures, so they know that every child has potential to succeed. The teacher never “has it out” for your kid, unless you take your kid to Hawaii during a school week. That will go in the secret file in the principal’s office that gets attached to the kid’s college application.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Helping with Homework? Have a Highlighter Handy

It always happens when you are most busy trying to get dinner ready, getting some work done, or hustling the kids toward bed time. “I need help on my homework!” The worst part is that helping your kids with homework the right way takes a lot longer than you would like.

When I was teaching 8th grade, I had a lot of parents ask a lot of questions, but they almost never asked the most important question: how should parents help with homework? If they did ask, my short answer would be: help with a highlighter.

The worst thing a parent can do is just give the student the correct answer. First, it gives the student an easy way out without having to learn the lesson in the homework. Secondly, it leads the teacher to believe that the student has mastered the material when he or she has not. Lastly, it subtly gives the message that the parent does not believe the student can get the answer. But, it is a lot easier and faster for the parent.

The best thing a parent can do is show the student how to get the right answer. If the student doesn’t understand the concept, a few minutes of explanation can make all the difference. It may only take ten minutes, but rarely does a classroom teacher have ten minutes to devote to each student.

Parents should also teach their children how to catch their own mistakes. When my students wrote essays, I asked their parents to “Help with a highlighter” because highlighters are good at marking a spot on the page but bad for writing corrections. Parents should mark where a mistake is, but let the student figure out what was incorrect and how to fix it. When my son has math homework, I always look it over afterward. If I find errors, I tell him how many mistakes there are and let him find them. I might add that it is on the bottom half of the page if the homework is long. By training students to catch and repair their own mistakes, parents prepare them for the times when they are not around. 

This is especially helpful since kids need feedback as fast as possible. If a student knows there are spelling mistakes on tonight’s homework, he or she is motivated to make the corrections. If that same student gets a paper back a week later with spelling errors marked, it means nothing. This was a motivating factor when we were developing our Clickademics Essay Engine. If we could teach a student to write an introductory paragraph as they were writing their essay, it would be meaningful to the student and, hopefully, stick in their long term memory. In most classrooms, students learn how to write an introductory paragraph a week before writing the essay or a week later when the teacher reviews the corrected essays in class. By then it is ancient history.

So helping your student with homework is pretty much like everything else about parenting, there is an easy way that pays off now, and there is a harder way that pays off later. Usually pays off longer, too.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Easiest Way to Do Better in School

After a decade and a half in the classroom, my best advice for students: ask questions.

Here is a little secret, teachers love engaged students. Many of us went into teaching to work with curious young people, to help them discover more about the world and themselves.  Nothing spoils that quite like a group of distracted students, unless it is a group of zoned out zombie students. Just one student who is listening, thinking, and wanting to understand can make a teacher's whole day.  With just a little effort, your child could be that student.  A simple, "Why does it work like that?" Is all it takes.

Students should also ask questions to clear up confusion. Between the teacher's lesson, directions for assignments, and classroom management, there are a lot of instructions in an hour of class. No student can remember them all. A student should ask right away if he or she does not understand something, because if one student is confused, there are probably others in the room that have the same question. When I was teaching, I had students who would only ask questions after getting the wrong answer on an exam or scoring poorly on a project. By then, it was too late to help. If they had sent an email or stayed after class for 5 minutes, I could have cleared everything up. 

Lastly, students should ask questions to show initiative. Teachers create assignments and project for the whole group, but not every student learns the same way. If a student has a clever idea, it never hurts to ask. If the student enjoys making movies, he could ask if he could make a documentary instead of writing an essay. Why not? The teacher may still want him to work on his writing skills, but it shows the teacher that the student is thinking ahead, and perhaps the teacher may create a film making project later in the year. I remember being in a college philosophy class that had one of my last final exams of the year. I asked the professor if I could skip the final and instead write a paper that showed that all of the major concepts that would be covered in the exam could be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The teacher loved the idea, I showed that I understood the concepts, and I got to fly home a day early.

Of course, the delivery of the question matters. The middle of class is fine if the student is confused by the lesson being taught at that moment, but most other questions are best before or after class or by email.

Here’s a couple questions for you. Have you checked out our Clickademics Essay Engine yet? Have you told a friend who needs help writing essays? Have you liked us on Facebook?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Computers Should Be Like Art Supplies, Not Textbooks (or BYOD)

Many schools are thinking about 1-to-1 programs where each student receives a tablet or laptop. The reasons for these programs are very compelling.  Teachers can assign exciting, high-tech projects, students can access all of the new content online, and parents and people in the community are impressed by the students carrying around fancy hardware. 

In this sense, schools are treating devices like textbooks where each student receives one at the beginning of the year. I believe, however, that schools should think of devices like art supplies. No school would ever buy a full set of paints for every student in the school. Instead, they have many different types of art supplies available for students to use depending on the project.  When students want to make a sculpture, the school provides clay. When the student is painting, there is paint available in class. If the student is asked to make a simple poster or a photography project, the student just uses colored pens or a camera that he or she already has at home. This is how devices should be in schools. 

Schools should not be buying devices for all of their students for a few reasons:
  1. Many students, especially at more affluent schools, already have a computing device at home. Giving the student a second one is redundant. 
  2. Schools will always buy the same device for all of the students, but they don’t all need the same one. Some students use prefer a tablet to a laptop, Windows to Mac, depending on their learning style and experience.
  3. Students may need different devices on different days. iPads are great for consuming media like educational videos and electronic textbooks. Laptops may be heavier, but they are necessary for content creation like writing a long paper or a using photographs. Editing a video is best done on a desktop computer.
  4. Most educational tasks - reading textbooks, writing notes, composing essays, watching videos, using educational apps - are web-based, so the device is just a window with internet access. Though many apps are device specific, written for iOS or Android, more and more will simply be web apps that are independent of the operating system. This is why we at Clickademics chose to make our Essay Engine a web-app instead of a native iOS app.

If the school does not purchase devices for all of the students, it is difficult to expect every single student to be able to complete projects that require a computer or tablet. I would propose that the school help families for whom it would be a burden to purchase a device. Like a scholarship, the school to arrange discounts or provide free devices to the students that require it. The school should also have a number of tablets, laptops, and desktops available to students who have come to school without a device or require something different for the day’s lesson. One or two members of the IT staff should be available to troubleshoot and perform basic repairs. All of this would be significantly less expensive than buying an iPad for every student.

The most important thing is that the learning comes first, not the device. Teachers and administrators need to set learning goals first, then figure out the lessons and projects that will help the students master the learning. Only then should they think about devices necessary to reach those goals and complete those projects. Sometimes, paper and pencils are still the best devices for learning.

Lastly, remember that the life expectancy of computer devices is shrinking. Desktops used to be good for about 6 years, then laptops were good for about 4. Tablets and smart phones are usually used for two years. If a school invested in an iPad program, they would be left with out-dated hardware after a 3 or 4 years. Students would begin bringing their newer devices from home, and the school would soon become a campus where the students bring their own laptop or tablet from home, similar to what I have proposed here. Schools should save the initial expense and start a Bring Your Own Device program from the start.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Organization: Getting it Out of Your Brain and Into Your Notebook

“I know I did that homework. I just can’t find it!” This was always the saddest part of my day when teaching - and yes, it did happen almost every day. A student spent all of the time to do the homework but left it at home, and I would have to deduct points. I always believed that the student had done the work, but school is about actions, not intensions. 

Organization is one of the most important skills students can learn in school. We adults may not use chemistry, algebra, or parts of speech daily, but we all need to be organized. The earlier a student learns this, the happier he or she will be.

Being organized is not just about putting things in the right place. It is about getting things out of your head. I know people who are “pilers” - they have piles of paper on their desk, or in their school backpack, but they swear that they know where everything is. In fact, I could say that I am a reformed “piler.” But having to remember where things are takes a little bit of mind share, a little bit of short-term memory that can’t be used for other things. Without a system, you always have to be thinking about it. With a system, you don’t have to think about it until you need it. I first saw this idea of freeing up brain space in a great book Getting Things Done by David Allen

The other benefit, of course, is that it keeps students from losing late penalty points for forgotten homework and keeps adults from paying late penalties for forgotten bills. Again, it is one of the few skills we should learn in school that we will all use as adults.

Even though most of my life now is kept electronically on my computer or phone, I still believe that students should learn organization the old fashioned way, with paper. Schools may be using iPads and content management systems, but most classes still run on paper. Even our students who write their essays online using Clickademics Essay Engine often print out their final draft and hand in their essay on paper. (We will soon have a way to email the essay directly to the teacher from our site. Save time and trees!) 

Here is my recommendation for students to get organized:
  • Keep an assignment book where you write down every assignment. Every teacher should be posting assignments online, but they are often on different pages which the students might forget to check. Taking five minutes to write down the assignment in a small notebook means that all of the week’s work is in one place. For each day, draw lines to create rows for each class. On the side, draw a column and check off when you have completed an assignment. I mean it. Checking it off means you don’t have to think about it anymore.
  • Keep a 3 ring binder for each class. I know it mean more trips to the locker, but it keeps things simpler and your backpack lighter.
  • Put 5 dividers in each binder. The labels may vary, but I recommend:

  1. Current Work: these are assignments and projects that you are working on now, including completed homework that needs to be turned in the next day.
  2. Articles: any papers that your teacher wants you to read like newspaper articles or pages xeroxed from a book
  3. Notes: any notes you take should go here
  4. Projects: once you have completed a project or essay, move all of your instruction sheets and earlier drafts to this section
  5. Graded Work: anything returned to you with a grade should go here.
  • Keep all your papers. Do not throw anything away. This usually comes in handy at the end of the semester where you will need your notes to prepare for final exams. It is also helpful when the teacher is preparing class grades. If you see a mistake in your grade - no credit for something you turned in or a grade typed incorrectly - it is really easy to clear up when you still have that graded piece of work. It is difficult when you have to convince the teacher that you remember getting an “A” on the assignment. At the end of the semester, ask your teacher which papers you can take out of your notebook and put them in a draw until the end of the year when you can recycle the whole pile.
  • Resist the urge to put papers in the pockets of the notebook. It defeats the purpose of the dividers.
  • Organize your computer files the same way. If you are lucky enough to attend a forward-thinking school where work is submitted electronically, keep your documents just like you keep your papers. Create a folder for each class. Within each class folder, create a folder for Assignments, Notes, Projects and Essays, and Graded Work. If you upload work to Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku, be sure to keep a copy on your hard drive. Keep the files forever because hard drive space is cheap. Every document you create in your whole academic career takes up less space than a short video.
My wife and I learned how to keep a notebook in school, and we keep all of our business and household papers the same way. It is much easier to find important documents in a binder than in a file folder.

So free your mind and improve your grades by getting organized now. And don't make forgotten homework the saddest part of your day.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Clickademics Essay Engine™ Launching This Week

Our goal for starting Clickademics was simple: we wanted to use technology to solve the problems that real teachers experience in real classrooms helping real students. Education technology is a waste if it doesn’t increase the students’ learning and decrease the teachers’ stress. 

When I taught 8th grade English, teaching students to write essays was always my biggest challenge. Every student seemed to have a different question all at once, and it made wish I could clone myself 30 times so I could help each student individually. Could I create an online app that could do just that?

It was this classroom experience that lead us to build Clickademics Essay Engine™ which we are excited to launch this week. 

We built Essay Engine™ for the students who have an essay due tomorrow but just don’t know where to start. Our online app breaks the writing process down into 20 manageable steps. Each step shows the student just what to do with video instruction and plenty of examples, all based on my experience teaching over 2,000 students to write expository essays. When the student has completed the last step, the program assembles all of the pieces the student has written into an organized essay. After we help the student edit, the student can export the essay as a Word document with a click of a button.

Originally, our intended audience for our Essay Engine™ was middle school students, but the more teachers and parents we talk to, the more we see that there are high school students and even some college students who could use more support when writing essays for school.

So give Essay Engine™ a try. We feel that it will provide real help to real students with real essays to write. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

iPad: The Solution to and Cause of Students’ Problems

This school year, schools around the country are purchasing iPads for students to use at home or in the classroom. And why not? Tablets are pretty and shiny and cost less than a budget laptop computer. Apple is pushing for textbooks to be sold electronically, and many schools use content management systems that allow students to receive and submit homework over the internet. iPads are great at delivering educational resources.

You know what else iPads are great at? Instagram, Facebook, YouTube cat videos, and about a million highly addictive video games. The average fourteen-year-old doesn’t stand a chance.

I feel that giving tablets to every student is setting them up for failure. Students already have dwindling attention spans - most of their reading happens via text messages instead of books and most of their video viewing is thirty-second clips instead of feature films. We are asking students to use their tablet to read their textbooks, write their papers, and research for school with the temptation of distraction.

Sadly, there is no easy solution. iPads are the most popular tablet, but Apple’s closed system does not allow any app to run below the surface. Thus, it is impossible to lock students out of all but educational apps. In fact, the best solution would be an app that requires the student to complete all homework before unlocking the rest of the iPad’s functions, but that, again, would be prohibited by the App Store. (I recently read, however, that the new Amazon Kindle Firehas a function like this - genius.)

The only choice: don’t give tablets to students or teach them self-discipline. As anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, you can’t just take away the temptation. The real skill that students will learn in an iPad program is not mobile computing, it is the discipline to get your work done fast and early. Teachers and parents need to show students (over and over) that Plants vs. Zombies is much more satisfying when you don’t have two hours of homework hanging over your head. Students need to witness (daily) how surprisingly fast they can complete their homework when they focus completely for 30 minute blocks. They need to notice how much higher their grades are when they dedicate time for work and study without interruptions from social media. And given the number of adults I see playing with their phones in inappropriate places, it seems we could all learn a little self discipline with our devices

I can’t complain too much, though. We designed Clickademics’ new Essay Engine to help students write organized essay on a computer or - you guessed it - an iPad.